Climate Change

The Leopold Center views climate change not merely as “warming,” but as a worsening destabilization of the planet’s environmental systems. This condition triggers aggravated and unpredictable risk that will challenge the security of our agricultural and biological systems.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists attest that the heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. The scientific evidence is clear that the magnitude of the changes ahead are greater, the rate much faster, and duration of climatic destabilization will last far longer than once thought.

This figure is taken from the 2009 article, "Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity," by J. Rockström and W.L. Steffen W.L. et al, published in the journal Ecology and Society [14 (2):32]. As indicated by the graphic, by some calculations we already have crossed the threshold of the "safe operating space" for human development and risk triggering irreversible environmental changes to the planet's biodiversity, nitrogen cycle and climate systems. Read the publication here.


Our Guiding Principles

It is clear that carbon, energy and human dynamics are inextricable. These are the guiding principles that shape the Leopold Center's response to climate change:

  • Food and agricultural systems need to reduce fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas footprints.

From Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

  • Food and agriculture systems need to positively address the health of the biotic community.

From naturalist John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

  • Food and agriculture systems need to address many ‘global’ issues positively and simultaneously.

Leopold Center programs

With our guiding principles in mind, the Leopold Center is applying a climate change perspective in its work.

  • Ecology Initiative – By focusing on improving soil biological health, increasing biotic diversity and improving our understanding of how nitrogen and carbon cycle, we can design resilient food and agricultural systems in the face of climate instability.
  • Marketing and Food Systems Initiative – Climate change impacts both the human and environmental systems supporting food production, influencing availability, access, consumption and farm stability. The Leopold Center focuses on development of regionally anchored marketing strategies and innovative food system business structures to promote crop and animal diversity within single food production operations and across operations in different geographic areas. Support for varied production systems in different locations creates redundancy that strengthens food security. This strategy helps Iowans across the value chain better 'weather' supply chain shocks anticipated by climate instability.
  • Policy Initiative – Policy Initiative research provides information and/or analysis, but not advocacy, to inform public, political responses to the food and agricultural challenges posed by climate change. This means helping public policy makers (both federal and state) assess the climate change responses within their control, such as risk management instruments, policies to limit the impact of extreme weather events on land and economic values, encouragement of conservation practices to mitigate the effects of weather extremes, etc. 
  • Cross-Cutting Initiative – Carbon, energy use and human dynamics are inextricably linked when we tackle global, non-political boundary challenges such as climate change. In the Cross-Cutting Initiative, we support research into practical examples of how food and agriculture systems could be redesigned with the lower carbon inputs and reduced energy use necessary for ensuring stable supplies of food, fuel and fiber in a climate unstable world.


Related resources

Climate Change Glossary: Publication that lists climate change terms with definitions, sources, and links for more information about each term.

Source of greenhouse gases: The World Resource Institute has created an interactive graphic based on 2012 data showing the percentage of the world's greenhouse gas emissions by country and by industry. [July 2015]

Laudato Si', On Care for our Common Home: Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, issued an 184-page encyclical on ecology that highlights climate change as an important issue. [June 2015]

USDA Climate Hubs websiteA portal to practical information to help farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and others respond to challenges caused by a changing climate including drought, fire risks, pests, diseases, climate variability, soil erosion and heat stress. There are portals for seven regions of the United States.

National Climate Assessment:  An analysis done every four years by the U.S. Climate Global Change Research Programm established in 1989 by Congress. The 2014 report shows widespread impacts of climate change in all parts of the world. Two ISU professors contribute to this report.

Iowa Climate Statement 2015: Signed by 188 science faculty and research staff from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. Among the signers are Leopold Center Director Mark Rasmussen, Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann, and five members of the Leopold Center Advisory Board. Issued May 11, 2015, in Iowa City at the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

Climate Change Impacts on Iowa: A report prepared by the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council and submitted to the Iowa General Assembly and Governor, Jan. 1, 2011.

Iowa State University Climate Science Program webpage

RealClimate: A resource for the public and journalists to interact with working scientists on current issues in climate science.