Most people that work in the public eye won’t give you their true opinion on the whole climate change issue, but I will give you mine. I come to my opinion through a few different paths that give me a good background to make an informed opinion. I grew up on a large cow-calf ranch, spent some summers helping a local farmer, and went to college for meteorology (because weather fascinates me). During my meteorology program, we also learned a lot about climatology. You can’t have one (climate) without the other (weather), and this experience laid a good foundation for my understanding of the atmosphere and earth system. I am not a “climate expert” because, as you can imagine, the atmosphere and earth system are very complex, and one can’t learn everything in a 4-year degree program. I continued my education to get a master’s degree in agriculture focusing on agronomy, which has aided me in my knowledge of agronomic impacts from climate and weather.
Science vs. Politics
The first issue with the climate change belief is just that, it’s a belief. The fact is, you actually don’t have to believe anything. You just need to be informed (correctly) and understand what the information is telling you, or not telling you. From now on, I won’t mention believing, it will be knowing or not knowing. Knowing is not always about having all the answers, but about knowing the latest science and and non-biased research and how you can better use that information. Climate has changed throughout history and continues to change, people don’t dispute that. The earth is warming, most people don’t dispute that. People in the Midwest have noticed changes in the weather patterns, most people don’t dispute that either. Where the dispute comes from, and the premise for the “belief” (sorry, last time), is the cause of the recent trends, the projection of future trends and what to do about it.
The politics and differing opinions on this issue make it next to impossible to make a reasonably informed opinion on the matter. Many are against the subject because of the potential regulations and the economic impact, the conflicting theories or interpretations of the science, the lack of confidence in future changes and the cause, or other reasons. Others will embellish the truth to fit their own agenda or their wallet. This has become a dividing line between political parties and it really shouldn’t be. A lot of farmers are conservatives and I can’t think of a group more knowledgeable about their climate. Their livelihood is directly impacted by climate and weather events, and they know how the climate behaves in their area. This goes beyond farmers, because communities and states rely on agriculture for property taxes, jobs, schools, etc., and climate and weather have a huge impact on these. Agriculture is interested in the subject, but the political side has made it almost impossible to talk about.
The science is there to show that, globally, we are on a warming trend. There will be certain years and locations that don’t follow this trend, but overall, the data is pretty clear. Almost all climate scientists will say that climate change is happening, but that is a hard concept to wrap your head around. The climate change message is very distant, but is also very close to home. Projections are hard to visualize and the impacts you see or hear about on TV are too far away to impact you (ice melting, sea level rise, etc.). We experience climate or weather first hand and weather comes up in almost every conversation. The fact that our climate could change is unsettling and we just have to see it to believe it. This reminds me of a saying that I saw once: “If someone told you there were 1.8 billion stars in the galaxy, you would believe them; but if someone told you a burner on the stove was hot, you would have to touch it first.”
Another issue is the interchangeable use of climate change and global warming. They are not the same. Global warming is a part (although a big part) of climate change. If one uses global warming as the sole name for climate change, regional areas that are cooling will not accept the issue of climate change. There also may be the perception that warming is the only impact, which is narrow thinking and does not include the many feedback mechanisms that may be attributed to a warming climate. The interaction of oceans, land, ice, and the atmosphere is complex and is highly variable from location to location, thus the need for regional (as well as global) understanding of the risks.
Climate and Agriculture
In the Midwest and Nebraska, we live in a very challenging climate. The old saying, “if you don’t like the weather, come back in a few hours” describes the variable and extreme nature of our weather patterns. Almost everyone has a tornado story and a blizzard story, and they are sometimes on the same day. That doesn’t happen everywhere and that makes us unique. The Rocky Mountains to our west and the long distance from any ocean drive the variable nature of our climate. This makes knowing how climate change may impact us very difficult to predict and even more difficult to adapt. The projected changes from the 2014 National Climate Assessment project average temperatures to increase 3-10°F by the end of the next century, based on certain emission scenarios. But, what does that mean for how we may conduct our lives or businesses? In the Midwest and Great Plains, our year to year variability may be greater than the 100 year projected change in temperature. We most likely won’t see a gradual trend that is easy to adapt to, we will have to be ready for the warm and the cold years. (I won’t dive into too many more details on numbers, but the details on the science of the climate system and current projections can be found in the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment and the Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska, among other similar reports.)
