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Farming in a New Climate Reality with Mark Howden of the IPCC

In October, the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a stunning Special Report on Climate Change. The study found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, we will face devastating consequences across all sectors by 2040, much earlier than previously thought. The IPCC is “the single largest science-policy experiment in history” according to Professor Mark Howden, a Vice Chair of the IPCC and Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. We talk with Mark about the report’s findings, the politics of climate change in the U.S., and how farmers need to adapt to a new reality.


Episode Transcript

Lindsey Lusher Shute:                 This is the Young Farmers podcast, I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute. On October 8th, the intergovernmental panel on climate change released a stunning report. They found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, we will see major climate impacts, food shortages, extreme weather, coastal flooding all by the year 2040. This is a lot earlier than predicted in other reports and is in many of our lifetimes. The report called on governments to transform the world economy and quickly. Today I’m speaking with Mark Howden, Mark is the director of the climate change institute at the Australian National University and vice chair on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. We talk about the report’s findings, the politicalization of climate change in the US and how farmers need to adapt to a new reality.

Hannah Bernhardt:                Hi, I’m Hannah Bernhardt, livestock farmer at Medicine Creek Farm in Minnesota. I’ve been a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition since 2011 because I believe young farmers voices in Washington are essential to changing our broken food system. For $35 a year you can join too. In addition to being a part of a bright and just future for agriculture, you’ll also get discounts like 25% off, Farm to Feet, American made wool socks and 10% off at Premier1, a discount that has saved me hundreds of dollars on the best quality electranet fencing and solar chargers. To join go to

Mark Howden:                       My name is Professor Mark Howden. I’m the director of the Climate Change Institute at ANU, which is the Australian National University and I’m also vice chair on the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Lindsey:                 What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

Mark:                       Well, as the name indicates, that actually is a governmental organization, so it’s owned by the governments but not by the scientists. However, both parties actually think that they own the organization, which is one of the intriguing things about the whole thing, but it was set up in 1988. It’s effectively a UN organization and it’s been running continuously since then. It’s the single largest science policy experiment in history and I think it’s an extremely successful one.

Lindsey:                 And in 1988 when the IPCC was set up, what was, what was the purpose of the organization there? I mean, there was evidence at that point that, that the climate was changing but the understanding certainly has, has changed between now and now and then.

Mark:                       When it was set up, it was rather than evidence that climate was changing. I think the main driver was evidence that’s carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, were increasing. So it was actually much more forward looking. Now, of course that’s still the case, but what we’ve seen in the intervening years is accumulating evidence that the climate is changing and it’s having impacts and people and institutions and nature are adapting to that.

Lindsey:                 So this most recent report, why was that report commissioned to look at this one point five degrees of warming as opposed to, two, can you give a bit of history and context to why this was released?

Mark:                       Sure. This was essentially an outcome of the Paris Agreement. And so in the Paris Agreement, governments I think went into that agreement generally saying let’s set a target for two degrees Celsius or below two degrees Celsius. And that was because the science community taking its cue from governments to some extent had actually focused many of the impact studies on two degrees. So when those negotiations happened due in part to the activities of the small island states who rightly were concerned that the consequences of two degrees, particularly in terms of sea level rise, they said let’s aim for one point five, or at least have an aspirational goal of one point five degrees. And of course there wasn’t much evidence there to support that goal in the sense of can we get to one point five degrees in terms of keeping our emissions down. And then what are the impacts of one point five degrees versus two versus three or four degrees. And so effectively that policy decision of Paris Agreement, the two temperature targets two degrees or well below two degrees. And then I’m an aspirational target of one point five degrees, weren’t effectively based on an evidence sit from the science community. So what they then asked was, hey, scientists, please tell us what are the pathways to one point five degrees and what are the benefits from staying at one point five versus two. And so the science community had to effectively generate that whole set of literature specifically for that special report that just came out.

Lindsey:                 And in Paris the new agreement that was set was two degrees, correct?

