Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sensible Technology

They've become a standard piece of equipment on large farms,  and they seem to scare the hell out of a lot of people. I'm talking about the hi-tech sprayers with big wheels, a cab, and long booms that fold up tight to the chassis.  For many they represent all that's wrong with commercial farming, because they only do one thing: spray pesticides. 

If pesticides are necessary, and whether we like it or not, organic or conventional, small garden or big acres,  some are, then we should be glad farmers are investing in these rigs. Two big improvements over the old sprayers dragged behind tractors. The spray nozzles themselves (they determine how much pesticide is applied) can be much more finally tuned, and are controlled by an on-board computer. As the sprayer gets to the end of a row, the computer shuts down spraying on the outside boom as it swings outside the field, leaving hedgerows untouched. More importantly there are separate containers for water and the concentrated pesticide, and again the computer determines the proper mix.  Even better when the work is done there's no excess mixed pesticide to get rid of. Unused is saved for the next time, and the water in the other tank is just that, water. 

And there are better things coming.  Dr. Qamar Zaman, an engineering professor at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College has developed cost effective ways to only apply pesticides just where they're needed, and prevent unnecessary spraying around waterways. 
Some background here:

and here:

And this week a very important report in the Globe and Mail, especially for PEI: better managing fertilizer applications to limit excess nitrates that end up in the water table. This isn't to say that technology can solve our many problems, but the right technology can certainly make things better.

Technology that helps farmers cut waste and make more money

Green Solutions

While working in the commercial fertilizer industry, self-described “Manitoba farm boy” Wade Barnes saw an incredible amount of waste as farmers frequently applied too much fertilizer to their fields.
But after a trip to nearby Fargo, N.D., he was wowed by the use of satellite imagery to identify high nitrogen areas for growing sugar beets and wanted to do something similar for his customers.
Back at the fertilizer plant where he worked, he started to build a program. The farmers loved it, but as it reduced the amount of fertilizer the company’s best customers were buying, it wasn’t good for the fertilizer business.
So “pushed by the farmers” to start his own business, Mr. Barnes co-founded Farmers Edge Precision Consulting Inc. in 2005. The Winnipeg-based company specializes in precision agriculture – including variable rate technology (VRT) that uses satellite imagery to pinpoint when and where to plant and how much to fertilize – to help growers increase crop production and become more sustainable. The company has operations in Canada, the United States, Eastern Europe and South America.
“Once I saw the differences in the areas of the field, the variability, it opened my eyes,” Mr. Barnes says. “I realized how uninformed we were because we didn’t have any information to make decisions. We were just winging it and these farmers were spending millions of dollars on fertilizer. The technology allows farmers to optimize their fertilizers. The whole business of farming has changed.”
Fertilizer is a huge issue for farmers and the environment. Since the use of commercial fertilizer correlates directly to increased yield (generally estimated at between 30 to 50 per cent), farmers want to use enough to ensure a good crop.
But if too much fertilizer is used – particularly nitrogen fertilizer and other crop inputs such as pesticides and herbicides – the runoff can go into the groundwater, polluting water supplies and damaging natural habitat. The increased use of nitrogen fertilizer has also resulted in the formation of atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas contributing to stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming.
But changes in how fertilizer is used – when fields are fertilized and how much is used – can reduce N2O emissions, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.
“When the harvest is done, the goal should be that very little fertilizer is left in the ground,” Mr. Barnes says. “ If technology can bridge that gap, to allow the farmer to make good informed decisions about what he’s doing, the environment is going to benefit from that. They won’t overfertilize. The technology essentially allows farmers to be green, but, at the end of the day, to be green with a purpose and make a lot more money by doing it.”
Recently, Farmers Edge has begun to focus on water, using satellite imagery and real-time information to determine the right amount of irrigation. With droughts occurring in many parts of the world, water is a valuable commodity.
“We build modules into our system so that from a satellite you can start assessing how much nitrogen a crop needs or how much water,” Mr. Barnes says. “So we can look at a crop in season and say, that part of the field needs water and that part doesn’t. Then we segregate the areas out, fill the prescription map and send it to the irrigation system to put on the exact amount of water.”
Hortau Inc. has also developed high-tech solutions to irrigation, but with an approach centred on the plants. The company, based in St. Romuald, Que., with offices in California and Colorado, offers wireless, Web-based irrigation management systems to about 1,000 growers throughout North America. Their solar-powered technology reports back to the farmer how plants are doing in real time, before plant stresses such as drought can negatively affect the crop.
Agriculture accounts for about 70 per cent of water used in the world today. Jocelyn Boudreau, an agricultural engineer who co-founded Hortau in 2002, estimates its technology can save roughly 25 to 30 per cent of that water, as well as the same amount of energy used for pumping the water for irrigation.
“Most farmers tend to overwater to be on the safe side,” Mr. Boudreau says. “You can hurt the yield just as much by overwatering as underwatering and the excess water can push the fertilizers down to where the crop can’t use them. We’re providing them with a tool where they can increase their productivity so they can grow more just by avoiding plant stress due to lack of water or overwatering. At the same time, they use less water, less energy and avoid leeching fertilizers into the water table. It’s a very good balance.”
That’s a huge advantage for the environment, as well as for the farmers. While the cost to use Hortau’s technology can be anywhere from $10 to $100 an acre each year, Mr. Boudreau says it’s cost effective with the payback usually covered by the first crop. In some areas where there’s restricted water, such as Colorado and Nebraska, or drought-stricken California, Mr. Boudreau says their technology is seen as critical.
“If you only have so many inches of water that you can apply on your field for that year, how do you spread it out?” Mr. Boudreau asks. “Depending on the growth stage of the crop, the season, the weather conditions – it’s a tricky assessment. You can’t do that just by eyeing it. A precision tool comes in very handy.”
Increasingly, sustainability is good business for farmers. Many major food companies have a sustainability mandate, so they only want to do business with growers who are sustainable. That’s created a lot of push, not just into VRT or crop fertilizer efficiency or water use efficiency, explains Mr. Barnes, but farmers also need to prove they’ve done it. Part of Farmers Edge’s mandate in developing technology is to build a computer program into the farm equipment so that they’re logging information back, so farmers have data to back up their work.
“There’s a lot of research being done behind the scenes to validate farmers – to find out how green these practices actually are,” Mr. Barnes says. “So we’re working on a new initiative, [with Alberta’s agricultural producers, Canadian Fertilizer Institute and Capital Power Corp.] regarding carbon offsets. When farmers do these practices, they’re being environmentally efficient and creating a carbon offset. We’re working on logging that data and being able to crunch those numbers to provide how much of an impact they’ve made on a reduction of carbon.”
The hope is the farmers will be able to sell that to some of the Alberta industries that need carbon credits. Also, if farmers makes enough money off the carbon credit to pay for technology, they are more apt to adapt it faster – and the more farmers that adapt to the technology, the better it is for the environment.
“It’s a circle that could be effective for everybody,” Mr. Barnes says.“We’ve always believed that when growers do VRT, they could be 25 to 35 per cent more efficient – but it was important for the scientific community to step up and do the work and say, ‘Yes, that is accurate, and that is making a difference.’ We think you’re going to see a lot more adaption to this, not only in Canada but all over the world.”

