Chocolate and Coffee producers concerned with climate change

Starbucks Director of Sustainability, Jim Hanna, is briefing the US Congress on growing threat to coffee production from climate change.  This concern comes coincident with an analysis of issues cocoa growers face with climate changes as reported recently (September, 2011) by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT):  Africa’s Chocolate Meltdown.  Just a 2 degree increase will leave many of the growing areas of west Africa unsuitable for cultivation.  Coffee growers are anticipating similar deleterious effects from changing climate – temperature increase effecting growing seasons,  storm activity, expanding pest infestations and dropping crop yields. 


There are significant planetary consequences to climate change and they are catalogued routinely – retreating glaciers, rising sea level, flooding, droughts, temperature increases and their consequences on humans:  property damage,  economic impacts of mitigation,  agricultural failures, rising energy costs and population displacements.  Environmental and human factors combine and interact in perverse ways which creates further uncertainty, greater risks and unintended consequences. 

The one thing that is not uncertain is that man will adapt to these changes.   And it is this ability to respond to environmental changes that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.  For the last 2.5 million years humans have adapted to their environment*.  For the last 100,000 years humans have created systems and solutions to overcome environmental challenges.  For the last 1,000 years man has had the ability to not only adapt to changes and control their habitats but to produce changes that have planetary consequences.

It is this ability to react to change or to ignore environmental impediments through invention or behavioral adaptation that often creates circumstances worse than the impacts brought about by the changing environment.  Our ingenuity and problem solving abilities are our greatest talent, the source of our success as a species and represent the greatest risk to the planet!  

Our very human behavior of trying to make sense of highly complex situations is to reduce them to almost absurd simplicity.  And our response to changes in our environment can be worse than the change we’re trying to mitigate.  We’re now at the point of our evolution where our actions lead to planet scale consequences.   There is no doubt that western African nations will continue to cultivate cocoa.  The demand for chocolate is already great and the emergence of expanding economies and middle class in China and India are driving demand far faster than producers can cultivate. 

So the response will be to expand production and organize collectives and co-ops to stimulate production further.  But this will undoubtedly require moving production to relatively pristine areas of rainforest and of course the degradation of another of these last great ecosystems.   A simple solution to a complex problem – just move a couple of kilometers and clearcut some forests down to grow coffee and cocoa so Starbucks can make mochaccinos. 

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to use our ingenuity in ways that don’t expand or increase the degradation of the last few relatively pristine areas on earth:  whether it be African rainforests, Ross Ice Shelf or California deserts.  These nearly pristine remaining ecosystems should be considered more carefully – not just for their expedience or cheap exploitation.  They represent the last places on earth that can remind us how fantastic the planet was before our ability to solve immense problems vastly exceeded our ability to rationally consider the immense consequences of these actions.

  • 2.5 mya is generally accepted age of genus Homo and evidence of tool use.