Mark:                       Yeah. So the formal Paris Agreement is well below two degrees. That’s the main target.

Lindsey:                 Two degrees sort of being the outside warming target. I see. And so what were the findings of this report?

Mark:                       In a sense the main finding is that we are, we’re racing towards the one point five degree target, you know, incredibly quickly with at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve only got 10 to 14 years before we’ve used up all of what we call our carbon budget, all of the carbon dioxide emissions we can emit, but still stay below one point five degrees. So in a economic sense, you know the, the speed of a turnaround to go from where we are now in terms of emissions down to effectively zero after 14 years is massive. One of the key messages, there’s an urgency in terms of action if we are to keep temperatures down to one point five or even two degrees. There was also messages saying if we took action, now we can have in a sense a longer slower glide path down to net zero emissions where we need to be in several decades.

Mark:                       Then if we keep on emitting at the current rate, so the more we emit now the faster and harder a decline in emissions has to be and acting early gives you much better outcomes in terms of the environment as well as economically. The other surprises I think were the scale of differences between one point five degrees impacts and two degrees impacts and what it turns out is that there’s actually quite a difference in many different ways between impacts at one point five and the impacts at two. So for example, coral reefs are seriously damaged at one point five, but they’re almost totally extinct to drought conditions and fire conditions across the globe. Seriously increased in terms of risk at two degrees. Water shortages effectively double for exposed populations at two degrees versus one point five. Biodiversity risks are massively higher at two degrees than at one point five and the list goes on.

Lindsey:                 When you’re saying one point five degrees, how do you describe that number, in Layman’s terms, what is one point five degrees?

Mark:                       Okay, so. What does that, what does that mean? Yeah, it’s one point five degrees above the preindustrial baseline is how it’s defined in the Paris Agreement. And so we have measurements of different types going back some hundreds of years, 150 years and that allows us to say with some degree of certainty what the temperature was between 1850 and 1900, which is what we call the preindustrial baseline. The one point five or two is the temperature above preindustrial.

Lindsey:                 And this is a global average temperature?

Mark:                       That’s a global average temperature. But one point five doesn’t or two degrees doesn’t sound very much on a day to day basis. But in a, in a global temperature sense two degrees is huge. So for example, the difference between our historical temperatures and the temperature at the last ice age is about five degrees. So that, you know, the ice age, which had whole of North America covered with ice and glaciers and stuff, well as in Canada and the northern parts of the US, was only five degrees Celsius or colder than a historical temperature. So it doesn’t sound very much, but in fact it makes a huge difference at a global scale.

Lindsey:                 And we’re already at one degree higher than preindustrial levels. So this is point five degrees?

Mark:                       point five degrees more, that’s right. What the report also showed very clearly that humans are, by far the big cause of any climate changes we’re seeing. In effect, I did a study a couple of years ago which showed there’s less than a one in 100,000 chance that the temperature increases we’re seeing aren’t due to human influence.

Lindsey:                 Yes. Well that’s a, that’s the message that is difficult to get through unfortunately to some of our lawmakers here, here in the US, the understanding of human influence and climate change globally. Clearly it, it seems in the international community, there’s, there’s broad acceptance of this. Is there a sense of what percent of the world’s population understands the impact that they’re having on the environment and climate change?

Mark:                       Oh yeah. There’s lots of studies on that. And um, and broadly what the studies show is that the US is a gross outlier compared with all equivalent nations in the sense of, you know, the G20 and OACD countries, but the US has a distinct outlier on that in terms of polarization of perspectives. And you know, in the politicization, so not everywhere has the same issues and I can go and talk to a farmer in Sri Lanka or in Kenya and they acknowledged climate is changing. I can go and talk to a business person in India and how say the climate is changing.

Lindsey:                 So specific to food and agriculture, which is of course of great interest to our listenership and our, and our membership of young farmers. Tell me about the impacts for agriculture first at, at one point five degrees warming, what were the findings of the special report?

