Living With No Regrets on Climate Change

As world leaders travel home from the United Nations international climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, months of work and hope have given way to dissent, disappointment and, for some, regret.

It could be a long time before the international community can achieve consensus on global climate strategy. In the meantime, there are strategies Californians can implement to improve our lives and our future prospects.

These "no regrets" strategies go beyond ideas for individual actions, such as cloth grocery bags and compact fluorescent bulbs. These strategies, on a state and local level, require us to come together to make choices that help our bottom line as well as the long-term timeline.

The imperative for "no regrets" strategies has particular importance for farming. Agriculture is the largest industry in California and is among the most vulnerable to climate fluctuations. Climate's impacts on our farms and ranches directly affect our economy, jobs and our food supply.

Many issues facing California today - water shortages, pollution, foreign oil dependence, farmland conversion, childhood health - are important no matter what happens in future international climate negotiations. If you believe the consensus among climate scientists, these strategies will help position California to deal with a changing climate. And even if you are not convinced, we still will be better off.

Either way, there are no regrets.

Water and agriculture

The recent commitment by the legislature to overhaul the state's water system is an historic venture that is meant to save a system that already is inadequate to meet many needs. Restructuring our water system is a tall order, not only to withstand earthquakes, but also to replace rigidity with flexibility and to create mechanisms and incentives to balance water needs for farming, for our cities and for nature.

A system that could do more with our scarce water supplies, in which farmers have the technology to produce "more crop per drop," where homeowners and businesses continue to increase efficiency and where salmon runs and rivers are healthy, also would help position our state to weather decreases in Sierra snowpack, droughts and rising sea levels.

Energy and nitrogen fertilizer

The unrivaled diversity of California's agriculture means there can be neither a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach nor a silver-bullet technology to drive efficiency on our farms and ranches. We need a broad approach to fit farmers' varied conditions and market realities, building on California's outstanding track record in energy efficiency. The opportunities to reduce petroleum dependence in our food sector go beyond greater transportation efficiency. In fact, "food miles" account for a small percentage of energy in food and agricultural activities. There are opportunities throughout the food chain that start before the farm -- such as how we manufacture farm inputs like nitrogen fertilizer -- and extend beyond our dinner plates, including how much food we waste and whether we convert it (and other agricultural waste) into an energy resource.

Within this mix of opportunities, the role of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has received little attention. Nitrogen fertilizer has helped drive spectacular increases in food production for the past century. Yet, if we continue on our current path of ever-increasing synthetic fertilizer inputs, this nitrogen also holds risks as a greenhouse gas and as a growing source of water pollution. The Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis is leading a California Nitrogen Assessment to search for more efficient ways to use nitrogen fertilizer that can keep our farm production growing while reducing farmers' costs and minimizing adverse effects.

Farmland preservation and healthy children

Discussions about "smart growth" focus on California's famous automobile culture, on our signature suburban sprawl and on the resulting emissions. Preservation of prime farmland is an additional reason to pursue smart growth planning and zoning to make our cities and towns more livable while preserving California's rural landscapes. Farmland preservation is popular -- no regrets if we can do it -- and it seems prudent in a world of uncertainty about how changes in climate might affect food production.

One aspect of smart growth -- the walkable community -- provides opportunities in another key California issue: childhood health. If more children walk or bike to school, less driving would decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Yet even a staunch climate change skeptic can look to the walkable community as an asset in the fight for the well-being of California's children.

All of these "no regrets" strategies require us to raise our awareness of the links between food, agriculture and climate and to seek solutions that meet our needs now and create a firm foundation for the future. Californians -- sometimes to our own surprise -- have come together before to provide leadership on big issues. In 2006, California's Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) became law, and it makes sense as a way to inspire the United States and the world toward progress. Reading the science and witnessing changes in our environment have convinced me that we need a global strategy to arrest climate change. California's actions can't substitute for a comprehensive global approach, but they are a start we won't regret.

Tom Tomich, founding director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, is the inaugural holder of the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and a professor in the departments of human and community development, and environmental science and policy. He also serves as director of the UC statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). He grew up in Orangevale, where his parents continue to farm land that has been in the family for over 110 years.