Even while adapting, most farmers are climate skeptics

by Kate Golden Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Most Wisconsin farmers remain skeptical about climate change, although data show they have already begun adapting to shifts in weather patterns, scientists said at a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference this week.

Farmers, the scientists said, are key actors in adapting to climate change or mitigating its effects. They manage 61 percent of the nation’s land. They are vulnerable to droughts, cold, heat and hail — crop insurance paid out $17.4 billion dollars in indemnities nationwide after the 2012 drought.

“Farmers are at ground zero for climate change,” said Paul Mitch- ell, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison, speaking Thursday to more than 100 academics and others at the university’s annual Sustainability Forum.

But they do not believe in it, by and large.

The upshot: “First thing about climate change: Don’t talk about climate change,” Mitchell said. “Whatever language you need to use to work with your audience — that’s the language you would use.”

In a 2009 four-state survey of about 1,300 farmers, published in the November 2013 Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, less than half of farmers agreed that climate change had been scientifically proven.

The team found that about 42 percent of Wisconsin farmers said humans are changing Earth’s climate, while two-thirds said normal weather explains recent events.

The findings are consistent with another national study from 2012, which found 60 percent of farmers believed climate change was either mostly natural, not happening, or they were uncertain about it.

Other studies have shown about two-thirds of the general public believes in climate change.

While there were differences in perceptions based on age, education, farm size and other factors, Mitchell said the clearest finding was that farmers across a broad geographical swath — Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — had similar beliefs, with a little less skepticism in North Carolina.

The survey, conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, had a 23 percent response rate. It omitted the smallest 20 percent of farms in each state.

The survey did not examine the reasons behind farmers’ views, but Mitchell said he had seen enough controversy to know that “it’s not a scientific issue; it’s a political position.”

Climate change in Wisconsin

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations established body that assesses the state of climate science, says climate change is under way and it is “extremely likely” that humans are the cause.

Global temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, most in the last half-century. Wisconsin’s warming has roughly followed global patterns, and temperatures are likely to rise 3 to 9 degrees by midcentury.

In Wisconsin, climate change over the past half-century has meant fewer very cold winter nights, more annual precipitation overall, and a steady rise in the number of extreme rainfalls.

For farmers, the growing season has lengthened by one to four weeks since 1950.

Corn and soybean yields have risen, as has year-to-year variability in those yields. Some of the increase is due to better practices and technology, but earlier planting explained nearly a quarter of the increase in yields from 1979 to 2005, according to data from Chris Kucharik, a climate researcher in UW-Madison’s agronomy department who regularly gives talks on climate change to farmers and others.

Climate change could also affect weed and pest infestations and dairy productivity, according to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, a public-private network intended to “generate and share information that can limit vulnerability to climate change.”

Mitchell’s study calls the climate change debate “one of the most fundamental political debates of our era.”

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