Jolley: Five Minutes with TX Farm Bureau's Gene Hall on weather

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Not so long ago, talking about the weather was a pleasant ice-breaker of a topic. We could all complain about it, amiably.  It was a 'three little bears' kind of a conversation starter. We could commiserate with each other when it was too hot or too cold and revel in those few days every year when everything was just right. It was a sure-fire way to begin a conversation with a friend or stranger without venturing into those twin no-no areas of politics and religion.

Well, just as politics and religion have become increasingly polarized, so has the weather.  All three of those subjects are now fighting words.  What pushed the weather past the edge of polite conversation was the very idea of global warming. Weather and climate change became interchangeable terms. Was climate change a real, genuine threat or just some silly scam developed by some con artists?  People started to choose sides.

The trouble, though, was if you stood on one side of the debate, you were considered a fool by people on the other side.  Go too far into the discussion and someone was liable to throw down the gauntlet and challenge you to firearms at 20 paces. 

To clarify, by the way, the definition of the weather is what's going on outside today. It's the climate and the specter of global warming that we're really discussing -  the long term atmospheric conditions and how they might change from year-to-year, decade-to-decade.

Finding someone who will talk calmly about whether or not global warming is real and the possible effect on the climate is almost impossible. Every time I write about it, I get comments from people who become desk-tipping, door-slamming, crazy enraged, no matter how neutral I try to be.  You are either for it or against it, there does not seem to be space for a middle ground.

With that in mind, I noticed that Gene Hall, the ever erudite public face of the Texas Farm Bureau, was trying to occupy some sensible position.  Yes, he has doubts about whether or not global warming is real but he's willing to watch the science develop.  He's also concerned about the impact of jumping to conclusions too quickly and writing rules and regs that might have a negative effect on farmers and ranchers.

He has a good point, of course.  There is no human pursuit with a more vested interest in today's weather report and the long term effects of climate change than agriculture.  If you till the soil or raise livestock, good weather can make life wonderful; bad weather can destroy your bank account. A drastically altered climate is unthinkable.

So I posed a few questions about the weather and the climate to Mr. Hall.  Here are his answers:

Q. Gene, let's talk frankly and fairly about global warming, one of the most contentious issues being discussed today.  As much as possible, we'll do a Joe Friday, here; "The facts, just the facts."  One of the facts is approximately 97% of the research says it's a man-made problem that requires immediate action while another 3% says it's at best a naturally occurring phenomenon that we can do little about. 

One of the speakers at the NCBA Convention in Nashville sided with the 3% and received a near standing ovation.  You recently 'Facebooked' a meme about climate change regulations that said "Expensive.  Expansive.  A cap on our future."  Would you expand on that?

A. That was the theme of one of our Texas Agriculture Minutes – and yes – I wondered online and on the air about the consequences of climate change regulation.  I should preface everything I say with the disclaimer that “I am not a scientist.” I don’t even play one on Facebook. I am a very interested layman and a writer.

One of the problems in this area is that you can’t get in the lab and prove anything about global warming/climate change.  I have a rancher friend who was trained as a geologist.  He is a full blown skeptic, claiming there are too many variables in the formulas.  I see the point, but I try to be very respectful of science.  For example, I know beyond any doubt that genetically modified food is safe.  That one we CAN test in the lab and we have.  It’s empirical and provable. When you talk about something being settled in science, that one has, despite the hysteria.  It makes sense to me that we take sensible, market and incentive based steps to limit all pollution, including carbon.

I know for sure that what is being called a “carbon tax” will hurt farmers and ranchers because they can’t pass it on like other producers can.  It will hit them right in the pocketbook every time they start a tractor. That’s what you were seeing at NCBA.  It scares them.  

Q. Here's one of those compare and contrast questions:  Global warming has its believers and detractors - is it science or sham?

A. I don’t think it’s that simple.  There are people who believe and people who don’t.  There are winners and losers.  There are people who have too much in the way of reputation invested to be credible and there are family farmers and ranchers in danger of being regulated out of business.   One of the problems with this is that it’s not happening in a vacuum. 

Coupled with new and sweeping EPA regulations on clean water that will give EPA control of every mud hole and ditch in America, an aggressive BLM claiming “they’ve always owned” private farm and ranch land and expansion of listings under the endangered species act, it is a frightening prospect for the farm family trying to cope with all that.  It’s the green left’s wildest fantasies coming true.

 

There is science there.  Warming is occurring, but, is it within an acceptable range?  Some say it is.  There are parts of the world that will grow much better crops with an extra degree or two in temps.  I am also disturbed by the determination to stamp out dissenting voices.  Science always test the hypothesis. At least it should.

Q. One of the more common anti-global warming comments is it's nothing more than a grab for money and power, making it a political issue rather than a scientific one.  Is there justification for moving the conversation into the political arena or should we try to keep it a scientific debate?

A. I think both sides have been guilty of politicizing the debate, and I believe scientific organizations both formal and informal have their own politics.  It should be a scientific debate, but there does seem to be a pretty determined effort to exclude some of the science.  I also don’t think it’s possible to keep out the politicians determined to milk both sides of this.

Q. Following the political angle, if we make adjustments in how we produce energy and fuel transportation, who wins and who loses?

