UI Professor Talks Climate Change and Food Supply

Monday, January 23, 2012

By Tara Bannow
Iowa City Press-Citizen

As a college student in the 1970s, Jerry Schnoor wouldn’t have dreamed humans could raise the temperature of the oceans through greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate change has had effects few scientists could predict. Schnoor, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Iowa, said that between 1959 and 2008, the average sea surface temperature increased 1 degree Fahrenheit. To illustrate that, he cited the world’s population in an example.

“If every one of those 7 billion people had 40 industrial-strength hair dryers running continuously, that’s how much heat we’re adding to the oceans,” he said. “It’s actually a lot of heat.”

Schnoor discussed the effects of climate change, particularly on the world’s food supply, Sunday night at the Congregational United Church of Christ. The presentation was the third in a seven-part series the church is hosting called “Feeding the World and Feeding the Community.” About 50 people attended the event, nearly all of them middle-aged and older.

He began by providing statistics on the effects of greenhouse gases emitted by humans’ fuel sources. The overall global average surface temperature has increased 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 150 years, he said.

“Our emissions are out of control, and we don’t have a good plan for how to rein them in,” he said.

But climatologists don’t worry as much about the 1.4 degree increase, as much as its ability to increase weather extremes, Schnoor said. For example, for every single low temperature record that’s set, seven high temperature records also are set, he said.

The U.S. government has been particularly non-responsive on the issue of climate change, he said, despite the fact that it’s responsible for nearly one-third of the total amount of climate altering greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere over time.

Significant progress has been made worldwide to reduce the amount of people living in extreme poverty, Schnoor pointed out. But as climate change increasingly affects crop yields and creates droughts and other extreme weather conditions, hunger will be an even bigger issue, he said.

Schnoor’s final point addressed the question of what people can do now, to which he said: promote sustainable farming practices, increase access to agricultural technology, adapt to climate change and facilitate tree planting.

Glenn Kaiser, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Iowa City, asked Schnoor if there is a way to measure how much of global warming is caused by natural solar emissions versus by man-made sources. Schnoor answered that 0.1 percent of emissions comes from the sun’s rays, a number that’s “now dwarfed by the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

Kaiser said Americans are fed misinformation regarding climate change and need to be better educated on what’s happening.

“What they’re seeing is this is all natural,” he said. “That’s why I asked (Schoor) the question, because he knew that it’s not all natural. But how do you separate them out? How do you convince them that it’s not all natural?”

North Liberty resident Miriam Kashia said that in a way, Schnoor is preaching to the choir, because those who attended the presentation already are concerned about the issues. Unfortunately, she said, most Americans are not.

“I think because those who have a vested interest have done a good job of being naysayers and deniers,” she said, “and as a result, the majority of the public has their heads in the sand.”