Planning to Live With Climate Change, Not Die From It

We’ve posted a new page on the main site about how all our efforts so far to deal with catastrophic climate change have been futile. As are many of us, we’re digesting the global ramifications of what appears to be an inevitable and pernicious change in our global climate, and then plotting strategy for acting locally. That is, it’s time to stop warning about what could happen and start planning for what will happen. What will catastrophic climate change mean for subsistence farmers in Alabama?

When I look at the maps for the expected impact of climate change on the various regions of the world, it doesn’t appear that the average annual rainfall in the southeast will change dramatically. I underline average, because everything we read about climate change tells us that one of its the most noticeable effects will be that storms will be both less frequent and more severe. That means there may be fewer of those afternoon thundershowers in the summertime that farmers depend on to sustain crops through the growing season. It’s possible that we may be more dependent on irrigation to tide us over the dry times than farmers in the Southeast have been in the past.

And that means we may need to ramp up our storage capacity for water. We may be more dependent than we have been in the past on the kinds of crops we can grow in hoop houses (also called high tunnels), where we can shield crops from moderate levels of storm activity and can grow crops through most of the winter. At the same time, however, we must account for two fundamental challenges with hoop houses: (a) they cannot stand up to a truly severe storm of the kind we understand will become more frequent, and (b) they are dependent on plastic membranes, which may become quite precious as the price of crude oil increases.

If for any reason we cannot use hoop houses in the future, we will depend on what we can grow in the open air. Because of the increasing likelihood of severe storms, we must face the very real possibility that all or nearly all we’re growing at any given time may be wiped out. So this means we will need to become unusually attentive to keeping stocks of food in storage, even beyond one growing season. We may want to study the way our Mormon friends approach this; we understand they learn to keep a year’s supply of food at the ready at all times.

Even though the average rainfall is not projected to change dramatically, the average temperature in the Southeast is projected to increase, probably by 10 degrees F or so by the end of the 21st century. What will that mean for farmers? It should make for milder winters; it’s even possible we might have a low-grade winter growing season. A few farmers in Alabama are able to make some citrus work, so one can begin to envision a greater ability to grow oranges and lemons if the average temperature is higher.

The growing season should be longer, because the earliest frost date should be later and the latest frost date earlier. Of course, the disadvantages of such an unprecedented increase in temperatures dwarf the advantages. For starters, many of our trees are not suited to such heat and will likely die. We assume that because our beloved longleaf pines grow well in Florida they will be among the species that survive, but we don’t know that yet. The American beech we so enjoy as we walk our trails in the winter probably won’t make it; ditto the occasional maple, and maybe even the red oaks.

Several of the cool-weather crops farmers have been able to grow in the past, like asparagus, chard, and cabbage, may not make it in dramatically warmer temperatures. There’s also the matter of our human comfort. We don’t expect to have air conditioning much, because we expect electricity (most of which we produce now by burning coal) to become dramatically more expensive.

Let’s see. Tallassee, Alabama in the summer. Much hotter than it is now. No air conditioning. This could be brutal. We’re going to be looking for ways to maximize ventilation and to find shelter from the sun, and we better have plenty of water to drink. Hmmm. Better draw a dotted line back to that issue of water storage capacity. Note to children: if you want a career you can depend on, learn to drill for water; you will never lack for work.

By far the scariest aspect of this for me right now, though, is what it’s going to mean for pests. We expect to be totally chemical free (although in the spirit of our Three Principles we’re careful not to make all-ness statements), so we expect the bad bugs and the weeds to be a constant challenge for us. What will it mean for the vitality and resiliency of those bad guys when there’s less winter freezing to kill them back? Will there be some crops that are just too vulnerable and we have to give up growing? Will we be playing a perennial game of hide-and-seek, moving our growing areas around so the pests can’t take up residence in one area and keeping coming back every year?

We find hope here in the experience of farmers in Cuba, who have found ways to grow food effectively without chemicals in a climate much warmer than ours is now (although perhaps similar to what our climate could become). The difference is that Cuban farmers have the benefit of years of research in growing sustainably, studies we have neglected so the agri-business boys and girls at Auburn can do whatever “we love petrochemicals” research Monsanto and Cargill want to pay for and control.

Because the shipment of food will be so expensive, we will be much more dependent on food we (and others) can grow right in our community. So it will be much more relevant than it has been in the past who is growing what in our neighborhood, and in our town. We may find ourselves recruiting a dairy farmer the same way communities today recruit a family physician.

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