As failed crops, droughts, and extreme weather cause more upheaval we may need to rethink our definitions

Across 17th century Europe, the temperature suddenly dropped two degrees, in what we now call the Little Ice Age. Crops failed and livestock froze to death; famines claimed millions of lives and soon, whole populations were on the move.

Fruit growers in Austria might understand. A frost in Styria in late April 2016 destroyed some 80 percent of the crop, with losses projected over €100 million. The worst damage was to the apples – a “total loss” – but pears, apricots, cherries, plums and elderberries were all affected, with similar patterns across Europe. Worse, it followed two seasons of severe storm damage, a multi-year sequence worse that any could remember.

“It’s an enormous catastrophe,” Styria’s agriculture counselor Johann Seitinger told the ORF. “In just one night, 2000 farm families lost the entire year’s income.” In desperation, farmers rushed out to set out paraffin lamps to keep the air temperature above freezing, hoping to preserve later crops – the wine grapes and pumpkins.  By mid morning, a veil of smog hung over the valleys, as grey as the mood.

Is this due to climate change?  No one can be sure, but it is consistent with a three-fold increase in climate-related disasters – storms, floods and droughts – over the last 30 years, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).

Still, Austrian farmers are lucky: Here a National Disaster Relief Fund along with private insurance will largely compensate them for the losses.  In other parts of the world, with no safety net, a few bad years can destroy an entire agricultural sector.

This is also what has happened in Syria. For six years from 2006 to 2012, drought devastated large swaths of the country. Triggered by an ill-fated drive for agricultural self-sufficiency in the 1970s that drained the aquifers, the crisis has been accelerated by climate change across the entire region, according to a 2015 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Today, the Fertile Crescent of legend is drying out, increasingly unable to support agriculture at all.

In Syria, farm families migrated to the cities, already teeming with refugees from the Iraq War, in the face of lost livelihoods, rising food price and overcrowding. So while the drought may not have directly “caused” the Syrian Civil War, study co-author Richard Seager told Scientific American, “added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.”

The pressures of climate change have become what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calls a “threat multiplier,” creating a new class of migrants: the “climate refugees” – something unforeseen in the Geneva Accords.  “If you think migration is a challenge to Europe today, because of extremism,” Kerry warned, “wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food.”

So now what? Can we mitigate climate change? Change the conversation in Eastern Europe?  Reconsider genetically engineered grain? Rethink the growth paradigm? Share what we have?

We need to ask ourselves a lot of questions.

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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic