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We are no longer in transition. The climate change future is here for food, ag and nature

For the land, water and farming sectors, we are already living in the climate crisis. Are you still talking about transition risk?

River landscape

The Colorado River has become the first major site of the climate crisis hitting the United States. Image by Jesse Klein/GreenBiz.

During a keynote address at GreenBiz 23 in Scottsdale, Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International, asked the crowd of sustainability professionals, "Why do birds matter for your business?" The answer, "Birds tell us what is happening with the planet. They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for climate change." And 49 percent of bird species are in decline, an ominous sign for the planet. 

During the other panels and talks throughout the week, there were repeated sentiments that we are living in the climate future we were warned about years ago. During a session on the Arizona water crisis, Will Thelander, a farmer in central Arizona, relayed that his annual water allocation from the Colorado River had been cut due to the shrinking reservoir, creating national headlines.

"I knew the cuts were coming," Thelander said, "but I thought it was going to come in 10 years from now. And once the water’s gone, I know it’s not coming back." 

Thelander doesn’t stay up nights hoping for a big snowpack to reestablish his previous water source. He is living in the climate crisis now, even if other farmers who still have their allocations are not.  

On the forestry side, climate change has quickly and drastically changed the No. 1 issue for the reforesting pipeline — seed shortages.

"This problem came out of nowhere," said Austin Rempel, director of Forest Restoration at American Forests during a session on reforestation. "Three years ago, only nurseries in the Southwest, states like Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, that are on the forefront of climate change were saying [seed shortage] was a problem."

Ponderosa pine, a common species used in reforestation projects in the west, already only produced seeds every 7 years. With droughts and heat, it’s become 14 years.

But now, according to him, seed shortages are at the top of the list of any nursery or reforestation project around the country. And climate change is partly to blame: The trees aren’t producing seeds at the level they used to. Ponderosa pine, a common species used in reforestation projects in the West, already only produced seeds every seven years. But with droughts and increases in heat, it’s become more like every 14 years, according to Rempel. 

So while the planet has already made its transition, corporations are still talking about transaction scenarios and piloting transition programs. Thelander has started to use groundwater on his farm in Arizona and is growing more water-efficient crops — pivoting away from corn to sorghum and focusing on a small batch of guayule, a desert native crop that produces rubber and requires much less water .

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, is dreaming of a market mechanism that would allow farmers on less productive lands to sell their water rights to farmers on more productive lands, but she insists that "this is only an idea." It hasn’t been put into practice in Arizona. 

To address the seed shortage, American Forests has started successful workforce development pilot programs, focused on reinvigorating the seed collection industry. The workforce is bringing more people into the profession by restructuring jobs to make them more desirable and stable — making jobs year-round instead of seasonal, where participants can work in the nurseries when the seed collecting season is over. 

The program also aims to support the industry as older collectors, flush with priceless institutional knowledge, retire without adequate replacements. Bryan Van Stippen, program director for the National Indian Carbon Coalition, lamented during the reforestation session that his tribe was awarded grants but were unable to take advantage of them due to the necessary, knowledgeable personnel retiring. 

It will also create jobs on tribal lands and careers for tribal youth and replace the destructive jobs in the timber industry that used to dominate tribal economies.   

While some boardrooms are still arguing over transition risk, it’s clear the transition has happened. And the people on the ground have already started to adapt.

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