It wasn’t a big surprise, so it wasn’t a big disappointment either. The Copenhagen climate summit has ended with no agreement that matters, just a handshake plan to let everybody do pretty much what they were planning to do all along as long as they talk about it. Now we humans need to plan on our coming journey into hell.
All we have right now are the news reports, but as I understand it, the so-called “accord” on climate change is a recognition of the scientific case for keeping the rise in average world temperatures at or below 2 degrees C (not the 1.5 degrees the nations on the front lines of climate change had wanted). It contains no actual restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, binding or otherwise.
It represents, perhaps in the purest form yet seen, the triumph of expediency over action, of politics over science, of delay over decision. Sure, there’s the obligatory plan to continue talking as we continue to spew out carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. But you know, and I know, and President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen know, that this was the best opportunity we had for meaningful action, and we’ve wasted it.
So what does that mean for us humans down here on the ground? It means that we best gird our loins. Our weather is going to get weird.
We farmers and gardeners have already seen our climate zones shift northward (or southward as the case may be), so we know this is not some future event; we’re already players in this drama, and so are you. Our first tendency is to start looking for the opportunities. Does this mean we could grow meaningful citrus in central Alabama, for example? The pomegranates should do better. Any chance of making coffee work?
And it’s when we ask these questions that we realize how terrifying this is. If failure to address climate change meant that all temperatures would be 2 degrees C (about 3.5 degrees F) warmer, that would be a very bad thing, but we could at least plan for it. But as anyone who pays more attention to scientists than to Sarah Palin knows, that’s NOT what this means. Our failure to address climate change means that nobody knows what the weather will be. Some of us will see colder temps, some hotter, some of us will see more rain, others less. Winds will change; some species of trees will die en masse. And what happens this year may not be at all like what happened the last five. All the folk wisdom and the scientific data on which we humans have learned to rely is in the process of becoming less relevant.
How do you respond when you can’t depend on the last frost date any more? When severe storms may be more severe or missing entirely? When prevailing winds stop prevailing? And just to make it interesting, how do you accommodate all these changes at the precise moment in history when the global supply of oil peaks and begins to decline as the people in surging economies in China, India, and Brazil begin wanting a little piece of the prosperity they’ve seen in the West?
We won’t be able to count on the government or Monsanto or Publix to solve this problem. It’s going to be up to individual farmers, and it’s going to require new thinking about risks, rewards, and strategies.
Now, a digression. One of the brutal realities about our inaction is that we are quietly deciding to let many of the world’s poorest people die. We know that the out-of-control climate change trajectory we’re now traveling, when coupled with a collapse in energy supplies, will result in massive dieoffs. The population of the world is about 6.7 billion, on its way to 7 billion by 2012, and scientists have estimated that without fossil fuels the planet can support 2 billion of us or less. And because we also refuse to address human overpopulation in any meaningful way, we know massive numbers of humans will die. We just don’t yet know whether it will be from starvation, thirst, disease, or some combination of the three. My money’s on the combination.
The reason for the digression is to acknowledge that the world’s farmers won’t be called upon to feed 8 billion or 10 billion people. The human population will crash before it reaches that pinnacle. More likely, farmers will be feeding themselves, their families, and a few others close by who provide valuable goods and services in return. But everything we do will be in the context of declining supplies of energy, a breakdown of global commerce, and (we know now) uncertainty about the weather.