USDA Sec. Vilsack’s Climate Self-Censorship Draws Outrage From American Farmers

By Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts.

Sign the petition asking Sec. Vilsack to tell farmers the facts about climate change.

In multiple press appearances last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack dodged questions about what drought-stricken farmers need to know about climate change. Speaking before the White House press corps, Vilsack refused to answer questions by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times and Bill Plante of CBS News about the connections between climate change and the current drought.

Although the USDA has a Climate Change Program Office, Vilsack refused to talk about the science because, he said, “I’m not a scientist“:

STOLBERG: Could you talk a little bit about the drought itself? Is it very unusual? Did anyone see it coming? Is it from climate change? Is there anything you can do to prepare?

VILSACK: I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this. All we know is that right now there are a lot of farmers and ranchers who are struggling. And it’s important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what’s causing this, what can we do to help them. And what we can do to help them is lower interest rates, expand access to grazing and haying opportunities, lower the penalties associated with that, and encourage Congress to help and work with us to provide additional assistance. And that’s where our focus is.

Watch it:

I’m not an expert on climate change so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond specifically to that question,” Vilsack dodged in a Thursday interview on Marketplace.

In petitions organized by Forecast the Facts and Food Democracy Now, over ten thousand Americans are calling on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to directly address the massive implications of manmade climate change for our entire farming sector. Many of the signatories are farmers and ranchers. Rebecca E., of Manitou Springs, CO, wrote: “My family has a family farm AND a cattle operation in Kansas. We DESERVE to know the science behind what we are being dealt by the weather!”

USDA scientists are clear that global warming pollution is already leading to more extreme weather, such as longer and more severe droughts, heat waves, and floods.

Vilsack’s unwillingness to discuss climate science represents a Romney-like shift from less than a year ago. Speaking at an event at the Center for American Progress Fund in September 2011, Vilsack initiated a discussion on the links between climate change and agricultural disasters, saying it is “hard to explain” that anyone could not realize that the climate is changing:

I think it’s important to point out what’s happening here. We have record droughts in the southern part of our country, record droughts. We have record snowfall and snowmelt in the northern part of our country which is now causing significant flooding challenges. The average, and the worst week of tornados we’ve ever experienced in this country is roughly about 150 tornados in a week; in May we had 350 tornados in one week. We had a hurricane and a tropical storm that didn’t just impact the coast areas as it normally does, but was in upstate New York—upstate New York—looking at damage resulting from the storm that basically wiped out whole fields of agricultural crops—whole fields. Folks who had never experienced flooding conditions, that were directly related to a storm that was hundreds of miles away. If people don’t understand that the climate is changing, it’s just hard to explain how anybody could not see that, given this year that we’ve had with natural disasters.

Watch it:

It’s hard to explain why Vilsack now acts as if he doesn’t know the science, although it is consistent with President Barack Obama’s silence on global warming. The president has not officially talked about how his current administration will address US climate change since January 26, 2012.

The full exchange at the White House press conference, July 18, 2012:

STOLBERG: Could you talk a little bit about the drought itself? Is it very unusual? Did anyone see it coming? Is it from climate change? Is there anything you can do to prepare?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this. All we know is that right now there are a lot of farmers and ranchers who are struggling. And it’s important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what’s causing this, what can we do to help them. And what we can do to help them is lower interest rates, expand access to grazing and haying opportunities, lower the penalties associated with that, and encourage Congress to help and work with us to provide additional assistance. And that’s where our focus is.

Long term, we will continue to look at weather patterns, and we’ll continue to do research and to make sure that we work with our seed companies to create the kinds of seeds that will be more effective in dealing with adverse weather conditions.

It’s one of the reasons — because they have done that, it’s one of the reasons why we’re still uncertain as to the impact of this drought in terms of its bottom line because some seeds are drought-resistant and drought-tolerant, and it may be that the yields in some cases are better than we’d expected because of the seed technology.

