The Coffee Grower’s Paradox

Do climate change adaptation programs just shift climate vulnerability?

WHO: Aaron Atteridge and Elise Remling, Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

WHAT: Looking at the example of Colombian coffee growers to see if climate change adaptation projects shift vulnerability instead of fixing it.

WHEN: December 2013

WHERE: The Stockholm Environment Institute website

TITLE: The Indirect Effects of Adaptation: Pathways for Vulnerability Redistribution in the Colombian Coffee Sector (open access)

I love coffee and one of the things that really terrify me about climate change (other than the devastating droughts, diseases, storms, and lack of food) is that I might be forced to give up my daily caffeine habit. So naturally, I was interested to find out whether programs that were trying to promote adaptation in the coffee industry in Colombia (home of the worlds best quality Arabica beans) were hindering more than they were helping.

Coffee – we love it (photos: Amy Huva)

Coffee – we love it (photos: Amy Huva)

These researchers set out to look at the unintended consequences of adaptation – are we fixing the problem, or just making it someone else’s problem?

First, they needed to work out what could be vulnerable to change (not just climate change). The increasing globalisation of the world means that your coffee farm is no longer your own little island – it is affected by global prices, supply chains, and the connections between the people involved in all of those activities.

The researchers narrowed it down to five different categories:

  1. Natural capital (aka the ecosystem services you get from trees purifying your air, water feeding your soil etc.)
  2. Physical capital (how many coffee plants do you own? How many tractors does that require?)
  3. Social capital (strong family ties and community ties in the farming industry)
  4. Financial capital (how easy is it for the farmer to access capital to expand/improve their business?)
  5. Human capital (how educated is the farmer? How many local educated workers are nearby she can employ?)

From those categories, the researchers made a case study from interviews conducted with people in the coffee industry in Colombia in 2012. They interviewed farmers, buyers, representatives from the National Coffee Federation (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros), people at the national coffee research institute, federal and local government representatives as well as coffee pickers employed in the industry.

Aside from the fact that Colombia having a national institute dedicated to studying coffee being the most exciting thing I’ve heard all week (can I go visit? How do I donate to fund their research? Can I be a coffee scientist too?), the Colombian coffee industry is surprisingly large.

Coffee has been grown in Colombia for around 200 years and is still overwhelmingly run by small landholders, with 96% of farms being 1.6hectares or smaller. The National Coffee Federation not only represents over 500,000 farmers, but they have a national fund set up similar to Norway’s oil royalty future fund which uses profits from the coffee industry to benefit Colombians. Around 4million people in Colombia make a living from the coffee industry, and between 1964-2012 there were also 170 different international development projects hosted there.

I knew my coffee habit was a good thing!

Coffee science/tastings (photo: Amy Huva)

Coffee science/tastings (photo: Amy Huva)

From their interviews, the researchers worked out that the sources of vulnerability in the industry were pretty much the same as any other industry – price and price volatility, access to markets, access to finance, harvest and yield changes, production costs and knowledge of alternative/more efficient practices.

This means that many of the pressures Colombian coffee farmers are facing are exactly the same problems many other industries are facing like changes in market preference (organic coffee production possibly outstripping demand), or international development aid being used on things that are not a priority for the farmers. This led the researchers to conclude that unexpected flow-on effects are pretty much the norm, not the exception to the rule.

The difference for coffee growers in Colombia is the direct effect climate change will have on them as the prime coffee growing conditions move to higher latitudes where the soil is not as fertile.

The key risk for adaptation programs looking at climate change is that farmers in areas that are now marginal for growing coffee will get ignored or abandoned, when they’re the ones that really need the help to either diversify their crops or find new livelihoods as climate change really bites.

So the moral of the story seems to be that while climate change is going to affect the way we all do things, if we’re going to try and help with adaptation, we can’t forget the marginal growers.

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Stinking Hot Down Under

The numbers are in: 2013 was the hottest year on record in Australia since records began.

WHO: Will Steffen, Australian National University, Canberra Australia

WHAT: A report on how many heat records were broken in Australia last year

WHEN: January 2014

WHERE: The Climate Council website

TITLE: Off the Charts: 2013 Australia’s Hottest Year (open access)

Last week in Australia it was stinking hot. I was texting with my brother (who is doing a PhD in Meteorology so is also a massive nerd like me) about the heatwave forecast and we came up with a new term for what an overnight minimum temperature should be called when it’s too high. We decided that an overnight low of 28.6oC should be called a ‘lower maximum’ because that’s too hot to sleep in.

Unfortunately, this is the new normal for Australia, which has just been shown in excellent infographic form by the Australian Climate Council. It was a banner year for Australia last year breaking all kinds of heat records and having the hottest average temperature since record keeping started in 1910.

 

It looks pretty, but it’s so hot the sand burns your feet. Mornington Peninsula, Vic (photo: Amy Huva)

It looks pretty, but it’s so hot the sand burns your feet. Mornington Peninsula, Vic (photo: Amy Huva)

Now, I know we Australians are a competitive people who always like to win, but breaking these records are not so much fun.

