A climate for change about climate change?

“Do reasonable, responsible and compassionate people have a ‘duty to warn’ of looming threats to future human well-being and environmental health, and then to sensibly help one another make preparations? Or are we to pose as if we are blind, deaf and dumb to the predicament and, thereby, let the least fortunate, most poorly situated and simply unaware among us suffer the consequences, come what may?”

– Steven Earl Salmony, 7 Billion Actions.org

Brad wrote: “As far as climate change goes, I would agree that the climate is changing, it has been for the last gazillion years. I struggle with the accuracy of data that is 15 million years old.

“Also, why are we so concerned about how plants will do with an increase in a couple of degrees, it is not about the average, it is about extreme highs and lows, we can have a fluctuation of 60 degrees in a 24 hr period. We grow vegetables in climates that average 70 degrees and ones that average 95.

“I am not saying pedal to the metal, burn all the fuel you can, I think conservation and new technology are critical, but I don’t think that just because I drive an SUV there was a tornado in (Oklahoma).

“I am also very concerned about feeding starving people, so that is more important to me than worrying about something that may happen sometime in the future.”

Goodness gracious!

If you read my previous column, you’ll recall that Brad is a farmer who read an earlier column of mine about climate change and took offense at a remark I made about “industrial agriculture” and its treatment of the soil. He emailed me to ask “... are you interested in talking to a real farmer about real issues?” meaning issues other than climate change – namely how to feed our growing global population.

We met for a good, wide-ranging conversation. But my account of that conversation in my last column ended, “in our effort to make friends, we did skirt one issue – climate change.” Thus Brad’s email on the topic, which he later apologized for, saying, “That was a little rambling.”

Au contraire.

Brad is a well-informed agronomist, with degrees in agricultural science and economics and with international and domestic farming experience. Although I’d heard some of his opinions before, he’s not just repeating drivel from a talk-show host when he speaks about climate change. I value his input because he’s thinking – but I also believe he needs more information.

What Brad the farmer and this environmentalist have in common is that we want to avert a food-security disaster. He knows how to feed a large number of people, and I don’t: my “agricultural experience” is limited to producing a few hundred pounds of food a year in my home organic garden.

Where we differ is in our understanding of how rapidly climate change is progressing and how, in my opinion and that of many agricultural specialists who have been studying the issue, it will shape agriculture – quite possibly disrupting our ability to feed many of the planet’s people. The disruption already has begun; it’s not “sometime in the future.”

Our differences must be bridged, because we need Brad and the rest of the world’s farmers to apply their skills toward mitigating and adapting to climate change if we hope to avoid the chaos – mass migrations, failed states and resource wars – that arise from enduring famine.

So where to begin?

Brad’s right: The climate has been changing for a gazillion years. But in the entire history of the Earth atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, which controls the Earth’s radiative energy balance and thus its climate, has never risen as rapidly as it has in the last 200 years. It’s not even close: CO2 concentration changes of this magnitude typically take place over thousands of years. But the energy imbalance that follows changes in CO2 concentration occurs instantaneously, and that in turn affects the climate in a matter of years or decades.

Brad’s right: Vegetables can grow in many temperature zones, but rapid changes in temperature will force farmers to change what they’re planting and when they plant. The accompanying droughts, flooding and generally unpredictable weather already are stressing the global agricultural economy, and may soon wreak real havoc.

Brads’s right: His SUV has little effect on tornadoes in Oklahoma. But farming practices – whether they store or release carbon or enhance or abuse soil – have a huge effect on climate worldwide.

So we’d love to hear from farmers about how those practices might be modified – just in case climate change turns out to be a real problem at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.