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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.

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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.