Can Australian farmers take on the challenge of climate change?

By Tim Scanlon and John Cook

Farmers are some of the most innovative Australians – since 1970 they have lost 7.5% of arable land, but they’ve found ways to increase production by 220%. They’re also some of the most conservative, expressed in their reluctance to accept the science of climate change. So what will win as they face a changing climate: innovation or conservatism?

The agriculture industry has been developing for the past 10,000 years, but it could be argued that the biggest advances have come in the last 50 to 60 years. Since 1970, the world population has doubled, yet farming area has stayed the same.

Essentially farmers and the research that has supported them have been fantastic. A recent Conversation article highlighted this. But now agriculture faces, possibly, its biggest challenge: climate change.

Australian agriculture: the greatest story never told.

Research in Western Australia found that over half (52%) were uncertain whether human-induced climate change was occurring. This is in sharp contrast to the 97% of climate scientists who agree that humans are causing global warming. Only 31% thought climate change represented a major threat to the future of their farm businesses. Results also showed that only 33% of all respondents found climate change information easy to understand.

In Western Australia since July 2010, the Farm Business Resilience program has, in part, been seeking to educate farmers about climate change. Before the initial sessions, farmers were surveyed by Chris Evans for their perceptions, knowledge and attitudes to climate change. Only 33% reported that they agreed climate change was occurring and just 19% believed climate change was human induced. Surveys at the end of the course assessed perceptions, knowledge and attitudes again, now showing that 80% of the farmers understood the impact of climate change and variability change on their businesses.

This was a staggering improvement, considering the difficulties that communicators face when they’re trying to correct misinformation. Numerous social studies have found misinformation is notoriously difficult to dislodge and debunking myths can sometimes have the effect of reinforcing them (known as the backfire effect). The backfire effect is particularly potent when presenting climate science to conservative audiences. If myths are not replaced with an alternative, plausible explanation, their influence can persist like returning weeds.

Farmers live and breathe a changing climate. Anthony Georgeff

The key to the program’s success came down to knowing how to contextualise information. An example is that most scientists present science to the public but fail to make their knowledge understandable. The authors know how important it is to explain that information and doing so in a program like this allows clear explainations and discussion. The advantage of speaking with farmers about climate is that they live and breathe it. Million dollar business decisions often hinge on seasonal outlooks, so farmers usually have a good knowledge base to work with.

So why is it important to educate farmers about climate change? Because successful farming is really important. Need proof? Don’t eat for a week.

Even without climate change, farmers have a lot to deal with in the next few decades. There are pressures on productive land from:

There are also social and political pressures for chemical usage, access to technology and production practices. The current debates over access to GM technologies and use of pesticides are just two examples of social pressures on farming. There are also the ever-present economic pressures, as returns decline and costs increase – the cost price squeeze.

Under all of this pressure, agriculture has to supply increasing food demands, all while climate change is forcing down productivity. Given that most of the world’s agriculture is rainfed (73%), agriculture has a lot to lose with changes in rainfall resulting from climate change.

A recent article on The Conversation highlighted how little people outside of agriculture know about where and how their food is produced. It is important for everyone to understand how modern agriculture works, to see the science and technology that is involved. Just as farmers need to know about climate change and how it will impact them, the wider community has to understand what agriculture needs into the future.

Agriculture has a lot to lose from changes in rainfall. Jane Rawson

Without community support, farmers will not have access to the latest technologies, trade agreements will be jeopardised and production will leave our nation without needed food security. And without more knowledge about farming, the wider public won’t understand proposed strategies for agriculture under climate change.

So the agriculture industry needs to be involved in an informed discussion of its future. Having farmers and the wider public meet will also help non-agricultural people understand where their food comes from and how it is produced. The better this link between producer and consumer, the better the industry will be. Through programs like Farm Business Resilience we can improve agriculture. But it can’t stop there: if farming doesn’t come to grips with climate change, it will affect us all.

This article was co-authored by Tim Scanlon. Tim is a scientist who is primarily involved in the agriculture industry as an extension specialist. His current focus is in climate change extension to rural Australia as part of a national program being trialed in Western Australia.

