Bad News/Good News

It’s time once again to summarize the environmental news from the past couple of months as it appears in this month’s Sierra Magazine. Let’s begin with the bad news:

In the midst of one of the more severe winters we have experienced in the Midwest and Northeast in recent years — which has convinced the no-minds that global warming is a fiction invented by tree-hugging weirdos — it is sobering to realize that 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record. It was so hot during the Australian Open Tennis Tournament (108 degrees) that plastic bottles were melting and several players suffered from sunstroke. Having played tennis in hot temperatures, I can assure you that the temperature on the tennis court was considerably hotter than the air temperature as recorded.

In the face of the drought in California, officials have announced that farmers in California’s Central Valley will receive no state or federal irrigation water this year.  Some California ranchers have been forced to give up on grass-fed beef because of the drought in that state. And while this was happening, it was discovered that eight million acres of farmland in China are too polluted to grow crops — ever again.  As populations continue to grow and the globe continues to warm it seems evident that it will become increasingly difficult to feed the world’s hungry people. And it is not a problem that will go away simply because we ignore it.

In its wisdom, Congress allowed the tax credits for wind power to expire. Those credits were instrumental in getting 60,000 megawatts of clean wind power on-line in the last two decades. Simultaneously, by arguing that solar collectors have “saturated” the grid or that they are increasing costs to those without the collectors, the nation’s investor-owned utilities  have launched a full-scale attack on solar energy, “challenging the laws, rules, and programs that have made solar a formidable clean energy contender.” The attack includes anti-solar ads produced by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers. (Can there be any debate whatever about the question of who are two of the most wicked men in the world today?)  In the meantime, one can expect the $8 billion in annual tax credits to Big Oil to continue.

But, on the other hand, the 377 megawatt Ivanpah solar electric generating station, the largest in the world, went on-line in the desert southwest of Las Vegas.  Shell Oil has cancelled plans to drill in the Arctic in 2014 and the Los Angles City Council banned fracking. The EPA (which has been targeted by the Koch brothers) proposed fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks for the first time ever. And the Obama administration finally got off its duff and blocked the construction of the Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper mine proposed for the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, site of one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. With food shortages looming, this would appear to be a no-brainer. I can imagine the federal government getting more involved as the food crunch gets worse. That may not be a bad thing.

Pity the Farmers

In reading the NRDC publication “onearth” recently I was steered to an online essay by Ted Genoways about the plight of the small farmer. As one who lives in the farming belt in Southwest Minnesota and who knows how the small farmers struggle against the unfair competition provided by the giant corporations, I found this article of special interest. As you travel in this area you see the sad, abandoned farm houses and countless groves being bulldozed to make room for more plowed fields and bigger yields — all signs of the corporations at work.

With the current drought that affects 65% of the farmland in this country predicted to continue, one wonders if the small farmers can survive. Indeed, one wonders if there will be food enough to feed a burgeoning world population. As the Sierra magazine reported recently two-thirds of the U.S. Wheat crop has been impaired by drought and U.S. corn and soybean production has fallen below consumption levels for the first time in 38 years. Further, “Drought will cut world wheat stocks by 13 percent in 2013. . .The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that low grain stores this year leave ‘no room for unexpected events.'”

And yet the corporate farmers in this country are making record profits, thanks to government subsidies as Genoways explains:

. . . Of the $277.3 billion allocated for farm subsidies from the expansion of the program in 1995 until last year, roughly 75 percent of the money went to the top 10 percent of farmers. If you expand to look at the top 20 percent of farms, nearly 90 percent of the allocations are accounted for. In real dollars, that means that the average corporate farm receives more than $31,000 per year, while the average small farm receives less than $600, in a typical year. And nearly two-thirds of American farmers collect no subsidies at all. In years of crop failure, Big Ag actually makes out even better, because of the way the subsidies are calculated. Indeed, if trends from past years hold true for 2012, the top 20 percent of recipients will garner an average of more than $45,000 from the government, compared to less than $1,000 for the remaining 80 percent.