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Have to Move Past Slogans

There was a great turnout for what was billed "A Heritage Meal"  in early April. People had a chance to eat wonderful local food, but there was much more. Ten speakers provided short  thought provoking talks ranging from the challenges of food production: Ranald MacFarlane's Pleasant Pork and radical thinking (no one speaks with more clarity about what's been lost because of corporate control in the food system), Al Pickets talking about the unknown but exciting world of garlic production, and Matt Dykerman on farm family's shift towards organic farming; marketing: Melody Dover and the very creative bunch at Fresh Media;  community gardens: Stephanie Dewar and the ambitious urban farming project next to the Farm Centre, and a very thoughtful and important group called the PEI food exchange, Linda Morrison Durant explained how they are tackling food insecuity on PEI; Irene Novaczek talked about the potential bounty of the oceans if we can keep them healthy;  Sarah Bennetto O'Brien is determined to make and sell healthy meals from local products at a new restaurant in Bordon called Scapes; young Cameron Ralph gave an engaging presentation on prohibition days and rum running, maybe reminding us that being a bit of an outlaw isn't necessarily a bad thing; and historian and story teller David Weale resisted saying "I told you so". Almost forty years ago he wrote about the dangers of fewer specialized farms risking the environment and the well-being of farm families and rural communities.  He was right.

I thought back to that evening as I was reading an interview with Mary Berry pointed out by farmer Randall Affleck. Berry is the daughter of the man who has written so passionately about what's been lost as the big got bigger, and the small were pushed to the side, Wendell Berry.  Mary Berry says local food production has to be better organized than it is now, consumers have to be much more committed than just a weekly visit to the farmer's market (as important as that is).  When I look out at the people getting their hands dirty producing food, I know they're living in a world of huge insecurity, and that's just not right. No one deserves a living, but the people who are determined to treat the land right, produce high quality food, deserve a lot more support. I'll let Mary Berry pick up on this in the interview. I especially like this:  " If we stick only with the “local food” part of the movement, it’s not going to amount to much."

Mary Berry is Fomenting an Agrarian Revolution | 

This post first appeared in In These Times.

