WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - The authors of the latest report from an UN-sponsored group of scientists and researchers charged with addressing the impacts of a changing climate on humans and ecosystems say food security is at risk and that adaptation will play a key role in mitigating that risk.
“Part of the reason adaptation is so important is that the world faces a host of risks from climate change already baked into the climate system, due to past emissions and existing infrastructure,” said Vicente Barros, co-chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) work group that authored the report released Sunday, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.
“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Barros. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”
The report ratchets up the warnings of what’s ahead, saying that conditions created by rising temperatures through the remainder of this century are likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible.”
In a press conference in Japan on Monday, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said his group believes that “if the world doesn’t do anything to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases, the very social stability of human systems could be at stake.” He warned of population displacement, increased conflicts, as well as rising risks to areas such as low-lying coastal regions.
In addressing food security, Pachauri warned that climate change impacts include wider areas of drought that affect water availability, as well as more flooding in many parts of the world.
“There are negative impacts on crop yields,” he said. “And this has serious implications for food security,” adding that this “would really be a severe challenge for some of the poorest communities and poorest regions in the world.”
While the report calls for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are causing global temperatures to rise, like carbon dioxide and methane, it also cites the need for continued adaptation to the changes that are coming. In agriculture, that includes low- or no-till farming to reduce the loss of carbon from the soil, and using better technology to achieve greater irrigation efficiency for farmers in water-scarce areas.
Adaptation to reduce the risks from a changing climate is now starting to occur, but with a stronger focus on reacting to past events than on preparing for a changing future, according to Chris Field, the other co-chair of the work group.
“Understanding that climate change is a challenge in managing risk opens a wide range of opportunities for integrating adaptation with economic and social development and with initiatives to limit future warming,” Field said. “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near term and beyond.”
But the authors also say that further adaptation by agricultural producers, water managers, forestland owners and those who promote biodiversity can best be facilitated by government policies that take into account rural needs.
USDA in February formally launched seven Regional Hubs for Risk Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change that will gather the resources of area universities and research facilities to translate science and research into information that farmers, ranchers and forestland owners in those regions can use to adjust their resource management to help them adapt to climate change and weather variability.
The report sends up more than a few red flags in its look at rural areas, noting that “major future rural impacts are expected in the near term and beyond through impacts on water availability and supply, food security and agricultural incomes, including shifts in production areas of food and non-food crops across the world.”
“These impacts are expected to disproportionately affect the welfare of the poor in rural areas,” the report states, citing the risks posed in particular to those with limited access to land, modern agricultural inputs, infrastructure and education.
Sidebar: IPCC report aims at biofuels
While the IPCC report issued Sunday makes no mention of biofuels in its “Summary for Policyholders,” the chief take-away from the document, one of the 30 or so technical reports accompanying the study cites a number of concerns about biofuel feedstock growth that have been raised since the last IPCC assessment in 2007.
The technical report acknowledges the contributions biofuels make in mitigating climate change – they emit fewer greenhouse gases when compared to equivalent fossil-fuel-derived fuels. But it also cites a number of studies that claim the production of feedstocks for bioenergy can negate the savings in emissions by requiring large amounts of energy to produce, or by encouraging the development of what was formerly non-crop land or forestland to grow feedstocks like corn and soybeans. The report also cites the long-debated food-versus-fuel argument stemming from the theory that growing crops for fuel reduces production for food, causing food prices to increase.
Biofuel advocates said Monday the IPCC work group report raises long-recognized concerns arising from the unbridled pursuit of biofuel feedstocks with no regard to environmental consequences. However, they say U.S. growers have been implementing new technology over the past decade that allows them to produce biofuels with greater efficiency, using significantly less energy and water, while fully meeting food, feed and fiber demands for both domestic purposes and export needs.
U.S. agriculture groups also have long insisted that the share of the food dollar that goes back to the farmer, 16 cents, is far less than the money spent on energy, transportation, packaging, marketing and labor. The U.S. ethanol industry cites a World Bank study that identifies crude oil as the number one determinant of global food prices. To reinforce their point, they note that the price of corn has fallen by nearly half from its $8.50-per-bushel peak in 2012, yet food prices continue to rise.
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