Drought and climate change: more of the same or a new normal?

This post is the fourth in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Lesley Head writes on drought and climate change.

In our book Ingrained. A Human Bio-geography of Wheat, Jenny Atchison, Alison Gates and I discussed wheat farmers’ experience and understanding of drought. Whatever their views on anthropogenic climate change, coping with climatic variability goes with the territory of being a farmer. ‘That’s our job description’, said one, reflecting widespread pride in the capacities of wheat farmers to cope with drought. It’s a job description that comes with a certain amount of pain, as attested by stories of stressed families and sleepless nights over unpaid bills. If living with drought is normal, how different will climate change be? In this post I consider four angles on that question.

Drought and climate change as assemblages. Neither drought nor climate change is a standalone entity with clearly defined boundaries or simplistic lines of causation. It is more than four decades since Australian geographer Les Heathcote wrote that drought was partly an issue of perception; he outlined some of the complex ways in which human, plant and animal experience interacted with the cold hard stats of rainfall. Generations of geography undergraduates have been taught to think of drought as a complex socioecological phenomenon. Similarly, it is helpful to think of climate change as an assemblage; something constituted by discourses, bureaucracies and financial instruments as well as atmospheric gases and rainfall events (or lack thereof). Concepts like assemblages, networks and webs of connection are characteristic of the relational thinking discussed last week by Leah Gibbs in her post against separated water. I have previously tried to use relational thinking to challenge the separated concept of human impacts.

We can think of this big assemblage we call climate change being expressed in a variety of everyday processes. Let’s consider how this is experienced by farmers, focusing on the temporal windows in which they make decisions.

Next Year’s Country. In telling us how a large grower in his district was in huge financial difficulty from having forward sold a crop that did not eventuate, and yet was ready to ‘go again’ next year, Keith described the farming landscape as ‘next year’s country’. Over tea and biscuits, numerous examples emerged. Each combined stubborn optimism with a temporal horizon that focused on getting a crop in the ground ‘next year’, juggling debt levels and input costs in anticipation of the elusive bumper harvest, or even the ‘good enough’ one that would enable them to survive until the year after that. Keith and his wife Fiona had pre-bought a quarter of their fertiliser at the unprecedented price of A$850 per tonne, thinking the price would go even higher.

Within the wheat farming year there are a few tipping points that drive crucial decisions. One is the arrival of  ‘the autumn break’, the rain that determines sowing. In recent years when the autumn break has been very late or non-existent, some farmers have elected to sow their crops dry so the seed will lie dormant in the ground until the rain comes. The risk is that if there is only a light shower, the seed may germinate but will wither and die without follow up rain.

Agriculture has been an inherently risky enterprise since hunter-gatherers traded diversification and mobility for monocultures and sedentism. But that seasonal cycle is only one of the temporalities in play. How are farmers – or any of us – to think about the longer term future of wheat farming, against an impossibly complex set of global processes, when they need to make Next Year work to have any chance at a viable longer term?

Farmer beliefs about climate change do not correlate with adaptive capacity. The diversity of farmer views about climate change and its relationship to the recent drought is encapsulated in the following quotes:

it’s happening but I’m not blaming the drought that we’ve just had on climate change. (Chris)

Well I sort of wondered for a while but I think I’ve got to go with it a bit now, I think something’s going on isn’t there? But then you talk to older people, some of the older fellows and … the 30s were like this. (Jim)

I’m not too big on climate change… A lot of people use it as an excuse for failure (Ted)

I think it’s climate variability and it’s always been and it always will be…mother nature, she overrules everything. (Joseph)

There is no straightforward relationship between these beliefs and adaptive capacity. Ted is an example of a strategic farmer who is well placed – by dint of off-farm diversification – to cope with the severe impacts of drought. Other farmers – who we label as reactive – invoke the randomness of nature, as Joseph does, or gambling metaphors to signal their own perceived lack of power over the future. These findings led us to argue that simple education or information campaigns about climate change are not the best way to increase adaptive capacity.

Is something different going on? This summer’s drought and heatwaves in the USA have stimulated renewed discussion on the relationships between drought and climate change.From a relational perspective, debates framed in terms like, ‘is this a climate change drought or just a normal drought?’ can seem rather pointless, since none of these concepts are inherently separable. Yet there is enough emerging evidence to challenge our thinking here. Australian climate scientists now argue that something different is going on; there is a global warming signal in the pattern of variability. And international studies argue the same thing; that the changes visible in the last three decades or so are taking earth systems beyond the range of Holocene variability.

The point for scholars, not to mention farmers, is to then consider how relations and pressure points may change in a ‘new normal’. What temporal windows will be relevant if the autumn break ceases to exist? What loan structures might banks need to put in place if Next Year comes less than once a decade? And ultimately, if the Holocene allowed agriculture to flourish over the last ten thousand years, what modes of subsistence are viable in the Anthropocene?


Lesley Head is on twitter @ProfLesleyHead. Next week, Emily O’Gorman writes about ‘Flood Country’, and after that Leah Gibbs returns to write on ‘Water and the politics of environmental knowledge’.

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