The Iowa River surging over its banks and the reservoir north of town threatening to breach its emergency spillway in early July marked the second major flood in Iowa City in two years, six years after a so-called 500-year flood, 21 years after a so-called 100-year flood. Luckily, this year’s flood appears to have fallen short of devastation, though areas and some buildings along the river remain under water and thoroughly soggy.
While environmental activists are usually careful not to attribute specific weather events to climate change, this isn’t normal. The floods have caused billions in damage to the area’s infrastructure, businesses and homes, in addition to millions more spent to fill sandbags and hoist flood walls during almost-devastating floods like this summer’s.
But if Iowa and our neighbors—America’s breadbasket—are repeatedly ravaged by weather like this, the impacts are likely to be worse than wet basements and buckled concrete: The storms could someday threaten our ability to feed ourselves.
“You can’t look at any particular storm and say ‘climate change,’ but if you look at the pattern, the pattern is clearly in view,” said Ed Fallon, a liberal Iowa activist and the organizer of the cross-country Great March for Climate Action, happening now. “You’re on solid ground when you look at the plethora of weather events and say this is climate change due to our impact on the climate.”
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources puts it plainly on its website: “Among the climate changes Iowa is already experiencing: Increased frequency of precipitation extremes that lead to flooding.”
Climate change affects food production in several ways. Some years, abnormally long growing seasons can be a boon for growing. But in other years, climate change means extremes: too hot or too cold; too rainy or too dry. Those events can disrupt planting and harvesting, damage or kill a portion of crops and also accelerate land erosion, washing some of the planet’s richest soil down rivers and streams.
Last fall—following a summer that turned from a flood to a drought in a matter of weeks—dozens of Iowa scientists signed an open letter warning that volatile weather is a threat to the state’s capacity to grow food.
“Our state has long held a proud tradition of helping ‘feed the world.’ Our ability to do so is now increasingly threatened by rising greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change,” the researchers wrote. ” … Iowa’s soil and agriculture remain our most important economic resources, but these resources are threatened by climate change. It is time for all Iowans to work together to limit future climate change and make Iowa more resilient to extreme weather. Doing so will allow us to pass on to future generations our proud tradition of helping to feed the world.”
Some places around the world have already seen major food insecurity related to extreme weather. The ongoing violence in Syria that had widespread attention earlier this year, for instance, was stirred in some part by water and food shortages caused by years of extreme drought. And more of the same could be on the way: A 2012 report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council suggested that both floods and water shortages will grow more common over the next decade and eventually “will increase the risk of instability and state failure.”
People overseas may be bearing the brunt of extreme weather, water problems and food insecurity, but Americans aren’t immune.
Food insecurity is a widespread problem across the United States as food prices rise faster than wages. According to the national nonprofit Feeding America, some 13 percent of Iowans sometimes lack access to enough healthy food. Nationally, the portion of Americans who are food insecure has held steady in recent years, even as the economy has improved and unemployment has shrunk. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices have outpaced general inflation, meaning even people who earn a decent paycheck sometimes can’t keep up with their grocery bill.
Even if we stopped emitting harmful gases today, wild weather would likely continue for some time. So activists are not only calling for less pollution, but also a plan to deal with extreme weather and its agricultural and ecological impacts.
“I think we’ve taken some real baby steps in the right direction, but there’s a Mack truck coming at us and I don’t think we’re acting like that,” said Iowa Sen. Rob Hogg, a Cedar Rapids Democrat who has made climate change his top priority. ” … These are real consequences, but where are the large-scale programs? This is one of the central things we need to be dealing with in public life.”
Fallon—whose 3,000-mile Great March for Climate Action, from California to Washington D.C. is snaking through Iowa right now—said he sees people in traditionally conservative rural areas who have become concerned with climate change.
“Some of the people out here may be conservative, but they understand our weather is not what it used to be and that we’ve got to do things differently in order to keep things from going totally off kilter,” Fallon told me last month during a phone interview from a highway somewhere in Nebraska. ” … The bigger challenge is how do we adapt? That’s a tough one because we don’t know what all the impacts will be. Are we ready to feed lots of New Yorkers and Floridians when they come here? You can only build a sea-wall so high around Manhattan.”
Adam B Sullivan is a writer, activist and Iowa City native.