PLANTE: Mr. Secretary, I want to follow through on the climate change question. Is there any long-range thinking at the Department that — you had the wildfires and the heat wave and the rise in sea levels, and now this drought — that there’s something more going on here than just one year of a bad crop, and you need more than better seeds, maybe do something about climate change?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Our focus, to be honest with you, in a situation like this is on the near term and the immediate, because there’s a lot of pressure on these producers. You take the dairy industry, for example. We’ve lost nearly half of our dairy producers in the last 10 years. They were just getting back to a place where there was profitability and now they’re faced with some serious issues and, again, no assistance in terms of disaster assistance.

So that’s our near-term focus. Long term, we obviously are engaged in research projects; we’re obviously working with seed companies. Don’t discount the capacity of the seed companies. These technologies do make a difference. And it’s one of the reasons why, at least based on the yields today, we’re looking at potentially the third largest corn crop in our history. Now, that may be adjusted downward, it may be adjusted upward — depends on the rain, depends on circumstances. But even with the difficulties we’re experiencing, we’re still looking at a pretty good crop as of today. Tomorrow it could change, obviously.

Marketplace transcript:

Q: Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you one more question before I let you go. This is — as you said – the worst drought in decades, the first half of this year, according to the government, was the hottest in 118 years of record keeping across the country, the U.K. just had its wettest June since records began there. Is it the view of the U.S.government that this is climate change?

VILSACK: Well, I’m not an expert on climate change so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond specifically to that question. My focus and I think the focus of the USDA and the President, right now is on making sure that we get help to these folks, making sure, for example, that people know that they got to contact their insurance agent, if they have crop insurance, that they may have a damaged crop so that they won’t lose rights under their policy, that’s our focus.

It’s not to trying to figure out, today, what may be causing this or what may be impacting it. We know it is impacting farmers and ranchers. Our hearts go out to their families and these hard working folks. We just want to be able to provide them some help and assistance.

39 Responses to USDA Sec. Vilsack’s Climate Self-Censorship Draws Outrage From American Farmers

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Vilsack is a Blue Dog Democrat, who supports GMO crops, industrial forestry, factory farms, and all the rest of it. Like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, he is a corporate sellout, and might as well be a Republican.

    Ducking the question about climate change takes him down to another level, though. This is disturbing, less for him than as a sorry reflection on the Obama Administration.

  2. Lionel A says:

    When asked for a vote perhaps Americans should have a third option ‘None of the above’.

  3. Ken Barrows says:

    Seems to me, whether Democrat or Republican is your choice, you get Big Empire, Big Banks, and Big Agriculture. Too bad all of those have to go. If they don’t, we do instead.

  4. Mark says:

    The foremost issue facing the planet, in the middle of the campaign for President, and to this day

    neither candidate Obama nor candidate Romney, has felt it necessary to mention climate change.

    a new low point for mankind.

  5. Leif says:

    “My focus and I think the focus of the USDA and the President, right now is on making sure that we get help to these folks, making sure, for example, that people know that they got to contact their insurance agent, if they have crop insurance, that they may have a damaged crop so that they won’t lose rights under their policy, that’s our focus.”

    I see, if the drought is man made and not an “act of God” that would let insurance industry off the hook? Back on to the backs of the tax payer where it has always been anyway. i.e. Disaster relief. Follow the money… Then take it from those that got it. Those enriched by the ability to profit from pollution of the commons!

  6. Tami Kennedy says:

    If you “are not a scientist” then schedule the meeting with your experts that can answer these questions.

  7. john atcheson says:

    Not being a scientist and all, why did he feel competent to talk about manipulating the seed stock? That’s far more complex than the simple fact that more greenhouse gasses makes the world warmer … and drier in some places.

    This is yet another issue I have with Obama. He hires Goldman Sachs to do our national finances and yahoos like this to do our agricultural policies.

  8. Tom L says:

    We should be demanding resignations from this administration, not asking for simple honesty. This is what a coverup sounds like, smells like, tastes like, and looks like. We’re making half-hearted pleas for half-measures. Is this man not grossly incompetent under the circumstances? Too incompetent to carry out his duties responsibly?

  9. Zimzone says:

    ‘And it’s important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what’s causing this, what can we do to help them.’

    Total copout, Mr. Secretary. Why on earth would we NOT want to know causation? How do you solve a problem w/o knowing cause?

    Looks to me like Monsanto has offered him a well paid position for ‘playing dumb’.

