Risk vs. Risk: California Farmers Worry More about Climate Policy than Climate Change

by Marlo Lewis on September 12, 2013

in Features

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For years the carbon-suppression lobby has been trying to focus public controversy on the issue of whether anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is “real” or whether there is a scientific “consensus” that most warming of the past 50 years is man-made.

In their preferred framing of the debate, accepting the reality of AGW or the supposed “consensus” logically and morally demands acceptance of their policy agenda of cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, EPA emission standards for power plants, Soviet-style production quota for renewable energy, Stimulus loans for Solyndra, blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, and the like.

Hogwash. As my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has argued for the past 16 years or longer, the core issue for policy makers and the public is whether the risks of climate change outweigh those of climate change policy. Which should we fear more: climate change or the taxes, regulations, mandates, treaties, and other schemes supposedly needed to “solve” the “crisis”?

An interest group that seems to grasp the real issue is farmers. “Farmers believe they can dodge climate risks, but they’re wary of government rules,” states the headline of an article in today’s Climate Wire. Reporter Tiffany Stecker begins the article as follows:

Farmers and farm groups have usually been opposed to government climate policies. A new study finds they are not so much skeptics of climate change as they are about the rules that may come with [it] and how they might harm their business.

The new study, funded by the California Energy Commission, conducted by researchers at UC Davis and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, and published in Science Direct, surveyed 162 farmers in Yolo, California.

Climate policies may affect the adaptive capacity of agricultural systems to respond to climate change if they require resources and costs that exacerbate vulnerabilities. In the words of one farmer in Yolo County, California, ‘‘We can adapt to the environmental aspects of climate change. I’m not sure we can adapt to the legislature.’’

Farmers Climate Risk vs. Regulatory Risk

Figure explanation: Average level of concern for local climate change impacts. Farmers’ responses to the question, ‘‘How concerned are you about the following climate-related risks and the future impact they may have on your farming operations during your career?’’ Responses are ranked on a four point scale ranging from very concerned to not concerned.

Note, farmers worry not only about the costs of regulation but also about how regulation could impede their ability to adapt to climate change.

When asked whether government regulations would make it more difficult for a farmer to adapt to climate change risks, more than 70% (n = 109) agreed. As the quote in our introduction alluded, some farmers even perceived that it would be the government, not climate change that would be causing impacts. One farmer stated, ‘‘Theoretically it’s more likely the drought will be because of a government changing the rules on water rights and shipping some of it down south.’’

Although some too apparently regard regulators as oblivious to the costs of doing business.

One farmer stated, ‘‘The California Air Resources Board does not understand agriculture and how you have a dirty engine that serves a purpose on several square miles of farmland for just a few hours a year and you have to get rid of that engine and drop 30 or 40 grand for a brand new engine, which will be obsolete again in a few more years. They don’t realize how that can break a farm.’’

The study also found that “despite the negative perception of regulations, farmers did express interest in government technical assistance to aid with mitigation and adaptation efforts.” In fact, 48% said they would “participate in a government incentive program for climate change mitigation or adaptation. . .” Well, maybe that’s progress. It suggests a majority understand that government assistance won’t come without regulatory strings.

Now, you might suppose that people whose livelihoods are more affected by the vagaries of weather and climate than just about any other profession would be the most frightened of climate change. Not so. These sturdy yeomen are stout of heart:

Seventy-six percent of farmers stated confidence in their ability to adapt to climate change compared with only 8% of farmers stating pessimism for their adaptive potential. One farmer said, ‘‘I think that with the years of experience in farming that we have, I think we know how to deal with problems. I think farmers in general are fairly adaptable.’’ Another farmer echoed these sentiments saying, ‘‘I still have to be a farmer just like I’ve always been and I’ll have to react to it [climate change] and adapt to it. But that’s been my business. In agriculture you’re dealing with the weather, that’s what you have to deal with.’’

You might also assume that farmers who had negative experiences with previous regulations would be less likely to have climate change risk concerns. Just the opposite, those with negative regulatory experiences were more likely to have concerns about climate change risk. Why? Apparently, because public perceptions of climate change risks are what create climate policy risks!

For farmers with negative views of previous environmental policies, climate change risks may seem more severe if they are envisioning them to be heavily weighted toward policy and regulation.


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