John Cook does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation.

Read the original article.

Book Review: Climate Change Denial – Heads in the Sand

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the SandClimate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand by Hadyn Washington and John Cook
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

It takes a while to read a book during your lunch break at work. It can take even longer if the book you are reading is filled with interesting tidbits of referenced information, which then inspires you to read the original research paper. I suppose that is the best thing about Washington and Cook’s Climate Change Denial, it is filled with interesting research and arguments, all concisely expressed for anyone with an interest in the future of our planet.

Usually I have an issue with non-fiction books. Often times the non-fiction genre is filled with work that lacks credibility or validity. Non-fiction is also prone to the shouting polemic, which is all doom and gloom, and short on any solutions. Climate Change Denial is the opposite, with a very well researched base of information, well rounded and reasoned arguments and an entire chapter devoted to the solutions for both denial and climate change.

What interested me was the mindset of denial. I’ve done a lot of reading of the peer reviewed literature on climate change (hint: the world is getting warmer, it’s our fault, we need to take action now) and have been frustrated with the same debunked arguments arising time and again. Now I understand why, well, aside from the massive fear and smear campaign waged by denier groups with oil $$. I also appreciated the candid debunking and slaying of the red herrings (e.g. we need to adapt) and white elephants (e.g. carbon capture and storage) often associated with the climate change debate.

This is a great book for the climate change extension people, for those who are undecided on the topic, and a must read for politicians (this book has been given to every Federal Government minister in Australia). Those who read it now have the job of converting the deniers, logic and science will prevail, but it would be nice to have that happen sooner rather than later.

Also worth reading John Cook’s fantastic site.

View all my reviews

Books you should read: Climate change

I couldn’t even begin to count the number of peer reviewed journal papers I’ve read. According to my Endnote archive I’m a nerd. It also indicates that I read 800 odd papers for my postgrad thesis. Suffice to say, when it comes to science I tend to read journal papers and not books.

Well I have three science books that I think people should read. You know what I love about science books? Well, it is refreshing to read science written in a way that isn’t so boring! Trust me, I’m a scientist and even I get bored with journal papers.

Climate change science is a funny topic. Since anthropogenic climate change was first proposed in 1824 there has been a lot of research done on climate systems and climate change.

  • 2425 peer reviewed papers on climate change
  • 2042 peer reviewed papers that are neutral (i.e. about climate systems)
  • 186 peer reviewed papers that are sceptical of climate change


So how could this even be a topic of debate? The science is well understood by 97.5% of climate scientists. Even the most sceptical group in society – scientists (who have a default position of “prove it to me”) – are between 82 and 91% convinced. Who forgot to tell the rest of the world? And how do we break the news to them about the Easter Bunny?

More doctors recommend Camel cigarettes.

Naomi Oreskes talks about why there is doubt, and it isn’t because of the science. What do you get when you cross a lobbyist with a pile of cash? You get a doubtmongerer. After reading this book I’m heartened to know that with enough cash I could successfully convince people that there is doubt about the Earth being flat and that gravity doesn’t really affect us. Newton wouldn’t know an apple if it hit him on the head.

How do you spot a denialist?

Calling someone a climate sceptic is actually incorrect. When the weight of evidence proves climate change is happening, and we have been presented with that evidence, it means that not accepting it is about denial.

Hansen climate predictions, actual observed temperatures, Lindzen “sceptic” claims.

Haydn and John cover two aspects in their book: denial and common climate denial arguments. As such this is a great book for understanding why the message has been lost on some, and also points out the actual science debunking the denial arguments.

This book makes me feel a lot younger.

Paleoclimatologists are interesting. They don’t think of things in terms of years, or election cycles, or even decades; they think in terms of millennia. I heard Curt speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and he made some very interesting points. My favourite was that we didn’t have to worry about the next ice age due in 50,000 years time, because our climate impacts have upset the Earth enough to negate that little eventuality. His book has even more of these insights.

Edit: I’ve managed to find a short version of Curt’s talk on YouTube that is worth watching. It is from a seminar he gave in Perth, Australia.

Full version is here.