Each month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a review of weather data. What the accumulating data demonstrates are increasing departures from historic means, much more extreme weather of every sort.
While some continue to argue the cause for this shift, there is more and more consensus that the data confirms an emerging climate much different than that experienced by recent generations. (Monday I received a briefing on the so-called Kankakee Torrent of 14,000 to 19,000 years ago. This suggests that even extremes are relative).
So far the impact of the extended California drought on agricultural production — and prices — has been modest. According to a late-June analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service,
The current outlook for 2015 is for slightly lower than average retail food price inflation, with supermarket prices expected to rise 1.75 to 2.75 percent over 2014 levels. Despite drought conditions in California, the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices could have a mitigating effect on fresh fruit and vegetable prices in 2015. As of June, ERS predicts fresh fruit prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0 percent in 2015, close to the 20-year historical average.
But if the current drought would extend for another several years, and especially if drought in one agricultural region is combined with destructive extreme weather in other agricultural regions (e.g. the 2010 drought in Ukraine, Russia, China, and Argentina), the combined consequence can be dire.
While an understanding of cause is usually crucial to prevention and many kinds of mitigation, it is possible to disagree as to cause and develop plausible projections of consequence. In most of life there is a “cone of uncertainty” of some sort, but even when we cannot precisely predict, we may be able to reasonably anticipate.
Over the last several months a UK-US team has attempted to anticipate the impact of extreme weather on global agricultural capacity. They recently released a report, concluding:
... the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and… this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances. Action is therefore needed to improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks, to mitigate their impact on people.
I find the binational report especially interesting for reasons that go beyond the explicit factual analysis. The organization and rhetoric of the report seems a bit bipolar… unable to resolve a persistent tension between two policy/strategy perceptions. One angle tends toward greater redundancy and centralization. The other tends toward greater diversity and decentralization. The authors do not seem self-aware of the tension. It would be interesting, at least to me, to see a principled strategic process for engaging these two alternatives… or possibly complementary approaches.