Mark:                       The implications are very different in different places,so very different issues depending on where you are and what you do. So different implications for crop farmers versus graziers and etc. So there’s different nuances depending on your activity, but broadly as the picture is that in the tropics and the equatorial regions that there prospects for much higher rainfall in most cases. But these are in many situations, environments where there’s plenty of rain anyway. So in effect, more rain just actually causes problems as you move into the subtropics, the rainfall situation tends to be sometimes about even, so this is sort of southern Texas type latitudes, Florida type latitudes, but you’re still getting a lot more temperature increase and so the prospects are particularly for periodic droughts to increase significantly, again, heat stress in livestock and an increased risk for crop activities. So depending on where you are in a latitudinal sense in going from the equator to the Arctic, you can get very different issues and very different impacts and hence very different responses in terms of climate change.

Lindsey:                 And what are some of the presumed impacts for food security, global food security with these changes?

Mark:                       The picture is for many countries which already have food issues, those are going to get worse but for those countries like your country in our country, which generally have food surpluses, it’s actually probably going to get better. So inequality in terms of food distribution versus food consumption is likely to increase over time. And on average prices are going to be higher for most food stuffs than they have been historically, you know, allowing for population growth and economic growth, et cetera. So within, without climate change, your prices tend to be higher. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because you know farmers the world over actually, confronted with issues of low price and many cases, you know, people are operating close at the margins, so higher prices, are a good, but the volatility that comes with that’s a bad.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, certainly the volatility of a given season, that is something that I hear from farmers that they perceive as an increasing with whether that’s a severe storm, certainly our farmers in the southwest are dealing with extreme drought, but it’s, you know, I think everyone is hesitant to say, Is this, is this it, right? Is this climate change here, this storm? But certainly it seems extreme, like extreme storms are something that we are seeing on the increase, in the US is, is that something that the climate models are pointing to as, as one of the expected impacts?

Mark:                       Absolutely. And I’ve been saying that for decades now. And so one of the key messages is a climate variability is likely to increase the impact of that when you translate it through agricultural system, so through a cropping system or a grazing system get magnified. So the, you know, the bad end of the spectrum, you know, tends to get worse and the good end of the spectrum or the, you know, that say the dry end, you’re getting more dry conditions and more wet conditions at the same time. So you variability increases and we’re seeing that in many cases around the world already. So that increase in variability and increase in risk is a big part of how climate change is likely to play out.

Lindsey:                 What are some of the most important adaptation techniques to keep our farmers going in the face of climate change?

Mark:                       That’s a great question. So the answer is, it depends on what farmers goals are, but broadly you can characterize adaptation options across the spectrum, from what we call incremental changes, which just changes to the existing system like tweaking the existing system through to transformational changes, which are really major changes in your operation. So fundamental changes in what you farm for like you know, going from a grain farmer to a livestock farmer or from a grain farmer to an energy farmer, so solar panels and wind towers on your farm and many of the incremental options are ones which we already know well, things like zero tillage and cropping systems, if you’re not taking that change on board, you’re probably foregoing profits and incurring unnecessary risk.

Lindsey:                 One of the things that was interesting to me in this report is sort of this tension between the new technology we need and the new genetic engineering perhaps even when it comes to seed varieties and the like and also the indigenous knowledge that is critical for adaptation. How do those two things come together? Right? In this modern world, there’s all these lessons that we should have learned like a thousand years ago. Yet there are new things like CRISPR that are like at the frontier of what might be possible or necessary in a dramatically different climate.

Mark:                       Yeah, that’s a great, great question. Look, again, it’s very different depending on your value systems on where you live. So genetic modification seems to be quite par for the course in places like the US and a few others. But if you go to Europe, it’s a no no. It strikes me that we have a lot of room to move using new technologies and it doesn’t have to be, you know, the full GM, you know, so there’s lots of rapid breeding technologies we can use these days which don’t go into that contested space. And we should be using those where we can. So, for example, in the U.S., you’ve got an agricultural scientist called Lewis Ziska who works in USDA and he’s worked for a long time on the effect of carbon dioxide on our cropping systems particularly. And his analysis is that the crops that we’ve been developing across the globe, I have not been optimized to take advantage of the free ride that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere provides crops and so we haven’t been breeding for increased carbon dioxide.

