Ag Policy Blog

Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Climate Change

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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"The battle has been joined," Bill McKibben told an audience Saturday in Omaha.

An environmentalist and author from Vermont, McKibben has become the country's leading speaker calling for climate-change activism. About 500 people came out Saturday night to hear him speak as part of a month-long tour "Do the Math" to rally the country to join in a fight against fossil fuels.

McKibben was certainly right in arguing that the battle has been joined. While groups such as McKibben's draw the line that major petroleum and fossil-fuel companies are on a pathway to wreck the globe, another group of fighters on the other side of the trenches is now demanding that we can't afford renewable fuels or renewable energy. The American Petroleum Institute and its allies said this past week they are determined to get rid of the Renewable Fuels Standard. Comrades in arms such as the Heartland Institute now have launched a campaign against renewable energy standards in the 36 or so states that have them, arguing that wind power, for instance, is too expensive and we don't need it.

Thus, battle lines are formed. In the middle, I would argue, is rural America, especially farmers. The dynamics for agriculture are complex. Further, the country won't find a pathway to address climate change until American farmers are on board with that pathway.

McKibben told the crowd in Omaha he was especially looking forward to visiting Nebraska because of the ongoing battle in the state to stop the TransCanada XXL pipeline from moving Canadian tar sands oil through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala aquifer. As he said, "Some of our greatest fighters are in Nebraska."

The pipeline battle is a piece of the overall larger picture on fighting unchecked climate change.

The TransCanada fight effectively brought Nebraskans into the climate fight. As Nebraska's top TransCanada fighter, Jane Kleeb put it at the meeting, she wasn't active in the climate fight until the pipeline battle began. "I knew about climate change issues, but it didn't mean anything to me."

Boiling down McKibben's argument for broader climate activism, it comes down to this argument: Nations around the world, including major greenhouse-gas emitters U.S. and China, have all agreed people on the planet won't be able to tolerate the effects of a 2 C (3.6 F) temperature change. But we're on a trajectory to blow past that level now, moving to a 3-5 C rise, or 6-8 F. We would effectively hit a 2 C temperature rise emitting 565 billion tons of carbon, which we are on path to reach in about 15 years. Fossil fuel companies, however, have 2,795 billion tons of reserves they seek to tap in oil, coal and natural gas.

"They are going to get burned. That's the point of having their reserves. That's how they make their money," McKibben said. "It is going to get burned unless we can somehow figure out how to keep that from happening."

Calling the fossil-fuel industry a "rogue force" McKbben argued, "If they carry out their business plans, the planet tanks."

Effectively, corporate America and its rallying cry around "sustainability" doesn't work if everyone champions more fossil fuels over a wholesale conversion to more renewable energy.

Looking for leverage in the fight, McKibben is going after investors. He is calling on Americans to demand that institutional investors --- college foundations, pension funds and the like --- divest in fossil fuel companies. If enough major institutions globally divest from major petroleum companies it will exact change. His precedent is in the 1980s and early 90s college students and others around the world demanded their schools divest from any investments in South Africa, which remained under apartheid. It took time, but the lack of investment in businesses operating in South Africa helped force the social change in South Africa.

Going further, McKibben advocated more social disobedience in terms of protests and a willingness of those who believe in the fight to be arrested for the cause.

In noting the impact of climate change, McKibben touched on the current drought, of which the entire state of Nebraska is now in. It was pointed out that as the climate change, crop production will simply have to move. But McKibben noted that crop production is where it is because that's where the soil and water are. "You can't just move the farms. There is no soil there." Moreover, globally every 1 C increase in temperatures will cut yield 10%.

But the battle line for agriculture isn't so easy to draw. In highlighting the drilling and mining for fossil fuels, McKibben put a spotlight on hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The U.S. has deep reserves which are now getting tapped at an accelerated rate. Fracking has changed the paradigm for America's fertilizer industry. As DTN reported over this fall, fracking and the prospects of long-term, low-costing natural gas have spurred several major announcements worth several billion dollars to build new fertilizer plants in states such as Iowa and North Dakota, as well as in Canada. Other companies are trying to refurbish mothballed facilities as well. Fracking is creating a potential fertilizer renaissance.…

Thus, agriculture and farmers remain caught in the middle of the climate fight. The effects of climate change can devastate crop production in a state or region due to drought or floods in any given year. State officials can sue the U.S. Corps of Engineers for not holding back water in the dams one year while the next year petition the president to declare a crisis because waters are too shallow for barge traffic.

Yet, agriculture is an energy-intensive enterprise and commercial farmers need low-cost fertilizer and fuel inputs to drive their production. Nobody is turning down major investments to boost domestic fertilizer. Few states outside of the Northeast have pushed to outlaw fracking.

McKibben is correct. Battle lines over climate change are certainly forming.

