Climate policy, not change, worries farmers most

"Farmers’ past perceptions of different environmental policies had a larger impact on their climate change beliefs and policy behaviors than their actual experience with climate change," says Meredith Niles. (Credit: Rosewoman/Flickr)

California farmers say the biggest climate risk they face is not drought, water shortage, or temperature change, but government regulations.

But this view doesn’t make them less likely to participate in government incentive programs that would help their climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, a new study suggests.

“We found that the past matters,” says lead author Meredith Niles, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Group in Ecology and department of environmental science and policy at University of California, Davis.


“Farmers’ past perceptions of different environmental policies had a larger impact on their climate change beliefs and policy behaviors than their actual experience with climate change.”

For a study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, researchers analyzed 162 surveys returned by Yolo County farmers and ranchers in 2011, and conducted interviews with 11 farmers and two cooperative extension agents in 2010. More than 80 percent of land in Yolo County is devoted to agriculture.

Of farmers responding to the survey, 54 percent accept that climate change is occurring. Of these, only 35 percent believe humans play a role in it.

Farmers were asked about their attitudes toward four specific environmental policies: pesticide use reporting (implemented in 1990), rice straw burning regulations (1991), a water quality conditional waiver program (2003), and stationary diesel engine emission regulations (2007).

Centuries-old part of farming

Farmers who had negative past experiences with environmental policies—viewing them as too costly or time-consuming, for example—showed less belief in climate change.

Farmers also tended to view policies that had been around the longest more positively, indicating that perceptions can become more favorable over time.

Several farmers viewed climate change as something in the far distant future, rather than as an immediate threat. They viewed the need to adapt to changing weather as a centuries-old, inherent part of farming.

The study quoted one farmer as saying: “For me, to be concerned about it (climate change) at my level and at my point, I don’t think it’s useful for me. I have other more important things that affect my business or my family that I want to spend time on versus something that could happen ten thousand years from now.”

Despite negative views toward regulations and a lack of concern over climate change, 48 percent of farmers say they would participate in a government incentive program for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“This shows that farmers are willing to overlook negative past perceptions if there are incentives offered for them,” Niles says.

While more research is needed, Niles says she thinks farmers hold similar sentiments in other parts of the country and world. Strikingly similar results were found in a comparative study she conducted in New Zealand, where 51 percent of farmers believed in climate change and were far more concerned about risks associated with climate policy.

Missed opportunity?

The study indicates that failure to consider farmers’ perceptions of climate change and climate policy is a missed opportunity for policymakers to engage with the agricultural community and gain support for climate change initiatives, Niles says.

Doing so could also reduce the time lag present when farmers’ views of past policies affect how they respond to future environmental issues—in this case, decades later.

“These policy perceptions really linger because they’ve had a big impact on agricultural communities,” Niles says. “To give them a voice and engage them in the process from the outset hopefully will alleviate their concerns in some ways.”

The California Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: UC Davis