We need to move food production indoors. I keep saying it, but weirdly nobody running the world seems to read my blog. One of the central theses of this blog is that we missed the deadline on climate change, by at least a decade. That doesn’t mean we’re all doomed, but it does mean that returning to the global climate that gave birth to our current civilization is not an option. It could happen in a few hundred years, with active efforts from a global human society, but for that to happen, we need to survive those centuries of warming. To do that, we need to change how we do things in a number of ways, and agriculture is very near the top of that list.
A Washington State University-led research team analyzed climate, agricultural and population growth data to show continuing fossil fuel dependence will increase the probability of co-occurring droughts 40% by the mid-21st century and 60% by the late 21st century, relative to the late-20th century. That comes out to an approximately ninefold increase in agricultural and human population exposure to severe co-occurring droughts unless steps are taken to lower carbon emissions.
“There could be around 120 million people across the globe simultaneously exposed to severe compound droughts each year by the end of the century,” said lead author Jitendra Singh, a former postdoctoral researcher at the WSU School of the Environment now at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. “Many of the regions our analysis shows will be most affected are already vulnerable and so the potential for droughts to become disasters is high.”
I’d just like to pause to emphasized that. 120 million people dealing with severe drought each year. For a comparison, the WHO estimates the current annual number at 55 million, and they don’t even specify “severe” drought. I’ve mentioned before that starvation and malnutrition around the globe isn’t due to a lack of resources, but the factors that create that artificial scarcity are likely to be exacerbated by this increase in drought, causing mass famine well before we get to the point where conventional farming can’t produce enough food because of climate change. Without systemic change, this could mean anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions starving to death.
But because we know this is coming, I would argue that none of those deaths are unavoidable, even now. We could invest heavily in various forms of indoor food production, which can recycle water used, and be immune to things like drought. Making that a global priority now would mean that our inevitable mistakes will do less harm, because conventional farming is still producing food. If, as seems more likely, the people running the world continue to procrastinate on avoiding our looming extinction, then we’re going to have much less leeway. We’ve already lost a lot of that slack, but I fear we’re going to lose what remains pretty quickly.
The elevated risk of compound droughts estimated by Singh and colleagues is a result of a warming climate coupled with a projected 22% increase in the frequency of El Niño and La Niña events, the two opposite phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).
The researchers’ projections show that nearly 75% of compound droughts in the future will coincide with these irregular but recurring periods of climatic variation in the world’s oceans, which have played a large role in some of the greatest environmental disasters in world history.
The researchers’ analysis specifically focused on ten regions of the planet that receive most of their rainfall during June-September, have high variability in monthly summer precipitation and are affected by ENSO variations, factors that lead to an increased potential for co-occurring drought. Several of the regions analyzed include important agricultural regions and countries that are currently facing food and water insecurity.
Their results indicate areas of North and South America are more likely to experience compound droughts in a future, warmer climate than regions of Asia, where much of the agricultural land is projected to become wetter.
Food produced in the Americas could therefore be more susceptible to climatic hazards. For instance, the United States is a major exporter of staple grains and currently ships maize to countries across the globe. Even a modest increase in the risk of compound droughts in the future climate could lead to regional supply shortfalls that could in turn cascade into the global market, affecting global prices and amplifying food insecurity.
“The potential for a food security crisis increases even if these droughts aren’t affecting major food producing regions but rather many regions that are already vulnerable to food insecurity,” said coauthor Weston Anderson, an assistant research scientist at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland. “Simultaneous droughts in food insecure regions could in turn amplify stresses on international agencies responsible for disaster relief by requiring the provision of humanitarian aid to a greater number of people simultaneously.”
There is some good news, Anderson said. The researchers’ work is based on a high fossil fuel emissions scenario, and in recent years, the global community has made progress toward lowering carbon emissions which would greatly mitigate the frequency and intensity of co-occurring droughts by the end of the 21st century.
Also, the occurrence of nearly 75% of compound droughts alongside ENSO events in the future climate highlights the potential to predict where these droughts may occur with a lead time of up to nine months.
“This means that co-occurring droughts during ENSO events will likely affect the same geographical regions they do today albeit with greater severity,” said Deepti Singh. “Being able to predict where these droughts will occur and their potential impacts can help society develop plans and efforts to minimize economic losses and reduce human suffering from such climate-driven disasters.”
Research and development of new technologies should always be an ongoing investment we make as a society. That said, it is not necessary to do more research and development in order to take major action on climate change. We already have everything we need to make a huge difference in what our future looks like, except for a political and economic system that actually values humanity (let alone the rest of life). I know I keep repeating myself, but until real change actually happens, it needs to be repeated, and said in different ways and different contexts. The people who currently run the world, and the political and economic systems that put them in power are not going to save us. I don’t think they particularly want to, but I also don’t think they’re capable of doing it. We can work within the system to do at least some good, but that will not be enough. I feel like that should be increasingly obvious to people, given how many decades it’s been since the IPCC was first convened. Vote, protest, and do all the rest, but we need to view democracy as a part of our daily lives and our daily work, not just something we participate in now and then. We need to stop relying on political parties for our political organizing, and start organizing more directly to put real pressure on politicians no matter who’s in office, and to work towards revolutionary change in who our society serves.
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