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Monday, March 06, 2017

A modern Dust Bowl would be just as devastating as the original (or, What kind of emergency will it take?)

by Gaius Publius

I'm presenting this for a different reason than the obvious one. It's not actually a shock-people-into-climate-awareness piece. That's just the set-up. What's my actual point? Read on (or click here to jump to it).

A recent study at the University of Chicago took a look at the drought (actually, droughts plural) during the legendary and destructive Dust Bowl of the 1930s and applied those conditions to U.S. agriculture today. They expected to find U.S. farming systems to be much more resilient.

They didn't. A modern Dust Bowl would have the same destructive force on U.S. food production (and the economy) as the original one did.

From Phys.org (my emphasis):
Dust Bowl would devastate today's crops, study finds

A drought on the scale of the legendary Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s would have similarly destructive effects on U.S. agriculture today, despite technological and agricultural advances, a new study finds. Additionally, warming temperatures could lead to crop losses at the scale of the Dust Bowl, even in normal precipitation years by the mid-21st century, UChicago scientists conclude.

The study, published Dec. 12 in Nature Plants, simulated the effect of from the Dust Bowl era on today's maize, soy and wheat crops. Authors Michael Glotter and Joshua Elliott of the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy at the Computation Institute, examined whether modern agricultural innovations would protect against history repeating itself under similar conditions.

"We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States, and because we've abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and west Texas," said Elliott, a fellow and research scientist at the center and the Computation Institute. "But we found the opposite: The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s."

The severe damage of the Dust Bowl was actually caused by three distinct droughts in quick succession, occurring in 1930-31, 1933-34 and 1936. From 1933 to 1939, wheat yields declined by double-digit percentages, reaching a peak loss of 32 percent in 1933. The economic and societal consequences were vast, eroding land value throughout the Great Plains states and displacing millions of people.

In the eight decades since that crisis, agricultural practices have changed dramatically. But many technological and geographical shifts were intended to optimize instead of resilience to severe weather, leaving many staple crops vulnerable to seasons of unusually low precipitation and/or high temperatures.

As a result, when the researchers simulated the effects of the 1936 drought upon today's agriculture, they still observed roughly 40 percent losses in maize and soy yield, while declined by 30 percent. The harm would be 50 percent worse than the 2012 drought, which caused nearly $100 billion of damage to the U.S. economy.
There's more in the piece, but you get the point. Note the idea above that these effects won't be felt until "the mid-21st century" — in other words, after the current crop of citizens is dead. Don't believe it. Everything's happening way faster than anyone is willing to predict. If this tragedy is allowed to occur, most of us will see it.

But is it the right kind of emergency?

At this point, I usually ask, "Is it an emergency yet?" (That's still a valid question, since it doesn't look like we're stopping our carbon emissions any time soon, and under President Trump, we'll accelerate the already deadly pace.)

This time, though, I'd like to offer a different thought, something related to the "Easter Island solution" I sometimes propose. That solution goes like this:
You're a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried.

At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, "Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now." The chief, who's also the CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.

Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?

There's always a choice ...
What would it take for enough of our nation's "villagers" to get upset enough to "depose the chief" this time, just like they did during the Great Depression? Would regional devastation (with, of course, no lives lost; we always stipulate that) — something like a Haiyan-style hurricane sweeping through Florida, for example — wake people up nationally... get us to react as a nation? Or would we treat a Florida storm, no matter how severe, as a Florida problem with a Beltway (FEMA) solution?

In other words, what would actually wake up (freak out) this nation as a nation, to create a national mandate for radical change and radical solutions to the climate problem? What would it take for the nation to rise up and, yes, "depose the chief" — in the earlier case, President Hoover; in the latter case, President Trump? Because it will certainly take a national mandate to create the national Congress and a committed-to-an-emergency-solution the situation requires.

(And yes, I'm ignoring for now the timing, though that's important. If you're going to freak out effectively, best to freak out before there's nothing but air beneath you.)

When it comes to panic, timing counts. His came a little too late.

I've pondered this question for a while, and I offer it as an exercise to you as well. What kind of emergency will do the job nationally?

In the 1930s, of course, it was the Dust Bowl, more so perhaps than the factory closures, bank closures and the mortgage foreclosures, though those were national events as well. It's now the 21st century. Factory closures and the mortgage foreclosures have panicked the nation into trying Donald Trump on for size — but not with respect to climate. We're still at ground zero, implementing "business as usual" policies on the climate issue, just as President Hoover did during the economic crisis of the 30s.

But a permanent 30-to-40 percent drop in U.S. crop yield — what would that do? Would it get the nation's attention? It would certainly get mine, no matter where in the U.S. I lived. After all, we're all the market for food, more or less daily.

Consider the alternative

Before you ask, "But hey, isn't that cruel, that kind of thinking?" please consider the alternative. On the one hand, this generation wakes up — admittedly in a panic, but that's not bad — and suddenly does the most it can do as fast as it can do it to fix the climate problem. Which means the climate problem has a chance to more or less stay fixed — admittedly with some loss in global livability, but not a total loss — for a thousand years.

Or ... this generation lives in relative comfort (it hopes) for another ten years or so, and then the long, crushing, angry, deadly march back to the Stone Age begins, in full view of everyone in the world.

The making of stone tools began more than three million years ago. Before that our ancestors, those in our species line, hunted and lived using found objects only.

The Stone Age ended with the smelting of ore, about 6000 years ago at the earliest. That's the span of time — more than three million years — our ancestors lived using stone tools only. Three million years in the Stone Age. It's so long that it's divided into parts, and its parts are divided into parts.

If human civilization devolves to the Stone Age again — and we survive without an extinction event — we  could be there, chipping stone, having forgotten everything we think we call "knowledge" today, for a very long time.

So when we're weighing our preferred event sequences — a timely, uncomfortable-but-head-clearing "climate event" today ... vs. at most ten years of comfort (meaning, no one acts in any effective way), then a rapid, deadly collapse and millions of years living as stone-tool, skin-wearing animals, hunters and scavengers, smelling like the great unwashed, for millennia ... let's consider what we're actually choosing, which outcome we'd actually find preferable.

Me, I'd much prefer that people figure it out today (not tomorrow, today) and act like it's already urgent, with no painful nudging needed. If I had to guess, though, I don't think that's in the cards. Yet we do need a wake-up moment, relatively soon. Do you have a better pick for what would do it?

Just a thought.

(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)