Trying to get investors and policymakers to focus on things we can all agree on, such as saving energy and money or creating domestic renewable energy jobs, I have refused to engage the climate change skeptics. After all, it’s somewhat irrelevant whether global warming is caused by humans if the measures to change that trajectory are good for the economy anyway, right? But recent news and forecasts of trends make it even clearer that we are all in this fragile, sinking vessel together and it’s no longer enough to avoid the fundamental cause.
It’s official — 2010 was one of the three hottest years on record, after a series of “hottest” over the past several decades. Not just a meteorological "fun fact," this trend has consequences — thousands died in Russia last summer, while extreme weather in Pakistan killed thousands more and displaced twice the number of people that live in Manhattan. The droughts, dead trees, and resulting infestation of pests have resulted in apocalyptic forest fires, like the one in Israel this week or the ones across the western US in recent years. Those events led to the discovery that our forests now exude more carbon than they absorb. That metric should mean something to everyone in the climate change debate — it means our forests are not replacing themselves as fast as we’re destroying them, a trend that has an obvious and ominous outcome when extrapolated to its conclusion. But trees may not be the biggest concern for humans — it’s the other stuff we grow to survive that’s also at risk.
The past decade has seen a marked uptick in signs of severe food insecurity — those droughts leading to crop failures, shortages, and food riots. According to a recent summary of reports on this trend published last week in ScienceNews, “crop failures — largely due to heat stress — are signals that global warming may have begun outpacing the ability of farmers to adapt. Some one billion people already suffer serious malnutrition. That number could mushroom, the new reports argue, if governments big and small don’t begin heeding warning signs like spikes in the price of food staples.”
The UN Food & Agriculture Organization reports that the cost of importing food this year will reach a trillion dollars for necessities like grains, not shrimp or caviar, against an estimated 2 percent drop in grain production this year. It may not sound like much, but with a growing population and improved farming practices, grain production was expected to grow, so a drop of any kind masks a larger problem, especially if the trend continues.
Like air pollution, these trends will affect us all. Coal industry executives breathe the same air as the staffers of the American Lung Association. Similarly, the climate change deniers, who are looking for excuses to maintain business as usual, will live in the same food-short world as the environmental advocates, who are meeting this week in Cancun trying to solve the problem.
It’s time to push back on those who are questioning the science, because they are actually advocating a path that will soon leave us all hungry for more than answers to an unnecessary and spurious debate.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).