We must compliment Parker for recognizing that the climate was the key to these global crises. He fails, however, to acknowledge that this has been a recurring pattern.
With this omission, Dr. Parker draws the wrong conclusion about the threat to future societies. There is no visible reason to expect famines today due to carbon dioxide, which improves plant growth for crops, forests, grasslands, and algae, as atmospheric CO2 levels increase.
The danger is the cold, chaotic weather of the “little ice ages” themselves. That will shrink agricultural zones and shorten growing seasons. Another such icy period is inevitably coming, though not likely in the next two centuries, if past cycles are an accurate guide.
Regardless, for the next 20-25 years, humanity will likely be in another cooling period, caused by the sun’s reduced energy output and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. We are about 150 years into the modern warming. Since the shortest of these warm periods during the Halocene was 350 years, and they generally last 350 to 800 years, it is unlikely that we will enter another Little Ice Age for a couple more centuries.
But even a prolonged cooler period (akin to what Earth experienced from 1860-1900 and again from 1940-1975) could create problems for some crops in some areas such as grapes in Washington, Wisconsin, and Great Britain. Mostly, though, modern crops and agricultural practices can handle colder weather and shorter growing seasons reasonably well – and certainly much better than was the case for previous generations of humans during previous colder spells.
Dr. Parker nearly redeems himself by making the most valid point of all. We now have science and transportation to deal much more effectively with that coming “little ice age.” Our biggest advantage is our modern high-yield agriculture. Today, we harvest perhaps six times as much food per acre as the desperate farmers of the seventeenth century; and our yields keep rising, thanks to scientific breakthroughs like nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and hybrid seeds.
We must also thank unfairly maligned biotechnology, which lets us grow many crops that are disease, drought, and insect resistant; rice that can survive prolonged periods under water; plants that are resistant to herbicides and thus facilitate no-till farming that improves soils and reduces erosion; and specialty crops like “golden rice” that incorporate formerly missing nutrients into vital foods.
Our crop yields are also rising because of another surprising factor: more atmospheric carbon dioxide. This trace gas (400 ppm or 0.04% of Earth’s atmosphere) acts like fertilizer for plants, and thus for the animals and people who depend on them. Studies show that doubling CO2 in the air will boost the growth of herbaceous plants by about 30% to 35%; trees will benefit even more.
Indeed, satellites show that Earth’s total vegetation increased 6% just from 1982 to 1999, as CO2 levels increased. Famines in a CO2-warmed tomorrow are therefore less likely, not more.
If humans have food, they can do all the other things necessary for civilization. However, we must double food production per acre – again and rapidly – to feed the world’s oncoming peak population, and enable all people to enjoy the nutrition that Americans and Europeans already do.
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