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A Stormy Forecast for U.S. Agriculture

SOURCE: AP/Julie Jacobson

A sign outside the Iowa Welcome Center is partially submerged by flood water on June 15, 2008. The link between global warming and extreme weather events is evident, and research predicts that the trend will intensify, most likely causing more crop losses for farmers.

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Farm belt lawmakers are posing a challenge to passage of clean-energy legislation in Congress because of a proposed Environmental Protection Agency ruling that they claim could make it harder for ethanol produced from corn and other U.S. crops to meet the federal renewable fuel standard under a 2007 law. But torpedoing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454, would actually hurt farmers because harms linked to global warming—including drought, flooding, and other crop damage—would continue unabated.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) has threatened to bring down the entire ACESA if he doesn’t get his way on the renewable fuel standards and jurisdiction over ACESA in the agriculture committee. The Hill reported that committee Democrats want to alter “everything from fuel standards to renewable energy definitions to regulations governing the trading of carbon derivatives created through a cap-and-trade system.”

“[I]f they don’t want to change it, they’ll have to find the votes some other place,” Peterson told ClimateWire. “In my district a ‘no’ vote would be a good vote.”

The opposition of Peterson and some other agriculture committee Democrats stems in part from EPA’s draft ruling issued May 5 that determines whether fuels qualify as renewable. To do so, fuels over their life cycle must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to gasoline. The draft EPA rule includes so-called “indirect land use” changes in that life-cycle determination. For example, if corn production in the U.S. for biofuel results in deforestation abroad that would mean more carbon emissions and would have to be taken into account in determining if corn ethanol is renewable.

But in fact, about 15 billion gallons of ethanol production capacity in place or under construction when Congress revised the 2007 RFS would be exempt from greenhouse gas reduction targets.

While it is only natural for lawmakers from states that have seen a boom in ethanol production to defend the interests of their constituents, they could make a tragic blunder if they block ACESA—the best prospect for action on global warming in the last decade. Without congressional action on climate change legislation, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise and the impacts on agriculture will grow.

The link between global warming and extreme weather events is evident, and research predicts that the trend will intensify in coming decades. A 2008 report by the interagency U.S. Climate Change Science Program, “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate,” identified changes in extreme weather as “among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate.” Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the report was the first comprehensive look at weather and climate extremes in North America:

“[I]n recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days…Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, though there are no clear trends for North America as a whole.”

In the future, the interagency report predicts, “With continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity.” More intense drought and floods could devastate farm income.

The link between climate change and a dramatic increase in weather-related natural disasters since the mid-20th century was the subject of a 2006 meeting in Munich, Germany, between scientists and the insurance industry. An insurance company database showed that weather-related disasters had increased sixfold since the 1950s, compared to only a slight increase in non-weather disasters.

Reporting on the meeting, the journal Nature noted: “Insurance companies, acutely aware of the dramatic increase in losses caused by natural disasters in recent decades, have been convinced that global warming is partly to blame…. At a recent meeting of climate and insurance experts, delegates reached a cautious consensus: Climate change is helping to drive the upward trend in catastrophes.”

A Government Accountability Office investigation in 2007 found that private and government insurers including the federal crop and flood insurance programs paid out more than $320 billion for weather-related losses between 1980 and 2005. “Key scientific assessments report that the effects of climate change on weather-related events and, subsequently, insured and uninsured losses, could be significant,” the GAO concluded.

Clearly the implications of inaction on climate change are profound for U.S. farmers and taxpayers as the extent and cost of extreme weather events increase in coming years.

Another example: A report in 2000 by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment found that extreme weather events have “caused severe crop damage and have exacted a significant economic toll for U.S. farmers over the past 20 years” and in future years “could rise significantly due to greater climate variability, and to increases in insects, weeds, and plant diseases.” Since that report’s release, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions have increased at a rate that is 33 percent higher than emissions growth in the 1990s, 25 percent higher than in the 1980s, and 54 percent higher than in the 1970s.

Total damages—including agricultural losses—from the 1988 drought and 1993 Midwest floods were $79 billion, the report found. In the future, it predicted, “variability of precipitation—in time, space, and intensity—will make U.S. agriculture increasingly unstable and make it more difficult for U.S. farmers to plan what crops to plan and when.”

Crop losses insured by the federal government have also risen substantially in the past two decades, due to higher participation by farmers, rising crop prices, and big loss years like 2008, when the federal program paid out nearly $8.6 billion, much of it because of flooding in the Midwest. From 1990 to 1999, federally insured crop losses totaled about $1.3 billion a year; from 2000 to 2008, they averaged about $3.8 billion a year, according to data compiled by the Risk Management Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While some areas and some agricultural sectors could see some benefit because global warming will lengthen growing seasons and higher carbon dioxide levels spur plant growth, temperature and precipitation extremes will be costly for many farmers.

Looking just at increased soil moisture that comes with higher precipitation driven by climate change, authors of a study published in 2002 by Global Environmental Change estimated that the roughly $1.5 billion per year in crop damage from high soil moisture could double by the 2030s.

And an April report by Environment America found that, worldwide, climate change has cost corn farmers $1.2 billion per year since 1981, and that U.S. corn growers could face annual losses of $1.4 billion in the future.

In 2007, the Center for Integrative Environment Research at the University of Maryland report, “The U.S. Economic Impacts of Climate Change and the Costs of Inaction,” included a review of previous studies on climate change impacts on agriculture and water for various regions of the United States:

“The uneven nature of climate change impacts throughout the country makes the net impacts of global warming on the agricultural sector uncertain… Some northern regions are likely to experience fleeting economic benefits with more profitable crops migrating there (as the climate becomes hospitable to those crops.) As climate conditions continue to change, however, those temporary benefits may be lost. Other regions, such as the Southeast, West, and southern Great Plains may face challenges from increased temperatures, water stress, saltwater intrusion, and the potential increase in invasive species and pests—the impacts of which may cause costs to outweigh benefits.”

Examples cited by the researchers are a potential agricultural loss of as much as $10 billion by 2090 in the Edwards Aquifer region of Texas, and productivity losses exceeding 50 percent for wheat and soybeans in the southern and Great Plains regions.

Other research predicts that the American Southwest will by mid-century face extremely difficult choices between supplying water for agriculture and the region’s booming cities. A study reported in Science in April 2007 said that a drought similar to conditions during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s could become the norm in the Southwest by 2050.

American farmers, like all of us, have a huge stake in the fight to stem global climate change. To hold their future hostage to a rulemaking battle over ethanol would be a grave, shortsighted disservice.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Special thanks to Joe Romm and Brad Johnson.

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