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The Conundrum of Responding to Crippling Drought: Help Now or Reduce Future Vulnerability?

Climate Justice

The relentless heat wave that has plagued much of the country this summer, along with an accompanying paucity of rain, have plunged vast swaths of the United States into the most crippling drought in decades. Corn crops and now soy crops are withering, and commodity prices have risen dramatically. That could signal a sharp rise in domestic food prices just as the elections approach this fall, shocks to world grain markets fueled in large part by U.S exports, and significant financial losses to American agriculture. And that’s not to mention the horrific working conditions many farmers have to face every day in temperatures approaching or exceeding 100 degrees F.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast suggests that little relief is in sight. As of the middle of July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had already designated 1,297 counties in 29 states as “primary natural disaster areas,” making them eligible for low-interest emergency loans and other forms of federal aid.. Here in my home state of Utah, almost every county is designated as a primary disaster area, and the rest are designated “contiguous” disaster areas. But we’re not alone. The same is true for all of the southwest (including California), parts of the northwest, the southern plains (including all of Texas), parts of the central plains, and all of Hawaii and much of the southeast as well. (For the current map, see here.)

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that one of his responses, in addition to disaster declarations, was to “get on my knees ever day and say an extra prayer.”  On Monday, Secretary Vilsack took the more policy-oriented step of announcing added flexibility in USDA’s major conservation programs to help farmers struck by drought. USDA will allow areas usually off limits to farming as parts of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to be used for haying or grazing; authorize similar flexibility to expand grazing, haying, livestock watering and other practices to farmers enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the similar Wetlands Reserve Program; and urge private crop insurance providers to voluntarily forego charging interest on unpaid insurance premiums for an extra month. Even if temporary, those changes highlight the political fragility of Farm Bill programs designed to protect the long-term ecological integrity of our agricultural ecosystems.

From the perspective of both compassion and election-year politics (which are not always strange bedfellows), it is easy to understand efforts to help individual farmers weather this devastating drought. Leaving aside for now the difficult issue of whether federal agricultural assistance does more to help small farmers or giant agribusiness, agriculture is an inherently risky business given the variability and unpredictably of weather, global commodities markets, and other factors. Farmers take financial risks so that they can provide essential food, fiber, and more recently energy resources (through biofuels) to the rest of society. As a result, ever since the New Deal the United States has been willing to subsidize that risk through programs that, over time, have ranged from price supports to low-interest loans to federal crop insurance. Those policies, although the subject of longstanding critiques, have become politically entrenched and difficult to change, much less eliminate.  

On the other hand, providing persistent aid to drought-stricken farmers might exacerbate the longer term and frequently overlooked possibility that we will continue to subsidize risky decisions because farmers know that, historically, the federal government has been there to bail them out. Particularly given the likelihood that this summer’s drought will recur with increasing frequency and even higher intensity as the climate changes, efforts to provide short-term relief in an exercise of legitimate compassion and economic imperative must be coupled with a longer-term strategy to adapt our agricultural economy to likely future conditions.

This does not mean we should ignore the plight of the farm sector this summer or in the near future. It does mean that we may not be doing farmers—or the rest of us—any favors if we do not simultaneously develop a much longer-term, more broadly conceived national drought policy that focuses on reducing vulnerability to future droughts rather than providing short-term relief when drought occurs. I made these points much more extensively in an article in Florida Law Review. Here are some perspectives on how we might think about “drought” in the future:

Is it a “natural” disaster? 

It is notable that USDA designates drought-stricken regions as “natural” disaster areas. In the past, most droughts in fact have been natural disasters, meaning that they reflected natural variability in various aspects of weather, such as periodic changes in temperature, precipitation, and wind (which can exacerbate drought by reducing soil moisture and blowing away topsoil, as occurred during the Dust Bowl). However, even past drought has been exacerbated by human decisions that increased vulnerability to changes in natural conditions.  Those have included unsound planting practices such as planting the wrong crops on the wrong soils and in the wrong ways. Vast regions of the globe have experienced desertification throughout history because of some of those practices.

Given the relationship between the current drought and human-caused climate change, however, it is not as easy to simply relegate the current drought to “natural” conditions. True, drought has occurred throughout history with or without anthropogenic changes to the climate. And true, it is difficult to prove that any single change in weather is caused by changes in climate. But the current drought is entirely consistent with what scientists predict will occur with increasing frequency in coming decades in the very areas in which the current drought is parching some of our most productive agricultural regions. Indeed, this summer’s drought is consistent with the specific regional impacts projected by the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, as well as other scientific studies.

If drought is a “natural” disaster, the sensible policy response is to adapt to natural conditions as best we can, by providing essential relief and trying to reduce vulnerability to future droughts as well. If we are contributing to increasingly frequent and more severe drought through our own actions, that is, if this is a sign of anthropogenic rather than natural disaster, it is yet another warning that actions to mitigate climate change are long overdue.

Is it a “drought” or a new era of climate-induced “aridity”?

Similarly, the term “drought” refers to a temporary variation from the “norm,” meaning some definition or description of “average” weather conditions in a particular region. Of course, we all know that the weather is fickle. It changes not only from day to day but from year to year. In a “stable” climate, that is, one that fluctuates around a central average from year to year, we can expect some very wet years, some normal ones, and some dry ones, which we call “drought.” We can even experience “drought” conditions for many years in a row, which poses more serious economic and other problems, but from which we can expect to recover as the weather reverts to “normal” for that region.

The term “aridity” refers to longer-term conditions within a particular region. If an area is becoming drier (or hotter, or both) generally rather than just during drought periods, it means that the “norm,” or the average conditions around which annual or seasonal variations in weather fluctuate, has shifted. Scientists have predicted that climate change will result in shifts in both average conditions within particular regions and larger fluctuations from the norm, meaning more frequent and more intense extreme weather events like the current drought (as well as other examples of more extreme weather that have been experienced around the world in recent years).

The implication of this difference in terms of national drought policy is profound. In order to support a healthy agricultural economy, we can justify subsidizing some risk when weather varies so far beyond the norm that responsible farmers could not reasonably have planned for those conditions. We help farmers endure the unpredictable hard times so they can continue to provide food and other essential products when favorable conditions return. The same policy is not justified for conditions that scientists predict will recur with increasing frequency and intensity. For one thing, it will only reward farmers who continue to plant water-intensive crop varieties using inefficient irrigation methods. (Or who plant without irrigation or with dwindling water supplies such as the Ogallala Aquifer in the high plains states, which had been dropping precipitously even before the effects of climate change began to appear.) Moreover, if disaster relief we plan to provide only during rare years of “drought” becomes the norm, it will become an even less affordable drain on an already overburdened federal budget.

Toward a national drought (and climate) policy that considers a realistic future

Comprehensive federal drought legislation was proposed in 2003 in response to the findings of the National Drought Policy Commission. That report, like many similar studies before it, recommended that U.S. drought policy focus more on long-term efforts to reduce drought vulnerability than on short-term relief efforts whenever an individual drought occurs. That policy prescription makes even more sense in an era of climate change. We need to plan our drought and agricultural policy for a future climate in which different crops will be suitable in different locations and using different irrigation and other methods than is currently the case. The transition cannot occur overnight, so the sooner we begin, the better both the agricultural community and the nation as a whole will be.

Climate Justice

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