by Judith Curry
If there’s one thing U.S. farmers can count on, it’s bad weather, and perhaps as a result, many of them don’t think humanity is to blame for the long-term shifts in weather patterns known as climate change.
David Biello has an interesting article at Slate entitled Why Don’t Farmers Believe in Climate Change? Excerpts:
Take, as an example of skepticism, Iowa corn farmer Dave Miller, whose day job is as an economist for the Iowa Farm Bureau. As Miller is happy to explain, it’s not that farmers in Iowa don’t think climate change is happening; it’s that they think it’s always been happening and therefore is unlikely to have much to do with whatever us humans get up to down at ground level. Or, as the National Farm Bureau’s spokesman Mace Thornton puts it: “We’re not convinced that the climate change we’re seeing is anthropogenic in origin. We don’t think the science is there to show that in a convincing way.” The numbers back that up: When Iowa State University sociologists polled nearly 5,000 Corn Belt farmers on climate change, 66 percent believed climate change is occurring, but only 41 percent believed humans bore any part of the blame for global warming.
It’s not just the Corn Belt: Farmers across the country remain skeptical about climate change. When asked about it, they tell me about Mount Pinatubo and weird weather in the 1980s, when many of today’s most established farmers were getting their starts. But mostly I hear about cycles in the weather, like the El Niño–La Niña cycle that drives big changes in North American weather. Maybe it’s because farmers are uniquely exposed to bad weather, whether too hot or too cold. Almost any type of weather hurts some crop; the cereals want more rain, but the sweet potatoes like it hot and dry.
Year-to-year variability in the weather dwarfs any impact from a long-term shift in the climate. Consider this: A farmer in Iowa might deal with a 10-degree-Fahrenheit shift in average temperatures from year to year, so why worry about a 3- or even 4-degree shift over 100 years? As the old saying goes: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.
The long-term prediction for the Corn Belt in Iowa says that the weather will get hotter and drier—much like western Kansas is currently. Yet, over the decades of Miller’s farming career, conditions have been increasingly wet. “If I had done what climate alarmists had said to do, I would have done exactly the wrong thing for 20 of the last 25 years,” Miller says.
Miller doesn’t speak for all farmers, of course, and there are few less monolithic constituencies. But big farmers certainly aren’t skeptical about all science, particularly the kind of science that makes them money by improving yields. “Last year’s drought was in many places as deep as it was in 1933, and yet we didn’t see too many stories of blowing dirt storms,” like in the “dirty ’30s,” notes former North Dakota farmer Roger Johnson, now head of the National Farmers Union.* Breeding and genetic modification have brought crops resistant to drought and flood, as well as insect pests. Also important are better tilling practices, such as leaving a cover crop or stubble to hold down the soil, which helped the dirt stay in place. Even in the depths of the 2012 droughts, the United States delivered an abundant harvest.
But even if American farmers don’t believe in climate change, there are reasons for them to behave as if they do. The Agriculture Department has begun incorporating climate change into its projections and outreach, such as encouraging no-till practices where applicable. Oregon wheat farmer McCullough is following their advice to reduce tillage, which helps keep the soil from blowing away. “It’s cheaper to farm that way, and you still get the same type of crop, if not a bit better.” Weather is always changeable and unpredictable in the long term, which means a farmer must take good care of the soil so that the soil can take good care of the farmer when the weather turns challenging.
In other words, many American farmers—even those who would question whether climate change is man-made—are already doing exactly what efforts to combat climate change would require: precision agriculture to cut back on fossil fuel use, low or no-till farming, cover crops, biodigesters for animal waste, and the like. The key to reaching farmers is bringing them practices that improve their farms. “If you can help me deal with weather variability,” Miller says, “I can probably adapt to climate variability.”
JC comments: Several things struck me about this essay:
There seems to be analogies between farmers and weather forecasters, who are similarly skeptical of AGW. The livelihood of both groups depends on their understanding weather and climate variability. What could conceivably be their source of ‘motivated reasoning’ for denying AGW?
And why the skepticism among U.S. farmers but not elsewhere in the world? Does anyone have data or anecdotes on this topic? The answer may be the advanced technologies and practices used by U.S. farmers, and the lower overall levels of agricultural vulnerability.
Mitigation of CO2 can happen if it makes economic sense to do so, such as reduced tillage; in this case, CO2 mitigation is rather an irrelevance in motivating the response.
And the farmers seem to understand a central tenet of adaptation: “If you can help me deal with weather variability, I can probably adapt to climate variability.”