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Gregory V. Jones: Climate change, agriculture and society

The recent U.N. report on climate change highlights the same story society has been hearing for a while now — do something to be better stewards of our planet before climate change gets away from us.

Unfortunately, our collective response to previous reports has been weak at best. The question is, how will we respond to this latest U.N. report, which points to an issue scientists have been concerned with for years, a potential tipping point for our future.

It is pretty clear humanity’s interactions within the Earth’s environment have brought significant change, producing a situation in which we now face the most complex assemblage of ecological problems in our history.

Driven by population growth, and often ecologically unsustainable processes, these problems include an increasingly less predictable and stable climate and a wide range of interrelated social, environmental, and economic problems. Compounded by growing water scarcity, deforestation, species extinction, and ocean acidification, our ability to function as a species is challenged more than ever before.

Climate is at the forefront of these issues, as it presents a very complex, highly variable and pervasive factor in our natural Earth and human-based systems. From controlling vegetation patterns and geological weathering characteristics to influencing water resources and agricultural productivity, climate is at the heart of the delicate equilibrium that exists on Earth.

Guest Writer

Gregory V. Jones serves as a professor, a research climatologist and the director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College. He specializes in the study of climate structure and suitability for viticulture, and how climate variability and change influence grapevine growth, grape quality and wine production. He conducts applied research for the grape and wine industry in winegrowing regions worldwide. He has published numerous book chapters, reports and articles on climate and wine-related research.

While it is clear from historical evidence that changing climates are a part of the Earth’s natural adjustments to both internal and external forces (e.g., volcanic eruptions and solar variability), more and more evidence is pointing to increasing human impacts. Processes such as desertification, deforestation and urbanization, by which the global energy balance is disrupted, and changes in atmospheric composition, which enhance the greenhouse effect beyond its natural equilibrium, demonstrate that our role in changing the climate is increasing.

As a climatologist, I have been a part of the scientific community looking at issues and impacts with climate change for more than 25 years. My focus has been in examining trends and impacts in agriculture, particularly when it comes to viticulture and wine production.

In my research career, it has become clear that agriculture probably represents one of the most intricate aspects of human environment interaction. We need increasingly more productive systems to feed our growing population, yet aspects of doing so have, and will likely continue to, exacerbate the problems.
As such, agriculture plays a role in producing some of our challenges. But more importantly, it has been increasingly asked to develop sustainable practices that reduce our vulnerability and increase our adaptive capacity in the face of global change.

I think it is clear to all that agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Our crop systems have been optimized to fit a given climate niche, allowing for economically sustainable quality and production.

These climatic niches range from fairly broad conditions suitable for crops, such as wheat, corn, rice and soybeans to narrower conditions suitable for specialty crops, such as coffee, avocados, cacao, pineapples and winegrapes.

Potential agricultural responses to changing climates reflect the interactions between temperature, water availability and timing, increasing soil salinity and nutrient stresses, and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations. As such, understanding agricultural impacts from climate change requires integrated information and research examining the combined effects of these and other factors.

Living in Oregon should make all of us proud of our agricultural diversity and strengths. The state is a top-five producer nationally in numerous crops, including hazelnuts, Christmas trees, pears, rhubarb, onions, sweet cherries, hops, nursery stock and many types of berries, grass seed, mint and, of course, winegrapes. As such, much of our state’s agriculture is

devoted to specialty crops, which have relatively narrow climate niches for optimum quality and production. This is especially true for winegrapes.

But first, I think it is important to understand that Oregon’s climate has not always been as conducive to growing grapes for wine production.

Back in the 1960s, when the early pioneers planted grapevines in Oregon, they did so in a marginal climate for winegrapes — one much cooler than it is today. Fast forwarding to today, trends to warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons, along with improved plant material, a greater understanding of our soils and greater collective experience have together increased the suitability and viability of our wine industry tremendously.

Returning to the report from the U.N. scientific panel on climate change, it paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought. It says avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale having no precedent.

The report points to the need for potential transitions in a range of different systems we have developed — energy systems, transport systems and food supply systems. These transitions include actions and policies relating to climate change that fall into three broad categories of risk management:

We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, an approach that is called mitigation. Reducing emissions is somewhat like preventing disease — exercise, eat well and don’t smoke. But we know we are challenged to follow our doctor’s — or in this case, scientist’s — orders.

We could increase society’s capacity to cope with changes in climate, which is called adaptation. Adaptation is more like managing illness — take medicine to cope with symptoms and alleviate problems. We tend to follow this path more readily. However, medication or adaptation costs continually rise, making it difficult to stay on track.

We could deliberately manipulate the Earth system in ways that might counteract at least some of the effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. That kind of intervention is typically called geo-engineering or climate engineering. Geo-engineering is somewhat like organ transplantation — best avoided if at all possible, but potentially better than nothing. Of course, not all transplant or geo-engineering options are possible, long-lasting or free of adverse impacts.

I believe we could expand our knowledge base in ways that help us better understand the climate system, our sensitivity to climate change and the other three risk-management strategies, which would clearly be more pro-active.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the three pro-active risk-management options are not mutually exclusive. We should simultaneously mitigate, adapt and geo-engineer in a range of combinations. In other words, comprehensive climate change risk management almost certainly includes a combination of solutions drawn from all three strategies.

I certainly do not have all the answers. But I do believe the climate science community can provide insights into impacts and help integrate the risk-management options of mitigation, adaptation and geo-engineering in a range of combinations and solutions.

We just have to listen, because regardless of who or what is at fault, wouldn’t it be prudent for us to be better stewards of our planet and its atmosphere?

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