Poll: Many farmers still doubt that humans drive climate change

A farmer works a field in northwest Iowa. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Farmers continue to question whether climate change is driven by humans, the consensus of scientists worldwide, an Iowa State University researcher said Wednesday. 

ISU sociology professor J. Arbuckle, drawing largely from ISU’s Farm and Rural Life Poll, said farmers have become more open to conversations about carbon emissions and climate change.

“Farmers are diverse in their perspectives on climate change and frankly what should be done,” Arbuckle told the Iowa Farmers Union. “Their beliefs are changing, but on average they are pretty far from the scientific consensus.”

The lead international authority on the issues, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reports that humans’ activities are driving a buildup of greenhouse gases that are warming the globe. Without massive cuts in emissions, the planet will face even more severe storms, droughts, floods, migration of pests, changes in oceans and rising sea levels that will inundate coastal areas and islands, the panel of international scientists adds.

ISU’s 2020 survey found that the percentage of farmers who agreed that climate change is occurring and mostly caused by humans stood at 18%, up from 10% in 2011. More than a third, 40%, of farmers said natural causes were as much a factor as human influences, up from 35% in 2011. 

A central part of the debate in Iowa has been the prospect of paying farmers to help sweep carbon from the sky with plantings. That conversation has intensified with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack back in office and President Joe Biden pushing new climate initiatives as recently as Wednesday.

“A lot of farmers, I think, are ready to talk about climate change and that wasn’t the case back in 2011,” Arbuckle said. “Even farmers who are not ready to talk about human causes of climate change are ready to talk about climate change and extreme weather events and adaptation.” 

The 2020 survey found that 50% of farmers agreed that extreme weather events will happen more frequently. 

Though they can’t be directly tied to climate change, a series of major floods, droughts, and even the hurricane-force derecho of August 2020 are consistent with scientists’ projection of more severe weather as the atmosphere warms. 

“I think farmers think that they’re going to have to do more to protect the land from increased extremes … They are looking for support from extension and private-sector sources and are at least open to adaptation or mitigation policies and programs,” Arbuckle said. 

In many cases, those programs center around soil conservation, cover crops, and idling marginal crop acres where forests or prairie could be planted to help sweep carbon from the atmosphere. Government programs often pay part of the cost of the voluntary efforts.