Shriveled cherries, withered wheat heads, blistered sweet onions, and 36 people dead of heat-related illnesses east of the Cascades — at least one of them a Yakima farmworker — prove we needn’t look any further than Eastern Washington for tangible, deadly evidence that the warnings of August’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are already upon us.
Imagine hearing an air raid siren and realizing the bomb has already detonated.
This summer’s once-in-a-thousand-year extreme weather event began in late June, when a heat dome formed off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, pushing hot air inland and sent temperatures soaring. Triple-digit temperatures killed people and livestock, harmed salmon, and drastically damaged food crops.
Cherries — ripening right as the heat spike arrived — were the first Washington crop to take a hit. Orchardists scrambled to save the delicate fruit from heat damage with shade canopies, sprinklers, and night harvesting. Other farmers crunched numbers and opted to let their trees full of shriveled cherries remain unpicked. About 20% of Washington’s cherry harvest was lost to the severe heat.
Walla Walla onion growers watched their sweet onions literally cook in the dirt as temperatures surged over 110 degrees in places, stunting some onions’ growth and blistering others beyond saving. Onion farmer Fernando Enriquez Jr. said he lost 98% of his crop; he had no crop insurance coverage this year.
Unseasonably hot weather lingered in our region for weeks — then months — after the initial June scorcher. On July 14th, Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) issued a drought emergency. Two weeks later, DOE adopted a rule “which establishes funding to help mitigate the most severe human health, fish health, and agricultural emergencies caused by drought conditions.” As of Labor Day, 38% of Washington — and almost all of Eastern WA — is still experiencing “exceptional drought,” the most severe classification on the drought scale. Growing conditions haven’t been this dry since 1977.
Then on August 6th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released part one of AR6, its sixth scientific assessment report on climate change. The report quantified what we could already feel with our sweaty skin.
“WHAT WE’RE IN NOW”
Subtitled “Code-Red for Humanity,” AR6 confirmed that human activity — particularly fossil fuel emissions, industrialization, and deforestation — is “unequivocally” responsible for climate change. The 4,000-ish-page report packed a wallop of uncomfortable data but not many shocks for the scientists and climate journalists who’ve been paying attention.
Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki weighed in on the IPCC, writing that the report
“contained little we didn’t already know. It has profound legal implications, though — which could offer hope to youth climate litigants, marginalized communities suffering disproportionately from impacts and even island nations threatened by rising sea levels.”
Echoing Suzuki’s sentiment, Dr. Kathryn Conlan, co-director of the Climate Adaptation Research Center at UC Davis, said, “The report didn’t have many scientific surprises but what has been glossed over is that we have a chance. It’s easy to get stuck in the details, but we have the opportunity to limit the change of what we’re in now.”
Since the publication of AR5 back in 2014, the scientific tools that sense and collect climate data have become more precise and reliable. The number of studies included in the IPCC’s report also grew. Such increased accuracy and quantity ought to put to rest any uncertainty about the cause and severity of climate change.
For decades, certain politicians, corporations, and fossil fuel lobbyists denied (or purposefully concealed) inconvenient truths about climate change, claiming that the jury’s still out and scientists don’t know for sure. But the numbers are now laid bare. The proof is exhaustive.
Though certain facts are difficult to digest — for example, glaciers will continue to melt and sea levels will keep rising, regardless of carbon emissions — the report’s detailed analysis also provides some relief. We now know that the Inland Northwest’s sweltering heat wave and “exceptional” drought could not have been possible without human-induced climate change. Period.
Greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide (from fossil fuels) and methane (from natural gas, open-air landfills, cattle, and rice farming) raise Earth’s average global temperature. And as the average global temperature rises, so does the frequency and severity of volatile weather like hurricanes, super storms, and heat waves like the one here at home that buckled concrete and melted vinyl siding. Heat domes and other “closed-loop” heating phenomena will become more common if the climate crisis spirals unchecked.
The wildfires that obliterated thousands of acres of PNW forests this summer not only polluted the air and wiped out wildlife habitat, but also destroyed natural sinks. “Sinks” are what the IPCC calls naturally occurring land-and-ocean filters that keep greenhouse gasses in check and balance precipitation (water) cycles. Deforestation reduces “evapotranspiration,” which leads to drought. Turns out, trees cool us in more ways than just the shade they provide.
In a region-specific prognosis, the IPCC projects that “increases in drought and fire weather in WNA [Western North America] and CNA [Central North America] … will continue to increase in the future particularly at higher warming levels.” For these same regions, the IPCC also predicts future rises in extreme precipitation (snow and rain) as well as river flooding.
Even the most stubborn climate-science deniers will have a tough time maintaining a jury’s still out on climate change act now. Evidence of climate chaos is hitting people in the wallet too. Anyone who drinks coffee may already notice higher prices and a global shift in coffee bean varieties. These shifts are directly tied to unusually cold weather in Brazil. And we have yet to see the full extent of consumer price hikes on PNW agricultural goods affected by this summer’s devastating temperatures.
Doom to Bloom
Yes, the situation is bad. Really bad. But we need to avoid fatalism and take a clear-eyed, proactive approach to fighting the fight. Start here:
Ben Thiel, Director of the USDA Risk Management Agency's Spokane Regional Office, calls 2021 “the most impactful year, as far as a broad spectrum of losses.” So far, hop harvest in the Yakima Valley is late, but the crop looks good. That’s certainly not the case for barley and wheat.
Over in Idaho, statewide barley production is “terrible,” down as much as 36% compared to 2020. In Plaza, WA, soon-to-be retired wheat farmer Brad Kjack describes Washington’s wheat season as “a complete disaster." Kjack faces a crop loss of up to 70%. Other wheat farmers are expecting about half of normal harvests, or less. Wheat quality is suffering too; plants that did make it have tiny heads, short stalks, and wonky protein content.
Remarking on the climate disruptions he can track with his own eyes, Farmer Kjack says:
"Our weather pattern is changing, I don't know if you notice this, but it just seems like we have more storms. The weather can be 70 one day and 100 the next day. We just have more and more of that all the time...It's going to take some water this year to get the crops going for next year.”
Kjack touches on a tough reality of wheat-growing: This year’s arid soil will negatively impact next season’s wheat too. That’s because new seedlings need to be planted in moist soil this September. Yet drought conditions are expected to last through fall. Only 10% of Washington wheat farmers use irrigation. The rest rely on rainfall, which remains ultra sparse.
“A comfort to you, and a nightmare for them”
The IPCC helps connect the dots between global weather trends and their local impacts. Contrary to the “code-red” hype, the report does not spell certain death for the planet.
It does, however, spell certain death for the experiment of whether life can persist in a world where carbon-based fuels power unfettered industrial activity. That experiment failed.
Professor Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, writes: “The IPCC findings point the finger directly at the fossil fuel industry. Which should be a comfort to you, and a nightmare for them.”
Rumor has it the IPCC’s follow-up report, due in early 2022, will more directly call out the disproportionately high carbon use by wealthy countries — and by extension, capitalism. The follow-up will also push bold-but-necessary measures that could steer us toward survival, while there’s still time.
After all, though scientists are surer than ever of how we got here, the future state of the planet and maximum global temperature isn’t as certain. Our action — or inaction — will determine that future.
edited by Luke Baumgarten