Guest commentary | Flyover states face serious climate issues

Guest commentary | Flyover states face serious climate issues

By Evan Delucia, Madhu Khanna, Ximing Cai and Gillen Wood

The news from the 24th U.N. Climate Summit was encouraging as nations signed on to a global climate agreement on Dec. 16 — but at the same time, it was discouraging as the Trump administration has promised to abandon the 2015 Paris agreement.

While much of the world acknowledges the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to arrest the Earth's continued warming, the U.S. is sending a mixed signal after the National Climate Assessment, released on Nov. 23, clearly illustrated the effects of global climate change in the U.S.

The assessment went far beyond the usual picture of wildfires in California or the rising seas and supersized hurricanes inundating the Florida coast. It showed that the effects of a deteriorating climate are beginning to be felt far inland — in the "flyover states" of the agricultural heartland.

Agriculture, the cornerstone of American food security, is a $136 billion industry. As the climate assessment starkly states, falling crop yields in the Midwest represent the greatest threat to the U.S. economy, and to Americans' quality of life, in the coming decades. Even people on the coasts are taking note.

Most Midwesterners know that our weather has become more volatile: Summers are hotter and winters less severe. But the report in November was a jolt, exposing our region's vulnerability as the climate turns increasingly haywire. Unabated, changes in our climate caused by the combustion of fossil fuels and increased greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere put the nation's food factory in jeopardy.

In the Midwest, we're routinely breaking high temperature records. Most warming in the Corn Belt is felt during winter and nights, and the resulting longer growing season — two weeks longer than 1950 — potentially increases crop production.

But the trend in summer heat waves, particularly during the vulnerable period when corn is pollinated, and delays in planting dates due to spring precipitation will more than offset the advantage of a longer summer.

Most years with below-average yields have been warmer than normal. If temperatures continue to increase, we are likely to experience dramatic decreases in corn and bean yields by midcentury. A hit like this to the nation's breadbasket could knock the wind out of our entire economy, with destabilizing ripple effects worldwide.

Unreliable rainfall likewise represents a threat to crop production. Historically, farmers could count on rain every few days, even during the summer. Now, we move from a wetter spring to prolonged dryness — sometimes going entire months without rain.

This is particularly challenging in the Midwest, where there has typically been little need for irrigation. The wetter springs can fool corn plants into developing shallow roots that can't survive the dry heat of summer.

Then, when the rain does arrive, it comes packaged in more extreme events, notably intense storms in spring and early summer. Flooding from these downpours throws planting schedules into disarray, washes out newly seeded fields or rots those all-too-shallow roots.

To guarantee that the U.S. can feed itself in the face of dramatically changing weather patterns, our nation requires a renewed investment in agricultural research.

National funding for ag research and development has not kept pace with our growing economy. Non-military R&D as a percentage of all federal discretionary spending has dropped from about 25 percent five decades ago to less than half of that today — and it currently amounts to less than 1 percent of the GDP.

The investment in breeding more climate-resilient crops is in even worse shape. Of a $150 billion total R&D budget, we are spending less than 2 percent on climate change research in general and less than 0.1 percent on agriculture. To be fair, some of the gap is being filled by the private sector, but it's not enough.

Three vital, overlapping needs must be met: to build on increased crop yields achieved in the last decade; to increase yields under warmer, more extreme conditions; and to do this in a way that protects and renews the larger Midwestern ecosystem.

To achieve these goals will require a renewed investment in agricultural and sustainability research and a renewed commitment to educating the next generation of farmers. It's hard to imagine a more critical national priority than ensuring we can feed ourselves as our population increases in the coming decades.

Funding for walls will not protect us from the onslaught of climate change — and walling ourselves off would be irresponsible as the rest of the world attempts to get its GHG emissions under control. Instead, the U.S. must do its part, double down on mitigation efforts, including a rapid transition to renewable energy, and learn to adapt to the changes already hampering our productivity.

Robust strategies for dealing with climate change are vital to maintaining the health of the Midwest agricultural economy on which the nation, and many other parts of the world, depend.

The authors are all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE). DeLucia is the Baum Family director of iSEE and a professor of plant biology; Khanna is iSEE associate director for research and a professor of agricultural and consumer economics; Cai is iSEE associate director for campus sustainability and a professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Wood is iSEE associate director for education and outreach and a professor of English.

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