So programs designed to save family farms are, instead, helping big business out-compete them, and eventually gobble them up, all while using their dollars and political clout to push for larger subsidies and more protection — big beef and pork producers are currently trying to get into the act — as agribusiness lobbyists in Washington cloak their efforts in the guise of defending small farmers.

So while the small farmers struggle and see their farms being swallowed up by the corporations the rest of us ponder a future with diminishing food supplies as the globe continues to heat up, droughts continue to reduce farm production, and Big Ag goes to Washington to make sure the subsidies continue. Surely, this is a formula for disaster.

Given the present state of the economy the government may not be able to bail out the corporate farmers much longer. But more to the point, not even the large corporations will be able to produce food on the scale required to feed growing numbers of hungry people if the drought continues as predicted. In addition to the greed and short-term thinking that motivates the corporations, we must add the undeniable fact that climate change will soon affect our lives in ways it is difficult to imagine, as a recent story on Yahoo News pointed out:

“What we’re going to experience is unprecedented in human history in terms of the type of climate we’re creating for ourselves,” Hanemann tells The Daily Ticker. “The rate of warming has increased maybe five times what it was in the early part of the 20th century. The earth is getting warmer faster.”

Meanwhile Congress continues to hand out subsidies to Big Ag and repay favors to fat-cat contributors while it ignores climate change, threatens to cut social programs for the needy, and gropes about blindly in the Wonderland caucus race we call party politics. Something has to give.

No Surprises Here

There are a number of stories making the rounds this week about the heat wave that has hit the country and the accompanying drought that has seriously affected the crops, especially in the Midwest. The corn, wheat, and soybean crops are in serious trouble in the nine-state Midwest region where two-thirds of the states are experiencing various stages of drought — up from about half of those states just a week ago.  As a feature story reports accompanied by this photo:

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Corn and soybeans in the U.S. Midwest baked in an unrelenting heat wave on Monday with fears rising of big crop losses that will boost food and fuel prices and cut exports and aid from the world’s top shipper of the key crops.

The condition of the nation’s corn and soybeans as of Sunday deteriorated even more than grain traders had feared, and the U.S. Agriculture Department cuts its weekly corn crop condition rating by the biggest amount in nearly a decade.

In Southwest Minnesota where I live and in Southeast South Dakota which we drive through to get to Sioux Falls the corn plants are tall and green, but the cobs have not yet started to fill out and will not without a well-timed rain. In some areas the farmers have already started to cut the plants down to feed them to their cattle, giving up on the corn season.

This country depends on these crops not only to feed our own populations, but also to export to other countries. In fact, food is almost the only commodity this country manages to export and the balance of trade requires that we export something or it will become even more precarious. Thus the drought that is affecting the country has serious repercussions for the entire economy which, as we all know, is already in deep trouble.

But as I read about this situation, which borders on (that overused word) “crisis,” I cannot help but think: why are we surprised? Climatologists have been predicting these conditions for years and we have simply ignored them. We don’t like to worry about things that don’t affect us directly and we have a naive faith in technology that leads us to assume that every problem can be fixed — by someone. Though these are comforting convictions, together they spell disaster.

We should have seen this coming and we should have started doing something about it long ago. Some think it may be too late, and that may or may not be the case. It’s not just about the record-breaking heat. It’s also about the melting of the permafrost, the opening up of the Northwest passage, the record number of hurricanes and tornadoes. It has all been  predicted. But to this point it has been someone else’s problem. We are now starting to deal with the consequences of global warming  “in our own back yard.”

Perhaps now the situation will get our attention and we will start to recognize not only the problem itself, which is abundantly clear to all but the most delusional, but also the role of humans in creating the problem. If not now then assuredly when the food and fuel prices start to rise precipitously, or when we see reports of global starvation, or civil wars being fought over declining food supplies. At the very least, we must insist that this country shake loose from its reliance on fossil fuels and take major steps to accelerate growth in the clean energy industry. If we are to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, we must start very soon to be part of the solution. To this point we have been only a large part of the problem.