Acclimation and Heat Stress of Plants, and Future Crop Failures

A field of sweet corn, Flat Rock, Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

One of the most popular ideas that springs into people’s minds when mulling over remedies for slowing the advance of climate change because of the ever increasing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is to plant more trees, bushes and grasses. Let a greater quantity of plant photosynthesis filter our atmosphere of excess CO2.

This is not an entirely bad idea — especially in its more nuanced formulation as multi-crop regenerative agriculture coupled with wildland, wetland and forest conservation and reforestation, ending industrialized chemical pesticide monoculture farming and drastically reducing the entire meat industry, along with a popular shift to plant-based diets — though it is an entirely inadequate tactic for absorbing the ever increasing load of CO2 in the atmosphere being fed by gargantuan torrents of anthropogenic CO2 emissions exhausted as waste products from the fossil fueled engines powering today’s capitalism and militarism, which remain requirements by our capitalists and militarists for the continuation of our present civilizational paradigm.

So, planting trees is being done and will continue because it is something that many people can do to try to help, and because it poses no real threats to capitalism or militarism. But one of the cruelties of global warming is that high concentrations of CO2 combined with elevated global temperatures reduce the rate of photosynthesis and plant growth. These effects are called “acclimation” and “heat stress” of plants, respectively (https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z8c6gdm/revision/3).

Acclimation is either an enhancing or inhibiting effect on photosynthesis by high CO2 concentrations. Generally, photosynthesis is enhanced as CO2 concentration is increased from a low level. Then above an elevated threshold concentration, the rate of photosynthesis saturates and can even be reduced. The mechanism of the effect is involved and has been the subject of research for many years by agricultural scientists interested in maximizing crop yields (for example in greenhouses).

Elevated temperatures can cause heat stress in growing plants by dehydrating them: as in their fatally drying out in a drought. However, a growth inhibiting (and even growth killing) heat stress can also occur to well-watered plants by the high temperature “denaturing” of the enzymes that control the reaction rates (the chemical reactions) of the photosynthesis process within plant leaves.

Current research on plant growth under the combined effects of elevated temperature and high CO2 concentration shows that “in heat-stressed plants at normal or warmer growth temperatures, high CO2 may often decrease, or not benefit as expected, tolerance of photosynthesis to acute heat stress. Therefore, interactive effects of elevated CO2 and warmer growth temperatures on acute heat tolerance may contribute to future changes in plant productivity, distribution, and diversity.” (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19017125/)

There are now scientific projections of crop yield reductions for several agricultural regions, due to anticipated rises of CO2 concentrations and their related elevated regional temperatures. A report issued by Chatham House (https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/09/climate-change-risk-assessment-2021) on 14 September 2021 describes the following:

“The planet could be struck by a wave of ‘unprecedented’ crop failures in the next 20 years if global greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual… researchers detailed a litany of risks that climate change could pose to [food security]… global agriculture will need to produce nearly 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed a growing population. But as global demand increases, crop yields could drop by 30 percent as farmers contend with a hotter and more volatile planet… By 2050, an anticipated 40 percent of the planet’s cropland will be exposed to severe drought for at least three months per year, and the breadbaskets of the United States and southern Russia could be among the regions most affected. Europe, the report said, is likely to experience the largest increase in agricultural drought, ‘with the central estimate indicating that nearly half the cropland area will experience severe periods of drought by 2050’… By the 2040s, the United States, China, Brazil and Argentina, which grow 87 percent of the world’s maize, could suffer a steep drop in their maize production — all at the same time. ‘The probability of a synchronous crop failure of this order during the decade of the 2040s is just less than 50 percent.’… Farmers will also have to contend with a decline in the length of crop seasons and long stretches of water scarcity… East and South Asia will be particularly hard hit, with 230 million people subjected to prolonged drought by 2040. Outside of Asia, Africa will likely have the greatest number of people facing drought, exceeding 180 million by 2050. Many regions also will have to manage coastal and river flooding. By 2100… 75 million people in East, South, and Southeast Asia will face coastal flooding every year. ‘Across these three regions around 11 times more people will be impacted by coastal flooding than under a scenario in which climate change is averted.’” (https://thefern.org/ag_insider/crop-yields-seen-falling-without-climate-action-report/)

This all leads to a bleak vision of our planet’s future, where lives are shorter, food is more scarce, and 3.9 billion people “are likely to experience major heat waves.”