A. It has been said that the U.S. has made great progress in reducing carbon emissions, yet we still face a climate calamity in the view of some.  If the world is not ready to step forward on climate change could an economic Kamikaze mission by the U.S. win the day? Why can’t we keep doing what we’ve been doing? Make this about market and tax incentives and not about punitive command and control?

The losers will be everyone who produces something, because new energy costs will be built in.  Add consumers, who will see those costs passed on to them. Farmers and ranchers will lose because they can’t pass on costs. Winners?  Those who can play the political cards in the right order.  That’s about it, because temperatures are not going to decline because of this.

Q. If we move forward with the suggested regulations, what will be the tangible, short term effects on agriculture in the Southwest? If we do nothing, are there tangible, short term effects that might be detrimental to agriculture?

A. How far will the regulations go?  What will they require of farmers and ranchers in the Southwest and elsewhere?  Will farming and ranching activities be exempt to some degree?  Will there be credit for adopting low till, no till or GMO technology?  All of those are proven carbon savers and are all wild cards in the solution.  You call the consequences “short term effects.”  For some, the effects could be quite permanent, like “out of business” permanent.  If you mean it would follow some economic model where a smaller number of farmers and ranchers would learn to adapt, I don’t believe Farm Bureau can accept that. 

If we do nothing?  It seems likely the results would be exactly the same, no matter what we do.  The science suggests that the U.S simply can’t do this alone. I don’t think the rest of the world will fall in line.  They will take up the slack we leave with great delight, and neither carbon emissions or temperatures will change all that much.

The media insists on portraying every drought as if it would not have occurred if not for climate change.  I frankly don’t know the degree of impact or if there is any.  I do know, however, that drought is not exclusively a 21st Century or even 20th Century occurrence. 

Q. Many have said that actions on America's part will have little effect on global warming - pointing to the well-known excesses of China - and will only serve to cripple our economy.  The inference is that we should not try to take a possibly ineffective leadership position, especially if the rest of the developed world is not willing to follow suit.  What's your reaction?   

A. This is out of my “wheelhouse” of agricultural issues, but here goes. I call this the “reality” question.  America has a leadership role in the world, like it or not.  It is America’s responsibility to lead, but the world is not going to follow on this one.  I think it is beyond foolish to squander U.S. resources and economic power on a doomed experiment.  When it comes to the global economy we have partners and customers, but all other developed nations are also our competitors.  We can expect them to act like competitors.  That means they will gladly pick up what we leave on the table!

I believe we should lead by using our markets and the efficiency of capitalism and modern agriculture to show the way.  We’ve already made progress.  Can’t we do better still without unilateral economic surrender?

I’ve read that if we do this on our own you can produce a theoretical model that shows a drop in temperatures of about 1/20th of a degree over several decades. How do you explain those tiny gains to those who lose farms and jobs? Is it worth it?  To me, clearly…no.  Your words “cripple our economy” seem applicable.  Would we be in a position to lead if that happens?

As an aside, how does all of this impact our ability to grow our own food as a nation.  Coupled with other things, like a lack of labor, it’s certainly something to think about.


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PZ    
SD  |  June, 12, 2014 at 02:47 PM

“Global Warming” is a misleading label leading to manufactured controversy. The term brings to mind “a uniformly warm spell” and seems to be contradicted when unseasonable cold weather events occur. “Man-made Climate change “ leads to the question “Hasn’t climate always changed anyway?” Isn’t the determination of whether climate change is “good” or “bad” a judgment call? Human-caused changes in atmospheric composition, chemistry and radiation balance are accurately measured and are not controversial. Local and regional impacts are less certain. It is certain that changes in the physical coupling of weather and climate are not distributed equally throughout the atmosphere. Subsequently, changes in the radiation balance that results are also not uniform. These small levers tip the balance of normal weather events to create sporadic, non-uniform and still unpredictable shifts in the physical and chemical drivers of weather events. The result is more accurately described as Climate Chaos. Climate Chaos is showing up as drier droughts, thunder storms that evolve into killer floods, damaging hail and wind-driven wildfires. Our future is now and it includes untimely frosts and heat waves impacting fragile crops, damaging winds and fierce storms driving huge economic losses. Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines. Sensible policy will reward them for helping to buy time through knowledgeably-applied conservation practices while we aggressively prepare to face the future. Only agriculture has the potential to store greenhouse gases in the soil in forms that benefit productivity and increase the resilience to the Climate Chaos that is now an unquestionable and unavoidable part of our future.

Chuck    
Kansas  |  June, 12, 2014 at 04:48 PM

Interesting commentary. I'm mulling over the term 'climate chaos.' To me it suggests a wildly variable weather pattern far out of the norm for any given location. Some places would be much hotter, others would see record cold. Most of the research I've read/seen/heard about says gradually warming, though. And if that hotter/colder scenario is true, how do you develop a sensible policy when you have no idea what the next weather report might bring?

PZ    
SD  |  June, 13, 2014 at 11:16 AM

Of course you can't develop policy to regulate the weather. Instead you have to do the best you can to make agriculture more resilient. Prepare for the extremes, not the averages. You have to make sensible decisions about where to develop and build so that economic investments aren't wiped out by extreme events. You have to invest in the scientific and observational infrastructure so that you do have some idea what the next weather report will bring.Most importantly you have to find ways to slow down the atmospheric forcing that triggers extreme events while we can develop effective strategies to cope.Climate Chaos is in our present and accelerating into the future.


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