  10. joyce says:

    I guess that’s why the USDA can’t include simple mitigation effort in their newsletter, since they don’t know the science

  11. Tim says:

    Flashback to the press conference following the assassination president Kennedy:

    Reporter: Sir, we saw the thrown backward in his car on the street here in Dallas – what is known about what caused that? Was he shot?

    Sheriff: Well, I’m not a forensic expert, so I’ll not opine on the cause of the president’s death…

    R: …but you have photographs, you have the coroner’s report. Was he shot?

    S: All we know is that the top of the president’s head suddenly came off. I’m not going to get into the issue of whether he was shot.

  12. SecularAnimist says:

    By refusing to discuss the ongoing, increasingly devastating impacts of global warming, Vilsack is just following his boss’s example.

  13. Has anyone considered what will happen to food production if farmers just stop farming once they understand that turning a good crop is going to get tougher and tougher in the next 30 years due to AGW. There are many less risky things to tie your family’s fortune.The cards are being stacked against their success. I would like there to be food. I don’t want them to quit.

  14. with the doves says:

    sad but true.

  15. Tom L says:

    Exactly! That’s why we should be insisting on his resignation, as an example for his boss to ponder in his silence.

  16. M Tucker says:

    Vilsack, Salazar, Geithner, Panetta, Holder have all been disappointing. Perhaps one of the worst crop of cabinet members for a Democratic President in a while. I sure hope President Obama, if reelected, will consider making some changes.

    As for Vilsack’s comment…since he was basically speaking to farmers and ranchers, through the press conference, about the drought he will tailor his comments accordingly. He obviously is not a stand-up kind of guy. He is a wuss. He will suck up to the agriculture community in order to not make waves. He doesn’t want to alienate anyone prior to the election of his boss who is also a wuss on the subject. Those wimps need to stick together and keep their story straight. They fear speaking out in a public way about this issue. They will avoid any attempt to educate or persuade those who deny AGW. Sure, with a friendly audience they may take a different approach like his speech before a gathering at the Center for American Progress…and that speech was almost a year ago.

    With Republicans we have rabid deniers. With Obama and his cabinet and his advisers we have tacit deniers who will only whisper the truth when they think they can get away with it. Democrats still haven’t learned the art of confrontation. Republican politicians seem to be rewarded for confrontational positions on controversial subjects while Democrats get vilified. Democrats haven’t learned to turn the backlash into an advantage as Republicans have with issues like: No abortion even if you are raped by your father.

  17. paul magnus says:

    I think they don’t want to panic the multitude. We are in dire straits now and it anti going to be pretty which ever way you look at it.

  18. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Surely the reality is that Vilsack is following his boss’s explicit orders ?
    Obama has all the attention on climate that he wants: near-zero; almost nada; practically nothing.
    The polls show strong popular support for action across the voter divide – many times what an impartial leader would see as sufficient to promote so critical an issue towards requisite legislative change and an international treaty.

    Moreover, this is a classic wedge issue, where the GOP candidate cannot promote action, in an election that is still wide open.
    And Obama, with a first rate electoral machine tracking public opinion, doesn’t just remain silent and gag his officials – he actively promotes the lie that current extreme weather events are “natural disasters” – as at Colorado Springs and now as the title for farmers’ drought relief.

    We need to face the fact that Obama adopted the Cheyney/Bush climate policy of a ‘Brinkmanship of Inaction’ with China, which is America’s direct rival for global economic dominance. His commitment to that policy is such that, beyond ignoring climate risk to the US, he even ignores the electoral advantage that promoting climate would provide.

    We need to identify just what is his motivation if we’re to hope to change his course.

    Imposing the Copenhagen Deal – where by 2050 each American would still have three times the CO2 emissions rights of each Chinese – is one possible motivation, with the price of defiance being both US inaction and blocking of any binding global commitments, thus raising mutual climate damages.

    While this explanation is plausible, it seems increasingly unlikely on two counts. First, the 40 years of intensifying damages now in the pipeline certainly include serial global crop failures and famines, (Beddington, UK chief scientist, optimistically puts them around 2030). This makes rising popular anger in China against the govt predictable to the point of its eventual overthrow, meaning the end of China’s bid for global dominance.

