More Droughts Will Hurt Agriculture

As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee begins hearing testimony this week in preparation for drawing up climate change legislation, “Billion Dollar U.S. Weather Disasters,” put together by the National Climatic Data Center, is a good place to start when considering the costs of inaction on global warming. It’s a catalog of 90 costly weather-related disasters dating back to 1980 including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, and droughts. Farmers and those in the agriculture economy have a lot to lose if these trends continue—particularly when it comes to drought and water shortages.

The House’s narrow approval of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 on June 26 came only after House leaders satisfied some of the concerns of farm state lawmakers. Senators, too, will be sensitive to those interests, so it is critical they understand some of the stakes for agriculture if Congress fails to pass comprehensive clean-energy jobs and climate legislation.

Extreme weather events, on the rise in recent decades, “are among the most serious challenges to our nation in coping with a changing climate,” according to a recently released government report on climate change impacts. The report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” provides an exhaustive look at what the United States can expect if nothing is done to combat global warming. The predicted effects on agriculture are complex and vary by crop and region—some beneficial, many not—but the overall conclusion is that climate changes “are likely to increasingly challenge U.S. capacity to as efficiently produce food, feed, fuel, and livestock products.”

Drought and changes in water supply will be one of the main challenges. Over the last half century, the report says, droughts associated with rising temperatures have become more frequent in much of the Southeast and Western regions of the country. That trend is expected to continue. “In the future, droughts are likely to become more frequent and severe,” particularly in the Southwest, according to the report.

But other parts of the country won’t be immune. The report notes that current models may underestimate the scale of climate changes to come, including rapid shifts “within as short a period as a decade.” One example cited is abrupt shifts in the frequency and duration of droughts:

“Ancient climate records suggest that in the United States, the Southwest may be at greatest risk for this kind of change, but that other regions including the Midwest and Great Plains have also had these kinds of abrupt shifts in the past and could experience them again in the future.”

Water shortages will likely affect a whole range of critical economic sectors, from limiting electricity production by nuclear and coal-fired power plants that have high water demands to increasing shipping costs on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River—as happened in 1988 when a drought stranded 4,000 barges on America’s most important commercial waterway. Drier conditions in the West will also increase the extent and cost of wildfires, which have already soared in the last decade.

The National Climatic Data Center’s list is a reminder of just how costly and disruptive big droughts can be:

  • A severe drought with extreme heat across the Great Plains and the East in 2007 brought some $5 billion in damages and costs. Wildfires in the West that same year cost more than $1 billion.
  • Widespread drought in 2006 affected the Great Plains, the south, and the far west, costing about $6 billion.
  • A broad drought in 2002 cost $10 billion, affecting large parts of 30 states from the West to the Great Plains and much of the East. Western wildfires associated with the drought cost $2 billion.
  • A drought and heat wave in 2000 centered on the south central and southeastern United States caused 140 deaths and cost $4 billion.
  • An eastern drought and heat wave in 1999 brought “extensive agricultural losses” of more than $1 billion and cost 502 lives.
  • “Very severe losses to agriculture and related industries” accompanied a 1988 drought affecting the central and eastern U.S. with estimated costs of $40 billion and 5,000 to 10,000 deaths.

These events and their impacts are not abstractions. They are costly, disruptive, and affect millions of Americans, including many who make their living raising food and livestock. Few lobbyists for these interests will mention these costly impacts to our already challenged rural economies.

Senators have a responsibility to protect farmers from more and worse droughts even if their hired guns don’t. Prompt action on a comprehensive global warming bill is essential to reduce the risks from costly droughts. Senate members should not ignore the lessons mentioned above as they grapple with climate change legislation in coming weeks.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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