Nationally, the records broken were:

  •  Highest average temperature across the country 1.20oC higher than the 1961-90 baseline years
  • Highest mean maximum temperature across the country 1.45oC above the baseline years
  • Mean minimum temperature across the country of 0.94oC above baseline years
  • Hottest January on record
  • Hottest summer on record (Dec 2012-Feb 2013)
  • Hottest winter day on record – August 31st 29.92oC
  • Hottest September on record of 2.75oC above baseline
  • Hottest spring on record
  • Hottest December on record

Locally, some of the notable records were:

  • South Australia broke their spring monthly average temperature record by 5.39oC
  • New South Wales broke their spring monthly average temperature record by 4.68oC
  • Alice Springs had their hottest October day ever of 42.6oC
  • Canberra’s October was 2.5oC above average
  • West Kimberly in Western Australia was a shocking 4oC above average for October

Sea Surface Temperatures were record highest for January and February 2013 and of the 21 days Australia has ever had with a country-wide average temperature above 39oC there were 8 of them in 2013 and 7 of them happened consecutively in January 2013! Remember in the news when Australia had to create a new colour on their temperature maps? That was then.

Even worse, this extreme heat was not pumped up with the influence of El Niño, which normally makes years warmer. The year had no strong El Niño or La Niña effect, so it was a climate-changed year.

Since 1950, the number of heat records has beaten the cold records in Australia at a rate of 3:1 and in true Australian style; we’ve exceeded expectations and broken all kinds of records. This is the new normal, and it’s only going to get worse unless we stop burning carbon.

Infographic by the Climate Council.

Infographic by the Climate Council.

Send in the Clouds

The influence of clouds is one of the big uncertainties for climate sensitivity.

WHO: Steven C. Sherwood, Climate Change Research Centre and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Sandrine Bony, Jean-Louis Dufresne, Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique and Institut Pierre Simon Laplace (LMD/IPSL), CNRS, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France

WHAT: Measuring evaporation, humidity and temperature change in the lower troposphere

WHEN: 2 January 2014

WHERE: Nature, Vol 505, No. 7481

TITLE: Spread in model climate sensitivity traced to atmospheric convective mixing (subs req)

The big question for many people in climate science is what happens when we double the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere? Is it good and plants grow more? Is it bad and we all die in the next mass extinction? Is it somewhere in between and maybe we’ll be ok?

Most climate models estimate between 1.5oC and 4.5oC of warming for the doubling of CO2, but as I’ve blogged before there’s a huge difference between the consequences of 1.5oC and 4.5oC. So how do we narrow this down for a more accurate model?

These scientists from Australia and France decided to measure the drying effect of cloud mixing to try and sort it out.

Cloud feedbacks are one of the unknowns in climate models – they’re constantly changing, their impact is localised, but overall they have a big impact. They also have different impacts at different levels. High clouds, which are 8km above ground (or at 400hPa pressure) play a minor role in feedback, because at that level of the atmosphere, the temperature isn’t changing that much – it’s happening in the lower atmosphere because that’s where we’re spewing all our carbon pollution (incidentally, warming in the lower atmosphere and lack of warming in the upper atmosphere is one of the ways we know humans are causing current climate change).

Mid level clouds (from 3km-8km) have medium levels of climate feedbacks, but the low clouds – below 3km (750hPa pressure) are capable of strong feedback. Because of this, these researchers decided to measure the low clouds.

Obligatory cloud photo (photo: Amy Huva)

Obligatory cloud photo (photo: Amy Huva)

The evaporation that increases as the temperature warms could lead to more clouds forming, however on the other hand a warmer climate could mean more dry air is drawn to the surface which doesn’t allow the clouds to form. Which one is it?

Firstly, cloud mixing. 2km above sea level there is a cloud boundary where a specific type of cloud mixing takes place. This is called ‘lower tropospheric mixing’ which sounds to me like a drink I’d order on a summer beach holiday. What it actually means is a mix of downdrafts of wind, local evaporation of rain and the transportation of shallow clouds. There is large scale mixing which happens via specific circulations, and there’s small scale mixing which is much more varied and localised.

Cloud mixing at the boundary layer (from paper)

Cloud mixing at the boundary layer (from paper)

The researchers measured each type of mixing (small scale and large scale) separately to see whether they would dry out with increased temperatures or not. They measured the temperature and humidity change as well as drying between 700hPa and 850hPa pressure to work out the method of mixing involved.

From the 48 different models they looked at – those that got warmer also got drier. For the small scale mixing, with 4oC of warming, the drying increased by 6-30% compared with only 8% on land. This means that while the land surface is experiencing smaller amounts of drying, clouds are drying out faster. So if you think the drought is bad – it’s worse for the poor clouds.

For the large scale mixing, the researchers looked at monthly data from 10 different models and from applying temperature, humidity and drying to climate sensitivity were able to account for 50% of the variance in system cloud feedbacks! Considering they started their research project saying that ‘no compelling theory of low cloud amount has yet emerged’ I’d say that’s a very successful experiment.

The bad news is they also found with large scale mixing that for every degree Celsius of warming, drying increased by 5-7%. They also found that moisture transport increases strongly with warming, but further research will be needed to work out why that happens (yay science! Discovering new things!).

So this means that from their models with increased accuracy of cloud feedback measuring, a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere shows a sensitivity of 4oC warming, with a lower limit of 3oC. The researchers found that anything less than 3oC of warming did not line up with cloud observations for that concentration of CO2. The researchers point out that you can’t rule out something weird happening in nature that could change the process suddenly (those scary tipping points), but the process they found was this:

Lower tropospheric mixing dries out the boundary layer by 5-7% per degree of warming because of stronger vertical water vapour gradients, which lead to surface evaporation increases of 2% per degree of warming.

While it’s good to know with more certainty the impacts of doubling CO2 in the atmosphere, unfortunately this time it’s not good news. The way to solve this problem? Stop burning carbon before we’ve doubled CO2.