Expert Voices

Guacamole and Coke are Latest Victims of a Warming Planet (Op-Ed)

(Image credit: Guacamole and pit image via Shutterstock)

Raghu Murtugudde is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and a professor in the university's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. This Op-Ed was adapted from one that first appeared on Gudde-Blog. Murtugudde contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Chipotle, the popular fresh-burrito chain, recently announced that it may stop serving guacamole if the expected drier climate in its suppliers' regions unreasonably drives up avocado prices. Chipotle knows guacamole — after all, it uses more than 35 million pounds of avocados per year — and believes in using produce from within 350 miles of its restaurants. But this philosophy comes with a risk directly tied to regional climate change.

Coke and Nike are among the big industries that can now wax poetic about the economic impacts of climate change. The severe droughts in places like California (some parts are facing the driest conditions in 500 years) and India have accomplished something that even the loudest of the screaming global-warming crusaders could not: Coke cannot survive without water, and Nike has to rely on cotton, unless it can switch to synthetic materials. The oil companies are not all onboard the climate bus, but the writing is on the wall for them too. Their productions levels continue to dip, but the bullish expenditures on exploring new sources are rising almost exponentially with no hopes of profitable payoffs.

Climate epiphanies inspired by potential economic and other crises are occurring globally, as well as within some of the "reddest" states in the United States, and soon may erase the vast divide between liberals and conservatives on this issue.

Greensburg, Kan., for example, a small town of 1.5 square kilometers and a population just under 800, boasts of the world's largest hand-dug well. On May 4, 2007, a category 5 tornado flattened Greensburg, killing 11 people and leaving only one historic building standing. Today, however, the town has rebuilt itself "green," and now is home to the largest number of LEED-certified buildings, per capita, in the world. It generates its power from wind, and sells its carbon offsets to businesses like Ben & Jerry's and Stonyfield Farm.

Much time is spent worrying about the liberal and conservative divide on climate change action , but it may be that this line has more to do with climate experts' inability to communicate effectively about climate-change impacts, or actions people can take — that is, there seems to be no real emotional identity with a risk that does not feel imminent. [Climate Change Needs an Elephant Whisperer (Op-Ed)]

When direct and personal experience of climate change provides evidence, however, there may be no daylight between liberals and conservatives on what to do. This is especially true for businesses as they begin to realize how climate change will begin to hurt their bottom line — or the increased prices consumers might have to pay to continue to enjoy the companies' products.

These direct, personal experiences are driving current climate epiphanies. The unbreathable air over a large swath of China's eastern coast and the more than a million premature deaths related to the poor air quality has forced that nation to release air quality data, as its citizens demand. China even has downgraded its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate to 7.5 percent from its usual 10 percent with specific goals for cutting down particulate matter in the air that cause serious respiratory illnesses.

The impact of air quality on foreign investments has also been growing in recent years. India reacted strongly when air quality over New Delhi was reported to be just as bad as Beijing's. India is still seen as a reluctant participant in climate diplomacy, but it does have action plans for climate, energy, biofuel, carbon pricing and other issues. A drought that persists for two years will be devastating for India, but may push that populous country into high gear on climate action.

The Global Legislators Organization just released a comprehensive study on climate legislation adopted by a number of countries. More than 500 new mandates have been adopted by 66 countries, with China and Mexico leading the pack. For the first time, China has beaten the United States on spending for smart grids. Canada and the United States remain two of the biggest carbon pollution emitters without comprehensive legislation to deal with climate change.

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to draft a plan to regulate coal-power plants, and has proposed new fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks. In addition, he has included a $1 billion dollar climate resilience fund in his 2015 budget. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded China to cooperate with the United States on cutting emissions. Kerry even called climate change "a weapon of mass destruction" in a speech in Indonesia, where he urged them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Obama Administration's renewed focus on climate has goaded conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer and George Will to raise questions about whether the climate-change debate is really "settled," and whether Kerry, with his wealthy lifestyle, has the moral high ground to lecture poor Indonesians, whose per-capita carbon footprint is an order of magnitude smaller than that of most Americans. [The Myths of Charles Krauthammer: The Drinking Game (Op-Ed)]

It is indeed important that the new and vigorous talk on climate change action by the United States be credible at home and abroad if there is to be any coalition formed in advance of the Conference of the Parties in Paris, the ultimate decision-making body under the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change next year.

Simply calling the climate skeptics names is not going to advance a consensus. Climate change epiphanies will continue to occur, and nothing will hasten the process better than direct experiences, including the harsh economic realities that climate change continues to bring. The Paris global summit may fare better if countries embrace national policies that make top-down prescriptive goals more palatable for all, especially in developing countries.

Maybe they will have some guacamole with their coke as they set upon saving the planet from ourselves.

This article was adapted from the blog post "Guac, Coke, and Climate Epiphanies." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

University of Maryland