Why Don’t Farmers Believe in Climate Change?

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July 16 2013 7:15 AM

Why Don't Farmers Believe in Climate Change?

And does it really matter whether they do?

A calf drinks water on cracked ground at the Las Canoas dam, some 59 km (37 miles) north of the capital Managua April 26, 2013.
A calf drinks water on cracked ground at the Las Canoas dam in Nicaragua on April 26, 2013.

Photo by Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On July 25, Future Tense will be hosting an event on agriculture’s role in climate change at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.

If it isn't torrential downpours, then it's too dry. 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. But even though agriculture is a major contributor to global warming, it may not matter whether farmers believe in the environmental problem.

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." (Given the basic physics of CO2 capturing heat that have been known for more than a century and the ever-larger amounts of CO2 put into the atmosphere by human activity, it’s not clear what “science” he’s holding out for.) 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.

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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. This is a group whose holdings range from a small farm in the Northeast following biodynamic principles to big agricultural outfits that count farmed land in square miles, not acres. A fifth-generation wheat farmer in Oregon, like Kevin McCullough, might say, "I think it's just normal swings in the weather." But an organic farmer in upstate New York who is the first in recent family history to work the land would say, "There is a scientific consensus that there is a change of climate even in light of the fluctuations that naturally occur."

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