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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Brandon Butler
12/13/2012 | 4:39 PM CST
You can tell a couple of things from Jay's posts. 1) He doesn't let facts get in the way. 2) He is a taker, and not a giver, i.e. producer. Just another Monday morning liberal quarterback, telling us (in her idealistic, naive tone) about how we should do things, without any real world solutions. Keep swinging and striking out, you simple little dolt.
Bonnie Dukowitz
12/6/2012 | 5:56 AM CST
That is a good idea Jay. It could be titled the La La Blog, so the "I Knows", with all of the solutions could blog and the rest of us wouldn't have to read. That is, unless we were really bored.
Jay Mcginnis
12/5/2012 | 5:55 AM CST
Has DTN ever though about a separate blog section? Maybe call it Faux News where tea folks can pretend there is no global warming, corporations are nice, Walmart workers should be happy they have a job, Rush and Hanady had the correct poll numbers, there is more oil in the US then the Mideast and the Earth is only 5000 yrs old? Such a cyber place might be therapeutic for those living in alternate reality world!
Bonnie Dukowitz
12/4/2012 | 6:25 PM CST
I I I I, then, want want want
Jay Mcginnis
12/4/2012 | 3:55 PM CST
You guys lost the civil war and you lost the election, enjoy your party of dirty energy, I am enjoying zero energy bills and zero emissions, BLESS YOUR LITTLE HEARTS!
12/4/2012 | 9:04 AM CST
Dont pick on Jay for using the word I Oboma uses it as much as possible in any statement he makes, theses liberals just love themselves. Jay does not want to put up with corporate control of energy does he think government control will be any better By the way gvt. does have control over his energy without all of the gvt. subsidies for his home grown energy it would no be as much fun. Spain went all out on wind and solar, they are Broke even there gvt. admits that it was a huge mistake.
Brandon Butler
12/4/2012 | 8:31 AM CST
"an election was won by the party of dirty air and dirty water while the people have mandated a cleaner and renewable energy administration." Jay, look up the word 'gullable'. That's you. The money is just being invested in a different industry, that's it. Their views on energy will be just like their views on the economy, misguided at best, blatant destruction of our free market at the worst. How else do you explain raising taxes but not cutting ANY spending (again, if you think spending will be cut, refer to 'gullable'). Oh, btw, why don't you try your hybrid engine in a tractor to plow a field, and use your lp gas to take a pot belly load of hogs to market. Or are you against eating?
Young Farmer
12/4/2012 | 8:08 AM CST
I was just wondering where the toxic acid that fuels the batteries of these "green cars" and also the rubber and plastic componants come from? You don't ever get something for nothing. All of the copper or aluminium that would be needed to change the planet over to you plan surely would increase "green mining".
Bonnie Dukowitz
12/4/2012 | 6:13 AM CST
One of the problems with your agenda, Jay, is exempified with a negative image by your abuse of the word "I". Are you promoting a solution or yourself?
Jay Mcginnis
12/3/2012 | 2:13 PM CST
I was arrested at the 350 protest against the pipeline, but more the that I am so against fossil fuels my place is 90% renewable powered, I produce double the electric my home, business and grain bins use, geothermal heat and air conditioning, and have an all electric car that does most of my driving but still have a hybrid that gets 55 mpg for trips over 100 miles. I still use a little LP gas for hot water heating on cloudy days during the spring and fall. YES it can be done and if you don't think its affordable then enjoy your continuing upward spiraling fossil fuel costs! Too bad I need to be affected by your climate change but I will continue protesting corporate controlled energy systems. But waht amazes me is that you don't want to be energy independent, that you have an idea that we still have lots of oil in the ground here while the world uses 90 million barrels a day and rising! You suffer from one of the worse droughts in history but still deny climate change and are willing to act as though an election was won by the party of dirty air and dirty water while the people have mandated a cleaner and renewable energy administration. KEEP it up, I will be enjoying zero energy costs with energy that doesn't cause climate change!
Ric Ohge
12/3/2012 | 1:22 PM CST
Oh-NO...why'd you go and say that, Brandon? Now our silly Federal Government will likely FUND some idiot to TRY to do just THAT. (If it wasn't for the 50-50 possibility-this comment would simply be an LOL...)
Brandon Butler
12/3/2012 | 12:38 PM CST
What are we going to do, change the climate to some "static condition"? That really would be a good trick.
Ric Ohge
12/3/2012 | 9:28 AM CST
There are many places where ornamental shrubs, grasses and trees occupy the landscape. Most are not even indigenous species that would thrive in the existent conditions. I used to live in Arizona prior to Tennessee prior to Iowa, and the smartest move in relation to this, I ever saw was in Tucson, which made it unlawful to ornament any new development with non-indigenous plants. It saved water AND maintenance NORMALLY grew there, how much care, other than trimming, would it ever need. everyone wants to "green" America? WELL...there's a GREAT place to start.
Young Farmer
12/3/2012 | 9:06 AM CST
At one time the majority of the people thought the world was flat (including the scientific world) but they were wrong. The case is the same about climate change; a majority of the people think we are responsible when in reality it has been happening since the last ice age. Instead of pointing fingers we should prepare for climate change instead of trying to stop an immovable force.
Curt Zingula
12/3/2012 | 6:23 AM CST
On a personal note - I'm enjoying the warm fall. Especially while I sit in my deer stand. The critters around me enjoy it as well. I've never seen so many song birds and squirrels. Could it be that they, like humans, flourish better in warm climes? I could use some rain, but probably won't get it because too many people drove to Grandma's house on Thanksgiving.
12/2/2012 | 8:39 PM CST
Good comment, Bonnie. I wonder if Bill McKibben has as large of carbon footprint as Al Gore? I find it interesting that just a couple of years ago the global warming zealots were touting natural gas as the ideal "bridge fuel" to replace oil and coal while "green" alternatives were developed. Now that we know we have huge reserves available, natural gas has suddenly become the enemy! Crop yields in many areas would increase, not decrease, if it were a little warmer, but I really doubt that mere man has much control over the weather or climate.
Bonnie Dukowitz
12/2/2012 | 6:30 PM CST
And I wonder how one would get from Vermont to Omaha! On foot? without fuel. If only people would quite wasting food, mowing huge lawns, etc. in this country, ( I've read 1/3 of what is produced is wasted) 1/3 rd. of the energy which those dirty, fossil fuel loving farmers use to force cancer causing nourishment, down the throats of the overweight concerned environmentalists, we would all live in LaLa Land. Kind of like Greece and Spain. We then would all have more time to protest. Good Grief already.