The world’s top climate scientists released a harrowing new report in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday that lays bare the stakes for humanity, as well as the urgent transformations necessary if we’re to maintain the basis of our civilization.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-sponsored assembly of volunteer climate scientists from around the world, was focused on land — specifically, the ongoing and projected effects of a warming planet on the ability of humanity to continue to support ourselves with food.
Since every single person lives on land (besides those few astronauts and houseboat residents), since our farms and forests supply most of our food, and since we’ve already utterly remade almost every square inch of arable land on the planet, the scope of this report is necessarily huge. And its conclusions are jarring.
On our current path, with warming of more than 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the world faces nearly certain and widespread freshwater shortages, permanent vegetation loss, uncontrollable wildfires, permafrost thawing, and declines in crop yields to the point that famine and instability could be pervasive especially in some parts of the tropics. At levels of warming barely above the present day, those effects may still be felt, but at vastly reduced odds.
“Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being,” the report says, and further warming will bring “cascading risks” to the world’s farms and forests.
“The way the world uses its land must change fundamentally,” Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and who was not associated with the report, said in a statement. The report compels all of us, Le Quéré said, to “rethink how food is produced globally” in order to avoid “potentially serious disruption to the global food supply.”
The report confirmed that the world’s land areas are warming about twice as fast as the oceans, a phenomenon that was long predicted (soil heats up faster than water, which is why we cool off in swimming pools). Warming over land is happening so fast that even since the end of the 10-year average used in report (2006 to 2015), global land temperatures have increased by a further 20 percent. New data show that last month, July 2019, was the hottest month ever measured on the planet.
In speaking with a half a dozen authors of the report, there was a single transformational thought that underpinned the urgency of their findings: Until we realize that we exist as part of an ecosystem, that we are part of a living planet, we will continue to destroy the soil that makes our existence possible.
“If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase,” Valérie Masson-Delmotte, one of the report’s lead authors said at a press conference, “many regions, especially in the tropics, would see novel and unprecedented climate conditions.”
That ongoing transition to a world never-before experienced by humans is greatly worrying, because we’re not sure how modern agriculture will respond. Among other things, the report finds food will become less nutritious at higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as plant’s chemistry fundamentally changes. Masson-Delmotte said that the search is already on for crops that are resilient to extreme heat and drought, as well as urgent efforts to conserve and protect forests that help buffer the natural world from the expansion of agriculture.
The risks to the world’s farms increases rapidly beyond warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, to the point where some of the possible solutions to climate change might quickly become impossible.
“The current food system is neither providing desirable health nor environmental outcomes,” said Prajal Pradhan, one of the report’s authors, in an email to Rolling Stone. Globally, two billion adults are overweight and 820 million people are undernourished. One third of humanity’s greenhouse gas footprint comes from producing food – even as one third of produced food is either wasted or lost.
The urgency of climate change means that this broken system simply cannot exist any longer in its current state.
“We need to act now,” said Pradhan. “Dietary changes towards balanced diets not only reduce emissions but also make us healthy.”
If we fail to urgently enact transformational change, the report finds, we may miss the opportunity to do so forever. The stakes are enormous.
“In a warmer world, we lose the potential of some options, like the possibility of some ecosystems or soil to store carbon,” said Masson-Delmotte. “In the land sector, we don’t rely on disruptive innovation. Practices, technologies exist. There are case studies that show they work. The challenge is to scale them up.”
Thursday’s report builds on last year’s IPCC report, which was focused on the 1.5 degree goal that was agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, to build a case for urgency. That report kicked off a global youth uprising, and sparked the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to call an emergency global climate summit in New York in September.
“Societal will has been building, and mostly through the mobilization of the young generation. Policymakers have been caught by surprise,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, another of the report’s lead authors. “This mobilization of society has influenced elections. This is a motivation chain that works.”
The ongoing youth movement – most notably the “Fridays for Future” youth strikes led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg – as well as the act of conducting this sobering research, has also deeply affected the authors in their own personal lives and choices.
“My diet has changed towards a balanced diet after my research on diets and climate change,” said Pradhan. “I support the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement from the students. I have also participated their strikes.”
In general, global agriculture will have to rapidly shift from an extractive industrial system based on an annual planting and harvesting cycle to a more perennial system based on regenerating soil nutrients and underground carbon storage.
“We’re not thinking holistically from an ecological point of view. We’re not thinking of our food producing farms as being ecosystems themselves,” said Tim Crews, one of the report’s authors. “The natural systems that existed before agriculture have a lot of the answers. We should really start paying attention to that.”
So-called “negative emissions” strategies, like expanding vast tree plantations expressly for the purpose of converting them into biofuels had long been included in climate models as a kind of silver bullet solution. Thursday’s report puts major question marks on the viability of such plans. Instead, the authors emphasized that we’ve passed a point where anything but an all-hands-on-deck approach will be effective.
“We cannot plant trees to solve our way out of this problem, contrary to many people’s optimism,” said Pamela McElwee, one of the report’s authors. “Land can’t solve our failure to address fossil fuel emissions.”
Climate change is inherently daunting, and a report like this that indicts the entirety of the current mainstream way we produce food feels overwhelming. But the enormity of the problem should reinforce the facts that all of us have a role to play in the answer.
“We know about the huge challenges of climate change, but I don’t think we want to get across a message of despair,” said Jim Skea, one of the lead authors. “We want to get across a message that all actions make a difference.