May 3, 2017

Time to Wake Up: Climate Change and Agriculture

Mr. President, on Monday night, this chamber confirmed former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to be President Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture.  I am here for my 164th “Time to Wake Up” speech to urge Secretary Perdue to listen to his agency, to scientific researchers in farm states across the country, to our major food and agricultural producers, and to farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and foresters about the serious and growing effects of climate change. 

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere and the oceans.  We see it everywhere.  We see it in drought-stricken farms and raging wildfires.  We see it in fish disappearing from warming, acidifying waters.  We see it in our dying forests.  We see it in extreme weather events. 

Secretary Perdue is taking the helm of an agency with a key role in combating and mitigating those effects.  USDA provides farmers, foresters, commodities markets, and state and local officials with analysis of trends and emerging issues affecting agriculture, food, the environment, and rural communities.  Its own Climate Change Adaptation Plan notes, “Climate change has the potential to confound USDA efforts to meet [its] core obligations and responsibilities to the Nation.” 

During his tenure as Governor, Secretary Perdue issued a State Energy Strategy stating that “strong scientific evidence exists that increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are affecting Earth’s climate.”  Encouraging.

However, when asked by Senator Leahy about climate change during his confirmation process, Purdue said, “it is clear that the climate has been changing,” but there is “significant debate within the scientific community” on whether human activities play a role in that. Woops. The classic denier dodge.

Secretary Perdue said several times during his confirmation process that he will use the “best scientific and statistical data available” to make decisions.  The National Climate Assessment, uses the “best scientific and statistical data” to conclude: “In the long term, combined stresses associated with climate change are expected to decrease agricultural productivity.”

In the Midwest, the National Climate Assessment reports, temperatures are increasing, and the rate of warming tripled between 1980 and 2010. Under the Assessment’s worst-case scenarios, temperatures across the Midwest are projected to rise 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.  If you’re a farmer, 8.5 degrees changes everything.

In the Western mountains, massive forests stand dead on the mountainsides, as warmer winters allow the killer bark beetle to swarm into higher latitudes and altitudes.  Over 82 million acres of National Forests are under stress from fires, insects, or both.  Ominously, the Assessment says that the combined effect of increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks, and diseases is expected to cause “almost complete loss of subalpine forests.”

The cost to taxpayers of fighting fires in those dead and dying forests is growing significantly.  Firefighting has gone from just 13 percent of USDA Forest Service’s budget in 2004 to over 50 percent in 2015.  The Service estimates that by 2025, fighting fires will take up two-thirds of its budget.  Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified to the Senate that “this increase in the cost of wildland fire suppression is subsuming the agency’s budget and jeopardizing its ability to implement its full mission.”

Let’s look at what Secretary Perdue will learn from our state universities.

The University of Wyoming’s Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics, for example, reports that “many of the most pressing issues facing the western United States hinge on the fate and transport of water and its response to diverse disturbances, including climate change.” 

At Kansas State University, Professor of Agronomy Charles Rice, is using climate modeling to help anticipate climate effects in the Great Plains and to help the region mitigate and adapt to those effects. 

In Wisconsin, Victor Cabrera, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Dairy Science Department, says that higher summer temperatures and increasing drought will interfere with both livestock fertility and milk production, and dairy cows could give as much as 10 percent less milk.  Secretary Perdue’s own Department of Agriculture predicts that by 2030 climate change will cost the U.S. dairy sector between $79 million and $199 million per year in lost production.

He can visit South Dakota State University professor Mark Cochrane, who is working with the Forest Service to better understand how a changing climate is affecting our forests.  Professor Cochrane reported that “forest fire seasons worldwide increased by 18.7 percent due to more rain-free days and hotter temperatures.” 

Secretary Perdue could travel to Iowa and hear from Gene Takle, an Iowa State University professor of agronomy and geological and atmospheric sciences, who told a United Nations conference that climate change is already affecting Iowa farmers: “This isn’t just about the distant future.”  And at Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Secretary Purdue could hear about what the Center calls “aggravated and unpredictable risk that will challenge the security of our agricultural and biological systems.”

