Farmers Fight Climate Bill, But Warming Spells Trouble for Them

Published on
by
McClatchy Newspapers

Farmers Fight Climate Bill, But Warming Spells Trouble for Them

by
Renee Schoof and David Goldstein

WASHINGTON - Farm state senators and others soon will get a taste of
what their colleagues from Missouri already have piled high on their
desks: thousands of letters from farmers urging them to vote against
the climate and energy bill.

The Missouri Farm Bureau
started the letter campaign early, weeks before the bill was fully
written and made public. It was followed this month with a pitch from
the American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest agriculture lobby, to
get farmers to take farm caps, sign their bills and send them to
senators with notes that say, "Don't cap our future."

Agriculture
is likely to have a central place in the debate on the bill later this
year about the short-term costs of acting to curb climate change -- and
the costs of failing to address the long-term risks.

Farm
lobby groups and senators who agree with them argue that imposing
limits on the nation's emissions of heat-trapping gases from coal, oil
and natural gas would raise the cost of farming necessities such as
fuel, electricity and natural gas-based fertilizer. A government
report, however, warns of a dire outlook for farms if rising emissions
drive more rapid climate shifts in the decades ahead.

The
Senate bill includes provisions that would hold down energy costs for
consumers, and some senators are working to add sections that would
help farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in
written testimony while traveling in China this week that the bill
would create opportunities for farmers to sell renewable energy and to
earn money by selling credits for reducing emissions. He also said the
bill contained provisions that would prevent fertilizer price increases
before 2025, even though fuel prices would rise.

The
benefits of the bill probably will outweigh the costs in the short run,
and "easily trump" increased costs in the long run, he said.

Others are worried, however.

"I
can understand in the political world why they're trying to get this
under control," said Bill Wiebold, a University of Missouri agronomist,
a scientist who specializes in crop production and soil. "What are the
ripple effects? That's what farmers are concerned about. They
understand that what's being passed in Washington, D.C., could have a
direct effect on their bottom line."

Another side of the
cost question, however, will be the burden on the daughters and sons
who succeed today's farmers, and the generations after them. A
comprehensive review of scientific literature and government data
undertaken by a team of 19 U.S. scientists at the end of the Bush
administration and released in June forecast a disturbing future for
American agriculture as warming accelerates in the decades ahead.

The
report, "Global Change Impacts in the United States," is the most
comprehensive U.S. effort so far to move from a global view of rising
temperatures due to accumulating greenhouse gases to a more regionally
focused look at current and future changes.

The key messages on agriculture:

  • Early on, some warming and elevated
    carbon-dioxide levels may be good for some crops, but higher levels of
    warming impair plant growth and yields. More frequent heat waves, for
    example, would be hard on crops such as corn and soybeans.
  • Other more frequent extremes, such as heavy downpours and droughts, also would be likely to reduce crop yields.
  • The quality of grazing land will decline, and heat and disease will be harder on livestock.
  • Finally, warming will be good for something: pests and weeds.

"This
is going to have profound effects on agriculture and forests around the
world," said William Hohenstein, the director of the Global Change
Program at the Department of Agriculture.

It's not clear
how agriculture might adapt to a changing climate and at the same time
improve productivity to help meet the needs of a growing population.

"We
may not keep up," said Melanie Fitzpatrick, an Australian glaciologist
and science adviser to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The
environmental advocacy group recently produced reports on climate
change in Midwestern states.

Jere White, the executive
director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said that farmers
might be leery of predicted climate changes because "they have a
perspective of having to appreciate what occurred with the weather over
a fairly long period of time. It's not an abstract issue to them. It's
part of their livelihood."

Climate scientists, in reports
such as those used in the government study, say that while the weather
will keep varying from year to year, the long-term warming trend that's
already being observed will continue and accelerate. The severity of
the warming will depend on the amount of heat-trapping gases that build
up in the atmosphere.

Richard Oswald, 59, grows corn and
soybeans and raises cattle with his son on 2,000 acres in Rock Port, in
Missouri's northwest corner. He's the chairman of the board of the
Missouri Farmers Union, which is part of the National Farmers Union, a
group that supports a mandatory cap on emissions and a trading scheme
for pollution permits, as long as farmers' concerns are met.

