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Climate Change: Coming to a Coffee Cup Near You

The first warning bells over climate change sounded more than a century ago, and picked up steam in the 1970’s as researchers began to observe and debate over the effects of greenhouse gases on global temperature. Several years on, it isn't just the debate that's heating up. The globe itself appears to be warming, and that warming trend is influencing everything from car and home designs to food prices. As it turns out, even your morning cup of coffee isn't immune from the far-reaching effects of global warming. We won't belabor the mechanics of global warming in this space. If you're interested in getting yourself up to speed, there's a good overview here, thanks to Bill Nye and the folks at Smithsonian magazine. What does bear mention, however, is the mechanics of coffee growing. It's typically done in higher elevations in tropical climates, since that's where you get the right combination of cooler air, ample rainfall, and rich soil in which coffee -- particularly the better tasting but somewhat finicky Arabica variety -- grows (Robusta, as its name suggests, is a hardier plant, but it tends to be more bitter, with less flavor depth, and is typically used as an extender). Rising temperature upsets that balance, disrupting rainfall patterns, warming the temperature, and eroding the soil. It's also turned out to be an ideal incubator for coffee rusts (fungi) and pests like the coffee berry borer that prey on, and decimate, stocks of Arabica plants. As these things happen, the effects are manifold. For starters, yields are starting to drop as crops are decimated by disease and less-than-ideal growing conditions. Some types of coffee plants -- especially of the Arabica variety -- are starting to die off, reducing biodiversity and resistance to disease. Changing soil composition will, in turn, change the taste of your coffee, while reduced supplies will lead to higher prices and more reliance on hardier but bitterer Robusta plants. Given those facts, the picture seems bleak, to be sure. However, some major players are taking notice and trying to affect changes at various points in their business or supply chain to try to mitigate the damage. The US military is shoring up infrastructure at its bases and home ports; governments are introducing regulatory regimes on everything from emissions standards to gas mileage; food companies are warning of price increases on key items; and coffee companies, for their part, are taking steps to address the impact of climate change on their businesses (Starbucks, in particular, has been at the forefront of these efforts). The debate over whether climate change is real appears to be all but settled, save for a handful of outliers. What remains a moot point* is what those changes will mean over the long term and what, if anything, can be done to arrest or reverse the damage already done. From this remove, it seems obvious that global warming is wreaking havoc with biodiversity, and if you care about your coffee -- or the earth in which it grows -- that's not a merely academic point. *Not to be a pedant here, but we're using "moot" in its original sense (i.e., something that's open to debate)