The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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Food and Fiber Production

Currently, 800 million people are malnourished; as the world's population increases and incomes in some countries rise, food consumption is expected to double over the next three to four decades. The most recent doubling in food production occurred over a 25-year period and was based on irrigation, chemical inputs, and high-yielding crop varieties. Whether the remarkable gains of the past 25 years will be repeated is uncertain: Problems associated with intensifying production on land already in use (e.g., chemical and biological runoff, waterlogging and salinization of soils, soil erosion and compaction) are becoming increasingly evident. Expanding the amount of land under cultivation (including reducing land deliberately taken out of production to reduce agricultural output) also is an option for increasing total crop production, but it could lead to increases in competition for land and pressure on natural ecosystems, increased agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases, a reduction in natural sinks of carbon, and expansion of agriculture to marginal lands-all of which could undermine the ability to sustainably support increased agricultural production.

Changes in climate will interact with stresses that result from actions to increase agricultural production, affecting crop yields and productivity in different ways, depending on the types of agricultural practices and systems in place. The main direct effects will be through changes in factors such as temperature, precipitation, length of growing season, and timing of extreme or critical threshold events relative to crop development, as well as through changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration (which may have a beneficial effect on the growth of many crop types). Indirect effects will include potentially detrimental changes in diseases, pests, and weeds, the effects of which have not yet been quantified in most available studies. Evidence continues to support the findings of the IPCC SAR that "global agricultural production could be maintained relative to baseline production" for a growing population under 2xCO2 equilibrium climate conditions. In addition, the regional findings of this special report lend support to concerns over the "potential serious consequences" of increased risk of hunger in some regions, particularly the tropics and subtropics. Generally, middle to high latitudes may experience increases in productivity, depending on crop type, growing season, changes in temperature regimes, and the seasonality of precipitation. In the tropics and subtropics-where some crops are near their maximum temperature tolerance and where dryland, nonirrigated agriculture predominates-yields are likely to decrease. The livelihoods of subsistence farmers and pastoral peoples, who make up a large portion of rural populations in some regions, also could be negatively affected. In regions where there is a likelihood of decreased rainfall, agriculture could be significantly affected.

Fisheries and fish production are sensitive to changes in climate and currently are at risk from overfishing, diminishing nursery areas, and extensive inshore and coastal pollution. Globally, marine fisheries production is expected to remain about the same in response to changes in climate; high-latitude freshwater and aquaculture production is likely to increase, assuming that natural climate variability and the structure and strength of ocean currents remain about the same. The principal impacts will be felt at the national and local levels, as centers of production shift. The positive effects of climate change-such as longer growing seasons, lower natural winter mortality, and faster growth rates in higher latitudes-may be offset by negative factors such as changes in established reproductive patterns, migration routes, and ecosystem relationships.

Given the many forces bringing profound changes to the agricultural sector, adaptation options that enhance resilience to current natural climate variability and potential changes in means and extremes and address other concerns (e.g., soil erosion, salinization) offer no- or low-regret options. For example, linking agricultural management to seasonal climate predictions can assist in incremental adaptation, particularly in regions where climate is strongly affected by ENSO conditions. The suitability of these options for different regions varies, in part because of differences in the financial and institutional ability of the private sector and governments in different regions to implement them. Adaptation options include changes in crops and crop varieties, development of new crop varieties, changes in planting schedules and tillage practices, introduction of new biotechnologies, and improved water-management and irrigation systems, which have high capital costs and are limited by availability of water resources. Other options, such as minimum- and reduced-tillage technologies, do not require such extensive capitalization but do require high levels of agricultural training and support.

In regions where agriculture is well adapted to current climate variability and/or where market and institutional factors are in place to redistribute agricultural surpluses to make up for shortfalls, vulnerability to changes in climate means and extremes generally is low. However, in regions where agriculture is unable to cope with existing extremes, where markets and institutions to facilitate redistribution of deficits and surpluses are not in place, and/or where adaptation resources are limited, the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to climate change should be considered high. Other factors also will influence the vulnerability of agricultural production in a particular country or region to climate change-including the extent to which current temperatures or precipitation patterns are close to or exceed tolerance limits for important crops; per capita income; the percentage of economic activity based on agricultural production; and the preexisting condition of the agricultural land base.


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