Last month, Congress held initial hearings to inform the 2018 Farm Bill. Agriculture Committee members heard about the struggling farm economy, crop insurance, and rural development. One issue that wasn’t discussed, despite its profound impact on farmers, is climate change. Both Republican House and Senate Agriculture Committee chairs are noted climate change skeptics. But Congress didn’t always have its head buried in the climate sand.
The 1990 Farm Bill included a title called the Global Climate Change Prevention Act. That title established a program at the USDA to coordinate climate-related issues within the giant agency. The program was to “ensure that recognition for the potential for climate change is fully integrated into the research, planning, and decisionmaking processes of the Department.” This work included coordinating both inter-agency work as well as representing the USDA at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had just been established in 1988. Specifically, the new climate change program was to study the impacts of climate change (including drought, extreme weather, new pests) on crop production and explore the potential for developing more climate-resilient crops.
The climate change title was pushed by then-Senate Agriculture Chair Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy—still a current member of the Committee. The inclusion of a climate title was part of an overall push in the 1990 Farm Bill to expand beyond traditional farm programs to include more resources for conservation. The bill also included the first forestry-focused title and the first title to set national system of organic food standards and certification.
How is it possible that climate change could be talked about so openly in Congress in 1990, and despite all the additional scientific and experiential evidence we now have on climate change, it has been effectively silenced in the 2018 Farm Bill?
Some of the reasons are obvious. Climate change was a very new and emerging issue in 1990. The scientific community was moving on climate research, but for the public and the policy world it was relatively new. Climate would get more public attention two years later at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And while environmental issues were viewed through a partisan lens, the fierceness of that divide was not as deep as it is now. For example, President George Bush supported and signed updates to the Clean Air Act in 1990, and later signed the Rio Earth Summit agreements.
As important, the climate change title was primarily focused on a research agenda, rather than a regulatory framework that directly threatened the agriculture or fossil fuel industries. According to Tom Tuchmann, who worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee in 1990, there was little opposition to the climate change title, and in general a more bi-partisan approach to lawmaking at that time. For example, Republican Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee in 1990, was supportive of the Climate Change title.
Another factor is that the fossil fuel industry hadn’t kicked into over-drive their campaign to politicize and discredit climate science. That multi-decade effort, even after company scientists at Exxon/Mobil had warned the company about climate change going back to the 1970s, shifted the political discussion around climate. Working particularly closely with the Bush-Cheney administration, the industry spent millions to sow doubts about climate science and reinforce the perception that environmentalists had conjured up climate change to advance their agenda.
Now, 27 years later, we know a lot more about climate change and its effects on agriculture. The latest science, reflected in the most recent U.S. Climate Assessment, finds that climate change is already occurring and that it “is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.” The assessment reports, “Certain types of extreme weather events with links to climate change have become more frequent and/or intense, including prolonged periods of heat, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts…While some U.S. regions and some types of agricultural production will be relatively resilient to climate change over the next 25 years or so, others will increasingly suffer from stresses due to extreme heat, drought, disease, and heavy downpours. From mid-century on, climate change is projected to have more negative impacts on crops and livestock across the country—a trend that could diminish the security of our food supply.”
Following the science, and what they are seeing in the field and supply chains, most major agribusiness and food companies are not waiting for Congress to act. Cargill, General Mills, Monsanto, and fertilizer giant Yara, among others, are openly touting how they are responding to climate change. Increasingly, farm groups like the National Farmers Union are pushing for reforms that support climate resilience.
Congressional inaction on climate change, led by Republicans, unfortunately reflects what is now a fiercely partisan issue. A recent Pew poll confirmed that political partisanship is the single biggest factor determining people’s views on climate change.
That partisanship on climate change is continuing in the 2018 Farm Bill. Even as their home states struggle to recover from yet another extreme weather event—a devastating wildfire that killed more than 10,000 cattle across three states—the Republican chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee (Pat Roberts, KS) and House Agriculture Committee (Michael Conaway, TX) are unwilling to consider how to better prepare farmers and ranchers for the effects of climate change.
The view from the White House is even worse. President Trump signed a series of climate-related executive orders in early April, which nullified efforts designed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from power plants and canceled an Obama Administration executive order on climate resilience instructing federal agencies to develop climate preparedness tools and information and assist communities in dealing with extreme weather.
The challenge for farmers and rural communities posed by climate change is enormous. Fortunately, there are strong, existing Farm Bill conservation programs that support soil health, water quality, perennial and cover crops, rotational grazing, and other practices that can build climate resilience. Unfortunately, these programs could face further cuts, instead of the expanded investment that is needed.
There is still time for Congress to change course. We don’t need to go back to 1990, but we badly need policymakers who have the courage to put politics aside to protect the environment, build community resiliency, protect farmers from climate risk, and secure our food supply for the future.