Many farmers already make climate-wise decisions. Planting wheat or sorghum on dryland or water-limited corn fields after years of corn burning up or adding buffer strips around creeks to catch runoff and eroded material after they are tired of losing that valuable topsoil. Maybe it was converting fields into no-till to reduce soil moisture loss during the early spring warm-up. Whatever the example, farmers have been adjusting to weather and planning for climate since agriculture began. The sustainability of their operation and their land depend on it. Now, we are trying to be proactive instead of reactive in order to minimize the short-term downfalls.
What the data suggests is that we need to be ready for warmer winters, more sporadic and heavy rain events, increased number of extreme heat days, and more frequent, “flash” droughts. There are data to show that, in Nebraska, some of these trends are already happening. Locations in Nebraska vary, but overall, the trends are there. We have been warming in the winter and maintaining average temperatures in the summer. Our daytime highs during the summer have been cooling, but night time temperatures have been warming, which keeps the average daily temperature fairly steady. Some locations have seen an increase in frost free days, most of which are coming on the front end with an earlier warm up in the spring. Precipitation has been highly variable, but heavy rain events have always been a problem. The overall projection for precipitation is that the dry areas might get drier and wet areas might get wetter.
With all this said, we have been dealing with what may be projected for our area for a while now. We have adapted to these changes and will continue to adapt. The critical issue is that the projections are that these changes and events will happen faster and more frequent. This means that we should do all that we can to be prepared, even if we are not certain it will happen (nothing is ever certain).
The best management practices that have led us to this point in agriculture will continue to get us through the issues into the future, but they will need to be enhanced. Certain things like residue cover, water infiltration rate, and soil organic matter can be the answer to a lot of questions. Continuous no-till has shown to increase infiltration rates to reduce runoff and put water in the soil, enhance soil structure for a quick return to field work after a rain, and provide residue cover to reduce soil erosion, evaporation and soil temperature.
Here are a few good management practices to help mitigate extreme climate events (and climate variability):
- Crop residue: reduce evaporation, erosion, cool soil temperatures in summer (excessive rain, early season warming, extreme summer heat, drought);
- Increase soil organic matter by using no-till or cover crops: increase water holding and nutrient holding capacity (drought, early season warming, excessive rain)
- Terracing and grassed water ways: reduce soil loss to erosion and reduce need for rill repair (excessive rain)
- Crop diversification: minimize whole farm risk to adverse weather (drought, extreme summer heat, early season warming).
- Livestock: provide shade to confined animals; avoid handling animals during the heat of the day; provide clean, fresh water.
Many of these best management practices protect your soil and valuable natural resources, all while providing your operation some resiliency to climate and weather extremes and variability. These practices may also have secondary effects, such as reduced irrigation demand, reduction in nutrient and pesticide applications, and enhanced water quality. This is the type of progress agriculture can be proud of and our way to show the world that we are making steps to be sustainable, protect our natural resources and provide food for 9 billion people by 2050 (or sooner).
So, my opinion on the matter is, yes, the climate is changing. It always has and always will, but the recent rate of change is what makes this different than previous climate changes. Climate scientists are projecting future changes that could impact agriculture and I have nothing to prove that they are not on the right track. The earth is a complex system and cannot be replicated, so we must use the best information possible to strategically place ourselves in a position for success. In my position in Extension, we are working on ways to better address this issue and provide the best science-based, non-biased information to Nebraska farmers and ranchers.