Tom Kenworthy: Climate Change Will Bring More Billion-Dollar Droughts for U.S. Farmers

Posted by Wonk Room Wed, 08 Jul 2009 14:39:00 GMT

From the Wonk Room’s Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Pray for RainFarmers and those in the agriculture economy have a lot to lose if the trends in billion-dollar weather disasters continue – particularly when it comes to drought and water shortages, as recent news indicates. “Central and South Texas are in the midst of an epic drought that has sapped soils of their moisture, dried up stock ponds and turned cornfields from green to beige.” California’s “Central Valley farmers will receive an additional 100,000 acre-feet as part of a water loan to deal with the three-year drought plaguing the state.” As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee begins hearing testimony this week on climate change legislation, “Billion Dollar U.S. Weather Disasters” – a catalog of 90 costly weather-related disasters dating back to 1980 assembled by the National Climatic Data Center – is a good place to start when considering the costs of inaction on global warming:

  • In 2007, a severe drought with extreme heat across the Great Plains and the East brought some $5 billion in damages and costs. Wildfires in the West that same year cost more than $1 billion.
  • In 2006, widespread drought affected the Great Plains, the south, and the far west, costing about $6 billion.
  • In 2002, a broad drought cost $10 billion, affecting large parts of 30 states from the West to the Great Plains and much of the East. Western wildfires associated with the drought cost $2 billion.
  • In 2000, a drought and heat wave centered on the south central and southeastern United States caused 140 deaths and cost $4 billion.
  • In 1999, An eastern drought and heat wave brought “extensive agricultural losses” of more than $1 billion and cost 502 lives. *In 1998, “Very severe losses to agriculture and related industries” accompanied a drought affecting the central and eastern U.S. with estimated costs of $40 billion and 5,000 to 10,000 deaths.

The House’s narrow approval of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 on June 26 came only after House leaders satisfied some of the concerns of farm state lawmakers. Senators, too, will be sensitive to those interests, so it is critical they understand some of the stakes for agriculture if Congress fails to pass comprehensive clean-energy jobs and climate legislation.

Drought and changes in water supply will be one of the main challenges. Over the last half century, the recently released government report “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” says, droughts associated with rising temperatures have become more frequent in much of the Southeast and Western regions of the country. That trend is expected to continue. “In the future, droughts are likely to become more frequent and severe,” particularly in the Southwest, according to the report.

Water shortages will likely affect a whole range of critical economic sectors, from limiting electricity production by nuclear and coal-fired power plants that have high water demands to increasing shipping costs on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River – as happened in 1988 when a drought stranded 4,000 barges on America’s most important commercial waterway. Drier conditions in the West will also increase the extent and cost of wildfires, which have already soared in the last decade.

These events and their impacts are not abstractions. They are costly, disruptive, and affect millions of Americans, including many who make their living raising food and livestock. Few lobbyists for these interests will mention these costly impacts to our already challenged rural economies.

Senators have a responsibility to protect farmers from more and worse droughts even if the farmers’ hired guns won’t.

Read more at the Center for American Progress, and view a map of past and projected droughts at Science Progress.