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A few minutes with Lynn Scarlett: The world's fast-changing climate

We sit down with The Nature Conservancy's Lynn Scarlett to talk climate change and agriculture.

Chuck Jolley

October 11, 2019

10 Min Read
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Lynn Scarlett was the Interior Department’s deputy secretary during the George W. Bush Administration. Six years ago, she was the surprise new hire at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) where she now serves as the vice president of policy and government relations.

TNC describes itself as "the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people." Scarlett is a well-seasoned exec who can talk about the weather, climate and accurately define the often-confused difference between the two.

She is the only person who has talked with the top guns during the early days of the Trump Administration about the effects of climate change. It was a meeting where she explained the environmental damage caused by the increasing intensity of the more frequently occurring storms and how the federal government might mitigate it by using the natural infrastructure, such as oyster reefs or reed beds.

Late last month, her expertise was brought front-and-center when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dystopian report on the effects of a runaway climate. Developed by 107 experts from 52 countries, it concluded that “major shifts in how humans use land can play a major role in limiting the planet's warming this century to a target of 1.5 degrees celsius (2.7 fahrenheit) above 19th-Century temperatures.” 

No surprise that she was one of the first people called by the Washington Post for comments on what it all meant. Their lengthy story was picked up and published by newspapers all across the country.

Scarlett said the report’s grim findings “should be a call to action.”

But there was a bit of optimism in her emailed message. "We must not let these climate change impacts paralyze us. We must address the root causes of climate change by slowing and eventually stopping the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

“There is much that humans can do to blunt the expected impacts in the meantime,” she said, “such as restoring mangroves and protecting reefs and marshes to reduce storm impacts on coastal communities. Alone, these measures cannot meet all the challenges of climate change to oceans and coasts, but they are doable, cost-effective and make a difference.”

Wait a minute. Did you grasp the most important phrase in the IPCC report -- “Major shifts in how humans use land?” If changes are necessary, especially if they are mandated by governments, the primary group of humans who will be first affected are people in agriculture. Whether or not you believe in the inexorable decline of our existence that would be caused by a deteriorating climate, you should be curious about what that worst scenario future might hold.

Let’s set aside the problems that might be faced by coastal cities for now. Let’s talk about what the farms and ranches of the great Midwest would be facing. And a word of warning: according to the report, it won’t be the next generation of aggies who will have to change the way they do business; it is the current generation. The IPCC report said serious climate change is starting right now and it will ramp up to disastrous levels more quickly than you can imagine.

Without wasting time about whether or not mankind is creating the change or it's just an unavoidable part of a natural cycle, I wanted to ask Scarlett about the possible effects on North American agriculture. Just how grim was the concerted opinion of 107 experts? Was it time to admit defeat and leave the global gridiron to the ravages of an angry mob of ever more frequent and fierce hurricanes and cyclones, stronger tornadoes, deeper floods, more intense blizzards and excessive heat waves? I posed a few questions to her. She was blunt but surprisingly optimistic.

Q: This summer, Marshall Shepard, senior contributor, Forbes magazine and professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia wrote, "I spend a lot of time pointing out that weather and climate are different. I often use the analogy that ‘weather is your mood, and climate is your personality.’” Scientists and scientifically-literate people are usually stunned by comments framing day-to-day weather variability as a litmus test for the validity of anthropogenic climate change. So let's start with his pet peeve -- explaining the difference between today's weather in Missoula, Mont., and the world climate. Can you give an explanation that even the most science-averse can understand?

A: Weather is about what you need to wear when you leave your house on any given day; climate is about what you see seasonally (summers in Montana are typically warm). If climate is all the clothes in your closet, the weather is what you’re wearing today.

Put another way, weather refers to daily temperatures, humidity, wind and other things that can change over short time periods. Climate is what the weather is like over long time periods and in specific regions -- and is often described in terms of averages -- of rainfall or temperature or humidity, for example. So, even if long-term climate patterns are changing -- average daytime temperatures are warming, for example -- there can still be individual days where the weather is, for example, unusually cold or snowy.

Q: Talking about the special report issued Sept. 25 by (IPCC) Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy said, “What comes out of this report is that it’s going to hit us in so many ways.” Let's narrow it down to the predictable effects on agriculture. First, coastal farming in North America -- what changes can a farmer on the East coast expect? How about the West coast?

