“Missouri Farm Bureau wasn’t immediately available for comment.” Well, I suppose that’s true. The reporter called the office an hour before the story hit the internet. I didn’t hear about the request until I saw the story. I’m certainly no expert on journalistic ethics. Perhaps an hour qualifies as immediate. My suspicion is that a refusal to comment from my organization was exactly what the reporter needed to make his larger political point. I think there is a fairly large contingent of journalists covering climate or agriculture or both who think we could stop climate change with a single admission by a major farm organization that the only logical reaction to increasing atmospheric carbon is abject terror.
I expressed my displeasure in a short email to the journalist, ignoring what my friend Dan calls the ten-minute rule, and was quoted accurately in later editions of the story. Since journalists, in my experience, go to people who’ve already been quoted in other publications, I’m now busy fielding calls from all across the nation on the recent climate change report, specifically on the section involving agriculture.
After about the third interview, I decided it might be good to actually read the report. Press reports that I’d relied on for the early interviews presented the report accurately. If anything, they might have failed to adequately capture the gloom and despair that suffuse the report. The only rational reaction to the report - if you take it at face value - is to ‘end it all now’. There is no hope for a farm like mine, no way out for the poverty-stricken community where I live. The rest of you will likely starve in the dark, but not before rural America hits the wall in an extended sweltering multi-year drought, punctuated by floods, which will denude the soil, which will mean less ability to withstand drought, world without end, amen.
And for all I know, it might be true. One of the journalists asked, in incredulous tones, if I didn’t believe the report. I replied that it certainly is the consensus that increased carbon will lead to climate change, and that I do, indeed think that we should be concerned. I went on to say that the authors of the report had every incentive to write the report in exactly the alarmist tones that they did, to guarantee that journalists like him wrote stories like the one he was writing.
After all, if the report had said that the earth is warming, but that mankind would likely adapt to a changed climate and that dislocations would be managed by the same human ingenuity that has accounted for all the economic and technological progress we’ve seen over the past three centuries, it wouldn’t have made for a very quotable report.
I went on to say that we’d better figure out how to adapt, because there is very little that we can do to halt the increase of atmospheric carbon. The Wall Street Journal recently had an article about the increasing demand for air conditioning in India. There are 1.3 billion people in India. The expected growth in demand for electricity in India and other developed countries will account for 40 percent of the growth in demand for electricity over the next twenty years, and will require more electricity than the total consumption of the U.S. and Germany combined.
That doesn’t include the electricity needed for economic growth, the expected increase in population, the huge power needs of trillions of chips powering billions of hand-held phones and computers and video screens - well, you get the picture. The numbers just don’t add up, and the only way to provide for the billions of people worldwide who’ll be entering the middle class in the next few decades is to continue to rely on carbon-based energy.
One of my interviewers wanted to know if I’d noticed the effects of climate change on my farm in Missouri. I said we’d had a dry summer, that much of north central Missouri had seen a complete failure of the corn crop, but that on our farm in northwest Missouri we had been pleasantly surprised at our yields. I credited that good result to improved hybrids. Forty years ago, when I began my farming career, a summer like the one we just experienced on our farm would have resulted in a total crop loss.
Nationwide, we’ve seen six years in a row of above trend corn yields. That has never happened before. Now, I realize that climate change deals in decades, not individual years and that the variation in any one year is likely due to randomness, and is no sign of any trend. But six years above trend is amazing. The report maintains that the effects of climate change are everywhere evident. It’s not so clear down on the farm.
Farmers’ refusal to fully enroll in the consensus on climate change causes no small amount of impatience from those who think about these things. And as far as I can tell, there are quite a few people who think about little else. They ignore the demonstrated human ability to adapt, to change, to get better. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in order to draw the conclusions that they did, the report chose a scenario that forecast almost no technological change, no increases in efficiency, greater population growth than almost anybody predicts, and virtually no improvements by a global economy that has been improving things since the industrial revolution.
As for farmers like me, they can’t have helped but notice this fact: Crop production in the U.S. is responsible for something like six tenths of one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by the EPA. We can become more efficient. We can farm in ways that turn our fields into carbon sinks. We can plant cover crops and drip irrigate and pay obeisance to the carbon gods in every way imaginable, but we can neither be blamed for or solve the path of the climate in the future. Those decisions will be made by billions of consumers and producers all over the world