Why Is The USDA Confusing Farmers By Calling Climate Change ‘Weather Variation’?

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“‘Weather variation’ is USDA code for ‘climate change’ — Vilsack.” That was the headline in the E&E News story Monday on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking to reporters at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Apparently, the USDA “tiptoes around the term ‘climate change’ when it promotes programs to farmers.” Is the USDA motto now, “Speak no climate change, hear no climate change”?

It’s like when a coughing pack-a-day smoker sees a doctor who says she has “health variation” rather than “early-stage emphysema.” Or the dangerously obese man whose doctor tells him he has “weight variation” rather than a chronic, worsening condition. Except doctors don’t do that because they would rightly be charged with malpractice.

So why does Vilsack do it? Per E&E News, he said “farmers shy from politically charged conversations but are worried about drought, excessive flooding, shorter growing seasons and other weather woes linked to global warming.”

“To me, we’re dealing with semantics here,” Vilsack told reporters at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in San Diego. “As long as the conversation can continue in some vein, if you want to talk about weather variation, I’m fine with that.”

But if the climate isn’t changing thanks to human activity then the droughts, “excessive flooding” and “other weather woes liked to global warming” are nothing more than random, passing events. In that case, why would a farmer need to prepare for more — and more intense — weather “variations”?

Vilsack is wrong. It isn’t “semantics” that humans are causing this change in the climate. It isn’t “semantics” that what’s happening isn’t random “weather variations” but a major change with a long-term trend.

This is not the first time Vilsack has self-censored on climate change, as we reported in July 2012. He wouldn’t answer White House press corps questions about the links between climate change and that record-setting drought — and in fact used language that has now become standard among the downplayers: “I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this.”

Yet at a 2011 Center for American Progress Fund event, Vilsack himself brought up the subject of the obvious connections between climate change and agricultural disasters, pointing out it is “hard to explain” how someone could not see 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…. 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.

Climate change is obvious, especially to farmers whose livelihood is so closely tied to the weather and climate. Polls repeatedly show that the only people for whom it is not obvious is the Tea Party crowd — and while there are no doubt many farmers who are Tea Partiers, misleading the majority of farmers to cater to the misinformed few is the road to ruin for U.S. agricultural policy. Indeed it is the road to ruin for the Tea Party farmers, and misinforming them now simply makes it that much harder to accurately inform them in future.

The USDA itself came out with a major report in February 2013, “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.” One of its major conclusions was “The vulnerability of agriculture to climatic change is strongly dependent on the responses taken by humans to moderate the effects of climate change.” D’uh?

Even if the primary goal is just adaptation, that is impossible to do if you don’t know what you are adapting to — a long-term trend or random variation. Last year, Vilsack launched seven regional climate hubs to help figure out how climate change will affect local farming. He said in June “We want to equip our producers individually with the capacity to begin thinking about greenhouse gasses and climate change and agriculture’s role in all of this.” Again, pretty obvious stuff.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize that we must be serious about climate change in the context of global food security and the capacity of the world to continue to produce enough food in a sustainable way that will allow humankind to continue,” Vilsack said at the time.

Precisely. We are a breadbasket for the world and as has been widely recognized, feeding 9 billion people midcentury in a globally warmed, Dust-Bowlified world will probably be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.

Contrast those June remarks to Vilsack’s from earlier this week, “If we try to force these conversations in territory that people are uncomfortable with, when we do that, we end up not having the conversation.” If a minority of farmers are uncomfortable hearing the truth about human-caused climate change — a truth for which scientists have the same level of certainty as the truth that smoking is harmful — then USDA should figure out a way to make them comfortable, since their future depends on it.

I’m all for tailoring a message for one’s audience — or finding an effective messenger for that audience like climatologist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe. But it’s self-defeating and self-destructive to omit crucial facts for fear of offense. And what of the majority of farmers who are quite receptive to science-based information? What a failure of leadership it is not to provide them with the full story. Imagine some farmers complaining a decade or two from now, “Why didn’t you tell me this was a long-term climate trend that scientists said was only going to get worse, rather than some random weather variation?”

It is the height of arrogance and elitism to think “people can’t handle the truth.” It is government’s responsibility to tell farmers the best science as we know it today. If a narrow few choose to reject the truth because of their anti-science, anti-government ideology, then at least the majority can fully understand why they need to make serious planning efforts to deal with extreme weather, drought, and the like. And again, by failing to tell them the truth now you make it much harder for others to convince them of the truth later.

We must end climate silence. If the Pope can talk about climate change to his vast flock, everyone can.