Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?

Photo Source Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

The growing season used to be too short to grow corn in Alberta. That’s no longer true, according to a front page story in the November 26 Wall Street Journal: “Warming Climate Pushes Corn North.”  Thanks to climate change, a warming planet means longer growing seasons, making it practical for Canadian farmers to raise corn.  In the little town of La Crete, Alberta (“roughly as far north as Juneau, Alaska”) temperatures “are 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average annually than in 1950…and the growing season is nearly two weeks longer.”

The Journal continues:

Canada’s corn acreage has climbed 20% over the past decade, while soybean acreage has roughly doubled… Before 2013, provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta grew no significant amounts of soybeans….  Now soybeans cover 425,000 acres in those provinces.

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“Today, the U.S. corn belt is in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana,” Cargill CEO David MacLennan said in a 2016 interview. “In 50 years, it may be in Hudson Bay, Canada.”

As for regions where corn has traditionally been grown, they’re seeing bigger harvests. “Warming has helped increase U.S. corn harvests, delivering more than one-quarter of the yield growth across Corn Belt states since 1981….”

All this is great news, right? Yet there is a down side.  To its credit, the Journal admits that bigger harvests may be harder to sustain as temperatures increase further, and climate shifts already are working against yields in some corn-producing regions….  Overall, climate change-driven heat, droughts and soil erosion will likely diminish U.S. agricultural production, according to the latest installment of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, issued Friday [Nov. 23]” (my italics).

At Jake Vermeer’s farm southeast of Edmonton, Alberta, the growing season is now 17 days longer.  However, warmer temperatures also bring “unusually long dry spells and harsher storms” which make farming “more uncertain.”  The Journal notes that “Near La Crete, an early frost struck Mr. Driedger’s cornfields in early September, cutting short its growth and diminishing this winter’s feed supply for his cattle.”

Troubling developments, to be sure, but you can relax. There’s a techno-fix.

Better Living Through Climate Change

You will search in vain through the Journal article for the words “anthropogenic climate change” or any hint that human activity causes rising temperatures.  You or I might think that the proper response to a planet which is getting dramatically hotter is for humans to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.  Don’t be silly.  That would hurt business, particularly the fossil fuel industry.  Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal assures us that whatever disadvantages rising temperatures bring can be handled by technology.

Agricultural giants such as Bayer AG, Cargill Inc., DowDuPont Inc., and Bunge Ltd. are pushing to develop hardier crops, plan new logistics networks and offer new technologies designed to help farmers adapt.  DowDuPont, maker of Pioneer brand seeds, said its scientists are developing crops that mature faster and in drier conditions for farmers in regions growing hotter.

Has climate change driven you to drink?  The Journal informs us that new heat-tolerant varieties of wine grapes are being developed for French vineyards.  What’s more, “Seed and pesticide giant Bayer, which bought U.S. seed purveyor Monsanto this year, is breeding corn plants to be faster-maturing to produce crops in cooler climates.”  Monsanto corn which ten years ago took 80 days to mature, by next year will mature in 70 days. That makes a big difference to farmers.

The great thing about a techno-fix is we don’t have to change our lifestyles.  We don’t have to stop pumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. Take a purely technocratic approach to climate to its logical extent and you end up at geoengineering.  One brilliant idea is to seed Earth’s atmosphere with particles of sulfur dioxide.  The theory is that this will deflect solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.  If you’ve seen the movie Snowpiercer, this idea will terrify you.

Meanwhile, in Central America…

On the same day as the good news about longer growing seasons and bigger harvests, there was another story on the Journal‘s front page.  This story, though, was not all sunshine and lollipops.  The previous day, November 25, the US Border Patrol had tear-gassed caravanistas who had attempted to climb the US-Mexico border wall at Tijuana.  The migrants belonged to one of the Central American caravans which have been arriving at the US border to claim asylum.

The Journal did not say so, but its two front page stories—the story about teargassing migrants and the story about crops—have something in common. Both are about climate change.

The Journal does not describe the Central American migrants as “climate refugees,” but they are.  Unlike in Canada, climate change in Central America hits farmers hard.  Since 2014, a severe drought has been punctuated by periods of torrential rainfall, which the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean observes, create erosion, soil runoff, and “loss of available water and even damage to crops themselves.”  Food insecurity affects more than two million people in the region.  Honduras alone has lost an estimated 82% of its crops of corn and beans, staples of Central American diets.  When El Niño strikes, as it always does eventually, Central American harvests will suffer even more.

Rising temperatures do not just play hell with farmers. “One-third of all employment in Central America comes from agriculture, and that is now failing across the entire region,” according to Truthout.

Do you understand now why the caravans are coming to the US?  The caravanistas’ only options are migration or starvation.  But try telling President Donald Trump that. President Trump believes that climate change is a hoax dreamed up by China.  Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.  Asked about the new National Climate Assessment (which his administration quietly released the day after Thanksgiving) with its alarming projections of hundreds of billions of dollars of losses to the US economy by the end of the century, Trump declared “I don’t believe it.”  The Administration has attempted to sink the twenty-fourth conference of the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24).  The conference, which was supposed to conclude in Poland on Friday in Poland has been extended through the weekend.  COP 24 is seeing what Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at the World Wildlife Federation, calls a divide between nations that fear climate change and nations that fear “climate action.”  The US, together with three other oil-producing nations, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, is seeking to dilute the impact of the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which declares the urgent necessity of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C.

There’s a lesson—and a warning—in the contrast between Canada’s burgeoning harvests and Central America’s crop failure.  The lesson is that wealthy, First World White countries will be able to adapt to climate change, if anyone can.  Third World, non-White countries will not.

The US cannot deny asylum to the caravanistas.  It’s basic equity.  In June, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in a legal opinion that “The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune” (page 3).  That may be true ordinarily, but what if the US caused the misfortunes? If I push you into the deep end of a swimming pool, and you can’t swim, it’s my responsibility to save you from drowning.  Historically, the US is the largest emitter of the greenhouse gases which cause climate change.  By contrast, the developing world produces the least CO2, but suffers the most from climate change.  The US has to save the caravanistas from a mess we got them into.

But I’m wasting my breath.  I don’t know how much overlap there is between immigration restrictionists and climate-deniers, but I suspect there’s a lot.  If you don’t believe in the reality of anthropogenic climate change, you’re not going to believe that Central Americans are coming to the US because of anything the US has done.  That doesn’t change the facts.  The US must grant asylum to the caravanistas.  We cannot exclude them when we’re the ones who brought them here.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.