Talking to farmers about climate change is a delicate affair. While nearly half of U.S. adults believe that climate change is happening and is the result of human activity, only 8 percent of farmers feel the same. To explain why farmers are far less likely than the general population to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, social scientists offer a variety of explanations: farmers skew conservative; farmers have long institutional memory and are more apt to view particular events as part of larger trends; farmers don’t want to admit that they are part of the problem.
But to get farmers engaged on the issue of climate change, experts tend to suggest one simple solution: instead of calling it “climate change,” a term that has become politically charged, call it “weather variation.”
So it might seem, on its face, that the Trump administration’s most recent directive to United States Department of Agriculture scientists — mandating that they avoid the term “climate change” in favor of “weather extremes” — could actually help the government discuss the issue of climate change with farmers. The directive, explained in an internal USDA email obtained by the Guardian, tells scientists with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency’s primary conservation arm, to refer to things like “climate change adaptation” as “resilience to extreme weather events” and to use “build organic soil matter” rather than “reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The shift would not be entirely unprecedented. In 2015, then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention that the USDA often refers to climate change as “weather variation” when talking to farmers, because it helps to open a dialogue about the issue without focusing on political divisions.
But instead of making these changes to more effectively communicate the department’s work with scientists, the emails obtained by the Guardian reveal a more sinister impetus for the change: a “shift in perspective within the Executive Branch.” In short, the Trump administration wants to bury mention of climate change not because doing so will make it easier to talk about the problem with farmers, but because the administration has decided that the problem is simply not a priority.
“Using the terms weather extreme, climate variability can be an entry into having a deeper conversation about the science,” Linda Prokopy, professor of Natural Resources Social Science at Purdue University, and a specialist in communicating climate change with farmers, told ThinkProgress. “When we tell people they cannot use terms that are being actively discussed in the scientific literature, that is problematic, because it really shuts down a potential conversation.”
According to Prokopy, farmers who accept anthropogenic climate change — climate change caused by humans — are more likely to take adaptive measures to help strengthen their land against climate vulnerability. If the USDA can’t talk about climate change, it’s less likely to be able to convince farmers to do things like plant cover crops or switch to no-till farming, two strategies that can help both increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil and guard soil against erosion from things like intense storms.
“It’s not just enough to think that the climate is changing, because those people are less willing to take adaptive steps to protect their land,” Prokopy said.
The dangers posed by climate change to farmers are hardly distant threats. In March, fueled by weeks of drought and above-average temperatures, wildfires swept across the Great Plains, devastating almost everything in their path. In states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, vicious fires tore through ranches, decimating herds of cattle. Some ranchers lost nearly 80 percent of their herds and thousands of acres of their property; for some families, those losses easily cost millions of dollars.
Wildfires and drought are two events heavily associated with climate change; according to scientific analysis of the late-winter heatwave that preceded the drought and fires, those temperatures were three times as likely because of climate change. And while wildfires and drought will become more common as carbon pollution drives up the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, they are hardly the only two extreme weather events that farmers and ranchers will have to contend with in a changing climate; as an industry that relies on the regularity of weather and climate, everything from changing seasons to more intense precipitation will make farming more difficult in the future.
Understanding that climate change was bound to make life more difficult for farmers, the Obama administration began rolling out a suite of climate-focused programs, from USDA Regional Climate Hubs to a series of voluntary “building blocks” aimed at helping farmers reduce their carbon footprint and adapt to climate change. But the Trump administration has shown little interest in continuing the department’s focus, naming former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) — who called climate science “a running joke among the public” in a 2014 op-ed — Secretary of Agriculture. Shortly thereafter, Trump nominated Sam Clovis, a former conservative talk radio host who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, to be the agency’s head scientist.
From day one, the Trump administration has been openly hostile to the climate policies and programs championed by the Obama administration. Trump has ordered agencies to dismantle almost every part of Obama’s climate legacy, from the Clean Power Plan to the United States’ participation in the Paris climate agreement. But for the first time, the emails obtained by the Guardian show how the president’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus on climate change — and his penchant for appointing politicians with similarly hostile views towards climate science — is impacting the efficacy of the federal government to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.
The irony of Trump’s climate denial is that the farmers who will be hardest hit by the changing climate are the very rural voters that helped propel Trump to the White House. And it’s not just climate programs that could be on the chopping block in a Trump USDA: the administration’s proposed “skinny budget” included a 21 percent cut to the USDA, eliminating grants meant to help spur economic activity, water treatment in rural communities, rural infrastructure plans, and more.
Agriculture is the rare victim of climate change that could also be a solution — soil management techniques aimed at returning carbon to the soil, for instance, could help sequester excess carbon while making the land more resilient in the face of a changing climate. It’s exciting that such ideas exist, and a tragedy that the Trump administration values politics over helping its supporters access those solutions.