Fiddling While we Burn

Art Cullen, Editor of the Storm Lake Times
We know what to do about climate change but who will do it?

Here we sit sweating it out under a heat dome. It’s supposed to get hot in an Iowa summer, but like this? One heat dome after another. Then a shower just in the nick of time.
They say it’s a sign of climate change — that seasonal extremes like a hot August day become more extreme, and linger. 


Storm Lake was in a water emergency during RAGBRAI last month. City wells stressed by drought and thirst failed. They got fixed for the time being, but our water system is limping along in need of more improvement than we can afford. Our drinking water sources, underground aquifers, are in decline from increased pumping for humans, livestock and ethanol.

If you don’t think that we are burning up the planet, look around: Maui got toasted as people jumped into the ocean to flee the fire. LA does not get hurricanes, but now it does. Entire towns in Canada are evacuating from wildfires. The smoke gags the Midwest.

If you’re trying to grow wheat or run cattle near the Panhandle, good luck, pardner. 

If climate change is not a thing, then what is all this?

Since it clearly is a thing, you would think we would do something about it.

The Biden administration says it is on the case. We’re making progress. It just doesn’t feel like it.

A roadside survey along U.S. 20 shows row crops on the hills and up to the ditches from here to Rockford. The corn looks surprisingly vigorous (from the highway) and the beans deep green. You barely spot a steer except around Dubuque. Pastures? Not with these prices. The people and the animals are gone from the land.

We plant into a petrochemical base that finds its way to suffocate the Gulf of Mexico while rural communities roll up their sleeves to protect themselves from the consolidation.

The way we do agriculture is a major contributor to cooking Earth, perhaps responsible for more than 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. We know how to do it differently through practical and relatively inexpensive conservation measures — all the research is at hand right there in Ames at Iowa State University. But who among the vested really wants that to happen?

It was made official last week that Congress will not meet its Sept. 30 deadline for a new five-year farm bill. The current farm bill that steers us toward farming the Raccoon River bottoms will be extended. No cause for alarm, even if you’re crispy in Kansas. They’re busy rehashing the same old arguments about food stamps and welfare queens. As long as you’re talking about that, nobody will be talking about how to expand the Conservation Stewardship Program that might help maintain people and animals on the land. That’s the point of creating the sideshow.

It would appear that the main benefit so far of the “climate-smart” agriculture program in Iowa is subsidies to build pipelines serving ethanol plants, whose CO2 will be buried in oil-fracking holes. That does not look climate-smart on its face, but you take what you can get.

You sure don’t see much for cover crops, or in-field native grass strips to reduce nitrogen outflow, or steers on pasture. That’s because we devote a pittance to it. We will subsidize the fuel industry with pipelines but not farmers for native plantings along rivers that makes it worthwhile.

When Donald Trump was president, he laid more than $70 billion in subsidies on the soybean complex during his trade war with China, mainly through the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. Even without a decent farm bill, executive authority exists to do much more than we are at about $20 billion for supporting resiliency in agriculture. Those funds are funneled through corporations in hopes of trickling down to Holstein.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lined up a who’s who of agri-industry to get behind his climate-smart program. It takes time to roll it all out, no question. The farm bill distraction is an indication that the message has not gotten through, or that perhaps the subtler one has: Let’s put some lipstick on that pig and call it something it is not.

Sure, we’re doing a lot. The windmills might save us yet, if there were more of them. When you can barely walk out the back door for the heat, or you have to jump into the ocean to avoid it, you have to question whether it’s a priority. Obviously, not.

Back when the Storm Lake Middle School was built 30 years ago, we suggested that it should be designed for energy efficiency. The state said it was too expensive, no federal funds were available. If you want to pass a bond issue, forget about geothermal. Things haven’t changed that much. If you want to hang on to your sponsors, don’t get crazy. That’s the way it goes, and we wonder why it’s so damn hot out.

Art Cullen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, editor of The Storm Lake Times (a family-run weekly newspaper in small-town Iowa), and author of the new book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.


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