Adaptation called best plan for climate change

Two researchers tell Ottawa conference that mitigation will buy time, but farmers must start reacting to changes now

OTTAWA — Soybeans, grain corn, longer-season cereals, increased canola yields and fewer frost damaged crops: these all point to the reality of climate change and its effects in Western Canada.

“Global warming is happening and it’s caused by humans,” Thomas Homer-Dixon told the Grow Canada Conference audience in Ottawa last week.

The researcher from the Centre for International Governance Innovation of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., said the atmosphere is failing to release about a watt per sq. metre of energy when compared to the long-term mean.

It doesn’t sound like much until the math is added up to show that it represents the heat value of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs going off on the planet every day.

He said that sensational statistic puts the issue into perspective.

All that additional energy will result in global average temperatures more than doubling the 1 C increase on which the Paris Accord’s climate change plan is predicated, he added.

“There is a less than 20 percent chance that we will hold it to 2 C.”

Homer-Dixon said the food crops that the world grows evolved and were developed during a time of stable temperatures and weather conditions.

“These are not those times,” he said.

Homer-Dixon said farmers, government and the food industry need to be planning for more extreme weather conditions and far greater food insecurity.

Kevin Folta, a professor and chair of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, told the conference that many experts are focusing on mitigating climate change, but farmers and the industry need to start reacting to the effects now.

“Mitigation discussions will follow,” he said.

Homer-Dixon said weather effects from the rapidly heating planet are already being experienced, and climate change is still in its early days.

The erosion of the Arctic sea ice is causing more aggressive change in northern latitudes, which has thrown the polar vortex out of its normally abnormal patterns because of the loss of low-pressure troughs that often were appearing in the north.

This is an overly simple description of the climate change event, but the result is the same: very regular, very extreme waves in the counter-clockwise movement of air around the North Pole result in violent, north-south swings in the jet stream. These waves of air movement cause protracted flows of dry and wet, hot and cold conditions.

Homer-Dixon said farmers could expect to see bigger storms, more rain near coasts and a greater chance of extreme droughts in the middle of the continents.

“Just because it is warming in the (Canadian Prairies), extending growing seasons and allowing more cropping choices right now, doesn’t mean it will always work out,” he said.

Mapping of credible weather models to 2080 and beyond shows that drought will likely be the norm for much of the United States in the summer with extreme heat losses to the cereal crops and many oilseeds.

Parts of Western Canada from the Alberta and British Columbia Peace district to southeastern Saskatchewan appear to benefit with additional moisture and warm conditions, but southern Alberta, western Saskatchewan and Manitoba are not projected to be so lucky.

Folta said farmers need to be acting now to adapt to the change that is currently upon them.

He said it’s important to lobby for more research about pests moving in from southerly regions, but new, adapted crops also need to be developed and farmers and producers must collect and share all the data they can from their farms.

“There is a lot research that needs to take place quickly,” he said about the need to move to precision agriculture.

“I call it the farm to dork movement,” he said about the need to put data to work in plant breeding and environmental research.

“Compared to 1950, you have two more weeks of growing season,” he said.

That advantage, when combined with more extreme temperature swings, is causing fruit production to suffer as trees are prompted to bud earlier, only to have the entire year’s crops destroyed by frosts.

The researchers suggested that farmers should consider drought-proofing water projects and infrastructure changes that might otherwise take time, resources and government lobbying to achieve.

Homer-Dixon said plant breeders have been forced to stretch their genetics to find genes capable of withstanding prolonged mid-season drought or temperature swings during flowering.

Both researchers said mitigation strategies for climate change will buy some time, but the overall plan for agriculture and food needs to be focused on a hotter, more violent environment.

mike.raine@producer.com

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