Everything we eat has a story behind it. The bread aisle (at the store with the massive parking lot) is a thrill ride. That story starts on stretches of land in places you’ve never been. Its main characters are gene-splicing scientists, patented life forms and huge industrial robots. Fleets of 18-wheelers make epic road trips before the narrative climaxes in the cash register of one mega-corporation or another. By comparison, the story of sustainably raised, locally marketed food is a bucolic tale: a hop from farm to table.
In 1975, Wendell Berry — the poet, novelist, farmer, activist and philosopher — released The Unsettling of America. That collection of essays focused on the cultural and environmental implications of modern agriculture and the need to put intelligence before profit when it comes to the business of farming. On October 4 on PBS, Moyers & Company will present Wendell Berry: Poet and Prophet, a documentary produced by the Schumann Media Center that features a conversation between veteran journalist Bill Moyers and rural America’s man of letters.
Thirty-eight years after the publication of The Unsettling of America, we remain disconnected from the production of the food that keeps us alive. What we put in our mouths we trust to the hands of an industry so massive it’s difficult to comprehend. Transforming the current system into one that values healthy land, production on a sensible scale and a reliable marketplace for small farmers requires a David-at-the-heels-of-Goliath kind of mindset.
Small farmers must select which stones to throw at Big Ag. And Mary Berry, Wendell’s daughter, is helping them take aim as executive director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Ky.
John Collins: Why did you and your father create the Berry Center?
Mary Berry: The Berry Center’s goal is to institutionalize agrarian thought and make a movement towards cultural change. We’ve been developing a four-year farm degree at St. Catherine College in Washington County, Kentucky. We’re also working on a farm school, in Henry County, to help new or existing farmers learn what they need to know to get out of the commodity economy and into a local food economy. We’re talking about everything farmers and landowners can produce on their land — from timber to tomatoes — and how to keep them secure, and out of a boom and bust economy.
We need to look at the economic system first. Farmers aren’t moving toward local food, but they will if they think there’s a reliable market. Right now, they’re in corn and soybeans because that’s where the money is. And in Kentucky there are a lot of beef cattle, and beef cattle, if they’re well raised, and are dependent on perennial grasses, that’s good. If they’re raised on CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] — on feedlots — that’s not good.
The excitement for local food in Louisville, the closest big city, is not matched in the countryside where I live. It’s an uncertain market. Farmers are scared of it, and rightly so. Even farmers who are doing well at farmers markets are uncertain because they are unable to plan ahead. We need a food system that allows farmers to plan their economic year. That would mean farmers signing contracts. A good example: The largest school system in Kentucky is now contracting with some local farmers for produce and meat. The interest in the entrepreneurial aspect of small farms is wonderful and needs to continue, but we’re trying to take it a step further.
 Collins: What would be a good food system?
Berry: There’s not one answer. They’ll be many and we’re still trying to figure it out. I listen to people working on agricultural ideas talk about “food systems,” but I don’t know what they’re referring to. We don’t have one. There is a system that’s highly dependent on poisons and petroleum. And maybe some places have the beginnings of a small food system. But we’re not there yet. For example, I’ve heard people refer to the “Louisville Foodshed.” What does that mean? How far out does that go? Louisville is surrounded by small farms. And I know it’s possible that Louisville can be fed by the landscape around it. We just need to figure out a way to make that work for the farmers.Collins: Is there a cultural shift in agricultural awareness taking place?
Berry: Urban people’s interest in where their food comes from, and the quality of it — their worry about poisoned food, soil loss, toxicity, etc. — is a good thing. Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, urban gardens, community gardens and school gardens are also all good. The worry, to me, is that all of this is entrepreneurial. Too many CSAs in any given area can make it hard for a farmer to sell enough CSA shares to get by. Our work is to try to get farmers out of a faddish economy.
The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who had the first CSA in Kentucky. He was saying that the CSA is a great model for a young farmer. He paid off his farm with a CSA. (He had borrowed the money in the 1980s, at 13 percent interest.) But he said, “You know what? It’s a young person’s game.” And that’s true, simply because it’s really hard work. He’s 55 now, sustainably logging on his own land and doing fine, but do we want farmers to quit at 55? No. We need a place for farmers, an economy for them to function in. This is critical and crucial. If we stick only with the “local food” part of the movement, it’s not going to amount to much. We’ve got to simultaneously talk about cultural change and land use more generally. No matter how different things seem to be, we are still a land-based economy. People seem to not know that, but we are.
Collins: Are young people latching onto this cultural change?
Berry: Very rightly, a lot of young people see agriculture as the place to work in. If we can turn around agriculture, we can deal with a lot of our other problems. Young people interested in agriculture these days might finally be what Wallace Stegner called “stickers.” They appear to be in it for the long haul.
Collins: Why do you think that’s the case?
Berry: Part of it is because our economy just isn’t what it was before 2008. Many of the back-to-the-landers who were around Henry County in the 1970s had college degrees from good universities. When the going got rough on farms, they had a lot to fall back on. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Young people understand that they’re not going to graduate from college and make whatever they thought — $100,000 a year, $50,000 — right off the bat. It’s just not out there. So they are looking for a different way. Maybe agriculture will be where more young people will end up.
Collins: Does this land-based education you advocate have a place in urban communities and universities?
Berry: Absolutely. This is not just for rural people. And thank God, because there are only 15 percent of us left in rural America. This is about all of us. We all need to understand what’s going on. If you’re far away from a mountaintop that’s been removed, but are still using electricity that’s cheap because of it, you still have responsibility. We have to be good citizens. And a way to be a good urban citizen is to be an informed shopper and eater. In this economy it’s almost impossible. We are all complicit in what’s wrong here. But if you, or if I, think about the place where we’re from — its health and its welfare — then that makes it easier to imagine having some effect on it.
Collins: Do you and your father ever disagree?
Berry: My father and I have never had a serious disagreement about anything, at least not since I was a teenager and wanted to stay out all night. I have always thought that farms and farm people, and the health of the place where we were living were important. But I’m trying to work on policy in a way that Daddy hasn’t. I needed to take a public role in this struggle. And that really didn’t happen until five years ago when I was appointed — by Obama actually, although I don’t think he knows it — to the Kentucky state board of the Farm Service Agency. It allowed me to see the two sides of agriculture at the same time: the grassroots, small farm world (which I was obviously much more familiar with) and the Farm Service Agency side, which is a massive USDA program. That’s when I realized the two sides were absolutely polarized.
Neither side understood what was going on. The grassroots people didn’t understand much about the history of agriculture and were very small in their interests. They were talking about farms much smaller than I considered a traditional Kentucky farm. On the USDA side, I thought I’d find people who understood the problems with Big Ag that my father and his friends had been talking about for a long time. It turned out they hadn’t even heard of them.
I get asked if I ever feel bad about preaching to the choir, and I say, “You know what? The choir doesn’t understand rural places very well or the lives of farmers very well.” Very often people in urban places think, “If we just got rid of subsidies then a whole lot of farmers would start raising organic cucumbers and broccoli.” Well, it’s not going to happen that way.
Collins: How does this movement press forward?
Berry: It’s incredible to me how threatened Big Ag feels. What’s the local food market — like one percent? But we have to be ready for how threatened they’re going to be. And we have to be very careful. One of the weaknesses of our movement is bastardized language. If you listen to ads from Wal-Mart and big chain grocery stores, they’ve got our language. They’re talking “local, local, local” and “sustainably raised,” and that’s just bulls–t. If the big grocery store claims they’re selling local produce, find out what they’re talking about. And if you can’t, that means they’re lying. You have to educate yourself. You have to be vigilant. It really makes the world more interesting. It’s called living an informed, awake life, and it’s way more interesting than sleepwalking through it.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Know Your Farmer Yet??

