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Farmers should fear climate change

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer and writer

(Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- As the temperature reaches into the thirties for the umpteenth day in a row, and the sweat rolls off my forehead onto the computer keyboard, it seems a good time to examine the issue of global warming. While there is a lot of controversy over the subject in some circles, it is much easier to believe in it while half the world swelters under an extraordinary heat wave. And if we think it's hot on the Canadian prairies, consider France where the hot weather has claimed 3,000 lives.

Heat waves are not unusual of course, but no one around here can remember a spell this intense or long lasting. As a matter of fact, no one can remember a growing season with so little rain either. Those who believe global climate change is upon us will point to this as sure evidence for their view. Those on the other side of the argument will say that you can't argue with certainty that the climate is changing from the evidence of a few years.

Both statements are true of course. The fact that the last decade has had eight or nine of the hottest years in weather recording history is evidence that the climate is heating up. It is evidence, but it is not proof, so the naysayers are also correct. With only 150 years of weather records, not much is certain.

But there is irrefutable evidence that human activity is causing major changes. Scientists have examined Arctic ice cores that date back 420,000 years. These show that the amounts of two greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, methane and carbon dioxide, have risen in the last century to levels that are unprecedented. Methane had never exceeded 750 parts per billion in that 420,000 year period. Today, it is at 1,700 parts per billion.

There are other measurable changes. Prairie growing seasons have lengthened by 12 days since 1960. The Arctic ice cap is only half as thick as it was in 1970, and has shrunk in summer area by 40 percent. A further result is a rise in sea levels near the equator by 20 centimeters since 1980. There are still a few scientists that will argue there is little evidence of human-caused climate change, but not very many.

Most governments around the world accept that humans have altered the climate. Hence the Kyoto Accord that is supposed to do something about it. The problem seems to be that, doing something usually means impacting the lifestyles of the world largest energy consumers and that is where the brick wall is encountered. That explains, for example, why American President George Bush can look straight into the camera and deny that the climate is changing. It seems that one's views of the science of climate change are mostly determined by the perceived economic impact.

Farmers have been equally prone to adopting the Bush attitude. Letters in newspapers still appear denouncing Kyoto as a greenie subversive plot. The odd thing is that some farmers appear to fear efforts to halt climate change more than they fear climate change itself. For the prairies, climate change models predict that the weather of the last few years will become more and more frequent. If that is true, areas that currently sustain annual cropping will become dry grasslands and some dry grasslands, like those in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, will become deserts. While precipitation may increase somewhat in some areas, temperature increases will mean less available moisture over all.

The result will be severe damage to the economies of these regions. Production will decrease, populations fall even further, land values will decline dramatically, and the hated grasshoppers will become a more permanent feature. Milder winters will mean new insect pests and diseases will invade. The entire ecosystem will change, not just plants and trees, but also insects, animals birds and diseases. While new crop varieties and techniques may counter this to some extent, you can't grow crops on the 0.3 inches of rain we received since ours were planted in the spring.

The evidence for ecosystem change is already all around us. Ask the farmers in northern Saskatchewan who have never before encountered the plague of grasshoppers they now have to contend with, or Inuit in the high Arctic who now see robins in the spring.

Given this, it seems apparent that farmers and the prairie economy should fear climate change a great deal more than they fear the cost of working to halt it. When we are bombarded by politicians and industry with the potential costs of reducing energy consumption and using less fossil fuels, we should also consider the economic costs that climate change is bringing and will bring. Farmers, more than anyone, should be aware of and concerned about this.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone, 868-2009 fax