On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Department of Agriculture — former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) — got his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee. And despite testifying for over two-and-a-half hours about everything from SNAP benefits to immigration, one topic was noticeably absent from the hearing: climate change.
If approved as Secretary of Agriculture, Perdue would take the reins of a federal agency with more than 100,000 employees and a budget of $140 billion. He would also preside over an agency that has a lot of influence on the United States environment and climate: agriculture produces around 9 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, making it the fifth largest producer of greenhouse gases, by economic sector, in the country.
Perdue has a sketchy past when it comes to climate and the environment. As Georgia governor, he applauded the expansion of factory farms, and fought EPA clean air regulations. He has rejected mainstream climate science in the past, calling it “so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”
As Secretary of Agriculture, Perdue would have the opportunity to either expand or minimize the work on climate and conservation largely started by his predecessor Tom Vilsack, who presided over the founding of the USDA’s regional climate hubs and the creation of the USDA’s voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Farmland covers a little less than half of the United States, and when climate-fueled extreme weather hits — from intense precipitation and floods to droughts — it impacts farmers ability to successfully grow crops and bring those crops to market. Perdue’s own thoughts on climate are therefore extremely important to help both farmers and lawmakers understand how he would help the agriculture community deal with the more extreme weather already being seen across the country, from droughts out West to extreme precipitation events in the East.
Unfortunately, throughout Perdue’s entire testimony, not one Senator — Democratic or Republican — asked Perdue about climate change. Not one Senator asked Perdue whether his views from 2014 — where he railed against climate change as a cause of “the left” and “the mainstream media” — are views that would guide his decision-making process as head of an agency that is so intimately tied to both climate and the environment.
Some Senators did make oblique references to the environment generally. The problem of wildfires — an issue of special concern to the Forest Service, which is housed within the USDA — was raised more than once, with Perdue pledging to fight for more money for forest management rather than mere fire suppression. But not one Senator noted climate change’s role in fueling longer and more devastating fires — despite a 2015 report from the Forest Service itself pinpointing climate change as a major driver of more destructive, and expensive, wildfires.
With respect to environmental issues, Sen. Chris van Hollen (D-MD) sought assurance from Perdue that he would fight to keep the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Program funded. Trump’s budget proposes zeroing-out all federal funding for the cleanup of the Chesapeake, a move that has fueled bipartisan criticism. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also asked Perdue to pledge to support funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, another watershed cleanup program that would be eliminated under Trump’s proposed budget. Perdue pledged to defend both programs, noting their importance to the regions that they serve.
But much of the pollution problems in those areas come from agriculture. In the Chesapeake, an excess of chicken manure — fueled by the chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula — has lead to an overabundance of both nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay. And in the Great Lakes, fertilizer runoff from farms has lead to toxic algal blooms, like the one that shutdown the water supply to the town of Toledo, Ohio, in 2014.
In his confirmation hearing, Perdue pledged to work with these regions to ensure that farmers utilize conservation techniques, like targeted application of fertilizer, to protect the health of these major watersheds. But Perdue also has close ties to the fertilizer and factory farm industries — either through personal business or campaign contributions — that could complicate his support for these programs should he be confirmed as secretary.
If only there had been an opportunity to ask Perdue about these conflicts before his nomination came up for a vote in the Senate.