Can a Green Economy Save a Drying Planet?
And talking about drought gripping breadbasket regions, don't forget Northern California which "produces 50 percent of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables, and a majority of [US] salad, strawberries and premium wine grapes." Its agriculturally vital Central Valley, in particular, is in the third year of an already monumental drought in which the state has been forced to cut water deliveries to farms by up to 85 percent.
Observers are predicting that it may prove to be the worst drought in the history of a region "already reeling from housing foreclosures, the credit crisis, and a plunge in construction and manufacturing jobs." January, normally California's wettest month, has been wretchedly dry and the snowpack in the northern Sierra Mountains, crucial to the state's water supplies and its agricultural health, is at less than half normal levels.
Northern California, in fact, offers a glimpse of the havoc that the extreme weather conditions scientists associate with climate change could cause, especially when combined with other crises. In a Los Angeles Times interview, new Secretary of Energy Steven Chu offered an eye-popping warning (of a sort top government officials simply don't give) about what a global-warming future might hold in store for California, his home state. Interviewer Jim Tankersley summed up Chu's thoughts this way:
"California's farms and vineyards could vanish by the end of the century, and its major cities could be in jeopardy, if Americans do not act to slow the advance of global warming.... In a worst case...up to 90 percent of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture. 'I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,' [Chu] said. 'We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California.' And, he added, 'I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going' either."
As for East Africa and the Horn of Africa, under the pressure of rising temperatures, drought has become a tenacious long-term visitor. For East Africa, the drought years of 2005-2006 were particularly horrific, and now Kenya, with the region's biggest economy, a country recently wracked by political disorder and ethnic violence, is experiencing crop failures. An estimated 10 million Kenyans may face hunger, even starvation, this year in the wake of a poor harvest, lack of rainfall and rising food prices; if you include the drought-plagued Horn of Africa, 20 million people may be endangered, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Recently, climatologist David Battisti and Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment, published a study in Science magazine on the effect of extreme heat on crops. They concluded, based on recent climate models and a study of past extreme heat waves, that there was "a 90% chance that, by the end of the century, the coolest temperatures in the tropics during the crop growing season would exceed the hottest temperatures recorded between 1900 and 2006." According to the British Guardian, under such circumstances Battisti and Naylor believe "half of the world's population could face severe food shortages by the end of the century as rising temperatures take their toll on farmers' crops.... Harvests of staple food crops such as rice and maize could fall by between 20% and 40% as a result of higher temperatures during the growing season in the tropics and subtropics."
Not surprisingly, it's hard to imagine--perhaps I mean swallow--such an extreme world, and so most of us, the mainstream media included, don't bother to. That means certain potentially burning questions go not just unanswered but unasked.
The Grapes of Wrath (Updated)
Mind you, what you've read thus far represents an amateur's eye view of drought on our planet at this moment. It's hardly comprehensive. To give but one example, Afghanistan has only recently begun to emerge from an eight-year drought involving severe food shortages--and, as journalist Christian Parenti writes, it would need another "five years worth of regular snowfall just to replenish its aquifers." Parenti adds: "As snow packs in the Himalayan and Hindu Kush ranges continue to recede, the rivers flowing from them will diminish and the economic situation in all of Central Asia will deteriorate badly."
Nor is this piece meant to be authoritative, exactly because I know so relatively little. Think of it as a reflection of my own frustration with work not done elsewhere--and, by the way, thank heavens for Google University. Yes, Googling leaves you on your own, can be time-consuming, and tends to lead to culs-de-sac ("Nuggets end 17-year drought in Orlando"), but what would we do without it? Thanks to good ol' GU, anyone can, for instance, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Drought Information Center or its US Drought Monitor, or the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center and begin a self-education.