Climate change, climate change, climate change. What to do about climate change.

Few issues can get an argument started at the coffee shop (or at a conference) like climate change. 

As someone who has now clocked over thirty years of working with farmers and ranchers (and agriculture organizations) on multiple natural resource issues and policies, I can tell you from my experience that people’s opinions on climate change seem to break down roughly into one of four categories.

1. The Believer

This may come as a shock to some folks, but there really are people in rural America who believe in climate change. And just like the bald eagle, while their numbers aren’t where you would like them to be, they are growing.  Just like the bald eagle, however, you sometimes have to work hard to find them and they don’t always reveal themselves to the whole population everywhere.

2. The Skeptic

These folks have heard the news about climate change just like they have heard stories about Sasquatch. They have seen the graphs and statistics, just like they have seen footprints and pictures of the big hairy apes that supposedly live in the wilds of North America; they just don’t believe them. 

Most don’t see anything nefarious going on, they just think folks are confused about what is happening. The climate has always changed and always will. You’re not seeing an unusual trend; you just don’t understand what you’re looking at–just like you’re confusing a bear for a bigfoot.  

3. The Denier

This is the guy who really gets the conversation going. To him (or her) not only is climate change not happening, but anybody who says that it is happening has designs on destroying everything this person holds near and dear. 

As a child growing up during the Cold War, I heard a lot about “commie plots.” Let’s just say that this turn of phrase has come up a lot when I have encountered a hard-core denier at a coffee shop or a conference.

4. The “maybe if we don’t talk about it, it will just go away” crowd.

Just like Lord Voldemort in those Harry Potter books and movies, to these people climate change is “that which must not be named.” They know it’s out there. They know it’s a problem. They just don’t want to talk about it. 

A lot of these folks secretly hope that it will just disappear or that it will go away due to the action of others. Some are secretly doing a lot themselves to both adapt to climate change and help mitigate climate changes root causes. 

All of them, however, would rather not discuss the issue or at the very least never use the words climate change in polite company.

Getting People Together

So, how do we craft a message that reaches all of these people? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be writing this blog — I would be accepting my Nobel Prize for crafting a lasting middle-east peace plan — needless to say I’m not getting an award for my diplomatic work anytime soon, but I do have some ideas on how we can discuss climate change in a way that resonates with most folks.

First off, we have to realize we have much more in common than we think. While some of the people listed above don’t believe the climate is changing, I’m pretty sure all of them believe in droughts and floods.  That’s really what we are talking about after all—extreme weather and what to do about it.

The nice thing is that the vast majority of what farmers and ranchers need to do to be better prepared for extreme weather—things like no-till, cover crops, better pasture management and planting grass on highly erodible land—are also the same things that sequester carbon dioxide and reduce fuel use (thus reducing emissions). 

Practices that often fall into the category of “soil health” or “regenerative agriculture” help build organic matter and protect the structure of the soil while improving the health of the sub-soil microbial community. 

This all leads to less erosion, more water infiltration, more soil water holding capacity, less fuel use and increased fertilizer efficiency.

Everybody who works the land SHOULD be in favor of reducing erosion and improving nutrient availability in soil. If they’re not, they should quit farming, go to their bank, withdraw their money, go down to the creek and start throwing dollar bills into the water, because that’s basically what they are already doing. 

By allowing soil erosion and wasting fertilizer that plants can’t utilize due the poor health of the soil’s microbial community, farmers and ranchers who ignore soil health are literally letting money go down the drain. 

With intense conventional tillage, farmers not only destroy soil structure, they also kill off the subsoil bugs, bacteria and fungi that help hold the soil together while also helping plants take up nutrients; all while burning more diesel. 

By using minimum till or no-till farming methods combined with cover crops, producers can greatly reduce fuel costs and over time start to see the health of their soil improve. 

You can also graze covers to add to your income while improving nutrient cycling.  And everybody wants to make more money, right? That happens when you reduce input costs and increase profit opportunities by grazing covers.

Much has been made about methane from livestock, and while cattle farts really aren’t a thing (see my earlier blog on this subject), if you can reduce methane emissions from livestock by improving feed efficiency we actually are helping ranchers bottom lines — if you improve feed efficiency you can produce more milk and grow more pounds of meat while spending less on feed per animal.

Again, everybody wants to make more money—and this argument can be repeated over and over and over again on issues like reducing irrigation pressure, incorporating genetics into livestock and plants to better deal with extreme weather conditions, to being better prepared for dealing with pressure from pests and disease.

All of this leads to the point that we need to meet producers where they are.  While not all of us believe in the need to take direct action on climate change per se, we almost all see the need to better prepare our farms and ranches for the curveballs mother nature sends our way; and very few of us would oppose making our operations more profitable. 

We should remember that when we talk about “going green” to help the environment, money is green as well. Soil health/regenerative agriculture is a place where protecting the environment and improving the bottom lines of farmers and ranchers actually go hand in hand. We should talk more about that.

There is a way forward.