Mark:                       And if we had been breeding for that, we’d probably be five or eight percent better in terms of yield. In terms of indigenous knowledge, that’s a really interesting space and you get very different views depending on different people. Clearly in many circumstances indigenous people, particularly through oral histories have a much longer period of observation of climate variability and they’ve probably been exposed to much more the full range of possible climate variations that occur in any given place. And that gives a perspective on climate variation, which our recorded history, which goes back to about 150 years just doesn’t have. So I think when we, when we do engage in a sense conventional science with traditional knowledge and science related to traditional knowledge, we need to think critically about really thinking hard about what the value proposition is and what the underlying values and goals are, which, which have supported by those different types of knowledge.

Lindsey:                 In consideration of adaptation, there were a couple of things that also stood out to me and one is discussion of irrigation and the report talks about the need for using, you know, drip irrigation and lining ditches and that type of thing to promote irrigation efficiency. But then it also says it could be maladaptive in the long term because I guess a system is there’s a lot of investment in that given system and then it might be hard to change in the future. I wonder if you could speak to that, like how, it’s like we need these, we need these big infrastructure shifts. They are just required and necessary in many places. But for farming, it seems like we perhaps need something that’s more agile to cope with what’s to come.

Mark:                       Yeah, that’s again, really great point. So if we look across that spectrum from incremental to transformational, sitting somewhere in the middle often is, you know, adoption of irrigation or partial irrigation in farms. And I think what we’ll see in the future is a lot more, as you say, flexibility, but your point about sometimes that increases your sensitivity or susceptibility to climate variation is really well made. So if we look at our riced based industry, which we grow rice in our semi arid areas, similar to say Arizona I guess, and that relies on large scale dam systems and irrigation delivery systems. And the whole point of having irrigated rice in semi arid areas is that the irrigation systems and dams effectively reduce your risk. You know, on the surface that’s a great risk management, climate risk management proposition, you remove entirely your climate risk.

Mark:                       But the problem then comes in if you get a really extensive drought, which simply wasn’t planned for, when people were designing those dam and irrigation systems and all of a sudden what was guaranteed heaps of water just disappears. And this happened for our rice industry in Australia where historically it’s always had 100 percent water allocation. And then along came the millennium drought around the turn of the century and a water allocation to rice disappeared and the whole industry just collapsed. It just went from, you know, a huge amount of rice production to zero, effectively zero in just a couple of years. And so the industry was left, you know, incredibly stranded by that because it was way outside any planning scenario. And so in that sense, we can become over reliant on big irrigation systems and particularly where you’re drawing on groundwater that’s not rapidly replaced in a way you’ve got fossil groundwater.

Mark:                       So the way we’ve dealt with that in Australia is we’ve introduced a water pricing and water trading. So we price water so people have to pay for water. So it’s not a free good anymore. We allow people to trade water and water licenses either on a temporary basis or on a permanent basis. And what that does is it gets placed at the point of highest value. So the people who are making the most dollars out of any given mega liter of water, or you call them acre feet of water, but in any given amount of water, the water will end up at the person who’s actually making the best use of that. And so economically, even though water may become more constrained, you can actually maintain or even increase your regional agricultural production. And that’s what happened in the millennium drought, is that water allocations ended up at the highest value use. And the impacts of a massive drought actually were relatively limited economically across the region. But obviously very impactful on individual farmers.

Lindsey:                 You know, I wonder so in the southwest where and, western United States overall, this is a major topic of discussion is you know, who gets the water and it’s allocated by rights and seniority so to speak. I would worry with a system based on water pricing that you would have two potential poor scenarios. One would be that cities would be able to out compete, a farmer or you would have like just within the agricultural industries, much more scaled operations that might not support other goals of a community in one way or another, being able to purchase more water than like a smaller scale producer. Are there ways to manage both of those issues within the Australian pricing system?