Each of us will have to decide how we respond to this weeks release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It's a different kind of document than the first one seven years ago, the one with the polarizing hockey stick showing centuries of stable temperatures followed by last century's spike upward. It was a simplification trying to get people's attention, but became a  lightening rod for those wanting to disprove the theory. There was more variance than the strait hockey shaft implied, and this allowed deniers the chance to say that the science is inconclusive. Not so easy this time.

This latest report speaks forcefully about how climate change will directly affect people's lives, that's always a good start when you want people to pay attention. Food production is a central theme, and anyone who thinks it's OK for farm families to continue living off of diminishing amounts of equity because the supermarkets are full is in for a shock. That's coupled with the whole collection of extreme weather events we've experienced directly, or seen on TV.  Not all of these are directly caused by climate change, but the frequency and force of extreme weather events is plain for all to see.

Here are some thoughtful, chilling?  articles on the report written by smart journalists.

Old Forecast of Famine May Yet Come True

Might Thomas Malthus be vindicated in the end?
Two centuries ago — only 10 years after a hungry, angry populace had ushered in the French Revolution — the dour Englishman predicted that exponential population growth would condemn humanity to the edge of subsistence.
“The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he wrote with alarm.
This was, we now know, wrong. The gloomy forecast was soon buried under an avalanche of progress that spread from England around the world. Between 1820 and the year 2000 the world’s population grew sixfold. Economic output multiplied by more than 50.
Nonetheless, Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit. On Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided a sharp-edged warning about how fast we are approaching this constraint.
“In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face,” Vicente Barros, co-chairman of the panel and professor emeritus of climatology at the University of Buenos Aires, said in a statement.

A measure of the monthly change in international prices for a basket of food commodities rose in recent years to the highest level since the 1970s.

The list of present damages outlined by the United Nations panel — melting ice caps and rising sea levels, stressed water supplies, heat waves and heavy rains — underscored the risk if humanity does not figure out how to curb the use of fossil fuels that have provided the lifeblood for economic development since the time of Malthus.
But what most stood out in the report from the panel, which gathers every few years to produce a synthesis of mainstream science’s take on climate change, was that it rolled straight into Malthus’s territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world’s food supply.
The panel’s past report in 2007 had concluded: “Globally, the potential for food production is projected to increase with increases in local average temperature over a range of one to three degrees Celsius.”

But the new report is much more pessimistic about the prospect of extra grain production in the globe’s temperate zones, where more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase the rate of photosynthesis, raising yields, and warmer weather would lengthen the growing season.
Faster photosynthesis will help weeds more than cereal crops, while the accumulation of ozone and high temperatures would reduce yields of all the major grains, according to the report.
This would be bad enough if demand for food were to remain constant. It won’t. Studies suggest that feeding more than nine billion people in 2050 will require 70 percent more calories than the world’s population consumes today, according to Craig Hanson, director of food, forests and water programs at the World Resources Institute.
Indeed, the panel calculates that food demand is rising at a pace of 14 percent per decade. But it estimates that climate change is already reducing wheat yields by 2 percent each decade — compared with where they would be in the absence of climate change — and corn yields by 1 percent.
“This is a wake-up call for the agriculture sector,” Mr. Hanson said. “Climate change is a food security issue. It’s not just an environmental issue.”