    Second, every US administration since WW2 has, without exception, had the maintenance of US global dominance as its primary concern, “at any cost”, up to and including playing chicken with a nuclear arms race. Any slightest weakness by an administration on this issue was used for massive criticism by GOP politicians.

    Yet at present, with China’s economy within 6 years of exceeding that of the US, there is no visible US counter-action at all in terms of serious war-threat, relevant scale of trade-war, etc. Only on two fronts has the US advanced action against China since Cheyney/Bush took power; promoting Chinese dissidents and civil dissatisfaction at every opportunity, and advancing the prospect of the climatic destabilization of China’s government.

    And meanwhile there are scarcely even muted critiques from the GOP of the White House response to the rise of China’s economic power. So should we believe that they too are no longer interested in maintaining US dominance ? Maybe the White House has some other ploy to deflect its Chines rival’s rise, but if so, where is it and how has it remained hidden ?

    There is one seductive motivation for Obama’s adoption of the Cheyney/Bush climate policy which warrants mention, as it is a lot less reprehensible than mere US nationalist supremacism. It reflects the fact that every great empire will go to war to maintain its dominance if no other means suffice; thus the policy of imposing climatic destabilization may perhaps have been sold to Obama as a means of pre-empting the GOP war party inevitably fomenting hostilities with China.

    The point bears repeating here that without identifying Obama’s motivation for suppressing discussion of climate, we’ve no chance at all of re-orienting the policy it reflects.

    That re-orientation is increasingly feasible, given the flawed assumptions underlying that policy.
    First, there was the notion that China would be hit far harder than the US by extreme weather events – which is patently questionable –
    Second was the notion that America will be far better able than China to withstand massive rises in the price of food and animal feed – and as the pathetic Vilsack press-conference shows, this too is already raising popular concerns that will undermine the viability of the policy’s continuation.

    With the Vilsack embarrassment, the administration has reached the point of ‘clinging on’ to the policy – I suggest that we need to focus efforts on exposing this and weakening the administration’s resolve to continue.



  19. catman306 says:

    Can anyone suggest some candidates for Vilsack’s replacement?

  20. M Tucker says:

    Agriculture’s contribution to global warming is significant! For years we have been discussing how we can solve contributions from generating electricity and from personal transportation and a few have investigated how we can solve contributions from ocean shipping and air transportation. In fact an article above is all over the 3% contribution from aviation…Agriculture is much more than that!

    CO2, methane, tropical deforestation and N2O from agriculture all contribute significantly to AGW. In the US we may be able to eventually address CO2 and methane but no one has an answer for N2O. Even if all 7 billion became vegans and we went to organic farming we will not solve that problem.

    I am waiting for the time when American farmer and ranchers really do engage in trying to solve this problem. I am very interested in how they will react to the sad news that we have no solution for N2O pollution. Not only is it a powerful GHG but it also depletes the stratospheric ozone layer. I’m pretty sure we are all f’ed but I will listen to any and all solutions from experts.

  21. Peter M says:

    there is something surreal here. we have climate change starting to burn parts of this country to toast- the scientists have warned about this for years- yet we have government officials afraid of using the words ‘climate change’- I find this to be a total vindication of my view that the United States is headed over a cliff- and when it hits bottom there will be no USA left.

  22. prokaryotes says:

    Maybe he had a bad day?

  23. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Make that a new low for Americans, who are rather less than 5% of ‘mankind’.

  24. M Tucker says:

    When you look into it the grain farmers have insurance. In fact they may even make more if the crop fails. It is the farmers and ranchers who need to feed livestock who suffer. No such insurance covers them. So repeated seasons of drought might chance us all into vegans eating the most expensive grain ever produced.

  25. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    As a farmer (mostly of sheep on 160 acres of hill farm plus mountain grazing) this is exactly the decision I’m facing.
    Get out while it’s still a matter of choice,
    or be forced out by costs rising far faster than sale prices plus volatile declining yields due to climate impacts.

    Most farmers I know thought we were heading toward famine – due to the suppression of EU farm incomes forcing young people out, implying a lack of trained people to run farms in future – long before the destabilization of the climate here became generally recognized.