Mark:                       Oh, of course. And so city users can pay a lot more for water then say in the irrigated rye grass pasture growing in a dairy farmer and that’s large, you know, it’s 10 to 100 times more and so you have disparate abilities to purchase water. And so it’s relatively straightforward, so in Australia we have water which is essentially allocated and purchased for environmental use. And because it’s a water market, there is actually an environmental purchaser, which is like a public entity and that can buy water on the market. So if the water is cheap on the market, it can buy water and stored in a dam so it can actually be released for environmental flows. So you can have market based mechanisms operating within the cities. And similarly within your agriculture you can have a high security uses and medium security uses and low security uses. And so high security water has a higher value obviously because you can get access in dry times. So there’s lots of very straightforward policy mechanisms to deal with some of those equity issues. It doesn’t deal with all of them. So, you’re talking about small farmer versus big farmer issues and you may want to have, if that’s an important thing in the region, you might want to have additional layers of policy.

Lindsey:                 Speaking of manageable from a policy perspective, we, the US, as you likely know just in the last week, released a report on specific impacts of climate change here. And President Trump says that he “doesn’t believe that report”. So we have this unique situation of a president denying the research and reporting of his own administration. Do you find that your work and science is facing more adversity and political push back than it has in the past? You mentioned earlier that the U.S. Is an outlier in terms of our acceptance of the human impacts of climate change. But are the trends that we’re seeing here in the United States, are they reflected elsewhere in the polarization of this issue?

Mark:                       Yeah. So I was actually on the Federal Advisory Committee for the third climate assessment in the US. And so I’ve got a history, for me is the test of that report is not whether the White House likes it or not, but it’s whether the public in the US and the industry sectors in the US actually take on board the messages and that’s the test. It’s not with the White House likes it or not. In terms of public acceptance at the moment in Australia we’ve got a strange situation where our government seems to be quite out of step with public views on climate change. So in Australia, between that 75 percent and 84 percent of the population when surveyed, say they want more action on climate change, that the vast majority of Australians see climate change, there’s a big pressing issue like immediate issue and their looking to have both mitigation and adaptation activity ramped up and supported by the government.

Mark:                       So I would, I would actually think that, you know, I’d be framing this, this issue in terms of how we can actually engage with different users of climate information and people who are affected by climate and how we can actually make their lives better, how we can make farmers more productive and more sustainable and how we can have tried systems that, that actually result in more effective distribution of food across the globe because we’re going to need it if that disparity between the haves and the haves not increases rather than decreases because of climate change. So there’s many dimensions of climate change and I think we can, if we want to, we can treat them in a very positive way. We can see this as an opportunity, a way to improve our practice, rather than seeing it as a doom and gloom in a fatalistic view.

Lindsey:                 Yeah. It’s certainly in the US the way forward for many farmers and getting the agricultural community engaged in all of this is talking about the co benefits, right? The benefit to soil carbon sequestration or soil health practices and kind of in some cases leaving climate change or discussion of climate change sort of out of it. What are some of the most important ways that individual farms can be part of stemming climate change and climate mitigation?

Mark:                       It’s a, again a good question. But before I do that, I just wanted to make one point is that when we think about co benefits, one co benefit that we’ve found in Australia of farmers taking on board climate change is a reduction in stress.

Lindsey:                 I feel like, well this conversation kind of stresses me out, but tell, tell me more.

