Does rural America suffer under the ravages of climate change or does a low-carbon economy translate into economic opportunities in the Midwest and Great Plains?
In his weekend address, President Barack Obama highlighted Earth Day on Wednesday to discuss the threat of climate change and the implications of longer droughts, stronger storms, wildfires and overall more volatile weather patterns. He'll be in Florida on Earth Day to discuss how climate change threatens the economy through rising sea levels. He will also highlight ways the country is turning more to green energy while growing the economy.
The president isn't the only one sharing that message that climate change can create opportunity. One of the nation's most dynamic and high-profile speakers on climate change, Katharine Hayhoe, will speak Wednesday evening in Iowa about the ways agriculture and rural America can lead on climate change.
Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and also an evangelical Christian. When I first met Hayhoe in 2012 she was drawing backlash from conservatives over her message that Christians have a moral obligation to address climate change. She drew some wrath in hate mail, blogs and on radio talk shows. Groups opposed to action on climate change filed Freedom of Information requests to read her emails.
"Any time a scientist sticks his or her head out of the ivory tower and says 'I study climate change and it's real' there is a backlash," Hayhoe told me at the time.
That didn't stop her. Last year, Time magazine named Hayhoe one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Hayhoe said in a phone interview last week that she's looking forward to coming to Iowa because close collaborators at Iowa State University are focusing heavily on the contributions agriculture can make adapting to climate change and helping suck carbon emissions out of the air.
"Agriculture and forestry are really the only two sectors that really have the potential to be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative," Hayhoe said.
Agriculture would benefit from a price of carbon, which may not happen soon. But Hayhoe is convinced eventually major emitters are going to have to pay for the greenhouse gases they release into the atmosphere.
"Longer term, ten or 15 years out, we’re going to see a price on carbon because carbon has already been ruled to be a pollutant by the Supreme Court. Every single other pollutant that people emit, they have to pay for the pollution and the cleanup costs. Carbon is the only one where the polluters don't have to pay for the cleanup costs," she said.
The federal government, starting in 2010, began setting a price on the "social cost of carbon." Right now, everyone pays for carbon emissions through healthcare, FEMA disaster costs and other federal expenses such as crop insurance and USDA disaster expenses, just to name a few. The cost of carbon calculation also uses the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections to examine future degradation in agricultural productivity, human health and property damage. The latest value set on the social cost of carbon in 2013 was $32 per metric ton of carbon.
"So we are paying for the costs of that pollution with our taxes," Hayhoe said.
When a market price on carbon comes, that is going to lead to a major shift not only in the energy sector, but other sectors of the economy as well. "All of the present, carbon-based energy is going to be more expensive compared to renewables," she said. "Renewables are already so cheap people are choosing them on a cost-basis over fossil fuels."
Putting a price on carbon benefits Iowa farmers because of cropping practices that can sequester carbon. No-till planting and cover crops certainly has been highlighted as ways to build carbon in the soil rather than releasing it. "This whole range of things that can be done in agriculture actually reduce carbon as well as take carbon out of the atmosphere. If there is a price on carbon, then there is a benefit to storing that carbon," Hayhoe said.
Yet, agriculture and farmers have down this road before. There was the Chicago Climate Exchange that operated from 2003 to 2010 before folding because of the lack of federal policy to drive buyers to the exchange. Legislation in 2009-10 that would have created a cap-and-trade program also died, in part, because groups such as the American Farm Bureau fought fiercely to oppose the bill. Farm Bureau, the Fertilizer Institute and others argued that higher input costs for everyone would outweigh any benefits some farmers might derive from a cap-and-trade program.
For now, California and British Columbia have put a price on carbon emissions. California also is dabbling with offset programs for rice and rangeland. Last November, USDA announced Chevrolet had purchased carbon credits to ensure 11,000 acres of North Dakota grassland remains in agriculture permanently.
Looking at renewable energy, Hayhoe points to Iowa's success becoming one of the country's biggest producers of wing energy, behind only Texas. She notes that is driven by economics in her own state where wind and continues to expand.
"We have towns in Texas that are going out of their way to say they aren't tree huggers and they don't like Al Gore, but they are going renewable because it's the cheapest thing to do," Hayhoe said.
She sees similar potential as solar production continues to grow in other states around the country as well. Wind and solar are going to be the two resources where we are going to get our energy in the future, she said. "Iowa is perfectly poised to take advantage of the future," Hayhoe said.
At the moment, however, climate change remains one of the most polarizing political issues in the United States. Science tells us it's getting warmer, but far too many people believe the negatives of shifting away from fossil fuels outweigh the positives. Moreover, they argue that acting on climate would put the U.S. at a disadvantage internationally, though China reported just last month that the country reduced its carbon emissions 2% in 2014 while growing the GDP 7%.
The people who stand to benefit are those who get on board with a greener economy, Hayhoe said, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains.
"All of the resources for this new economy are in middle America," she said. "So we have been letting our politics inform our economic choices instead of letting our economic choices inform our politics. That is a really strange place to be in."
While focusing on the positive economic message that could come from getting out ahead of climate disaster, Hayhoe still discusses how Christianity shapes her views. In 2009, Hayhoe and her pastor husband, Andrew Farley, wrote a book, "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions." Some Christians argue it is arrogant to assume humans can affect the planet rather than God. Hayhoe points out that early Genesis verses state God gave responsibility of the planet to people to protect and act as caretakers.
"Theologically speaking, Christians should really be at the forefront of this issue, not dragging their heels at the back," Hayhoe told Iowa Public Radio last week. http://iowapublicradio.org/…
Hayhoe will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Memorial Union Great Hall on Iowa State University. The event will be webcast live. http://www.news.iastate.edu/…
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