Walter Baethgen helps farmers prepare for climate extremes

Many scientists predict that global warming will lead to greater variability in climate. This variability could especially threaten the livelihoods of small farmers, like those in Latin America, who are already struggling.

Today, small farmers in rural Latin America live year to year, in hopes that weather and food prices remain good. But what if climate disasters – like droughts or floods – were to happen year after year? Walter Baethgen works in Latin America with Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Walter Baethgen: If you can imagine a climate scenario in which those disaster years become more frequent, that means the farmers will have a very tough time establishing production systems which are stable enough for them to be able to live from.

Many scientists predict that global warming will lead to greater variability in climate. Baethgen told EarthSky that this variability could especially threaten the livelihoods of small farmers like those in Latin America, who are already struggling. Baethgen’s job is to help these farmers start preparing, now.

Walter Baethgen: Everything we do today to help those societies be better adapted to the droughts, to the floods, that they confront today will make those same societies less vulnerable to future climate conditions.

He added that if farmers can’t produce enough food to feed their families, they could become undernourished, or migrate into urban slums. Baethgen believes the first steps to creating stability for Latin America’s farmers are diversifying crops, establishing irrigation systems, and offering cheap agricultural insurance.

Walter Baethgen: I think there is a lot of room to improve the way the agriculture production system works today.

Dr. Baethgen explained how climate change could make small farmers’ livelihoods more vulnerable:

Walter Baethgen: If you’re used to producing let’s say, corn in one environment. Once in 50 years rainfall is lower than normal, you will be able to adjust your production system. That is not a big problem. The big problem is if you get more frequent droughts. If you have one dry year, every 10 or 15 years, you may be used to that. But if you get one dry year every 5 years, now your production system will really suffer.

He talked about the implications of these weather extremes:

Walter Baethgen: The most difficult challenge linked to climate change is changes in variability – changes in the frequency of very unfavorable years. That is what results in hurting stability of production and the income of the farmers a lot more than slow, gradual changes.

Our thanks to:
Walter E. Baethgen is the Director of the Program for Latin America and the Caribbean in the International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society at Columbia University. At the IRI, he has been establishing regional research programs that aim to improve climate risk assessment and risk management in the agricultural, health, water resources and disasters sectors. Since 1990, Baethgen has been establishing and coordinating regional research programs in Latin America in collaboration with National and International organizations.

Lindsay Patterson