As high temperatures hurt Sicily’s food production, rising sea levels threaten housing

Climate change experts in Sicily, Italy are warning that rising sea waters are threatening some of the island's most crucial heavy industrial plants. They are also forecasting food shortages because crops are being destroyed. The island endured record temperatures this summer. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Sicily for NewsHour's climate change series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Climate change experts in Sicily are warning that rising sea waters are threatening some of the island's most crucial heavy industrial plants. They also predict food shortages, as crops wilt in withering heat.

    The island has endured record temperatures this summer.

    From Sicily, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It's been a long, hot, sweltering day in Sicily, and there's plenty of heat left in the sun as dusk approaches.

    This is an avocado plantation in the foothills of Etna, Sicily's active volcano. Avocados have been grown here for decades. One of the attractions for farmers like Andrea Passanisi is that it is a tropical fruit, and should be able to withstand high temperatures.

    But this summer's extreme heat burned the leaves of the avocado trees and damaged the fruit.

  • Andrea Passanisi, Farmer (through translator):

    When there is excessive heat, like in July and August, when we had 120, 122 degrees, it's not just humans that feel it. Avocado and mango plants suffer, too. The plants are susceptible to excessive heat.

    What happens is, the plant gets stressed, and in order to protect itself, it expels the hanging fruits.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This has been the hottest ever summer in Europe. Today, here in Syracuse in Sicily, the temperature is a relatively mild 92 degrees Fahrenheit. On August the 11, the thermometer shot up 30 degrees more, to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, unprecedented in Europe.

    This summer's temperatures made it difficult to breathe in Sicily. The island is now a touchstone for the rest of Europe when it comes to climate change.

    Christian Mulder is a professor of ecology at the University of Catania.

    Christian Mulder, University of Catania: The really high temperatures will repeat more often in the next years because the carbon dioxide reached levels that are really unprecedented.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Excessively high temperatures and drought are dual concerns for citrus growers Marco Frasson and his partner, Emanuela. They have a large farm in Central Sicily. It yields between 3,000 to 4,000 tons of oranges each year, with a net value approaching $10 million.

    The soil here is drying out from lack of rain and shrinking underwater reserves. Harvest starts in early winter, but this could be a bad year.

  • Emanuela Guggino, Farmer (through translator):

    These extreme temperatures are a serious challenge for reforestation. We can say categorically that everything that is green suffers. We feel as though we are in Africa, instead of Italy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As with avocados, citrus leaves are indicators of stress suffered by the trees. They should be green and lush. But they have been scorched.

  • Marco Frasson, Farmer (through translator):

    This leaf is the result of the 122 degrees Fahrenheit we reached in the middle of August.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As he drives along dusty trails, Frasson worries that without rain, their yields and profits will be badly hit.

  • Marco Frasson (through translator):

    The great concern is that, if our region of Sicily is unable to provide enough public water, we will be in enormous trouble, as will all the workers who work for our company.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In the past, the partners relied on local authorities for their water supply. But following numerous droughts, they constructed their own reservoir.

  • Emanuela Guggino, (through translator):

    If the reservoir doesn't fill up this year, it won't be able to supply the water we need. We will be autonomous only until July next year. Then we won't be able to continue cultivation and meet the needs of our citrus groves.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The evidence of climate change is stacking up for Gino Catania, a regional leader of the Italian Agriculture Confederation. He's warning of food shortages in the not-too-distant future.

    Gino Catania, Italian Confederation of Agriculture (through translator): We are genuinely concerned about the future of agriculture if it continues like this. It hasn't rained for over five months.

    Access to crops will be at risk. Essentially, less production means less food. Farmers are concerned that they won't be able to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for food, not only in Italy, but also abroad.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    If record temperatures aren't enough, low-lying areas of Sicily are also threatened by rising sea water.

    Sicily's east coast is stacked with heavy industry. One of the biggest refineries in Southern Europe stands right next to the sea.

    Professor Giovanni Scicchitano is urging the owners of these multibillion dollar plants to relocate inland as soon as possible.

  • Giovanni Scicchitano,, Bari University (through translator):

    The sea level rise could rise by as much as three feet. This could also be amplified by geological phenomena, such as the subsidence of coastal plains.

    Industrial structures in Southeastern Sicily, such as this loading dock for refineries, would certainly have serious problems. Some of the plants located in this area could be submerged within the next few decades.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It isn't just industry that needs to move. Augusta is one of many cities around the world that are imperiled by melting glaciers and icecaps.

    This hospital will be among the first casualties. Geology professor Carmelo Monaco is pessimistic about the chances of saving cities like Augusta.

  • Carmelo Monaco, Catania University (through translator):

    Even by blocking CO2 or methane emissions, this process is now irreversible.

    Perhaps it will take hundreds of years before the trend changes a bit. Among other things, international climate change agreements, such as the Paris and Kyoto protocols, have not been respected, so there is no real change in the behavior of many countries.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    That grim view is not shared, however, by Professor Christian Mulder.

  • Christian Mulder:

    We all have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and it has been demonstrated that it is possible to keep the same gross domestic product even with much lower industrial emissions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Italy has boosted investment in renewable energy sources, but it's been slow going. The government wants to speed up the installation of cleaner energy and to end reliance on fossil fuels.

    But, without a worldwide effort, Italy alone cannot save its coastline from vanishing beneath the waves.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Sicily.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A reminder of how climate change is literally everywhere.

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