My purpose in describing all this is not to feed into more self-indulgent wallowing in depression and flaccid fatalism over the anticipated ‘collapse of civilization’ and ‘human extinction,’ but to show how elevated CO2 concentrations along with elevated global-regional temperatures will physically reduce our food security — crop yields — and in that way very directly shorten human life globally. This is intended to prod the public mind to get on with the job of effectively responding to global warming climate change, by cutting through the many excuses for continuing to cling to the dysfunctional behaviors (fossil fueled capitalism and militarism) driving the planetary crisis, and to change those behaviors to ensure we all have sufficient good food and clean water in an enduring future.

[Thanks to Peter Carter for pointing me to the Chatham House report.]

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Even Noah Would Be Amazed

A extensive televised BBC News story of 16 July 2021, titled “Catastrophic flooding across western Europe as politicians blame climate change,” showed the devastation caused by the rapid massive flooding in the region of Western Europe at the confluence of the borders of Germany, Belgium, France and Luxembourg during the third week of July 2021, when three times the monthly average of rainfall was dumped in only a day or two. In that report, the likely next Prime Minister of Germany forthrightly assigned blame for the catastrophe to global warming climate change, and urged serious and immediate national, European and world action to counter it by reducing anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide. (https://youtu.be/8A65JzDltY4)

If this flooding in Germany and Belgium this last week, and the vast fires and massively deadly heat in Northwestern USA and Canada, and Siberia the previous week, can cause such devastation despite occurring in the most technologically sophisticated and economically advanced and developed countries on Earth, how do you think such similarly “natural catastrophes,” amplified and accelerated by global warming, would affect (and are affecting) the hundreds of millions — even billions — of the Earth’s poorest and most vulnerable people — as in Sub-Sahara Africa, Amazonia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Pacific Islands?

This is real life Apocalypse Now. It will continue to “explode” much more slowly than the pacing within our very short attention spans — of seconds to maybe as long as months — and that explosion of catastrophe will continue for decades and even centuries if humanity continues to remain inert before this planetary reality.

The problem — that millions and billions more people have not yet been spurred into action by the all-too-obvious degradation of the climate-weather-biosphere interlocking systems — is far beyond the simple confusion of a deer-in-the-headlights problem. Fundamentally, it is the human inertia of the retreat into reassuring habit to mask the denial of existential fear, rather than a forthright confrontation of it with intelligent action.

Our destiny has been handed to us: either we exhibit triumphs of the human spirit by acting vigorously and cooperatively to counteract global warming, or we perish ignominiously in a degrading piecemeal fashion as willfully ignorant victims of our own stupidity, narcissism and witless folly.

What amazes me is how, in the face so such evident and advancing climate catastrophes, so many can be so enveloped in their illusion bubbles and remain completely blind to the ongoing collapse of the world, both natural and human: bubbles of greed illusions in desperation to acquire more exclusive corporate and “insider” subsidies in order to “compete”; bubbles of bigotry illusions ever in search of public affirmation and normalization of their favored brand of supremacist apartheid; bubbles of fear illusions ever in search of more armed protection from other “types” and “classes” and “foreigners”; pathetic bubbles of self illusions ever in search of “power” by phishing telemarketing of fake automobile warranties and “free money,” and hacking websites large and small and Facebook pages; and the narcissistic illusion bubbles of billionaire boys trying to explode mass media paroxysms of stupidity by ejaculating their ego rockets into space; and the hubristic bubbles of unmoored superpower illusions ever seeking to project power “geo-strategically”, to monopolize hydrocarbon deposits and trade, and to stifle small countries with marginal economies, as with Cuban socialism just south over the Caribbean horizon from a sinking, collapsing and sea-level-rise-flooding Miami.

