By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy

Last week, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States (NCA4) detailing the existing and incoming impacts of climate change.

Chapter 10 of the report, titled Agriculture and Rural Communities, covers the economic and social impacts of climate change on farming communities. Climate Leaders won’t be surprised at the chapter’s key messages: it’s going to get more difficult and expensive to grow food. Challenges like nutrient runoff will likely escalate in more frequent, intense precipitation events, straining relationships between farmers and communities relying on surface water for municipal water supplies. How productive land is managed has significant consequences for climate change consequences discussed in other chapters, as well. Rangeland management can be vulnerable to, or resist, drought and wildfire. Soil health and wetland management, in the aggregate, can help or hurt infrastructure that may be vulnerable to flooding downstream.

Since these concerns are well known to Climate Leaders, I would offer that NCA4’s existence and publication is the aspect that should provoke thought among this blog’s readership. The document is the work of several federal agencies, and the strange timing of the release indicates conflict on the issue within the administration. But it is also clear that a lot of folks in the participating agencies know that we are facing a huge problem and we can’t wait to address it. They were willing to contradict President Trump, who has made his climate skepticism widely known, in order to disseminate this message. While the current administration is unlikely to take decisive, adequate action – or any kind of action – to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the publication of this Assessment leads me to believe interests that have successfully resisted action on climate change will not be able to do so indefinitely. Further, the longer the wait, the more severe the consequences in the meantime and the more disruptive the eventual regulations or other remedial reactions.

Farming is a noble endeavor; the desire to provide nutrition for others and care for the land are most admirable motivations. Unfortunately, the political influence farmers maintain today does not match the importance of the sector. In a representative democracy, the approximately 2 million Americans who make a substantial portion of their living farming are extremely vulnerable to the 324 million Americans who eat the food our farmers produce. I believe that popular media accounts of the varied opinions on climate change among farmers may be overblown, and I also suspect many farmers are hesitant to use the words “climate change” to describe the weather phenomena they observe because to do so may open a door to counterproductive and costly regulation and interference. But at this time, I would offer that, regardless of what different farmers think about climate change, events like the release of NCA4 foreshadow the day when the rest of the population is going to demand that farmers do something about it. This sector has the ability to reduce emissions more quickly and less expensively than many others and is also unique in its ability to pull existing greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. Regardless of farmers’ personal beliefs on climate change, I hope the Assessment and other demonstrations of public opinion motivate producers to determine their own plan to address these issues, improving their bottom line and getting paid for ecosystem services while they are at it. If not, I worry farmers will not likely appreciate the plan the rest of the electorate drafts for them.

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