The climate panel’s findings do not quite endorse the Malthusian idea that famine will spread practically everywhere. But a world with a more unstable food supply is likely to be a more volatile place. And those most exposed, of course, will be the world’s poor.
Recent experience suggests that the productivity of farmland won’t decline gradually as the world grows warmer. World food prices stopped their long secular decline around 2007 and have been on a roller-coaster ride since. More volatile weather patterns promise to bring sharp disruptions to agricultural production that can cause spikes in food prices.
“There is a rigorous correlation between food price spikes and urban unrest,” said Andrew Holland, who studies climate change at the American Security Project, a research group in Washington. “There was a food price spike in 2008, and you can see unrest spread throughout Africa. And there’s a relatively clear line that leads from the food price spike in 2010 to unrest in the Middle East and the Arab Spring.”
Instability spreads easily. When rice prices jumped in 2007, big producers like India and Vietnam banned exports to protect their domestic markets, while importers like Bangladesh, Nigeria and Iran went out on the market to hoard as much grain as they could. The combination wreaked havoc in commodity markets.
Since then big food importers, like China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, have tried to insulate themselves from future food shortages by buying or leasing agricultural land in places like Sudan, Madagascar and Uzbekistan. The strategy is still to be tested in a situation in which Africa or Central Asia were to suffer itself shortages of grain.
“I have run some war game scenarios,” Mr. Holland said. “The tendency becomes very quickly for a country to look after its own interests.”
Still, there are good reasons to take prophesies of doom with more than a pinch of salt. Ecological Cassandras have consistently underestimated humanity’s capacity to invent ways around constraints, using resources more efficiently and switching from scarcer commodities to more abundant ones.
In “The Population Bomb,” published in 1968, the noted Stanford ecologist Paul H. Ehrlich wrote “in the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” In “The End of Affluence,” written six years later, he forecast “a genuine age of scarcity” by 1985.
Today, Professor Ehrlich is perhaps best known for his bet with the economist Julian L. Simon — a committed believer in the power of human ingenuity — who in 1980 challenged Mr. Ehrlich to choose any five commodities and accurately predicted that Mr. Ehrlich’s basket would be cheaper 10 years later, not scarcer and more expensive.
Indeed, the climate panel suggests a variety of ways in which countries could adapt to a changing climate. Farmers could breed new species to better resist heat and drought. Water harvesting techniques could be used to delay evaporation. Rotation of crops could help improve yields.
The United Nations panel reported that a survey of various studies concluded that adapting crop management could raise yields of wheat, rice and maize from 15 to 18 percent compared with doing nothing.
Changes in demand and logistics could also help cope with scarcer food. Mr. Hanson pointed out that fully one-quarter of the food produced in the world today is wasted — by either poor storage and transport infrastructure in developing countries or wasteful consumers in the rich world.
But for all the evidence of humankind’s ability to adapt to its environmental constraints, it would be reckless to assume that ingenuity will arrive just in time to pull us from the brink.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that is skeptical about global warming, 13 years ago created the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award to celebrate his “vision of man as the ultimate resource.” But Mr. Simon got lucky, too. Had the bet extended for 30 years rather than 10, it would have gone to Mr. Ehrlich. 

The Aliens Have Landed

In the ’30s, as Germany rearmed, we said, “Yeah, France can handle that.” Earlier this week, the Panzer Corps of climate change zoomed right around our Maginot line of denial, and we all became the retreating French.
The disaster we refused to acknowledge has arrived. And now, as then, many people are just giving up. “Oh, well,” countless friends and co-workers muttered Monday, “nothing to do now.”
The bland, bureaucratic face of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us horrific news this week: The negative effects of climate change are here, and they’re ahead of schedule. Not that we’re surprised; when every scientist in the world who isn’t in the employ of climate change deniers tells us that we’ve long since passed the place where we could “turn back” the effects of global warming, acknowledging its effects should be no more shocking than arising to a blanket of snow on the ground after having watched flakes fall through the night. If you skid out of the driveway wondering how in the world that happened, you weren’t paying attention.
So yields of corn and wheat are down and falling while prices are going up. There has been record-breaking rain and record-breaking heat. Droughts are commonplace, and ice is melting. Even you, a person of education and at least moderate privilege, are going to notice.
My friends are talking about getting away from it all, as if George W. Bush had won a third term. But to where? Hudson Bay must have sea level rise, no? The Cascades are nice and high, but they’ve got those mudslides! Well, O.K., at least we can go drink heavily.
We know that when little green men with Shar Pei-like faces invade Earth, we’ll recognize that we are all one and act accordingly, uniting to defeat them and creating a world that recognizes our elemental mutual needs of land, water and air, and maintains their sanctity.
But it’s the blindly irrational mistreatment and abuse of land, water and air that have gotten us into this mess, whose visage is not that of a green Shar Pei-faced critter with a ray gun but one that just looks like ... weather. We’re all used to weird weather, and even to the occasional drought that might reduce California’s production of edible plants by, say, 5 percent, or a storm that would level a few towns while flooding the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. So although we’ve been warned, it was hard to see this coming.
“Do you think that storm was from global warming?” everyone asked after coastal New York and New Jersey were smashed by Hurricane Sandy. “Well, maybe,” was the best anyone could say; there have always been storms.
But the aliens are in the backyard, Granny, and it’s time to start hitting them with the cast-iron pans. The deniers are the equivalent of hucksters selling you a ray-gun-proof magic hat.
“I guess I can stop worrying about my grandchildren,” someone said to me, recognizing that change has come faster than all but a few had anticipated, and that it’s our lifetimes that are threatened now.
You can give up, of course; people will. Or you can break out the clich├ęs about extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures, put an evil alien face on climate change, and get to work supporting those measures that you know will either mitigate it or help us adapt.
Many barriers must be built, much coal left unburned and methane unpiped, many cattle unborn. We need a public works project the likes of which has not been seen since the ’40s. And it can be done, or at least attempted. Not to beat the World War II comparisons too heavily, but the United States built 2,000 airplanes in 1939; by 1944 that had become over 96,000, at a time when naysayers doubted 50,000 was a reachable number.
We can devise and build flood barriers; we can cap and control the spewing of carbon and methane into the air; we can turn to forms of agricultural production that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even sequester them. It’s a matter of will, not one of magic.
“They” will not build a big umbrella that will reflect all that excess sun back into space; “they” will not compress and suck all that carbon underground; “they” will not release the secret plans for nuclear fusion “they’ve” been hiding.
It ain’t gonna happen. We need adaptive changes on every level, big plans for mitigation from all forms of government, and real international and even corporate cooperation.
As individuals, we must do what we can to encourage and demand those efforts, while also reducing our own cumulatively enormous carbon footprints. Americans have long led the world in consumption; we created the lifestyle that’s cooking the planet. If we demonstrate a willingness to change — rather than whining “but what about the Chinese?” — others will follow. If we don’t, we’re all going down. Myself, I’d rather give it a try, and live long enough to fight the Shar Pei men. 

