President Trump’s historic retreat from the Paris climate accord last week is just the latest installment in the story of how his administration’s anti-science and anti-protections policies with respect to climate change could do grave harm to many aspects of American life. His proposed budget is likely to be the next chapter.
While Trump sees the issue through coal-colored lenses, it’s clear to anyone paying attention to actual science that that the impacts of climate change have and will continue to cause serious problems for the nation’s agricultural sector. Climate and agricultural scientists are observing and projecting worsening drought, more intense rainfall, more and worsening heatwaves, and shifting populations of invasive species and agricultural pests. The result for farmers will be smaller crop yields and higher operating costs.
Many of these changes have already been documented. For example, the multi-year California drought was exacerbated by climate impacts, causing substantial economic losses for the state’s agricultural sector in 2016. Water shortages impacted cold-water fisheries, limited dairy production statewide, and caused some $246 million in reduced crop revenues and the loss of some 4,700 agricultural jobs. These losses may have been mitigated with improved adaptation planning for agriculture and water management.
Such impacts will not be felt uniformly across the landscape of America’s ranches, croplands, and fisheries. Rather, the impacts will be – and in some cases already are – geographically and temporally diverse, with some effects felt more keenly in certain areas, and others more keenly elsewhere. But it will be a problem of national scale, and therefore, the federal government is uniquely situated to both track the big picture and provide localized, detailed forecasts and support to states and producers.
For all of Trump’s talk about how his budget aims to cut government waste while protecting Americans, the reality of his budget is that it reflects an abandonment of federal responsibilities where climate change is involved. The White House budget proposes cuts of $83 million in FY 2018 (a ten-year total of $5.7 billion) to conservation programs, as well as $26 million in cuts to agricultural research grants. If anything resembling those cuts is included in the budget Congress eventually adopts, farmers will suffer increasing and potentially unsustainable production costs, 11 percent of the national workforce could lose income or employment, and most consumers will feel the sting in their pocketbooks.
Federal climate adaptation efforts are not siloed in a single agency, nor are they funded through a singular congressional mandate. Various departments and agencies have developed plans to mitigate or adapt to climate change, and funding for those efforts – what there is of it, that is – is included in their respective budgets. As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and Executive Order 13653 (“Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change“), for example, many federal agencies have already created their own adaptation plans and begun ambitious national and regional implementation efforts, which are diffused among existing programs. The Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency provide two very different but important examples of how much has already been accomplished (and what we stand to lose) to address the threat of climate to our national security and to our environment and health. Agricultural productivity and climate-related food security issues deserve increasing attention and federal support.
As an example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) plays a critical role in safeguarding agricultural resources through its science, outreach, and conservation programming. The 2014 NRCS Climate Adaptation Plan lays out several important initiatives that could be vulnerable to proposed budget cuts. Among other things, the NRCS is leading efforts to improve the resilience of agricultural soils through study and demonstration of regenerative technologies. Regenerative soil practices have the potential both to enhance soil fertility and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
NRCS also serves a vital function by tracking climate-vulnerable soils and forecasting water scarcity through monitoring of rainfall and snowpacks while providing essential extension services by disseminating actionable information and practices to agricultural producers through its Regional Climate Hubs (example: emailed warnings about potential heat stress to cattle). And the NRCS partners closely with the agricultural community at the regional level to implement projects that protect agricultural resources and benefit restoration of public resources like the Chesapeake Bay’s fisheries and the depleted Ogallala Aquifer.
Trump’s budget could also threaten agriculture and food security internationally. The White House budget proposes elimination of the U.S. contribution to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program ($43 million) and the Green Climate Fund ($1.59 billion), a move that would undermine and worsen climate impacts to foreign agriculture. These programs fund adaptation and resilience projects that support improvements in agriculture and water management in some of the most climate-threatened countries, like Bangladesh and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.
Climate-induced food insecurity is already seen as a significant factor in transnational migration and displacement and in fomenting civil conflict in places like Syria. Undermining efforts to increase agricultural resilience through funding land and water management projects in Rwanda or climate-resilient rice production and emergency food assistance projects in Cambodia stand to exacerbate migration pressure on the United States, as well as increase the risk of trauma and conflict for citizens of foreign allies.
For its own political reasons, the White House may value disrupting international climate policy, but the impacts of Trump’s budget will be felt much closer to home.