In America’s Heartland, Discussing Climate Change Without Saying ‘Climate Change’

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Author: Hiroko Tabuchi | Published: January 28, 2017  

Doug Palen, a fourth-generation grain farmer on Kansas’ wind-swept plains, is in the business of understanding the climate. Since 2012, he has choked through the harshest drought to hit the Great Plains in a century, punctuated by freakish snowstorms and suffocating gales of dust. His planting season starts earlier in the spring and pushes deeper into winter.

To adapt, he has embraced an environmentally conscious way of farming that guards against soil erosion and conserves precious water. He can talk for hours about carbon sequestration — the trapping of global-warming-causing gases in plant life and in the soil — or the science of the beneficial microbes that enrich his land.

In short, he is a climate change realist. Just don’t expect him to utter the words “climate change.”

“If politicians want to exhaust themselves debating the climate, that’s their choice,” Mr. Palen said, walking through fields of freshly planted winter wheat. “I have a farm to run.

Here in north-central Kansas, America’s breadbasket and conservative heartland, the economic realities of agriculture make climate change a critical business issue. At the same time, politics and social pressure make frank discussion complicated. This is wheat country, and Donald J. Trump country, and though the weather is acting up, the conservative orthodoxy maintains that the science isn’t settled.

So while climate change is part of daily conversation, it gets disguised as something else.

“People are all talking about it, without talking about it,” said Miriam Horn, the author of a recent book on conservative Americans and the environment, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman.” “It’s become such a charged topic that there’s a navigation people do.”

Mr. Palen — he plays his politics close to his vest but allows that he didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton — and others here in Glen Elder and across the state illustrate the delicate dance.

Farmers like him focus on practical issues like erosion or dwindling aquifers. “When you don’t get the rainfall, it’s tough times,” he said.

Regional politicians and business leaders speak of pursuing jobs that clean energy may create, rather than pressing the need to rein in carbon emissions. A science teacher at a community college — whose deeply religious students sometimes express doubts about the trustworthiness of science that contradicts biblical teachings — speaks to his class about the positives of scientific discovery (electricity) in order to ease into more contentious subjects (global warming).

And an editor for a closely followed agriculture magazine, Successful Farming, recently made a controversial move, drawing a flurry of angry letters: He broke with longstanding policy to address climate change head-on.

“Some readers thanked us,” the editor Gil Gullickson said. “But some wondered whether we’d been hijacked by avid environmentalists.”

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