The long-term impact of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord will wash over everything from agriculture to economics to housing. Many of us who follow climate change news are aware that Greenland’s ice is melting away, the Antarctic is cracking, and some Pacific islands are going underwater as seas rise—all because we are pumping more greenhouse gases into the thin layer of atmosphere in which we live.
This is all quite worrisome, but I am concerned about something close to home as well: coffee.
This extraordinary beverage that helps kick-start people’s days is consumed by over 60% of Americans, or over 190 million people. Americans take their morning coffee, latte, cappuccino, or espresso for granted, but it has taken a lot of trouble to grow those beans, and they have traveled a long distance before ending up in their cups. Most coffee is grown near the equator, but increasing temperatures, new pests, droughts, and intensive rainfall are taking their toll on the crop. Coffee varieties are sensitive to even slight changes in temperature, which affect both yield and flavor. There is also a new pest, the coffee borer, which seems to enjoy the changing conditions and is spreading worldwide.
Growing food is already risky, but it will only become riskier as climate change impacts intensify. If we persist on our current trajectory, the potential for temperatures to increase in the next few decades could reduce the global area suitable for production of coffee by as much as half by 2050. The impact will be enormous, particularly for the 25 million small land-holder farmers who grow coffee in more than 70 countries. Valued at about $19 billion in 2015, coffee is the “second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries.”
The U.S. needs leadership, not denial, to meet the grand challenge facing it. This means America must fund research that helps coffee producers and other farmers adapt to the climate changes underway and address new pests and diseases. The country also needs to invest in science that helps predict future temperature and rainfall conditions, so farmers can adopt new cropping practices to ensure yield and quality of coffee beans and other products. And it’s not just coffee America should worry about, after all: Food staples like wheat, corn, and beans will also face increasing production challenges.
Most importantly, we need global leadership—especially from the U.S.—to begin to transition to a carbon neutral, if not carbon negative, existence. If we don’t, then coffee—like many other dietary staples—may become much more expensive, or die out completely. Some coffee bean prices have been projected to increase threefold due to weather extremes, and continuing warming will only make matters worse, affecting price and flavor.
Imagine that: The end of coffee. That sounds like the end of America itself!
Mike Hoffmann is executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the department of entomology.