U.N. Climate Report Authors Answer 11 Basic Questions

Here, unearthed from the report, are the climate panel’s answers to 11 basic questions:
1. Are risks of climate change mostly due to changes in extremes, changes in average climate, or both?

People and ecosystems across the world experience climate in many different ways, but weather and climate extremes strongly influence losses and disruptions. Average climate conditions are important. They provide a starting point for understanding what grows where and for informing decisions about tourist destinations, other business opportunities, and crops to plant. But the impacts of a change in average conditions often occur as a result of changes in the frequency, intensity, or duration of extreme weather and climate events. It is the extremes that place excessive and often unexpected demands on systems poorly equipped to deal with those extremes. For example, wet conditions lead to flooding when storm drains and other infrastructure for handling excess water are overwhelmed. Buildings fail when wind speeds exceed design standards. For many kinds of disruption, from crop failure caused by drought to sickness and death from heat waves, the main risks are in the extremes, with changes in average conditions representing a climate with altered timing, intensity, and types of extremes.
2. How much can we say about what society will be like in the future, in order to plan for climate change impacts?
Overall characteristics of societies and economies, such as population size, economic activity, and land use, are highly dynamic. On the scale of just one or two decades, and sometimes in less time than that, technological revolutions, political movements, or singular events can shape the course of history in unpredictable ways. To understand potential impacts of climate change for societies and ecosystems, scientists use scenarios to explore implications of a range of possible futures. Scenarios are not predictions of what will happen, but they can be useful tools for researching a wide range of “what if” questions about what the world might be like in the future. They can be used to study future emissions of greenhouse gases and climate change. They can also be used to explore the ways climate-change impacts depend on changes in society, such as economic or population growth or progress in controlling diseases. Scenarios of possible decisions and policies can be used to explore the solution space for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for a changing climate. Scenario analysis creates a foundation for understanding risks of climate change for people, ecosystems, and economies across a range of possible futures. It provides important tools for smart decision-making when both uncertainties and consequences are large.
3. Why is climate change a particularly difficult challenge for managing risk?

Risk management is easier for nations, companies, and even individuals when the likelihood and consequences of possible events are readily understood. Risk management becomes much more challenging when the stakes are higher or when uncertainty is greater. As the WGII AR5 demonstrates, we know a great deal about the impacts of climate change that have already occurred, and we understand a great deal about expected impacts in the future. But many uncertainties remain, and will persist. In particular, future greenhouse gas emissions depend on societal choices, policies, and technology advancements not yet made, and climate-change impacts depend on both the amount of climate change that occurs and the effectiveness of development in reducing exposure and vulnerability. The real challenge of dealing effectively with climate change is recognizing the value of wise and timely decisions in a setting where complete knowledge is impossible. This is the essence of risk management.
4. What are the timeframes for mitigation and adaptation benefits

Adaptation can reduce damage from impacts that cannot be avoided. Mitigation strategies can decrease the amount of climate change that occurs, as summarized in the WGIII AR5. But the consequences of investments in mitigation emerge over time. The constraints of existing infrastructure, limited deployment of many clean technologies, and the legitimate aspirations for economic growth around the world all tend to slow the deviation from established trends in greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next few decades, the climate change we experience will be determined primarily by the combination of past actions and current trends. The near-term is thus an era where short-term risk reduction comes from adapting to the changes already underway. Investments in mitigation during both the near term and the longer-term do, however, have substantial leverage on the magnitude of climate change in the latter decades of the century, making the second half of the 21st century and beyond an era of climate options. Adaptation will still be important during the era of climate options, but with opportunities and needs that will depend on many aspects of climate change and development policy, both in the near-term and in the long-term.
5. Can science identify thresholds beyond which climate change is dangerous?
Human activities are changing the climate. Climate change impacts are already widespread and consequential. But while science can quantify climate change risks in a technical sense, based on the probability, magnitude, and nature of the potential consequences of climate change, determining what is dangerous is ultimately a judgment that depends on values and objectives. For example, individuals will value the present versus the future differently and will bring personal worldviews on the importance of assets like biodiversity, culture, and aesthetics. Values also influence judgments about the relative importance of global economic growth versus assuring the wellbeing of the most vulnerable among us. Judgments about dangerousness can depend on the extent to which one’s livelihood, community, and family are directly exposed and vulnerable to climate change. An individual or community displaced by climate change might legitimately consider that specific impact dangerous, even though that single impact might not cross the global threshold of dangerousness. Scientific assessment of risk can provide an important starting point for such value judgments about the danger of climate change.
6. Are we seeing impacts of recent climate change?

Yes, there is strong evidence of impacts of recent observed climate change on physical, biological, and human systems. Many regions have experienced warming trends and more frequent high-temperature extremes. Rising temperatures are associated with decreased snowpack, and many ecosystems are experiencing climate-induced shifts in the activity, range, or abundance of the species that inhabit them. Oceans are also displaying changes in physical and chemical properties that, in turn, are affecting coastal and marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, and other oceanic organisms such as mollusks, crustaceans, fishes, and zooplankton. Crop production and fishery stocks are sensitive to changes in temperature. Climate change impacts are leading to shifts in crop yields, decreasing yields overall and sometimes increasing them in temperate and higher latitudes, and catch potential of fisheries is increasing in some regions but decreasing in others. Some indigenous communities are changing seasonal migration and hunting patterns to adapt to changes in temperature.
7. Are the future impacts of climate change only negative? Might there be positive impacts as well?
Overall, the report identifies many more negative impacts than positive impacts projected for the future, especially for high magnitudes and rates of climate change. Climate change will, however, have different impacts on people around the world and those effects will vary not only by region but over time, depending on the rate and magnitude of climate change. For example, many countries will face increased challenges for economic development, increased risks from some diseases, or degraded ecosystems, but some countries will probably have increased opportunities for economic development, reduced instances of some diseases, or expanded areas of productive land. Crop yield changes will vary with geography and by latitude. Patterns of potential catch for fisheries are changing globally as well, with both positive and negative consequences. Availability of resources such as usable water will also depend on changing rates of precipitation, with decreased availability in many places but possible increases in runoff and groundwater recharge in some regions like the high latitudes and wet tropics.
8. What communities are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change?