    American policy not only exacerbates climate destabilization by its intransigence in refusing binding treaty commitments, it has also advanced the date at which food price rises generate starvation and mounting civil unrest by means of its expanded diversion of cereals to fuel production. That outcome was entirely obvious on the day Obama signed off the expansion of the cereals diversion that Bush agreed. I see no reason to assume it was an accidental or unintended consequence.



  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Nice analysis Lewis. It does seem strange that they are clinging onto ‘not scaring the horses’ when that very angry cat, now out of the bag, is screeching around the horse paddocks biting every leg she can find, ME

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Which Democrats, pray tell, are not ‘corporate sell-outs’. From this distance it is hard to discern any, certainly not the Grand Poobah, Obama.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Neither of the above is really, ‘Not the Above’ because they are one and the same. The Greens do exist-why not give them a go, before they too are bought by the money power?

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Grand Dilemma, in a nut-shell. It’s ‘Them’ or ‘Us’, the 1% or the 99%.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    But the scientists might have the wrong answers.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama and his obamination of an Administration serve the money power, without fail. GE crops are all about profit and control of the food chain-any arguments to the contrary, like the contemptible ‘we need them to feed the starving millions’ are deeply cynical lies.

  32. Don’t limit your deforestation concerns just to the tropics.

  33. Scott says:

    I guess the energy companies and the seed companies and some politicians have had a few behind closed doors meetings. I hope they included pharma so they will know what drugs we will need for humans to survive the coming cocktail of environmental poison.

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Forget the poison. A govt administered dose of heroin for those in the last stages of thirst and hunger might be more in order – if there is still a govt, ME

  35. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Merrelyn – my thanks for your kind response.
    Various additional aspects could have been included, but one that should certainly have been is the third form of consistent US action affecting China since Cheyney/Bush took power. It is the expansion under Bush and the further expansion under Obama of the fraction of the corn crop diverted to fuel. Given the dominant scale of US corn among global cereals production (more than wheat and twice global rice-volume IIRC) – taking 40% off the market has a strong inflationary effect across global cereal prices, and thus across food prices in general. With food prices being the direct lever of civil unrest, this withdrawal is plainly serving the policy goal.

    Then there are the food commodity speculators
    (who, were I a juryman at their trial for mass-child-abuse, I’d see jailed for life with the sentence to be served in, say, Mali)
    who are left to bid up those prices as far as they can profitably do so. Obama has accepted that regulation must be imposed – and after this autumn no individual US speculator will be allowed to personally hold more than 25% of the supply of any food commodity . . .

    At what point do people denounce such policies as tyranny, and shun their apologists, and demand an end to the accustomed appeasement of the US by other nations’ politicians ?



  36. It’s so easy to sit back and complain about both parties, Obama, everyone in politics. And no doubt the Democrats are disappointing, and that it seems huge vital opportunities are being missed.

    And Visack is simply wretched here, inexcusable.

    But remember also remember two things.

    1) The parties are not the same. The Republicans are so much worse it is truly not funny. The Democrats have voted repeatedly for various kinds of climate legislation, and for some degree of tax reform. Blocked every time by Republican filibusters, and now by the right wing Republican House of Representatives.

    2) A U.S. president has to get elected through the electoral college system. A Democrat got the majority of votes in all three of the last national elections, but only one of them got elected.

    Our outdated presidential system boils down to a dozen swing states. And politics in those states is just not pretty.

    Like climate change, bad mainstream media and a bad electoral system is our current reality. Don’t just whine. Deal with it.

  37. horse dave says:

    I believe that my congressional representative, Donna Edwards (D MD-4), is not a corporate sell out. Please check her record on environmental issues.The problem is that there are so many bad congress-people and they have corporate money backing them. From outside the US we must look a bit insane (understatement).

  38. Ironic that the states most highly affected by the drought tend to be Republican.

    The administration might be afraid that if they talk about global warming, it might cause them too many votes.

  39. Merrelyn Emery says:

    When it comes to examples such as those Lewis, and others like them, the thing that strikes me is not the connection to China per se but the utter disregard for the consequences for anybody or anything apart from the self at that moment in time. It is the embodiment of that purest of pathologies – megalomania.

    It usually takes the other kids a while to work out to deal with their collective problem but invariably there is one instance too many and they suddently get it. I reckon climate change is about to come that one instance, ME