Turning to the oceans, the National Climate Assessment predicts that “Fishing costs are predicted to increase as fisheries transition to new species and as processing plants and fishing jobs shift poleward.”  In the Pacific Northwest, ocean acidification caused a 70 percent loss of oyster larvae from 2006 to 2008 at an oyster hatchery in Oregon.  Wild oyster stocks in Washington State have failed as weather patterns bring more acidic water to the shore.  This is an industry worth about $73 million annually.  In Alaska, the University of Alaska’s Ocean Acidification Research Center warns that ocean acidification “has the potential to disrupt [the Alaskan seafood] industry from top to bottom.”

It’s not just scientists.  Some of the largest agriculture and food companies are speaking out as well.  For these companies, climate change is not a partisan issue.  It is not even a political issue.  It is business.  It is their reality.

In 2015, representatives from major food and beverage companies visited Congress to tell us how climate change affects their industry, their supply chains, and their bottom line. 

“Climate really matters to our business,” said Kim Nelson of General Mills. “We fundamentally rely on Mother Nature.”  The choices we make to protect or forsake our climate, she said, will be “important to the long-term viability of our company and our industry.”

Paul Bakus of Nestle agreed, saying climate change “is impacting our business today.”  His company cans pumpkins under the Libby’s brand.  They have seen pumpkin yields crash in the United States.  Mr. Bakus told us, “We have never seen growing and harvesting conditions like this in the Midwest.”

Chief Sustainability Officer for Mars, Barry Parkin, was blunter in his assessment: “We are on a path to a dangerous place.”

Greg Page, former CEO of Cargill, has also publicly said that climate change must be addressed to prevent future food shortages.  Specifically, he said, “U.S. production of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton could decline by 14 percent by mid-century, and by as much as 42 percent by late-century.  From an agricultural standpoint we have to prepare ourselves for a different climate than we have today.”

In advance of the Paris climate conference, the heads of Mars, General Mills, Nestle USA, Unilever, Kellogg Company, New Belgium Brewing Company, Ben & Jerry’s, Cliff Bar, Stonyfield Farm, Danone Dairy North America, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Hersey and Hain Celestial signed a public letter that said, “Climate change is bad for farmers and agriculture.  Drought, flooding, and hotter growing conditions threaten the world’s food supply and contribute to food insecurity.”  They continued, “Now is the time to meaningfully address the reality of climate change. . . . We are ready to meet the climate challenges that face our businesses.” 

These big, successful companies don’t take climate change lightly, and neither do our farmers, loggers, ranchers, and fishermen.

In South Carolina, farms that have been in families for generations, like that of Representative Mark Sanford’s, are under threat from climate change.  Congressman Sanford said, “At our family farm in Beaufort [BYOO-fert], I’ve watched over the last 50 years as sea levels have risen and affected salt edges of the farm.”

Out West, ranchers are experiencing longer, more severe droughts.  In a 2012 survey of southern Colorado ranchers, roughly one-quarter of respondents said they would likely leave the industry if the drought persisted.  Carlyle Currier, who owns a ranch in Molina, CO, said, “We just can’t grow enough to feed the cattle ourselves.”

In New Hampshire, Jamey French, president of Northland Forest Products, has seen hardwood tree species begin to migrate, with less valuable timber trees like oak and hickory beginning to take the place of sugar maple and yellow birch. 

And I hope Secretary Purdue will come to Rhode Island and meet our fishermen.  Chris Brown is the owner of Brown Family Seafood and the president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association.   He’s fished in the waters of Rhode Island Sound for years.  “We used to come right here and catch two, three, four thousand pounds [of whiting] a day, sometimes 10,” he told the New York Times.  But the whiting have moved north to cooler waters.  “Climate change is going to make it hard on some of those species that are not particularly fond of warm or warming waters,” Chris said.

I hope that Secretary Perdue will hear the message our farmers, foresters, ranchers, and fishermen are sending loud and clear: climate change is happening now, and we need leaders who are willing to face the challenge.  The fossil fuel-funded denial machine that controls the Republican Party today will do its best to change the subject. To muddy the waters.  To create doubt.  To use its anonymous, dark, political money to thwart progress.  But all the money in the world can’t change the things that Iowa farmers, Wyoming ranchers, South Dakota forest managers, and Rhode Islander fishermen see.

It’s time for President Trump and his Cabinet to wake up.

I yield the floor.