Every society is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but the nature of that vulnerability varies across regions and communities, over time, and depends on unique socioeconomic and other conditions. Poorer communities tend to be more vulnerable to loss of health and life, while wealthier communities usually have more economic assets at risk. Regions affected by violence or governance failure can be particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Development challenges, such as gender inequality and low levels of education, and other differences among communities in age, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and governance can influence vulnerability to climate change impacts in complex ways.
9. Does climate change cause violent conflicts?

Some factors that increase risks from violent conflicts and civil wars are sensitive to climate change. For example, there is growing evidence that factors like low per capita incomes, economic contraction, and inconsistent state institutions are associated with the incidence of civil wars, and also seem to be sensitive to climate change. Climate change policies, particularly those associated with changing rights to resources, can also increase risks from violent conflict. While statistical studies document a relationship between climate variability and conflict, there remains much disagreement about whether climate change directly causes violent conflicts.
10. How are adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development connected?

Mitigation has the potential to reduce climate change impacts, and adaptation can reduce the damage of those impacts. Together, both approaches can contribute to the development of societies that are more resilient to the threat of climate change and therefore more sustainable. Studies indicate that interactions between adaptation and mitigation responses have both potential synergies and tradeoffs that vary according to context. Adaptation responses may increase greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., increased fossil-based air conditioning in response to higher temperatures), and mitigation may impede adaptation (e.g., increased use of land for bioenergy crop production negatively impacting ecosystems). There are growing examples of co-benefits of mitigation and development policies, like those which can potentially reduce local emissions of health-damaging and climate-altering air pollutants from energy systems. It is clear that adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development will be connected in the future.
11. Why is it difficult to be sure of the role of climate change in observed effects on people and ecosystems?
Climate change is one of many factors impacting the Earth’s complex human societies and natural ecosystems. In some cases the effect of climate change has a unique pattern in space or time, providing a fingerprint for identification. In others, potential effects of climate change are thoroughly mixed with effects of land use change, economic development, changes in technology, or other processes. Trends in human activities, health, and society often have many simultaneous causes, making it especially challenging to isolate the role of climate change. Much climate-related damage results from extreme weather events and could be affected by changes in the frequency and intensity of these events due to climate change. The most damaging events are rare, and the level of damage depends on context. It can therefore be challenging to build statistical confidence in observed trends, especially over short time periods. Despite this, many climate change impacts on the physical environment and ecosystems have been identified, and increasing numbers of impacts have been found in human systems as well.

