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Opportunities Abound for Farmers as Temps Rise -- Climate Change Evangelist

Katharine Hayhoe lived up to her reputation as a down-to-earth atmospheric scientist at an Iowa State University Earth Day observance in Ames, Iowa.

Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, didn’t pull any punches as she delivered her remarks, "Climate Urgency and How Iowa Farmers and Businesses Can Take the Lead," to a packed auditorium of students, faculty, and community members.

“Denying science has become an article of faith, almost a requirement to belong to your family, church, or political party,” she said. “Climate change isn’t something you believe in. It’s not a religion, it’s science.”

The 42-year-old Toronto native defies the stereotypical liberal environmentalist label. She’s an evangelical Christian, and wrote the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions together with her husband Andrew Farley, who is a pastor. In 2014, she was named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, and she was selected as one of Christianity Today’s 50 Women to Watch in 2012.

“We’ve had floods and droughts before,” she said. “In west Texas, we get some pretty crazy weather, and Iowa has many similar challenges to its ag-based economy. People say, ‘We deal with these weather issues all the time. Why is it so urgent? ’ ”

Hayhoe replies that a sense of predictability is key to our lives and economy.  “In our society, we’ve built our infrastructure, and based our economy on the simple assumption that all our wild weather – the temperature swings, floods, and droughts – will average out in the end,” she said. “What if it doesn’t? What if variability is increasing, too? What happens if we can’t grow cotton in Texas? We want our climate to be stable.”

Hayhoe, a lead author in the 2014 Third U.S. National Climate Assessment, responded to these three climate change myths:

  1. Climate change has stopped. “In Iowa, our winters are warmer, and our summers are becoming warmer – although not as quickly,” she said. “In the last few years, we’ve had two record wet years, and two record dry years. We’re getting heavier precipitation – rain and snow – more frequently. Since 1980, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports we’ve had 178 weather or climate disaster events that caused damages of $1 billion or more. In 2013, Australia had a heat wave so severe that it had to add a new color to its weather-forecasting map; now they’re using it again. Hurricanes are stronger because of warmer ocean water, and Buffalo has more lake-effect snow because Lake Erie isn’t frozen as often.”

  2. Climate may be changing, but it has nothing to do with people. It’s a natural cycle. “Some say air temperature is becoming warmer because of the sun,” she said. “But energy from the sun has been declining since the 1970s. We should be cooler, not warmer.” Hayhoe compared a natural cycle to a teeter totter. “It moves around and shifts between warming and cooling in a balanced pattern. This isn’t a natural cycle because the entire planet is warming. The increase in ocean heat content alone is 20 times more than the atmosphere, land, and ice combined.”

  3. It’s caused by a change in the earth’s orbit, or another type of a natural cycle. One theory is that a change in the Earth’s orbit triggered the beginning and the end of Ice Age, reducing the amount of solar radiation. “Trends showed the Earth was on a slide toward the next Ice Age, until the 1700s, when the Industrial Revolution began, increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane,” Hayhoe said.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, she said we didn’t know that coal and gas would produce carbon, or that burning it would release it into the atmosphere, accelerating the natural greenhouse effect. “Greenhouse gases trap heat energy like a down comforter,” she said.

Hayhoe pointed out that many of the findings about greenhouse gases aren’t recent. “A scientist discovered this natural blanket effect 200 years ago,” she said. “Later an Irish chemist suggested a buildup of carbon from coal mining. In 1896, a Swedish scientist suggested a doubling of CO2 concentrations would lead to a similar temperature rise to what our climate models tell us today.”

She added, “There have been 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific studies; only 24 have rejected climate change. Why are we still arguing?” she asked.

More in-depth on climate issues:

However, Hayhoe pointed out that Americans are not arguing as much as we might think. According to recent research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 64% of Americans think global warming is real and caused by human beings. Yet only 44% of evangelicals do. They also indicate greater distrust of scientists.

“Politics is polarizing us,” Hayhoe said. “The second most divisive issue in the U.S., after the president’s approval rating, is climate change. The fourth most divisive issue is: Do you trust scientists?”

She quoted from Hebrews 11:1 . . . “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Then she added her perspective to it. “By definition, science is the evidence of things that are seen, that can be observed, that are quantifiable,” she said. “I see faith and science as two sides of the same coin.”

Hayhoe, whose work and communication efforts with religious audiences was featured in Showtime’s Emmy-winning documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously, stated that religion isn’t the true cause of the divisiveness. “Climate change solutions raise long-held fears of taxes, government control, and economic hardship,” she said. “People object to the solutions. It’s more acceptable for them to say they don’t believe in climate change.”

She cited Senator James Inhofe’s quote from a 2012 cable TV interview: “I was actually on your side of this issue [climate change] when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this,” he said. “I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”

Hayhoe followed it up with a quote from Senator Lindsey Graham earlier this year, “Climate change is not a religious problem for me, it is an economic problem,”  he said.

“I disagree,” Hayhoe said. “Climate change is an economic opportunity. We will miss it if we don’t act.”

She listed three positive ways that farmers and businesses, as well as individuals, would benefit from capitalizing on climate change and its causes:

  1. Save money through efficiency. “We can all play a part as individuals by reducing our carbon footprint, buying more energy-efficient cars, and LED light bulbs,” she said. “More efficient appliances and cars may cost more up front, but they use less energy over the lifetime of use so that you come out ahead.”

  2. Grow the economy by investing in renewables. A Gallup Poll survey shows that 75% of Americans support funding research in renewable energy. “Wind power is producing 30% of Iowa electricity,” she said. “That’s like taking 1.7 million cars off the road. Wind is replacing coal.”  Hayhoe said that people always bring China into this argument. “In the U.S., per-person CO 2 emissions are about three times those of China,” she said. “China has more people. But China is producing 50% more solar and wind power than the U.S. China has agreed to limit its carbon emissions by the end of this decade.” Hayhoe highlighted Iowa, and agriculture’s potential to put carbon back in the soil. She cited the United Suppliers program, called SUSTAIN, aimed at helping farmers cut N20 emissions.

  3. Grow the economy by using waste products to generate energy and save farmers money. “Iowa and agriculture can play a key role,” Hayhoe said. “You can capture and burn methane from manure, and take waste products from ag and switch grass, burn at them at high temps and remove the residue, and put carbon back into the soil.”

Hayhoe cited ongoing research at Iowa State University on biochar application. “If you amend the soil with carbon (charcoal), it increases yield, especially in poor soils, and retains water and fertilizer better. So the land can continue to produce for ourselves today and future generations, and reduce N20 emissions. It’s a win, win, win.”

She added, “One other barrier to choosing to act on climate change now is that we’re human. We don’t like change. We live in an economy that isn’t paying the true price of carbon.  There aren’t fines for this pollutant. You and I are paying the price for carbon, in crop insurance losses, natural disasters, wildfires, increased risk of water shortages, in conflicts around the world, like the Arab Spring.”

Hayhoe concluded, “Soon, maybe in five, 10, or 15 years, I’d be surprised if we haven’t seriously corrected the free market by supporting regulation of CO 2 as a pollutant with a price on carbon. British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2007. And the shocking truth is that it works.” She said the proceeds from the real price of carbon are used to lower personal and corporate taxes.

“The fossil fuel era is ending, and the question is will we be at the front or back of the pack?” she said. According to Bloomberg Business, the capacity that has been added worldwide for renewable power has exceeded coal, natural gas, and oil combined for the second year in a row.

“Denying climate change isn’t a religious belief,” Hayhoe said. “Climate change is an opportunity for agricultural producers and business people. If we don’t take advantage of it, others will. The choice is up to us now.”

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