When Punxsutawney Phil raised his furry groundhog nose into the cloudy, bone-chilling air and saw no shadow last weekend, he immediately forecast an early spring. Although Phil’s history of accuracy isn't exactly stellar, he could be onto something this year. After recording the hottest year on record in the lower 48, the National Weather Service is predicting a warmer-than-usual spring across much of the nation, including the drought-stricken agricultural states struggling with a second and even third year of crop-crippling dry weather.
Farmers in states like Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma have seen little precipitation this winter after record temperatures and drought last year turned their wheat and corn crops to dust. Meanwhile depleted agricultural groundwater supplies are threatened by a dwindling Rocky Mountain snowpack that promises little relief.
These kinds of extreme drought conditions are exactly what we can come to expect in our warming world, according to the nation’s top scientists and climate experts who are holding a series of town hall meetings across the country to discuss a draft of the quadrennial National Climate Assessment released last month. Findings from the massive report are not what farmers in the Plains States want to hear:
“Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy. In parts of the region, this will constrain natural resources, and increase competition for development among communities for energy, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs…the magnitude of expected changes will exceed those of the last century. Existing adaptation and planning efforts are inadequate to respond to these projected impacts.”
Drought ravaged corn crop in Kansas last summer Photo: Melanie Blanding
Take Nebraska for instance, where a climate assessment town hall meeting with scientists and experts took place place in Lincoln this week. NRDC’s 2012 extreme weather map shows the Cornhusker State broke 55 heat records across 24 counties, enduring 24 large wildfires. And weather forecasts paint a dire future for this vital agricultural region. Here’s how Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center described it at the end of January in the U.S. Drought Monitor:
…the drought is firmly entrenched as we roll toward February. The relative lack of winter in back-to-back years will certainly place a much greater emphasis on well above-normal spring rains if the region is to have any real chance of shaking this drought. Same song, fifth verse, with no changes of note on the map this week in what is now becoming the epicenter of the 2013 drought.
Last year's record heat, drought and extreme weather hit the Nebraska farming commnity hard, and experts say the agricultural sector will continue to see harsh conditions in coming years as carbon pollution heats up the planet. This is how the Omaha World-Herald put it this week:
“People need to realize how these pieces fit together,” said Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director for the USDA's National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.... “We are going to see more extreme extremes.... That's the wake-up call for agriculture.”
This year, everyone hopes the rain and snow falls from the heavens out west, but don’t bet on it. The vicious 2012 drought may be eclipsed by another with even greater economic consequences for the nation’s farmers, who recorded a record $14 billion payout in agricultural subsidies last year. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 597 counties in 14 states disaster areas due to persistent drought and heat. And ranchers are wondering how they will feed their already depleted herds if little grass grows across the parched prairies this year.
So what can we do about all of this? Well to start with, we can recognize the root of the problem, the billions of tons of carbon pollution we spew haphazardly into the air. It doesn’t take a climate scientist to figure that out. Economists, insurance companies, business leaders, and agricultural leaders are all in agreement that the global climate is changing and man-made greenhouse gasses are a major reason why. Hundreds of experts made it crystal clear in the draft National Climate Assessment report:
“The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels…human induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gasses continue to increase.”
Fortunately, under the Clean Air Act President Obama has the tools to quickly begin cutting carbon emissions of the nation's biggest carbon polluters; power plants. Working with individual states, the Environmental Protection Agency can drive investment in energy efficiency measures and renewable energy that will lower electricity bills, create new jobs and cut power plant carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, according to NRDC’s power plant pollution-cutting plan. That’s a huge bite out of carbon pollution that will show the world the U.S. is serious about fighting climate change. And it will encourage other counties to do the same.
This is exactly the kind of plan President Obama needs to adopt as the world rapidly heats up, the kind of bold action and investment in clean energy technologies he called for in his recent inaugural address.
We the people still believe our obligations as Americans are not to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations…. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and its treasure…”
These are powerful words from the most powerful man on the planet. Now it’s up to us to demand our political and business leaders follow the President’s advice. We don’t have time for the fossil fuel industry's business as usual anymore. We can’t permit massive carbon-polluting projects like the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to inject a river of chemical-laden bitumen into oil refineries in the Gulf, addicting the world to dirtier kinds of climate-changing crude.
All we have to do is remember drought-stricken farmers, flood-damaged Sandy victims, or fire-ravaged Colorado communities to realize this is exactly what we don’t need right now. It’s time to demand change, revolutionary change that will invest in cleaner forms of energy to protect our health and our climate.
Let’s hope that by next year, when Punxsutawney Phil ventures out into the cold to make his annual winter prognostication, we'll be well on our way to making those changes. Because when it comes to protecting the climate, we can't afford to be stuck in an endless Groundhog Day run by dirty energy interests.
We've already seen that movie. It's time for something different, with a cleaner and healthier beginning and end.
Come to the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC, on February 17th and add your voice to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, put limits on carbon pollution from power plants and promote a clean energy future. Watch this video for more details.