A Look at Kentucky Gubernatorial Candidate Comer’s Climate Change Remarks and Agriculture

May 11, 2015

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer
Credit Twitter

Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial candidates disagree specifically on what evidence proves that, according to them, climate change isn’t happening or influenced by human activity. During a debate on CN2 last month, candidates Will T. Scott and Hal Heiner prefaced their statements with “I’m not a scientist, but…” and Matt Bevin called climate science “fluff and theory.” But Agriculture Commissioner James Comer offered the most specific example.

“I do not believe in global warming. I’m the one person whose business and livelihood depends on Mother Nature, so I understand weather patterns,” he said, citing his farming experience. “We’ve had a very severe winter this year with 12-inch snows, so there is no global warming.”

Putting aside the science behind climate change, and the fact that nearly all climate scientists agree both that it’s happening and is influenced by human activity, it was a severe winter this year. Louisville got 27 inches of snow, which is 15 more inches than usual. But there are some key differences between weather and climate, especially as pertains to agriculture, and these nuances are missing in Comer’s remarks.

“Climate determines where we grow crops, weather determines how much we grow,” Jerry Hatfield said. He’s the director of the National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, which is run by USDA.

He said  the climate is definitely changing. One of the manifestations of that changing climate is weird weather patterns.

“If climate just changed in a very linear progression, say it was getting a little wetter, getting a little warmer. We could easily adapt to that,” Hatfield said. “We could shift planting patterns, we could change a number of different things.”

But over the past few years, farmers have begun having problems with climate variability. The weather will change drastically in a growing season, ping-ponging between extreme heat and cold.

“This variability, this oscillation that goes back and forth between one season and the next or between the beginning and the end of the growing season, is really what wreaks havoc,” Hatfield said.

Recently, Midwestern farmers have experienced more rainfall, and rather than coming in the summer as is typical, it comes in the spring. This means it’s harder to get crops planted, and some run the risk of being flooded out. The summers are drier, and crops die under drought conditions. And farmers are also seeing more diseases and pests.

Hatfield said over the past century, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 have experienced the most variable weather. And one of the challenges for agriculture under various climate change scenarios will be figuring out how to best adapt crops to these wild weather mood swings.