JULY 23, 2012
Corn sex is complicated. As Michael Pollan observes in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the whole affair is so freakishly difficult it’s hard to imagine how it ever evolved in the first place. Corn’s female organs are sheathed in a sort of vegetable chastity belt—surrounded by a tough, virtually impenetrable husk. The only way in is by means of a silk thread that each flower extends, Rapunzel-like, through a small opening. For fertilization to take place, a grain of pollen must land on the tip of the silk, then shimmy its way six to eight inches through a microscopic tube, a journey that requires several hours. The result of a successfully completed passage is a single kernel. When everything is going well, the process is repeated something like eight hundred times per ear, or roughly eighty thousand times per bushel.
It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well. High commodity prices spurred farmers to sow more acres this year, and unseasonable warmth in March prompted many to plant corn early. Just a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture was projecting a record corn crop of 14.79 billion bushels. But then, in June and July, came broilingly high temperatures, combined with a persistent drought across much of the midsection of the country.
“You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination,” Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg News recently. “It’s like farming in Hell.” Last week, the U.S.D.A. officially cut its yield forecast by twelve per cent, citing a “rapid decline in crop conditions since early June and the latest weather data.” Also last week, because of the dryness, the U.S.D.A. declared more than a thousand counties in twenty-six states to be natural disaster areas. This was by far the largest such designation the agency has ever made. In the past month, as the severity of the situation has become apparent, corn prices have risen by more than forty per cent. Since so much corn is used to feed livestock, it’s likely that the increase will translate into higher prices for dairy products and beef—although, as many have pointed out, beef prices were already rising, owing to last year’s devastating drought in Texas.
Up until fairly recently, it was possible—which, of course, is not the same as advisable—to see climate change as a phenomenon that was happening somewhere else. In the Arctic, Americans were told (again and again and again), the effects were particularly dramatic. The sea ice was melting. This was bad for native Alaskans, and even worse for polar bears, who rely on the ice for survival. But in the Lower Forty-eight there always seemed to be more pressing concerns, like Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Similarly, the Antarctic Peninsula was reported to be warming fast, with unfortunate consequences for penguins and sea levels. But penguins live far away and sea-level rise is prospective, so again the issue seemed to lack “the fierce urgency of now.”
The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the problem. In late June, just as a sizzling heat wave was settling across much of the country—in Evansville, Indiana, temperatures rose into the triple digits for ten days, reaching as high as a hundred and seven degrees—wildfires raged in Colorado. Hot and extremely dry conditions promoted the flames’ spread. “It’s no exaggeration to say Colorado is burning,” KDVR, the Fox station in Denver, reported. By the time the most destructive blaze was fully contained, almost three weeks later, it had scorched nearly twenty-nine square miles. Meanwhile, a “super derecho”—a long line of thunderstorms—swept from Illinois to the Atlantic Coast, killing at least thirteen people and leaving millions without power.
Referring to the fires, the drought, and the storms, Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press, “This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.” He also noted, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.”
Or, at least, what it looks like right now. One of the most salient—but also, unfortunately, most counterintuitive—aspects of global warming is that it operates on what amounts to a time delay. Behind this summer’s heat are greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What’s at stake is where things go from there. It is quite possible that by the end of the century we could, without even really trying, engineer the return of the sort of climate that hasn’t been seen on earth since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago.
Along with the heat and the drought and the super derecho, the country this summer is also enduring a Presidential campaign. So far, the words “climate change” have barely been uttered. This is not an oversight. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen to remain silent on the issue, presumably because they see it as just too big a bummer.
And so, while farmers wait for rain and this season’s corn crop withers on the stalk, the familiar disconnect continues. There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious. ♦
ILLUSTRATION: TOM BACHTELL