In that BBC report, Britt Blom, a café owner helping to clear the masses of debris clogging her village streets after the flood waters had receded, said: “We need to stay positive, we can cry all day but this will not help anything. So, better smiling and keep working.”

And for the rest of us in this ever shrinking wide world, that “working” means: to help clean up after the tragedies “here,” to help other victims of tragedy both near and far, and to face up to global warming climate change and biodiversity collapse, with real and cooperative action to help slow the pace of our expanding planetary catastrophe.

Wake up, people.

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Publicly Subsidized Climate Change Insurance for Big Oil

“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My 14 August 2018 article, “Climate Change Bites Big Business” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/14/climate-change-bites-big-business/), described the now evident large financial impacts on Big Business caused by climate change, for example:

— the bankrupting-level liabilities to one California electric utility company (PG&E) for causing massive wildfires in 2017,

— the threat of similar future liabilities to the entire electric utility industry, especially in Western America,

— huge losses to fire insurance companies in California during 2017-2018 (and similar possibilities wherever drought occurs in highly developed areas),

— huge losses to flood, hurricane and tornado insurance companies, because of the more violent rain-and-wind storms of recent years (like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the hurricanes since),

— the possible throttling of future commercial and real estate investment if insurance rates and bank loan interest rates increase sharply because wildfire and weather related destructive events are now permanently amplified by climate change.

In the article cited above, I concluded:

“I think that the pretense of climate change denialism by the Big Money has crumbled, and we are now entering a period of overt climate change acknowledgment coupled with fanatical efforts to gain public subsidies for private interests to both insure and indemnify them against climate change-related financial losses, and to also preserve the nature of their businesses even if they are major CO2 and organic vapor polluters, like the petrochemical and coal companies.”

Confirmation of the above conclusion is provided by The Associated Press article of 22 August 2018, “Big oil asks government to protect its Texas facilities from climate change” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-protect-oil-facilities-from-climate-change-coastal-spine/), which describes:

“An ambitious proposal to build a nearly 60-mile ‘spine’ of concrete seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates and steel levees on the Texas Gulf Coast… to shield some of the crown jewels of the petroleum industry, which is blamed for contributing to global warming and now wants the federal government to build safeguards against the consequences of it. The plan is focused on a stretch of coastline that runs from the Louisiana border to industrial enclaves south of Houston that are home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrochemical facilities, including most of Texas’ 30 refineries, which represent 30 percent of the nation’s refining capacity. Texas is seeking at least $12 billion for the full coastal spine, with nearly all of it coming from public funds. Last month, the government fast-tracked an initial $3.9 billion for three separate, smaller storm barrier projects that would specifically protect oil facilities.”

Capitalism is a combustion engine that burns fossil fuels to churn out privatized financial wealth, government power (by fueling the military) and socialized waste heat and greenhouse gas pollution whose accumulation in Nature creates and accelerates global warming-induced climate change.

The bald fact of the oil industry seeking to have the public subsidize the protection of its facilities — and its profitability — from the natural climate-changing consequences of its own operations must rank as one the most colossal combinations of blind greed, chutzpah, cognitive dissonance and inertia during this Oil Age.

But, this is where we are today in our collective response (if you can call it that) to the advancing threats posed by climate change to organized human life.

More polemics are pointless, and our existing politics is madness.

Note:

The phrase “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad” is spoken by Prometheus in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Masque of Pandora” (1875).

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Climate Change Bites Big Business
14 August 2018
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/08/14/climate-change-bites-big-business/

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Now also at Counter Punch;

Publicly Subsidized Climate Change Insurance for Big Oil
27 August 2018
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/27/publicly-subsidized-climate-change-insurance-for-big-oil/

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