Climate Change, Crop Catastrophe

California papers ignore the agricultural consequences of climate change

California’s awful fiscal and economic crises—$24 billion budget shortfall, fifth highest level of unemployment in the nation—have been much in the press lately. A common theme of the coverage is California’s economic resiliency—things may be nasty now, but the state still has plenty going for it: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, tourism, an excellent public university system.

But one important story, about an endemic and potentially catastrophic problem, has been all but ignored by the media. In testimony before a Senate committee on Thursday, Heather Cooley, of the Pacific Institute, explained to lawmakers that agriculture accounts for up to 70 percent of the nation’s freshwater usage, and that “impacts of climate change on water resources will have major consequences for agriculture.”

California is now in its third year of drought, and in February, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen [due to unchecked climate change]. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going,” either.

Chu was referring to studies projecting that, by mid-century, the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountain range—melt-water from which constitutes the largest single source of water in the state—will be halved; by 2100, it will be almost completely gone. At the time, The Observatory chided Chu for being overemphatic, and in the process providing material for a derisive column by pundit George Will.

And yet Chu’s basic point is well taken. California is likely the most bountiful agricultural region in the world, and farming accounts for nearly one out of every ten jobs statewide. Without water, agricultural production will steadily disappear wherever crop irrigation is prevalent; unfortunately, that means most of the Central Valley, where nearly half of the nation’s produce is grown. And that’s not all: the state’s rich soil and mild climate nurture many high value, delicate horticultural crops likely to be very sensitive to the sharp temperature and weather swings projected to increase in coming decades.

Most of California’s major newspapers have covered the potential for agricultural disruptions as climate change intensifies. Some stories have been exemplary, including a long feature on wine by Betsy Mason in the Contra Costa Times. But these stories have been occasional and mostly narrow in scope, tending to come only in response to the publication of new research. Often, dramatic and easily assessable new reports—such as this one—will pass either without notice, or with a rundown from the AP. Few papers, if any, have attempted comprehensive stories on the agricultural conseqences of climate change.

This dearth in coverage is partly understandable. The potential effects of heightened atmospheric CO2 on the efficacy of the herbicide glyphosate don’t necessarily make for sexy reading. Moreover, while a great deal of research has been conducted on ways the greenhouse effect may alter the production of global cereal crops (rice, wheat, corn), the same is not true for horticulture (fruit, vegetables, nuts, and flowers), which, along with livestock and dairy, comprises the bulk of California’s agricultural output. And then there’s the fact that California is home to many distinct microclimates, and that shifting weather patterns and increased CO2 concentration may harm some crops while benefiting others.

But those complexities aside, there’s still plenty of research for reporters to draw on, little question among experts that climate change is going to seriously disrupt farming in California, and growing attention to the problem in Washington (including last Thursday’s Senate hearing on the matter, which went largely unnoticed by the Californian media). And there’s political drama, too. Battles to control water, of the inter-state and intra-state varieties, are a fact of life in the Western U.S. But circumstances are conspiring to produce conflict on an unprecedented scale.

In California, the population is projected to increase from 37 million people to nearly 50 million by 2040, with the growth concentrated in urban areas. As the Christian Science Monitor recently noted, the California agriculture lobby wields enormous power in Sacramento, but it will be hard-pressed to keep agriculture water rates down as the state’s urban population expands and climate change-induced drought spreads and intensifies.

That Stephen Chu chose to use California agriculture to illustrate a point about the lack of urgency with which many Americans view climate change was partly a consequence of his interlocutor: a reporter from California’s largest newspaper. Nevertheless, California is the nation’s number one agricultural producer, and climate change appears poised to seriously decrease crop yields from Napa to the Central Valley. Chu, despite his perhaps overemphatic rhetoric, understands the import of this story; so far, the California press corps doesn’t seem to be endowed with a similar clarity.

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Sam Kornell wrote last September about climate change and California agriculture for the Santa Barbara Independent, where he is a former editor.