Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

KPCC's Vilsack story needs some climate reality

Almond tree blossom petals scattered along Interstate 5. I was raised on California tree nut snacks.
Almond tree blossom petals scattered along Interstate 5. I was raised on California tree nut snacks.

Our Woman in Washington, Kitty Felde, sought out Tom Vilsack for his thoughts about Golden State ag

Vilsack calls these good times for farmers. Agricultural income is the highest it’s been in 40 years. Unlike the housing industry, with so many homes under water, farm debt has dwindled by half since the 1980s debt crisis.

It seems worth levelling out Vilsack's reported rah-rah view, to start with, environmentally. Nowhere noplace in that story are mentioned the words "climate change." If farmers are in clover now, they may not be for long, and it's not like they're shy about saying that.

Studies from California's Energy Commission predict diverse consequences for farm profits because of climate change.  Sure, hay farmers will make more money. But grape farmers will make less, and since grape farmers make more per acre than hay farmers, between those two crops California farming starts seeing a net loss in profits. My dad's beloved tree nuts, almonds and others, can expect changing winter temperatures to change the ranges where those trees do best, according to no research from UC Davis

And water remains a huge player in California's farming fortunes. State leaders predict climate impacts to water sources on which farmers rely. So do federal ones: look, back when Steve Chu was just getting into the swing of things as Energy Secretary, and the federal government was less afraid to use the words "climate change," Chu laid out reasons to worry about farming in California in an interview with the LA Times.

Chu warned of water shortages plaguing the West and Upper Midwest and particularly dire consequences for California, his home state, the nation's leading agricultural producer. In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture. "I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.

It's not just California where scientists predict global warming impacts from energy costs, water costs, and changing growing conditions. Several studies have come out documenting or explaining crop shortages connected to a warming atmosphere, or predicting a worldwide crop impact

You might recall that California's got a landmark greenhouse gas reduction plan. According to a paper from UC Davis, ag (upstream & downstream) accounts for about 7% of the state's economy (most of ag's carbon footprint, btw, is dairy farming). Ag greenhouse gas emissions account for about 6% of the state's GHG budget.

So what does AB 32 require farmers to do? Not much. The AB 32 scoping plan says the "dominant strategy for reducing agricultural GHG emissions gases is to promote the voluntary adoption of manure digester technology." It asks them to pitch in voluntarily. If water and energy are more expensive, the reasoning goes, farming will use less of it. (Of course farmers are often lobbying to keep water less expensive, but that's a different story.) We're banking pretty big on methane capture, too. 

It's easy to forget that California's agriculture is hugely important nationally when it occupies a relatively small piece of the state's economy-pie. But when you're talking to city dwellers about farming's fortunes, future and present, it's just plain weird not to talk about how climate's part of the equation.