Texas Ag Commissioner Todd Staples says Agriculture Hurt by Federal Climate Legislation – We beg to differ

Back in the movie/musical “Oklahoma”, we got a musical lesson that the farmer and the cowman should be friends.  They seem to have bridged that divide rather well in the intervening decades, but today the question remains whether the farmers and ranchers and the climate should be friends.

Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples certainly doesn’t think so.  On his Twitter account last week, he asked “How could anybody involved in agriculture think the proposed Cap &Trade legislation is good for Texas?”

Well, we’ll tell you.  It’s a combination of solving the climate crisis which will disproportionately hurt agriculture in Texas, not using faulty studies cooked up for partisan purposes (which Staples does) and about the jobs and savings to everyday Texas families, which helps everyone  whether you’re a farmer or not.

First, no other industry is so exposed as agriculture to the impacts of climate change. Agriculture is almost completely dependent on relatively stable patterns of rainfall and temperature to get a good yield.  Climate change threatens not only how much rainfall we get, but also how we get it.  Predictions are that some areas may actually see more rain, but in fits and starts with large storms that flood and then wash away topsoil rather than absorb moisture.

Texas is still in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. Australian scientists have linked 37% of this drought to anthropogenic climate change. Recent drought has brought record breaking agricultural losses to Texas both this last year in 2009 and in 2006,  when billions of dollars in crops were lost and cattle had to be culled in mass numbers because feed and water was too expensive and they were dying in the field from the heat.  Some are even asking if this prolonged drought is actually just the beginning of “the new normal,” a frightening prospect for anyone with a farm or ranch in West, Central, or South Texas where drought has been the most extreme.

The USDA’s study of impacts of climate change on agriculture, as part of the consensus opinion of 13 federal agencies, is that Texas stands to lose up to 35% of its agricultural yield from just 2 degrees of warming.  And that’s not all — check out this press release from the USDA:

The report finds that climate change is already affecting U.S. water resources, agriculture, land resources, and biodiversity, and will continue to do so. Specific findings include:

  • Forests in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska are already being affected by climate change with increases in the size and frequency of forest fires, insect outbreaks and tree mortality. These changes are expected to continue.
  • Much of the United States has experienced higher precipitation and streamflow, with decreased drought severity and duration, over the 20th century. The West and Southwest, however, are notable exceptions, and increased drought conditions have occurred in these regions.
  • Weeds grow more rapidly under elevated atmospheric CO2. Under projections reported in the assessment, weeds migrate northward and are less sensitive to herbicide applications.
  • There is a trend toward reduced mountain snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt runoff in the Western United States.
  • Horticultural crops (such as tomato, onion, and fruit) are more sensitive to climate change than grains and oilseed crops.
  • Young forests on fertile soils will achieve higher productivity from elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Nitrogen deposition and warmer temperatures will increase productivity in other types of forests where water is available.
  • Invasion by exotic grass species into arid lands will result from climate change, causing an increased fire frequency. Rivers and riparian systems in arid lands will be negatively impacted.
  • A continuation of the trend toward increased water use efficiency could help mitigate the impacts of climate change on water resources.
  • The growing season has increased by 10 to 14 days over the last 19 years across the temperate latitudes. Species’ distributions have also shifted.
  • Higher temperatures will negatively affect livestock. Warmer winters will reduce mortality but this will be more than offset by greater mortality in hotter summers. Hotter temperatures will also result in reduced productivity of livestock and dairy animals.
  • Grain and oilseed crops will mature more rapidly, but increasing temperatures will increase the risk of crop failures, particularly if precipitation decreases or becomes more variable.
  • If that weren’t bad enough for South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, warmer temperatures will decrease snowfall and snowpack in the Rockies, which feed the headwaters of the Rio Grande as well as other Texas rivers.

    That’s why we need to solve climate change in Texas, and why “anybody involved in agriculture” should think so too.  Add on top of that the more than $100 billion in outlays to the agricultural in the Waxman-Markey bill, plus a carbon offsets and trading market that could be worth even more to Texas than the oil industry , and you’re looking at a lot more jobs and money for real Texans. (W/M is far from a perfect bill, which we have regularly criticized, but let’s be honest about the contents of a bill before dismissing it just because we’re ideologically opposed to solving the climate crisis!)

