02/14/2017

Food Security, Forests at Risk Under Trump’s USDA

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Author: Bobby Magill | Published: February 7, 2017 

U.S. food security, forest health, and the ability of farmers to respond to climate change are all at risk if President’s Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture brings climate change skepticism to the agency, agricultural researchers and environmental law experts say.

That concern takes root not only in Trump’s own statements scoffing at climate policy, but also in the words and actions of his nominee for Agriculture secretary — former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who in 2007 resorted to prayer as a strategy to deal with a severe drought Georgia was enduring.

“Snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time, but now they want us to accept that all of it is the result of climate change,” Perdue, whose Senate confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled, wrote in a 2014 National Review column. “It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

In fact, the science of human-caused climate change is far from a running joke.

Established climate science shows that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are quickly warming the planet, leading to melting polar ice caps, rising seas and more frequent extreme weather. Sixteen of the world’s 17 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000 — a level of global warming leading to more frequent, more intense and more deadly heat waves and extreme drought.

Though climate models are less certain about the role of global warming in hurricanes and tornadoes, they suggest that hurricane intensity will increase as the atmosphere warms. Major hurricanes are already becoming more common in the Atlantic, and landfalling typhoons have become more intense in the Pacific, threatening millions of lives in coastal cities.

The agriculture industry is responsible for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. If confirmed, the decisions Perdue will make will influence whether farms shrink their carbon footprint and how farms and forests are managed to respond to climate-related disasters.Responding to climate change is a key mission of the USDA, which is America’s chief supporter of agriculture research, forestry and rural development. The agency funds millions of dollars of research at land grant universities across the country such as Cornell, Clemson and Texas A&M to help farmers learn the risks they face from a world that has been largely warmed by pollution from carbon emissions.

The USDA’s climate programs extend far beyond farms. As America’s largest forest manager, Perdue will determine the direction of the science conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and whether some of America’s most carbon-dense and diverse forests are clear cut for timber harvesting or managed to sustain and blunt the impacts of climate change.

“Just about every activity that the USDA regulates is likely to impact climate policy,” said Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Forests and soils store vast amounts of carbon. When forests are logged or when they burn, much of that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Crop farming also contributes to climate change by releasing large quantities of nitrous oxides, much of it from fertilizers, and animal farming contributes vast amounts of methane especially from ruminant animals.”

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