Questions on Ag and Climate

Study Highlights Farmer Skepticism as China Deal, Keystone Pipeline Remain Hot Topics

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Art Tanderup, a farmer from Neligh, Neb., points to the direction the Keystone XL pipeline would come across his farm if it were built. Tanderup opposes the pipeline and believes greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels cause climate change. A study released this week shows just 8% of corn farmers agree with scientists on the cause of climate change. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

NELIGH, Neb. (DTN) -- Art Tanderup is sitting in the middle of the nexus between agriculture, energy and climate change.

That's because the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route would run right through his 160-acre farm. His opposition to the pipeline has led Tanderup to support the scientific view that humans are influencing climate change because of greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels.

He hosted a concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in September as a fundraiser for groups opposing the pipeline. Tanderup also allowed members of the Ponca Tribe to grow heritage corn on a five-acre tract right where the pipeline would run on his land. About 50 area people opposed to the pipeline held a ceremony and harvested the corn in late October.

Tanderup realizes his peers in agriculture largely don't support his views on climate change, a point he has struggled to reconcile in the fight over Keystone in Nebraska.

"They don't want to admit some of these things are affecting us," Tanderup said. "Our growing seasons have changed, our precipitation has changed. As agricultural producers, we need to face up to the facts and start doing everything we can to turn it around from our perspective."

A study released this week by Purdue University and Iowa State University shows Corn Belt farmers and their advisers are far less likely than scientists are to believe that human activities play a role in climate change. While 66% of corn growers said they believed climate change was occurring, just 8% believed human activities were the main cause while 25% attributed climate change to natural variations. The surveys showed 31% of farmers said there was not enough evidence to show whether climate change was occurring.

The discrepancy of views makes it hard to talk to farmers about ways to mitigate climate change. "That conversation is not going to go anywhere quickly with the agriculture community, which is pretty clear from our study," said Linda Prokopy, an associate professor of natural resource social science at Purdue University.

As researchers follow through the agricultural chain from scientists to farmers, the disbelief in climate change grows, Prokopy said. Farm advisers and key leaders at policy organizations are the key intermediaries that help sway farmers when siding on issues. People in general listen to others they respect, trust and think like they do. Right now, there's a significant gap between the view of scientists and farmer leaders, but Prokopy said more groups are willing to engage on climate change.

"More and more, we are seeing farm-policy groups talk about climate change in serious ways," Prokopy said. "There is a lot more dialogue on this. We certainly have acceptance of climate variability and adapting to climate variability. In the long run, that's what we need to do. In the short run, it would be nice if we had some mitigation as well."

The study on farmer views about climate change comes as President Barack Obama announced a new agreement this week with China that would set a target for the U.S. to cut greenhouse-gas emissions up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. In return, China would cap its emissions around 2030 and boost its use of renewable energy by 20% as well.

While the president is pushing mitigation efforts abroad, Congress is going the opposite direction. Lawmakers have vowed to roll back EPA efforts to cap emissions from coal-fired power plants. The push in Congress is growing this week to vote on a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sees a vote on Keystone as a potential effort to save her in a runoff election next month in Louisiana.

Tanderup sees a contradiction among farmers over the pipeline and renewable fuel. People aren't relating the pipeline to the fight with the petroleum lobby over ethanol and the Renewable Fuels Standard.

"Out here, we rely on ethanol. It's been great for us. Every one of these farmers wants that RFS protected and increased to 15%," Tanderup said. "But for some reason they aren't getting that correlation that it's these oil companies that are shutting that down. Farmers are supporting the pipeline, yet these people are cutting their throats. They do not see that correlation."

"I'm disappointed in the folks in some of our farm organizations for supporting the pipeline and supporting the RFS. You would think that some of those people would see that correlation," Tanderup said.

Tanderup notes farm and commodity organizations are heavily invested in biofuels, yet many of those same groups also support oil pipelines such as Keystone XL.

"There are a lot of farmers out there who don't want to face the facts about climate change and what needs to be done," Tanderup said. "That's kind of a sad statement that as a group we can't do things until they are forced down upon us and we really don't like that."

Ernie Shea, executive director of 25x'25 and Solutions for the Land, focuses on the various driving forces that are making the weather more volatile and affecting the resiliency of crop and livestock production. Shea is now helping lead an effort called the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance that is working on sharing more knowledge about climate science with agriculture. The group, which includes several major farm organizations and corporations, is focusing on climate adaptation strategies.

Farmers are interested in resiliency and productivity, Shea said. In looking at those areas and what can affect productivity long term, it's important to expand the conversation and talk about the science behind the wild variations farmers are facing with climate patterns.

"What science is telling us is there is too much carbon," Shea said. "You then go into the question of what business we are in. We are in the carbon-management business. We grow things and photosynthesis captures carbon and keeps it in the soil."

From there, Shea said, conversations should expand to the mitigation services that rural America can provide and the markets that can be created through renewable energy and sequestering carbon.

"The farm community is a powerful voice in American politics," Shea said.

Meanwhile, Tanderup watches apprehensively as the debates about climate change, fossil fuels and the Keystone XL pipeline carry on. He's told representatives from TransCanada, the company trying to build the Keystone pipeline, that they will have to haul him out from in front of that bulldozer, because he's going to protect this farm. He's hoping there's enough opposition to the pipeline that it doesn't come to that.

"If the president stops KXL, he's probably helping China become a little cleaner," Tanderup said. He believes the tar sands oil would be refined, and then the petroleum coke would go to China, which has been one of the key markets for those products.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@DTN.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG/BAS)

Chris Clayton