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Is our land in good hands?

Some survey findings should really make politicians sit back and take note – particularly when they concern farmers’ observations and beliefs. After climate scientists there are few groups whose opinions are more influential about climate change than farmers - because they depend upon climates for their incomes, and can be presumed to be relatively objective about their observations of the weather. Farmers also see the consequences of droughts, floods, and bushfires more directly than most urban citizens.

In 2016 a survey of 1300 Australian farmers by Farmers for Climate Action, in cooperation with the National Farmers Federation, found 88% of respondents wanted rural and regional politicians to start advocating for stronger climate change action. Nine in ten were concerned about damage to the climate, and eight in ten would have supported an Australia moving towards 100% renewable energy.

‘The survey found changes to rainfall had been observed by 67% of respondents, more frequent and worse droughts by 46%, increased temperatures by 42%, changing planting times by 41%, and more frequent and worse bushfires by 22.5%. They were most concerned about less reliable rainfall, higher temperatures that increase evaporation, heatwaves, pollution from mining, rising costs and invasive species’ (Fergus Hunter, ‘Most Farmers want action on climate change’, Sydney Morning Herald, November 13, 2016, p.6).

The survey is particularly important because it focuses on farmer’s observations of the climate and its effects, rather than their beliefs about the causes of climate change. Arguably, what people believe about the causes of climate change is less important than their observation that climate change is happening. Disagreement about the causes of climate change can be a distraction from the raw fact that climate change is actually occurring. We need more studies that emphasise farmers’ direct observations - even though studies of farmers’ beliefs and attitudes are important in political polling and political analysis, and even though large numbers of farmers still may discount the human causes of climate change.

Turning to other surveys that are on the record, it is noteworthy that they do tend to be studies of beliefs and attitudes and do not emphasise what farmers have directly observed. Nonetheless, useful comparisons can still be made between the Australian survey and other studies emphasising beliefs and attitudes. For example, from a 2012 survey of 5000 American farmers it was found that 66% believed that the climate was changing (J. Arbuckle et. al., ‘Climate change beliefs, concerns, and attitudes toward adaptation and mitigation among farmers in the Midwestern United States’, Climatic Change 117(2013), pp. 943-950; doi: 10.1007/s10584-013-0707-6). This headline result is a surprisingly similar outcome to the main finding of the Australian survey (that 67% had observed changes in rainfall patterns) – surprising given the passage of time between the two surveys. In the intervening years global average temperatures have increased, and the global frequency of extreme weather events also has increased. We might have expected the worsening of environmental conditions to be reflected in far fewer numbers of farmers resisting the ideas of global climate change, and even human made climate change. That outcome remains to be seen.

The comparison is also interesting because the earlier larger study was performed by academics, who one might assume were not an advocacy group (like the Australian researchers) and were, perhaps, more credible. This difference didn’t appear to make much difference to the broad findings.

Although the Australian survey did not examine farmers’ beliefs about the causes of climate change, it is interesting to note that in the sample of American farmers only 8% believed that anthropogenic causes were to blame; another 33% thought climate change was due to a mixture of natural and human causes (p. 943). Arbuckle et. al. have also provided a brief literature review - effectively about farmers’ beliefs about the causes of climate change - which is worth quoting from (interested readers can find detailed attributions in that article):

‘Recent studies in Scotland [ ] and North Carolina [ ] found that less than half of surveyed farmers thought temperature was going to increase in the future (Scotland) or that climate change has been scientifically proven (North Carolina). A 2011 survey of farmers in one California county found that half of farmers believed that the global climate is changing, but only 35% agreed that human activities are contributing to that change [ ]. Results from a 2010 survey of Indiana corn and soybean farmers showed that 46% of farmers agreed that human activities contribute toward climate change while 35% thought that climate change was an “issue invented just to scare people”’(p. 944).

Hopefully farmers are less skeptical today, but much will be revealed here in Australia in the next general election. We do know that climate change sceptics are still to be found among conservative politicians and their supporters, including farmers. One recent leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, has been preeminent among doubters, mockers and outright sceptics – even if there have been episodes of occasional softening about the anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is noteworthy that the website of the peak Australian farmers’ representative body, the National Farmers’ Federation, does not mention climate change, coal mining, water distribution rights, or any other contentious environmental or ecological issues. Despite some talk about the drought, it’s agri-business as usual it would seem.

It will be fascinating to watch the about turn in policy that climate change will eventually force upon rurally based politicians dependent on the votes of farmers, many more of whom will be forced to acknowledge the obvious. Self interest being the strongest determinant of political policy, we can expect much belated hand wringing from the likes of Joyce and Abbot . . . and won’t the spectacle be welcome.

Like a downpour of rain in a long drought, we can only hope that coming events will flush out the dead wood and give rise to new green sprouts . . .

Tom Jagtenberg

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