Mark:                       So it’s, it’s actually sort of really interesting. So if you’re, if you’re farmer and who for political slash ideological reasons, you’re in denial of climate change, but your climate is changing, then your management practices will gradually get out of step with what they need to be. And so people probably internalize this. And so what we, when we actually have surveyed this, we’ve actually found that the farmers who take on board climate change, who acknowledge the climate is changing and start changing their management and their strategies accordingly, are much, much less stressed than those who actually don’t. So those people are taking control of their lives and because they’re taking control of their lives, their risk level, as their stress levels go down. So one of the co benefits of acknowledging that the climate is changing and changing our practice is actually lowering stress. So in terms of mitigation, this emission reduction farmers can do a fair bit, but they by themselves not going to solve the problem. So the three big things that farming broadly can do is firstly, just keep on going down the pathway of improved efficiency. By being efficient, you can actually produce that with a much lower greenhouse gas footprint than if you’re inefficient.

Lindsey:                 May I just ask a question about efficiency because that can mean a lot of different things. I mean, of course there are some systems are obviously inefficient, but then there are some systems like confinement, agriculture with a CAFO or whatnot as opposed to like a, you know, a rotational grazing system. Some might say the rotational grazing is efficient and some might say the confinement system is inefficient for totally different reasons. I’m just wondering like what, what is your meaning of efficiency?

Mark:                       Yeah. So you can deal with this in different ways. So at a systems level you can say, you know, rotational versus confinement, etc. But within, say a confinement system or within, say an existing agricultural system, you can become more efficient. So within the confinement system where you can possibly find ways of maintaining temperatures, a desirable level with a lower greenhouse gas footprint. So you find ways of fine tuning your production, you know, you can, you can get the same amount of production or sometimes even more, but with much less input.

Lindsey:                 So efficiency number one?

Mark:                       Efficiency number one is an important one. Secondly, it’s about how you can store soil carbon on your, well, store carbon on your lands and that can be done through vegetation, like sort of trees or shrubs. Typically when we’ve gone from a native grassland and plowed that up and put it under a crop, we lose up to half, maybe even 60 percent of soil carbon in the surface soil. And that’s a cumulatively huge amount of carbon that ends up in the atmosphere that with various practices we can actually restore some of that soil carbon and, you can do that know, you can argue that that’s actually beneficial for the climate. And, and it is in the sense of it draws down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the main rationale for increasing soil carbon in most of our farming systems is that it makes them more sustainable.

Mark:                       Is that soils with a high carbon content tend to be more permeable so they absorb water better, they have a better water holding capacity, they have better nutrient delivery mechanisms. And so the ecosystem service value of storing soil carbon is often about 10 times as much as the, in a carbon, a carbon price, value of soil carbon. Then the third sort of approach or element that farm land can be used for is actually for energy production. So thinking about, integration of wind farms with cropping lands or grazing lands, solar panels with grazing lands, storing carbon in trees as part of the bioenergy system battle, so using that as part of an agroforestry system. So using it productively and so starting to think about lands as a multifunction resource rather than a single function resource which is to produce farm commodities. So, those are three big areas that we can do.

Lindsey:                 Mark, this has been such an interesting conversation. Thank you. I know you are onto your next thing and I so appreciate your perspective on all the above. Is there anything else that, you wanted to add? Any words of wisdom?

Mark:                       Look, probably my closing comment would be to the best of our ability to judge, climate change is real, that it is happening, that it has really significant consequences, but those consequences differ from place to place. There’s lots and lots of options that we can put in place that deal with climate change, both reducing the net emissions but also adapting to climate change and most do, they make huge economic sense and they make sense in terms of sustainability and the type of place we think, we do have a responsibility to think long term, but we need to integrate those decisions into all of the other factors which make our current decisions, you know, the decision you make today and tomorrow. So rather than excluding climate change or making decisions only on climate change, is starting to have climate change in the mix of all of those decisions. So it’s just part of our decision making process rather than being something special.

Speaker 1:            Thanks Mark for getting on the phone from the other side of the world. For more information, check out today’s show notes where we’ll link you to the whole climate report as well as climate resources for farmers. If you haven’t already, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes. We love reviewers! Tell us what’s on your mind. This podcast was recorded at Radio Kingston and was edited by Hannah Beal. Talk to you next week.
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