A: Climate change is affecting agriculture in many ways. These include:

  • Trends toward higher average temperatures that can affect crop productivity. High nighttime temperatures have affected corn yields in the U.S. corn belt;

  • Changes in overnight lows and frost-free season length affect agricultural productivity, and

  • Intrusion of saltwater along coastal areas, which is contaminating aquifers and affecting soil fertility. Already, we see such saltwater intrusion occurring in coastal farming areas of North Carolina, for example.

Among the most widespread impacts are changes in precipitation, including the timing, amount and forms of water. We are seeing too much, too little, not the right kind of precipitation and not at the right time.

Some regions are becoming drier, with chronic drought, including parts of the West; others are experiencing more rainfall, including extreme rainfall events resulting in extensive flooding and delayed spring planting such as what was experienced this year in the Midwest. Intense rainfall can also affect rates of soil erosion. Early snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains can affect the availability of water for irrigation during dry summer months in the West.

There are some actions that can reduce adverse impacts of climate and provide solutions: These include, for example, enhancing soil health and applying edge-of-field practices. These practices can help create resilience for farmers from unexpected weather events, increased erosion and harmful nutrient runoff that can lead to algal blooms.

Even without climate change, the U.S. is losing billions of tons of fertile soil each year. The Conservancy estimates that adopting soil health practices for all corn, soy and wheat croplands could generate nearly $50 billion in benefits. Climate change amplifies the importance of practices to improve soil health.

The good news is that partnerships in farm country are emerging to implement those practices. A Midwest Row Crop Collaborative that includes the Conservancy, other NGOs and major agricultural companies is accelerating use of soil health practices in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.

Q: The American agricultural powerhouse is the great Midwest, more accurately the states between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains as well as the Canadian provinces that border on that region. It's an area that produces a tremendous amount of the world's livestock, grain and row crops. Many in animal agriculture take great offense at the suggestion that raising livestock contributes an inordinate share of greenhouse gasses. Can you speak to the concerns of those in animal agriculture?

A: The issue of livestock grazing is complex and generates significant debate. While livestock grazing can have adverse environmental impacts, including contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, there are many ecological benefits to healthy and well-managed ranches. Like many issues, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, and different regions face significantly different circumstances across the globe.

For example, in many places, grazing is the only option for producing food (where land is not arable) and improving grazing management in places like this can be a significant contribution to a strategy of sustainable food production globally. The Conservancy works with livestock-raising communities in places like Mongolia and Kenya, where livestock grazing has a long heritage, provide primary sources of food, and where growing crops, for example, is not feasible.

In some locations in the U.S., grazing lands -- totaling about 775 million acres in the U.S. -- and the ranching families who care for them are the backbone of rural economies, as well as a crucial key to a healthy future. Healthy, intact grazing lands sustain communities in the rural U.S. whose livelihoods and way of life depends on 770,000 cattle operations, over 90% of which are family-operated ranches and farms.

To indicate that livestock grazing plays an important economic role in some communities and is an important source of food, particularly in some regions, does not suggest that all grazing practices are sustainable. Rather, sustainable or restorative grazing is a key component of the conservation toolkit.

Q: That agriculture is the basis for human survival and it is a critical component to our economy was confirmed in The 2018 National Climate Assessment report. Assuming the worst predictions of the IPCC report come to pass, what should farmers and ranchers prepare to do to ensure their survival?

A: The recent IPCC Report presents an alarming picture of the current and prospective impacts of a changing climate. A priority focus needs to be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically to stabilize temperature increases by mid-century at well below 2 degrees C.

At the same time, we have opportunities, tools and practices to reduce those adverse impacts and sustain agricultural production that, in turn, contributes to feeding Americans and many others across the globe. Farmers and ranchers have an important role to play in influencing the future.
Key actions include advancing use of practices of healthy soils, efficient nutrient inputs, cover crops, crop rotations, low-till methods and sustainable grazing lands management (among others) that contribute to the regeneration of America’s farmlands. They contribute both to climate change mitigation by sequestering carbon in the soil and drive higher profitability for farmers, while also restoring ecosystem health. We hope to see the adoption of these practices expand across America’s agricultural communities, and the Conservancy is committed to helping farmers and ranchers get there. 

Resilience to climate change and the economy is key to farmers and ranchers sustaining their livelihoods and their way of life. The adoption of sustainable practices can help farmers and ranchers become more resilient to the effects of climate change and provide environmental benefits, like improved water quality, increased soil carbon storage, enhanced biodiversity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

Our base-case scenario for estimating benefits suggests that for each 1% of cropland adopting an adaptive soil health system, annual economic benefits translate into $226 million of value through increased water capacity, reduced erosion and nutrient loss to the environment and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as well as $37 million of on-farm value through greater productivity.

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