By David Wolfe
Now that the majority of people in both political parties accept that climate change is occurring, Washington’s top task is to catch up with the rest of the country — particularly business and farming communities — and engage in a real debate about practical solutions.
In a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) said lawmakers need to do a better job of focusing on ways to cut carbon emissions, invest in clean energy and combat climate change. While some politicians are just beginning to speak out, community and business leaders of all political persuasions have had little choice but to tackle the very real costs of more frequent and intense weather extremes. It is clear that economic development, capital investments and resource planning today must take into account the best information we have on changing weather patterns and the risks they pose. We may have not reached the point where everyone is comfortable with the phrase “climate change,” but there are many examples showing that the American can-do spirit has come alive as people roll up their sleeves to confront this challenge.
Nowhere is this more evident than with today’s farmers — a group I have worked with closely for three decades as a faculty researcher at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Farmers are on the front lines of climate change, and while they may not all call it by that name or agree about the causes, the vast majority recognize they are the first generation of farmers, ever, who cannot rely on historical weather patterns to tell them when to plant, what to plant or how to grow it.
Many farmers have told me that if the changes were as straightforward as a few more days of heat stress or drought each year, they could plan around that. But the changes are all over the map. One year, farmers may face record-breaking spring rain that delays planting. The next year could bring a record-breaking drought near harvest. Another year, their fruit crops bloom weeks early and get blasted by a spring frost. As a result of this unpredictability, many are hedging their bets, staggering planting dates, planting a wider range of crops and considering investments such as irrigation or drainage systems.
In most cases, adapting to climate change isn’t rocket science. If it is getting drier, expand your irrigation capacity. If you are reaping the rewards of a longer growing season, invest in equipment and skills to produce and market new crops. But these adaptations are not cost- or risk-free. It is hard to know if a changing weather pattern is in fact part of a long-term climate shift or just an unusual blip of weather variability. Lack of response has repercussions for global food security, and will be an important issue in upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, as pointed out last month by Secretary of State John Kerry at the Milan Expo (which has the theme “Feeding the World, Energy for Life”). Washington can help with policies and programs that provide timely information, investment incentives and access to capital for adaptations that buffer farmers from climate change or help them take advantage of opportunities.
I’ve focused on farmers, but other businesses and communities face similar challenges. If the time has come for a town to replace its storm drainage system, that system should be designed based on the latest flood-risk projections for the region. Land-use planning near coastal zones should take into account sea level rise and the impact of coastal storms. Local and national economic development will require an infrastructure of support for dealing with these decisions. Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. Despite political rhetoric through recent Republican and Democratic administrations, federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been developing critical resources on climate risks and opportunities for strategic adaptation.
Equally important is the issue of slowing the pace of change. Many economists have argued that the transition to an energy future free of greenhouse gas emissions will not only reduce the costs of weather-related disasters, but will be a boon to those nations that are at the forefront of new technologies that will take the world there. On Oct. 19, the White House announced that 68 new companies have joined the original 13 signatories of the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. These companies, which include Wal-Mart, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, pledge support for a strong international deal on climate change and commit to taking climate action.
We simply can’t afford another do-nothing Congress on climate change. Business and local community leaders are pulling the plug on the “is it real?” debate and turning our attention to what we will do about it — how we can build climate change resilience and develop smart energy solutions that become the economic engine of the future.
David Wolfe is professor of Plant and Soil Ecology in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University and chair of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Climate Change Consortium.