World Food Prize goes to former farmer who answers climate change question: 'So what?'


Julia Simon, NPR

May 5, 2022


For scientist – and former farmer – Cynthia Rosenzweig, her work on climate change has always revolved around one big question: "So what?"


"Impacts of climate change are crucially important," she says. "If the climate changes and nothing happened, why would we care?"


In the early days of climate science in the '80s, she was one of the first researchers making projections of how the changing climate would affect North American crops. Still, the researcher at NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies knew she needed to go further.


That's why years before her NASA colleague James Hansen gave key 1988 Congressional testimony outlining the link between greenhouse gasses and climate change, Rosenzweig wrote him a note about climate change. She told him she wanted to expand her computer modeling to better understand its potential impact on global crops.


For the better part of the last four decades that's what Rosenzweig has done. She tells NPR that while her first climate modeling work may have started with her sitting at a computer, her more recent work means she's on farms around the world, engaging with stakeholders to determine how crops are already affected by the climate crisis and what can be done about it.


She's the founder of the "Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project" or "AgMIP," a multi-disciplinary team of more than 1,000 researchers worldwide working on climate modeling and agriculture. Now Rosenzweig has won the World Food Prize for her work helping the global community recognize and predict climate change's effect on food systems and her leadership to give countries new solutions to ease the impact.


In our interview, Rosenzweig, the head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, explains why tackling the climate crisis and food requires new approaches to research, fields a question from a worried farmer in Nigeria and tells how she keeps her own eco-anxiety at bay. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You've been looking at climate change and farming since the 1980s. What in your work has surprised you? ...


In the 1980s when did you think that we'd see a 40% reduction in crop yield? By 2030?


Can you tell me more about what you put into these models and how you designed them on a 1980s computer?


When did you realize climate change was the most significant threat to planetary food systems?


Northern Nigeria would have been an area that would be brown — the biggest drops in crop harvests?


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