08/14/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In a Kansas Corn Field, Drought Points to the Need for Climate Solutions

Last month, I spent a week traveling with my NRDC colleague Bob Deans through the drought-decimated corn and wheat fields of Colorado and Kansas, talking to farmers knocked flat by one of the hottest summers ever. This is ground zero for one of the worst droughts in recent history; more than half the counties in the U.S. have been declared disaster areas and corn and soybean futures are soaring as a result. 

Standing in the sun-baked fields of western Kansas, it’s easy to understand why. The relentless 100-plus degree heat felt like a blowtorch, scalding endless rows of brown, withering corn stalks stretching as far as the eye could see. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the contiguous U.S., more than three degrees above average, and growers here are bearing the brunt of it. 

Farmers like Rod Berning say the weather has become hotter and drier here in recent years, straining water resources and making it increasingly difficult to farm. This is how Berning described it, as reported by Bob Deans in OnEarth. “The climate is changing, the storms aren’t coming as frequent as they did. There’s no normal anymore.”

Watch this video of farmer Rod Berning talking about the historic drought impacting his fields in western Kansas.


Berning says the heat is as brutal as he’s ever seen. But ask him what he thinks is causing it and he shrugs. “In my mind I’ve thought it goes in cycles, so I’m not into the science-based stuff very much.” 

That’s pretty much what most farmers around here say. Many believe weather patterns are changing, but the farmers we met were reluctant to talk about possible causes. The hotter and drier conditions are real they say, but most shrug when the discussion moves to climate change linked to greenhouse gas emissions. That's politics, they say, a world they’d just as soon avoid.

But scientists say farmers here in America’s breadbasket are indeed on the front lines of a human-induced changing climate -- a world that will make drought, fire and extreme weather more of the norm in coming decades (check out NRDC"s extreme weather page). That was hammered home last week when NASA climate scientist James Hansen published a report linking climate change to some of the most lethal heat waves around the world, including data showing that extreme summer temperatures now cover about 13 percent of the earth's land surface, up from just one percent before 1980.

Just a few hundred miles from Bernings’s rain-starved corn fields, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the links between greenhouse gas emissions and the drought now parching the nation are becoming increasingly clear.

“This is certainly a symptom of climate change,” Trenberth told us in an on-camera interview near his Colorado Springs office. [author's correction: Trenberth was interviewed near his office in Boulder, CO]. “We believe we can prove the relationship between the warming we are seeing and these changes in the atmosphere that comes from humans…. the magnitude of the drought, the intensity of it, the duration of it is apt to be greater because of the human influence… the underreporting of the climate relationship to everything that’s going on around us is also part of the problem.”

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth                          Photo: Melanie Blanding

The under-reporting of the climate change connection helps keep farmers like Berning in the dark. While new polls show the drought has made more climate change believers out of Americans this summer, it’s not clear these attitudes will hold up for long, as Bob Deans wrote in OnEarth. And after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that July was the hottest month ever recorded in the contiguous U.S., Media Matters reported that many major news organizations failed to even mention climate change as a contributing factor. That’s on top of an earlier Media Matters study that showed major network coverage of climate change issues was down significantly in the past few years.

Fortunately, there is a solution on the horizon. We have the power to cut dirty fossil fuel emissions, and already there is a hint of cooling wind at the end of the blast furnace hitting us in the face this summer. New data shows that carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have actually fallen 9 percent since 2005, even though the economy has risen by more than five percent. And CO2 emissions are forecast to keep falling to about 10 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. That's an amazing contrast to the 25 percent increase in CO2 emissions forecast just a few years ago, according to the new NRDC issue brief Closer than You Think

How did this happen? The CO2 reduction was due primarily to utilities switching from carbon-heavy coal to cleaner natural gas, as well as consumers using more efficient passenger vehicles. Much more needs to be done, the report states, but it shows the Obama administration’s 17-percent greenhouse-gas reduction target appears within reach. Here’s how NRDC’s Dan Lashof blogged about it  recently:

With strong standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, a robust drive to capture the full range of energy efficiency opportunities, and effective measures to reduce emissions of methane and other heat-trapping gases, we can meet and exceed this goal and get on track to the deep emission reductions we need to protect our health and environment from the worst consequences of climate change. 



A train travels across dead corn fields in Kansas in July.     Photo: Melanie Blanding

The bottom line is that farming for people like Rod Berning will become increasingly difficult as we pump more climate-polluting gases into the air. Droughts that strangle our agriculture and dry up our drinking water supplies will become more common unless we dramatically reduce our use of dirty fossil fuels.

But the good news is you don’t have to look for solutions any further than the new rows of wind turbines that now whirl across miles and miles of Kansas prairie and throughout the Midwest, powering millions of homes, creating new jobs and providing farmers with much needed revenue in drought-stricken times like these. It’s ample proof we have the technological know-how to make the switch to clean energy.

We just need the political will to continue to allow it to happen.