One thing is clear from the election results — that while Americans may be divided politically, they still expect Democrats and Republicans to work together to help the country. Few issues will present as much bipartisan opportunity in 2021 as building a resilient economy that addresses climate change while creating opportunities for all Americans.
For those that make their living in agriculture and forestry, it’s pretty clear that the weather is changing. Prolonged drought, more intense storms, shifting growing seasons, wildfire and other impacts from climate change are transforming the way we farm, ranch, and manage forests.
Even so, addressing climate change remains a polarizing issue in rural America. Many farmers, ranchers and forest owners are as concerned about the government response to climate change as they are about the problem itself. But, if the US is going to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we are going to need the help of agriculture and forestry.
While agriculture accounts for about 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions, innovations in cropland and livestock management could dramatically reduce the impact. Indeed, many agricultural experts and agronomists believe that our working lands could become an important player in managing and storing carbon.
American forests are already helping to fight climate change. Our forests absorb the equivalent of about 15% of the US’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. But, the loss of forests to development and emissions from wildfire threaten to negate this carbon “sink.” Tree planting, improved forest management, and expanded markets for wood products could maintain and even enhance carbon storage in our private, tribal and public forests.
As former Senators who served on the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition Committee, we believe climate change presents an enormous opportunity to improve the profitability and sustainability of agriculture and forestry — but only if policies are well designed. To help make sure America gets these policies right, we are co-chairs of a new Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force being launched at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The task force will work with stakeholders across the country in agriculture, forestry, and wildlife conservation to develop a policy agenda that works for rural America while protecting the climate. With the community’s support, we’ll put forward these recommendations to Congress and the White House.
To be successful, climate policy for agriculture and forestry has to be about partnership, not regulation. Only by partnering with farmers, ranchers and forest owners can we encourage them to undertake the types of voluntary stewardship practices needed. For this partnership to work, the Department of Agriculture must be the lead federal agency working to provide incentives and market-based policies that reward producers and landowners for storing carbon on their lands and reducing emissions.
But government money won’t do it alone. Incentives must be designed to encourage private investment in carbon storage and emissions reductions on our working lands. This way we can capitalize on growing interest by many corporations to achieve their net-zero climate commitments by working with agriculture and forestry. To encourage private sector participation, USDA will need better tools to help producers and landowners measure the positive climate impacts of their stewardship activities. In addition, producers and landowners will need assistance in crafting stewardship plans for their operations, particularly beginning, minority and tribal producers who historically haven’t gotten the attention they deserve from USDA.
Investments in research and innovation will help farmers and ranchers adopt new technologies that allow them to produce more food and fiber with fewer emissions. And, in forestry, new uses of wood in commercial buildings, nanotechnology and other applications can spur tree planting and investment in forestlands.
Critical to any forestry agenda will be addressing the growing threat and associated emissions from catastrophic wildfire. Large scale forest restoration and management on our western public lands will be needed to restore the health of our forests while reducing the threat of wildfire to lives, property, and watersheds.
Investing in these policies has benefits beyond those to producers, landowners, and the climate. Farm and forest climate solutions will improve habitats for fish and wildlife species and for the hunters, anglers and others who annually pump billions of dollars into rural economies through outdoor recreation.
American agriculture and forestry produce the food, fiber and wood necessary to help feed and house the world. We believe with the right set of policies, they can help protect our climate, too.
Saxby Chambliss served as U.S. Senator from Georgia, and chaired the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. Heidi Heitkamp served as U.S. Senator from North Dakota, and served on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. They co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force