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Midwest Farmers Will Bear The Brunt Of Climate Change, Federal Report Says

In this Aug. 28, 2013, photo drought-stressed corn grows on a farm near Oregon, Mo. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
In this Aug. 28, 2013, photo drought-stressed corn grows on a farm near Oregon, Mo. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

The Trump administration quietly released the fourth National Climate Assessment on Friday. The report, commissioned by Congress and compiled by over 300 scientists from 13 federal agencies, warns that rising temperatures and more extreme weather patterns will have a devastating impact on the environment in the Midwest.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Jim Angel (@JimAngel22), Illinois’ state climatologist and lead author of the report’s chapter on the Midwest.

According to the report, if nothing is done about climate change by 2050, Midwest farmers could see productivity decrease to levels not seen since the 1980s, when drought and flooding were detrimental to crop yields.

“It’s kind of an arms race. So we’ve got a changing climate, and then can we keep up with better genetics or better field practices?” Angel says. “The concern is that the climate is going to change so fast that genetics are not going to be able to keep up, at least in the short term.”

Interview Highlights

On the biggest impacts of climate change on farming

“If you look at the impacts on the Midwest from climate change, right now what we see primarily are the impacts of more rainfall and more heavy rainfall events. So that gives us trouble, for example, with springtime planning. If it’s too wet, you can’t plant. Or if you did plant, it gets flooded out, and you have to replant. So there’s cost involved with that, and also that doesn’t take drought off the table. So even though we’re getting more rainfall events, we also have had a lot of short term or what we call flash droughts in the summertime that can be a big problem. We saw that especially in Missouri this year. So I would say that’s probably the biggest concern.

“Probably the other concern is the impacts of temperature, and in some ways, it’s the off-season temperatures that are bothering them. When you have the winter time, if it doesn’t get cold enough, a lot of pests can actually survive the winter underground, and so they come out in spring, and they’re ready to go. So it can also impact the prevalence of pests and other pathogens.”

On how heavier rainfall will impact water management on farms

“The problem is that when you get heavy rainfall events, it all falls at once and so then, it all runs off at once. Also when you get big rain events, it also washes away soil and the nutrients as well. So it’s going to be a bigger water management problem moving forward. So getting the water off the fields and the spraying and retaining enough water on the fields for some moisture to get you through the growing season. So there’s going to be probably more work done in those areas to strike the right balance.”

On the economic impact of climate change on Midwest farmers

“What we’ve found is that if you drive around any of the Midwestern states, a lot of times there is as much poverty in rural areas as there are in the big cities. And even worse, they don’t have the social services to help them out. So if you’re dozens of miles away from the nearest medical facility, so if they do get heat stroke or have any kind of problems like that, it takes a lot longer to get them to a hospital and also their living conditions may not be that great either. So you’re living at a trailer out in the middle of a field with no shade, you’re just getting baked there.”

On criticism that the climate report is based on the worst-case scenario 

“Well, I think we did our best to try to strike the balance of showing the concerns moving forward but also identifying bright spots. We do have a lot of work in there that talks about adaptation measures for climate change, and so I think that’s the upside of it. And also we do show that if you take the lower emission pass, you do get better results than if you continue with business as usual. So it’s interesting that actually the worst case scenario for us is business as usual. It means not doing anything. So anything we do is going to be better than that particular case. I also think, you know, farmers and other groups, they’re problem solvers. They got real problems right now, and so, you know, regardless of where your political affiliation is, you’ve got to address these problems.”

Savannah Maher produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

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