Major changes coming for farmers: National Climate Assessment

Flooding in Le Mars, Iowa
Used under creative commons license from diversey

Climate-driven disruptions for U.S. farmers will accelerate in severity and cost in the coming decades, the National Climate Assessment, authored by 13 federal agencies, concluded. While the assessment was written “to help inform decision-makers, utility and natural resource managers, public health officials, emergency planners, and other stakeholders,” it was quietly released by the Trump administration the day after Thanksgiving. A few days later President Trump tried to dismiss the risks posed by climate change claiming, “I don’t believe it.” 

The assessment points out risks across the U.S. economy, particularly for agriculture and other natural resource-based sectors. The Agriculture and Rural Communities chapter outlines a series of daunting climate-related concerns, including “increased rates of crop failure, reduced livestock productivity, and altered rates of pressure from pests, weeds, and diseases.” The report also acknowledges the risks to outdoor workers, concluding that migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as IATP has previously written.

The assessment identifies a series of needed adaptation strategies for farmers to cope with climate change, such as altering the types of crops grown and implementing sustainable practices including crop rotations, cover crops and better irrigation management. Livestock production will also require adaptation strategies, including “managing heat stress by altering diets, providing adequate shade and clean drinking water supplies, monitoring stock rates continuously to match forage availability.” The assessment warned that while these strategies can strengthen resilience for farmers, they are not enough on their own to protect farms from the severe impacts of climate change.  

Rural communities are facing a “climate gap,” the assessment noted (something IATP has long been saying). Rural areas will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, partially due to greater poverty. In addition, aging rural infrastructure is more vulnerable to climate stressors. Given that rural areas host a vast majority of the nation’s agriculture, the individuals and communities that rely on agriculture as an economic driver face doubly serious impacts, the assessment concluded. 

The financial risks of climate inaction are steep. To avoid the worst-case scenario economic burden, the assessment calls for expanding climate adaptation planning across the country. Climate adaptation strategies would have some upfront costs but would “yield benefits in excess of their costs in the near term, as well as over the long term.”   

Climate planning for agriculture is critical. An IATP report earlier this year found that only 18 states have climate adaptation plans that address agriculture, and that many of those agriculture plans were too general and aspirational, disconnected from the policies or resources required for implementation. Given the findings of the National Climate Assessment, more states need to step up, and the states with existing plans must evaluate and strengthen their actions.  

The findings of the National Climate Assessment are consistent with past findings on climate and agriculture, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in October. It also came only days before a Congressional agreement on a new Farm Bill was announced and the signing of a new North American Free Trade Agreement. Neither deal, with deep and wide-ranging implications for U.S. agriculture, acknowledges climate change or attempts to address the rising risks for farmers around the country. 

As countries meet this week in Poland at the annual Conference of Parties to negotiate the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump’s announced plans to withdraw from the global climate deal is isolating the U.S. from global plans of action. U.S. policymakers continue to lag far behind the scientific consensus on climate change—leaving our farmers and rural communities increasingly vulnerable.