Two events have conjoined on the national stage this week, serving to underscore the reality that climactic conditions continue to pose new challenges to agricultural and forestry producers that are working to adapt to those changes, and it has reinforced the critical role that front-line agencies like USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) play in meeting the needs of farmers, ranchers and forestland owners.
Disclosed earlier this week was a draft of a Climate Science Special Report – part of the National Climate Assessment that is mandated by Congress to be completed every four years – compiled by 13 federal agencies, including USDA, that positively asserts that the consequences of a changing climate are calamitous and are, in fact, taking a toll now on the nation and the way business is done.
While there may be some discomfort within the ag and forestry industries over the words “climate change,” the reality is that producers in the sectors will tell you that their operations are being hammered by increasingly erratic weather, drought, high nighttime temperatures, as well as the emergence of new pests and invasive species.
The farm community’s supposed aversion to climate change nomenclature gave rise to another media story this week. A newspaper website reported on emails that were sent from a politically appointed deputy director to NRCS personnel shortly after President Trump’s inauguration that suggested alternative ways of referring to climate change, citing a “shift in perspective within the executive branch.” Trump has made clear his disdain of science supporting climate change, but USDA officials this week were quick to deny any political pressure was put on agency employees to avoid the use of the term “climate change.”
But what is nothing more than a kerfuffle over bureaucratic semantics only diverts from what has been the essential message that U.S. farmers, ranchers and foresters have been telling federal officials over the past several years: help is needed, and needed now.
For generations, those who produce our nation’s food, feed and fiber have come up with innovative ways to adapt to challenges they face. But the challenges being posed today by a changing climate – inconsistent growing seasons, a wildfire season twice as long as it was 30 years ago, and an increased threat of pest outbreaks, drought and flood over the next 50 years – are more complex than ever. They threaten our food supply and impose tremendous costs on producers and rural economies. Drought alone was estimated to cost the country up to $150 billion from 2011 to 2013.
There is a critical role that still needs to be played by USDA, the NRCS and the seven research centers – or hubs – designated by the Agriculture Department three years ago to help U.S. producers of food, feed and fiber to create innovative solutions to the challenges posed by a changing climate, including support for adaptation.
Now is hardly the time for policy makers to engage in dogmatic denial of the damage that is occurring on the ground. The government agencies charged with the protection and stewardship of our natural resources, including soil and water, must be given the enabling policies and funding that allow them to do their job of supporting the nation’s landowners during these times of volatile environmental conditions and weather extremes.
Policy makers should also be reminded that farmers, ranchers and forestland owners can – and should – play a huge role in mitigating climate change. Through strategies like climate smart agriculture advocated by stakeholder-directed initiatives such as Solutions from the Land (25x’25’s parent organization), farmers, ranchers and foresters develop the tools that can increase commodity output, adapt land-use and livestock-production practices to improve their resiliency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon. (Federal researchers reported last year that U.S. lands have been sequestering much more carbon than they emit, creating a net “carbon sink” over the last three decades. The sequestration of a net 762 million metric tons of CO2 offset 11 percent of economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions in 2014.)
It’s time for policy makers in Washington, at the state level and in local governments to heed the science-based warnings contained in the latest U.S. climate science report and address the damaging consequences a changing climate is imposing now and the even greater dangers it is presenting to our future. The strategies that are needed must be implemented at all levels and scales and must recognize social, economic, security and political factors. We have just begun to make progress and conversations with stakeholders should avoid becoming bogged down due to “changing perspectives.”