The increased incidence of weather extremes in recent years is a hot topic these days. Last winter Wallaces Farmer ran an article "Is climate change for real?" Phone calls and emails followed from readers saying the evidence is mounting that climate change is occurring and it is indeed real. They took that WF article to task for quoting an expert who cites long-term weather trends suggesting it might not be real. They said he is a "highly biased person for the fossil fuel industry and the ideological Cato Institute."
Then in the May issue of Wallaces Farmer we ran a letter to the editor which argued the opposite position—that climate change can no longer be denied. That letter from eastern Iowa farmer Eric Johnson prompted a round of blasts, this time coming from the non-believers. Those readers let me know they disagreed with the letter writer's belief that the rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative effects on crop and livestock productivity.
National Climate Assessment predicts dire impacts on ag
Also stirring the climate change controversy is the recently released White House climate report. Officially known as the Third National Climate Assessment or NCA3—it largely blames the heavy use of fossil fuels, and industrial pollution, among other contributors, for leading all parts of our nation to experience radical weather fluctuations.
The report was compiled based on input from over 240 scientists and researchers. The report identifies greenhouse gas emissions as the root cause of global warming. This is a peer reviewed assessment. Droughts, flooding and wildfires are all said to be on the rise in recent years, threatening lives and livelihoods in America and the rest of the world.
To cut greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. can't do it alone
Some readers of Eric Johnson's letter in May 2014 Wallaces Farmer pointed out to me that even if the U.S. takes steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and makes economic sacrifices in the process, it isn't going to do any good unless other nations also reduce their emissions the same as the United States. Dave Bierman of Marcus in northwest Iowa writes: "If China doesn't get involved in reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, what good will it do the U.S. and its farmers to reduce emissions? Also, how much CO2 goes into the atmosphere naturally, during a volcano for example?"
Bierman adds, "With an economy about half the size, China already emits almost twice the CO2 as either the U.S. or Europe. Every 18 months China's emissions grow enough to replace the emissions savings the U.S. will accomplish if we meet President Obama's 15-year target. Other developing countries, like India, are similarly adding CO2 to the atmosphere."
Some people propose bringing China and other nations along through diplomacy, to get China and others to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But despite considerable effort, notes farmer Bierman, the U.S. government has not been able to obtain China's cooperation on climate change, or its undervalued currency or just about anything else that would constrain China's economic growth. The bottom line, he says, is: "If manmade emissions are the culprit, then by China's actions alone, global warming is going to happen. The U.S. can do little to stop it."
Many farmers skeptical of White House climate report
Another disgruntled caller, Dave Kunde of Manchester doesn't put much faith in the White House climate report issued in early May. Nor does John Dubala of Clarinda. He says "climate change is part of President Obama's political agenda. And I'm concerned about all the money USDA and our land-grant universities are pouring into this—researching climate change. There are plenty of intelligent scientists around who can explain the other side of the argument, there really is no such thing as climate change and it certainly isn't man-made."
I received a thoughtful letter from Jim Blome, president of Bayer CropScience for North America. A native Iowan who grew up on a farm here, Blome points out that "the foundation of America's innovation and regulatory systems is science-based decision making. Non-facts and unproven opinions can be embraced and widely distributed, unchecked in today's widespread use of social media. If we fail to insist that decisions and policies are based upon science, we will no longer foster the innovation that has always provided real solutions."
Iowa State contributes to National Climate Assessment
The Third National Climate Assessment or NCA3 was released May 6. It contains contributions from Iowa State University faculty. Lois Wright Morton, professor of rural sociology, co-wrote the chapter on rural communities. Gene Takle, professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, co-wrote the chapter on agriculture, along with Jerry Hatfield, director of USDA's National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment at ISU.
"We have clear regional examples indicating that climate change over the last few decades has become an impediment to conventional agriculture in the U.S.," says Takle. "In the Midwest the 40-year trend of increase in extreme rainfall events is delaying or preventing planting of corn and soybeans. Regional trends like this are likely to continue and are consistent with global trends of wet regions becoming wetter and more humid, while dry regions are becoming drier and hotter."
You can read the NC3A report at www.globalchange.gov. As mentioned previously, a federal advisory committee drafted the report on behalf of the government by engaging more than 240 researchers and scientists working at national laboratories, research centers and universities.
Extreme weather events still fresh on farmers' minds
ISU's Lois Wright Morton says: "As a single 100- or 500-year event, the floods of 2011 might be considered a once-in-a-century or five-century event, except many of these rural communities have experienced 100-year floods in both 2007 and 2008, suggesting patterns of frequency and unpredictability. The vulnerabilities and risks associated with these uncertainties present new challenges that people of rural agricultural places must recognize and plan for in order to adapt, survive and thrive."
She adds: "Rural populations are vulnerable because they depend on natural resources for their livelihoods and because they have fewer social and economic resources to employ in recovering from weather-related disasters."
"Resilient Agriculture" conference set for Aug. 5-7 in Ames
Wright Morton also is project director for the Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Ag Project or CSCAP, also known as the "Sustainable Corn Project." This USDA-funded project connects multidisciplinary researchers and scientists from 10 land-grant universities and USDA's Ag Research Service and farmers in the upper Midwest, in an effort to make corn-based cropping systems more resilient and sustainable.
Wright-Morton, along with many other scientists and researchers with the CSCAP team, will present her CSCAP findings this summer at a national conference the team is planning for farmers. The Resilient Agriculture Conference will be held Aug. 5-7 in Ames co-hosed by CSCAP and 25x25, an alliance of farmers and farm businesses advocating for renewable energy.
At the conference, scientists, farmers and ag industry partners will discuss how to make Midwest agriculture both environmentally healthy and productive in the face of weather uncertainty and weather impacts on water and soil resources. To register for the conference or find more information about the conference or CSCAP, visit the CSCAP website.