Montana agriculture stakeholders get the lowdown on climate change

Montana agriculture stakeholders get the lowdown on climate change

By Alex Amonette

Late last year, renowned climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann had some sobering news for Montanans who make their living off the land: If we don’t take steps to reduce carbon emissions, the impact of climate change, in the long run, will outpace our ability to adapt.

A report released Wednesday from the Montana Farmers Union bears out Dr. Mann’s warning, estimating that agricultural losses from climate change could eventually total $736 million a year with over 12,000 jobs lost to declining production.

If we continue “business as usual,” we’ll likely see a 7-9 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature by 2100. That’s a “fundamentally different planet,” said Dr. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University.

agriculture climate change

Ranchers suffer livestock losses in extreme heat waves, especially with black-coated animals.

Dr. Mann was speaking at the Extension Climate Science Conference at Montana State University. The conference brought together farmers, ranchers, stockmen, agriculture extension specialists and agents, Montana’s Farm Bureau, Farmer’s Union, Grain Growers Association, Stockgrowers Association, Organic Association, state Department of Agriculture, doctors, veterinarians, natural resource stewards, and scientists to discuss the current and future impacts of our changing climate on resources and industries we depend upon in Montana and the U.S.

Much emphasis at the conference was placed on discussing what the agricultural and ranching community can do to be more resilient in the face of a changing climate.  One of the agricultural panelists said, “Farmers are first and foremost businessmen. A farmer will adapt.”

Dr. Mann said that while we need to increase our resiliency to natural variability and that will help with adapting to climate change, adaptation only buys us so much. If we allow changes in climate over the next century, those impacts will exceed our adaptive capacity.

“You can look at changing the cultivars that you grow, changing crop rotation patterns; we’ve learned a lot about no till. …But if we allow changes in climate over the next century that are greater than any such changes we have seen throughout human civilization, those impacts are likely to exceed our adaptive capacity.”

“That leaves mitigation. …If we are going to avoid 2 degrees Celsius warming of the climate, voluntary measures are not going to get us where we need to be. ….How can we reduce our carbon emissions in a way that is equally acceptable to progressives and conservatives, with vehicles like revenue-neutral carbon taxes,” such as what Republican Bob Inglis talked about. “Let’s have that debate in our House of Representatives, rather than the current debate we are still stuck in about whether climate change is happening or not. We have to get past that unworthy debate and on to the worthy debate about what to do about this problem.” Dr. Mann said.

Inglis, a former Congressman from South Carolina who founded RepublicEN and sits on CCL’s Advisory Board, also spoke at the conference and said that the best way to mitigate climate change is to put a price on carbon and take away all subsidies to all energy sources.

What’s at stake for Montana’s economy?

Beef cattle, wheat, barley, hay, beans, potatoes, sugar beets, and black cherries are Montana’s major agricultural products. Climate change is already negatively affecting its $4.2 billion agricultural industry and farmers are experiencing severe impacts, such as crop losses due to hail, drought , high temperatures, early frosts, extreme weather, and low snowpack – so critical for growing winter wheat. There are more invasive pests and weeds and more frequent and longer-lasting wildfires. Livestock losses due to blizzards and high temperatures — which make black animals especially suffer from heat stress — are increasing.

The Montana Farm Bureau said their members are most concerned with risk management, agricultural research funding being stripped away (that they heavily rely on), and the need for coalition building, specifically mentioning Southeast Climate Consortium and North American Climate Smart Agriculture Coalition. Opposition to legislative regulations to address climate change is due to its costs and inefficiency; members are interested in what they can do better in their farming practices to mitigate it.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association shared that Montana cattle have been selected to live in cold winters, hot, dry summers and produce beef. Their constituents are just beginning to discuss the impacts of climate variability and ranchers’ observations. They are most interested in understanding the science, how can it be easily shared, and better manage their operations in the face of climate change.

Montana Farmers Union is already educating its members about climate change. They’ve issued a report: Montana Agriculture in a Changing Climate.

Impact on health

Dr. Robert Byron and Pediatrician Dr. Lori Byron (both volunteers with CCL-Billings) addressed health impacts from climate change. The increase in wildfires and length of the wildfire season, air pollution and particulate matter, longer frost-free season, increased floods, and less nutritious grains contribute to increases in asthma, allergies, heart attacks, infectious diseases, diabetes, and premature and smaller babies.

Dr. Sue Geske, a veterinarian, reported that mosquitoes are more prevalent the warmer the climate, and can transmit diseases, such as heartworm, to people and their pets. She joined Dr. Byron in urging Extension, which has a great infrastructure that touches everyone’s lives in Montana, to continue educating citizens, including adding a climate change module to the 4-H Youth Development Program.

Tools and Resources

At the conference, experts shared a number of resources to spread the word about climate science, mitigation and adaptation:

Enrolling the farm community

CCL volunteers can support their Extension agencies and urge them to follow MSU Extension’s great conference example.

Dr. Lori Byron helped line up events for Bob Inglis to meet with several stakeholders and staff members for Members of Congress while he was in Montana.

Washington State is holding a similar conference in March and CCL volunteers are participating in the poster session, explaining the Carbon Fee and Dividend solution.

Polling shows that the majority of Americans support action on climate change. Our food industry leaders – General Mills, Kellogg’s, Cargill and others – are greatly alarmed about climate change and have called on Congress to address it.

County Farm Bureaus and other ag groups are welcome to participate with CCL volunteers and address carbon pricing with their representatives in Congress. Contact us at gro.y1634841000bbole1634841000tamil1634841000csnez1634841000itic@1634841000lcc1634841000!


Glacier Park

Glaciers, jobs, the future

When we think of Montana, most of us picture visiting places like Glacier Park. There were 150 glaciers there in 1850; today only 25 remain. In another 15 years, none will be left due to global warming. Average temperatures have risen 1.8 times faster in the Park than the global average.

Along with the melting glaciers, over 11,000 jobs related to Montana’s recreational and tourism industry alone are projected to be lost due to combined changes in precipitation and temperature.

In contrast, there are 1,247 coal mining jobs in Montana (in 2013). But, by 2030, there are an estimated 17,000 potential construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs in the wind energy industry alone.

Our nation can transition off fossil fuels and on to renewables. Then, someday, people might be able to see glaciers again in the crown jewel of the continent.

Alex Amonette
Alex Amonette is a freelance technical and grant writer/editor, lives in cattle and sheep country, and raises vegetables and hay.