EDITORIAL: Latest climate report signals new urgency

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, the sun sets in Cuggiono near Milan, Italy. A new U.N. report on warming and land use says climate change is hitting us where it counts: the stomach. The scientific report on Thursday, Aug. 8, finds that as the world warms it degrades the land more. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

We know that air temperatures on the planet are increasing as a result of climate change.

We know that the oceans are rising and become more acidic.

And we know that plant and animal life has already been affected to a measurable degree.

Now comes word that the very land we live on is also being altered — practically before our eyes — by the increasingly warmer conditions that have resulted from the unrelenting release of man-made fossil fuels.

“Human-caused climate change is dramatically degrading the Earth’s land,” writes the Associated Press in reporting on the newly released report, “Climate Change and Land,” from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The findings show that land masses are warming twice as fast as the planet as a whole. And far from generating esoteric repercussions decades down the road, the effects may be felt keenly within our lifetimes.

“The cycle is accelerating,” said NASA climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig, one of dozens of scientists who contributed to the report. “The threat of climate change affecting people’s food on their dinner table is increasing.”

The effects can be seen everywhere: Deserts are growing, permafrost is thawing, and all-important forests — which help slow the impact of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — are becoming more vulnerable to pests and disease, not to mention increasingly destructive wildfires that have ravaged the western and southern United States.

Among the many serious ramifications of these wholesale changes is a degraded ability to grow crops and vegetables.

“The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases,” said the report, which was unveiled last week in Geneva. And not just projected to decrease, but already decreasing. Crops like wheat and barley are on the decline at lower latitudes (while, conversely, some crops, including corn and cotton, have seen higher yields in higher-altitude regions).

Those slightly higher yields aren’t expected to persist, however, and the effects are just beginning to be felt in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

These findings defuse what was the last excuse for ignoring climate change: That a warmer planet would be beneficial to plant life. Not only will quantity decline but so, too, will quality.

NASA’s Rosenzweig, for example, told the AP that higher levels of carbon in the air in experiments produce wheat that has significantly less protein, zinc iron.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom.

The report spelled out potential responses for both the agriculture industry (no-till agricultural practices and more targeted fertilizer applications) and the general public (reduce food waste, eat more vegetables and less meat).

But truly slowing the impacts generated by our warming planet will require a change in mindset and policy from elected leaders. Many states, including Pennsylvania, are doing their part. Not so the federal government, where President Donald Trump has opened up more federal lands for gas exploration, pulled out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on combating climate change, and moved to reverse many Obama-era environmental initiatives, such as fuel-economy standards.

So while scientists and governments the world over call for immediate action in the wake of this most recent wake-up call, the Trump administration isn’t just stalling, it’s going backwards.

If this doesn’t soon change, the administration will take the entire country with it.