"We
can either get behind this and push this legislation in a direction
that will help farmers, or we can sit back and fight it all the way and
get something we really don't want," Oswald said.

Sen.
Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the Agriculture Committee's ranking
Republican, said he'd oppose the bill because it would bring "economic
pain for no benefit" and would "only hurt farmers, ranchers and forest
landowners and provide them no opportunity to recoup the higher costs
they will pay."

"The huge taxes on carbon would be devastating to Midwest farmers," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

The
bill would charge large sources of emissions, such as power plants, for
the amount of greenhouse gases they produce. Farms wouldn't be required
to reduce their emissions.

As those limits further tighten, businesses would have to find ways to comply or pay more.

Some
of those penalty payments would be used to help vulnerable industries
and consumers. Energy costs would rise, but how that would affect
Americans would depend on the policies the law imposed.

Sen.
Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who was the secretary of agriculture for several
years during the Bush administration, said that higher energy costs
were certain if the bill passed. He wasn't convinced by the government
study that climate changes are equally certain.

It's
important to know "the predictability of the studies relative to what
climate change could look like," Johanns said. "That gets tougher. The
USDA is only starting to dig into that."

He said the report on climate changes in the U.S. was "based on some studies I think are incomplete."

The
USDA had a lead role in the agriculture section of the study. The
report's conclusions drew from a large body of scientific reports.

Richard
Krause, an American Farm Bureau lobbyist, said his group wouldn't
dispute the study, but he stressed that it was "about future events,
based on models and assumptions."

Unless China, India and
other developing countries also reduce emissions, "we're going to be
spending money on something for very little return," Krause said. "All
the impacts are going to happen anyway."

The U.S., China
and other countries have started to move toward cleaner sources of
energy, but studies conclude that more changes will be needed to
prevent dangerous climate shifts. Climate scientists, meanwhile, say
that climate disasters aren't a given but can be averted by large
reductions starting soon.

"Most farmers are just sort of
skeptical," said Oswald, the farmer and Missouri Farmers Union board
chairman. "You're out every day working to overcome adversity from the
government, adversity from Mother Nature, adversity from the market.
You learn not to put all your eggs in one basket. That's where we are
now with climate change. Farmers aren't willing to sign off on all of
it."

BOX

Global warming
would be bad news for all those amber waves of grain, and for the corn
and soybeans that are plentiful throughout the Midwest.

"The
grain-filling period" -- the time when the seed grows and matures --
"of wheat and other small grains shortens dramatically with rising
temperatures. Analysis of crop responses suggests that even moderate
increases in temperature will decrease yields of corn, wheat, sorghum,
bean, rice, cotton and peanut crops," according to "Global Climate
Change Impacts in the United States," a report based on a comprehensive
review of scientific literature and government data by a team of
American scientists.

Other details from the study:

- Plant winter hardiness zones -- each of which represents a 10-degree
Fahrenheit change in minimum temperature -- in the Midwest are likely
to shift by a half- to a full zone about every 30 years. By the end of
the century, plants now associated with the Southeast are likely to
become established throughout the Midwest.

- "Higher
temperatures will mean a longer growing season for crops that do well
in the heat, such as melon, okra and sweet potato, but a shorter
growing season for crops more suited to cooler conditions, such as
potato, lettuce, broccoli and spinach."

- Fruits that require long winter chilling periods, such as apples, will experience declines.

-
"Higher temperatures also cause plants to use more water to keep cool .
. . . But fruits, vegetables and grains can suffer even under
well-watered conditions if temperatures exceed the maximum level for
pollen viability in a particular plant; if temperatures exceed the
threshold for that plant, it won't produce seed and so it won't
reproduce."

- Climate change is expected to result in less
frequent but more intense rainfall. One consequence is expected to be
delayed spring planting. In the Midwest, heavy downpours are now twice
as frequent as they were a century ago.

In the Great
Plains, most water comes from the High Plains aquifer. Water
withdrawals outpace natural recharge. Increasing temperatures, faster
evaporation rates and more sustained droughts will stress the water
resource further.

ON THE WEB

"Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" report

A guide for all ages by U.S. scientists, "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science"

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