    Also, the study Staples quotes from is suspect to begin with.  While performed at Texas A&M, its actual genesis came from a conservative Southern senator, Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), asking A&M to perform a study to show how bad it would be for agriculture if the Waxman-Markey bill passed.  When you start a study with a predetermined outcome, it is hardly fair nor should it be trusted.

    However, its data is sorely misrepresented: Take a look below at the actual predictions of outputs on their sample farms and ranches:

    Looking at these, the costs are actually fairly minuscule, and many farms and ranches even benefit.  We understand that many farms and ranches run on fairly thin profit margins, but any decent economic study must compare the cost of action with the cost of inaction.  In this case, even IF the A&M study is trustworthy, the cost of inaction is FAR greater.

    Furthermore, many economic studies show that passing clean energy legislation will create millions of new jobs and significant economic growth.  One such study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that the average Texas household will save $1,200 a year in energy costs by enacting climate-saving legislation.  A similar study from the National Wildlife Federation showed 123,000 news jobs being created in the state of Texas.

    But don’t believe just me, or some egghead economists and scientists.  Listen to the actual voices of farmers and ranchers, published in the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune a few weeks ago:

    Montana farmers and ranchers have a critical choice to make now.

    We can fall deeper into fossil fuel dependence, losing control of our energy future and our bottom lines as supplies tighten, prices swing, and America’s adversaries exploit our reliance on oil.

    Or we can take control of our energy destiny with a comprehensive strategy for clean energy. The Clean Energy Jobs bill now before the U.S. Senate will help us choose that path — toward a cleaner, more stable energy future.

    We are choosing to become actively involved because we believe that farmers and ranchers will play a key role in harnessing the power of our Montana-grown renewable energy sources and reducing this country’s dependence on fossil fuel.

    A strong national commitment to clean energy and climate solutions will open many opportunities for farmers and ranchers to gain new income to keep their farm and ranch operations viable.

    That means real opportunity for Montana’s agricultural communities.

    A new study by the University of Tennessee, commissioned by the renewable energy alliance “25 by ’25,” shows that farmers and ranchers in our region can benefit economically from clean energy legislation.

    In fact, virtually all major crops grown in the U.S. (including wheat, barley, soybeans, oats and livestock) will see positive returns under a federal clean energy jobs bill.

    Indeed, the Clean Energy Jobs bill is stacked with potential benefits for Montana agriculture.

    Energy efficiency provisions can save farmers and ranchers a bundle and help us operate more competitively while ambitious clean energy provisions in the bill offer us many ways to earn new income and, at the same time, invest in a more stable energy supply.

    Research shows Montana is second only to Texas in wind resources. Farmers and ranchers are already leasing their land for wind farms or installing wind turbines for their own use.

    A wind turbine can bring in $3,000 to $5,000 annually on long term (20- to 30-year) contracts. Yet Montana is only 17th or 18th in wind use, partly because we lack adequate transmission and smart grid technologies to enable more wind development.

    Clean energy legislation will provide funding and incentives for this so farmers and ranchers can more fully benefit from wind development.

    Biofuels production and use in Montana also are growing and will benefit from clean energy legislation.

    More and more Montana farmers and ranchers are growing camelina and other oilseed crops to power their tractors, swathers, and combines.

    Clean energy legislation will spur growth in biofuels by providing funds or advanced biofuels research and development and deployment. This will compliment and enhance the renewable fuel standard which ensures high volume production of biofuels through ambitious production targets each year until 2022 — 21 billion gallons by 2020.

    Farmers — and the climate — can also benefit from carbon sequestration opportunities included in the legislation. Our agricultural and forest lands “sequester” — or store — 246 million metric tons of carbon annually. By soaking carbo n out of the atmosphere while earning additional farm income, these lands can play an important role in stabilizing the climate.

    Passing bold energy and climate legislation now means that, in addition to opening up new sources of income for America’s farmers and developing more stable homegrown energy supplies, we may be able to significantly lower the costs associated with the worst effects of climate change on agriculture.

    Some don’t believe climate change is real and that the costs to respond will be too great. But already we’re starting to see its effect through increased droughts, weeds, diseases and pests. The cost of inaction for farmers and the nation is too great to make “waiting” an option.

    We need Congress to act so that we can address our energy and climate challenges in a way that benefits our rural economies.

    We hope that is enough to convince even Commissioner Staples that Texas’ future should be a clean energy future  that will lift all communities, both rural and urban.


    By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.