Climate Change Impacts Already Being Felt Worldwide

May 7, 2013

LINCOLN, Neb. — Climate change already is being felt around the world, and society must figure out how to adapt to the changes already underway and mitigate the severity of future impacts, experts said Tuesday (May 7) at the global Water for Food Conference.

The fifth annual conference, hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, continued into a second day. Its theme is "Too Hot, Too Wet, Too Dry: Building Resilient Agroecosystems."

Managing climate change is one key facet of feeding a global population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.

"Climate change is happening right now," Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, told reporters at a morning briefing. Scientists have measured an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees on the planet, with the potential that it could become a 7- to 11-degree increase in the future.

"As the planet warms we expect to see more extreme events," said Cullen, whose Climate Central is a nonprofit science journalism organization. Those will include longer heat waves and droughts and more heavy rainfall events.

Rosina Bierbaum, a professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, said recent events such as Hurricane Sandy "make it clear we're not prepared to cope with the droughts and floods of today, let alone the increase in these events in the future."

The good news, Bierbaum said, is that thousands of efforts are underway across the U.S., with many of them showing promise. Assembling useful information on best practices is key to adapting to already existing change and mitigating future change, she added.

Christo Fabricius, who has spent more than 20 years working on natural resource issues in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world's epicenters for the looming water for food challenge, also warned about the threat of climate change in a world where "219,000 new people need food every day."

Sixty-six nations cannot now produce enough food for their populations, and significant investments in research and extension are needed to help reverse that. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa spends an average of just 1 percent of its agricultural GDP on research and extension, said Fabricius, who leads the sustainability research unit of the Resilience Alliance at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.

In the U.S. a robust research and extension tradition helped producers and others deal with the 2012 flash drought, said Charles Hibberd, dean of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Drought occurs routinely in the region and land-grant universities such as UNL have worked with producers for decades to develop strategies to deal with it, as well as to reduce water use even in good times.

"We're always preparing for drought," Hibberd said.

Better irrigation technology and practices have developed, as have other extension-promoted management techniques such as skip-row planting, all of which have helped producers use water more efficiently, Hibberd said.

But last year's drought developed and spread so quickly, it caught many by surprise. Hibberd said extension was able to rapidly deliver "just-in-time information" to producers to help them deal with the crisis. Those efforts have continued through the winter as the drought is expected to linger and have consequences this year.

Producers from Brazil, Nebraska and Colorado discussed their efforts to build resilient, sustainable operations that can weather change. For example, Mike Kelly, whose ranch sits at the southern edge of Nebraska's Sandhills, worked with federal and state partners to revamp a section of the Birdwood Creek that runs through his land. A previous owner had straightened more than a mile of it, resulting in faster water flow that reduced the area's water table. The project restored the creek's original, meandering path, which has restored the water table and improved grass production along it.

Duke Phillips, who owns and operates two large diversified ranching businesses in Colorado, said he thinks ranchers, a dwindling breed, have a responsibility to help educate urban dwellers. To that end, he welcomes to his ranch about 2,000 kids who think "cowboys are out riding horses and shooting guns."

His dude ranch puts visitors to work and is home to concerts and art exhibits.

"My goal has changed from trying to create my own world to trying to create an opportunity for people to get together and learn about each other," Phillips said.          

During its first two days, the conference drew about 400 people from around the world who are working to overcome the urgent challenge of growing more food with less water.

Additional information about the 2013 Water for Food Conference is online at: http://waterforfood.nebraska.edu/wff2013. The conference, sponsored by Monsanto, continues through Wednesday.