The bill for climate change is coming due

Americans have just endured one of the coldest winters in memory, so global warming may not be on their radar. But a new U.N. panel report has just refocused the public debate on a problem some scientists call the greatest threat facing the world.
There is trouble ahead for global agriculture, warns the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if measures are not taken quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel, which synthesizes the findings of thousands of peer-reviewed studies every seven years, has issued a report card on the state of the planet.
The report card serves as a guide to policymakers and a basis for international deliberations, including the summit on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions scheduled to be held in Paris next year. The report will be officially released on Sunday in Yokohama, Japan, but an advance copy has been leaked.
This IPCC report predicts that by the end of the century, “hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss,” the majority living in island nations and in southern Asia.
The report goes on to link food price increases (like the 2010 spike in wheat prices that helped spark the Arab Spring) to climate change-related droughts and floods. It forecasts that prices will continue to rise as grain yields decline by as much as 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century, while demand is projected to rise by 14 percent per decade through 2050.
Food shortages are predicted to be the new normal in vulnerable areas, according to the IPCC. Africa and Asia will be the principal losers. Monsoon rain patterns are already being disrupted on both continents and desertification is spreading in semi-arid regions of western India and China as well as north and east Africa. River basins like the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra will see larger and more frequent floods in the years ahead, followed by permanent drying trend as the Himalayan glaciers gradually melt.
The biggest news from this report, however, may be the anticipated price tag for climate change. Even a relatively modest temperature rise of 2.5 degrees Celsuis (6.25 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists say, would reduce global economic output by more than 2 percent (roughly $1.4 trillion annually).
The cost of climate change includes higher food prices, increased healthcare spending, natural disasters like hurricanes, droughts and floods, the depletion of surface and groundwater and land loss due to the inundation of coastal areas from sea-level rise.
The first installment of the three-part IPCC document, released in September,  projected — rather conservatively, according to many experts — a possible 4 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Farhrenheit) rise in global temperatures (temperatures have already risen by about 0.8 degrees Celsius [2 degrees Fahrenheit]) and up to a three-foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century. Yet even these arguably lowball numbers attracted the fire of climate skeptics, who pointed to lower-than-expected global temperature increases over the past decade as evidence that global warming has “stalled.”
Today’s assessment will likely also spark controversy from both those who think it goes too far, and others who believe that it does not go far enough. The latter was the focus of a study earlier this month. A coalition of environmental groups argued that projections of the economic cost, like this IPCC report, routinely leave out many of the harder-to-quantify damages that are brought on by political unrest and the destruction of ecosystems.
These reports also fail to take into account what would happen if certain tipping points are crossed, which could potentially send the earth’s climate system into a tailspin.
For example, if the permafrost thaws, as it has already begun to do in parts of the Arctic, and releases vast amounts of trapped methane gas, a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as CO2, the resulting temperature rise might soar off the current charts.
This uncertainty over methane gas underscores the difficulties that scientists face in devising reliable projections. This is particularly true when it comes to predicting regional climate shifts. Computer models sometimes arrive at strikingly different conclusions about how local weather patterns will change — hardly surprising given that the climate system is an immensely complex and interactive system.
In some cases, the best guide for what will happen is what is already taking place. On a recent trip to East Africa, I asked farmers how things have changed for them. They consistently told the same story: less predictable seasonal rains, maize crops withering and wells and rivers drying up. They are increasingly apprehensive about the future, as I report in Foreign Policy.
Not every place will be negatively affected, though. In the northern United States, including the upper Midwest, growing seasons are getting longer. Over the past century, they have increased by almost three weeks in North Dakota, where farmer John Nowatzki, whose family has grown cold-tolerant grains like wheat and barley for more than a hundred years, now plants warm-season crops like corn and soybeans.
In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, the sun-dependent wine business has been booming. Peach orchards are spreading north into lands that used to be too cold to grow the fruit.
On the other side of the continent, by contrast, California’s almonds, cherries and apricots are not getting enough critical winter-chill time for the trees to properly flower and fruit. Southern California is suffering from an historic drought. Parts of Texas are becoming too dry to cultivate and reverting to rangeland for grazing cattle.
As a rough rule of thumb, climate change will be a boon in some temperate areas, where production is more limited by cold than by heat. Warmer regions are another story, however.
“You can’t grow crops in a blast furnace,” said Bruce McCarl, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University and co-author of the current IPCC report. A blast furnace is precisely what large parts of the U.S. Southwest have become in recent summers, as successive droughts and record-breaking heat waves have scorched the region.
Though the IPPC report acknowledges the winners and losers, it insists that the damage from climate change will far outweigh the benefits. Yet McCarl, in an email interview, manages to be guardedly optimistic. “Climate change is inevitable,” he said, “and agriculture must adapt by changing planting dates, varieties, harvest dates, crop mix, livestock mix among other means.”
McCarl says that adaptation will be difficult in many parts of the globe. Like Mali, for example, where temperatures are increasing and precipitation is decreasing. He argues in his study on the West African nation that more must be done to develop heat-resistant grain varieties and more money must be spent on outreach programs that train farmers for the rigors of climate change.
The challenge for Mali and the world is to find new ways to grow the food that we need on a rapidly transforming planet. “The heat is on,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he launched the first installment of the IPCC report in September. “Now we must act.”
The question remains whether the world will act in time.

Telegraph and Mail concede on climate change

Climate change: the debate is over reads activists banner outside IPCC meeting in Stockholm, Sweden
Activists in Stockholm, Sweden, use a giant seesaw to relay IPCC's key finding last year that there was 95% scientific certainty that humans cause climate change. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
One is home to some of the UK's best known commentators casting doubt on climate change science, while the other claims "climate change is on ice" and "huge uncertainties surround the science of climate change".
But both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have now told MPs they believe climate change is happening and humans play a role in it.
Editors at the Telegraph told the science and technology committee that "we believe that the climate is changing, that the reason for that change includes human activity, but that human ingenuity and adaptability should not be ignored in favour of economically damaging prescriptions." But they railed at being too frequently confronted with "impenetrable gobbledygook."
The paper was until last month home to blogger James Delingpole, who has also written for the Daily Mail, under headlines such as "The crazy climate change obsession that's made the Met Office a menace", "95 per cent of intelligent people know the new IPCC report is utter drivel", and "Climate Change: there just aren't enough bullets." Both papers regularly quote representatives of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – the climate sceptic thinktank setup by Lord Lawson in 2009 – on their opinion on climate science.
The Mail told the MPs that "there are very few serious scientists who deny the climate is changing." But it also said: "The climate is always changing and the vast majority of climate scientists believe there is a significant human impact on it although they disagree about the pace and effects. Climate scientists are unlikely to write papers saying climate change is not happening."
A landmark report last September by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that scientists were 95% sure that humans were causing global warming and that temperatures could rise by up to 4.8C by the end of the century.
The Mail and Telegraph were among several media titles including the Guardian to give evidence to an inquiry by the committee, 'communicating climate science', although neither were represented in person, sending written submissions instead. The committee's findings are due to be published on Wednesday.
Andrew Miller MP, the committee's chair said: “All of the serious news outlets we spoke to were unanimous in accepting the scientific evidence that human activity is causing climate change. This came as a surprise to us because some papers regularly give a platform to lobby groups or indeed conspiracy theorists – many not even qualified scientists – who pooh-pooh the evidence and attack UK climate scientists."
Politicians also gave evidence to the committee, with climate minister, Greg Barker, attacking the BBC for giving too much prominence to climate sceptics. "I think we need the BBC to look very hard, particularly at whether or not they are getting the balance right. I don't think they are," he told the MPs.
The inquiry's publication follows the second part in the IPCC's fifth assessment, which was published on Monday and warned that climate change was a threat to wildlife, global food stocks, and to human security.