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Severe is the new normal 

Climate change, or whatever you want to call it, is changing Arkansas.

Arkansas has seen its share of extreme weather this year. Back-to-back snowfalls in late winter shut down schools and businesses for days at a time. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes brought heavy rains and flooding in the spring that killed 18 and, according to Arkansas Farm Bureau estimates, resulted in crop losses of approximately $500 million. Temperatures in some parts of the state reached 100 degrees in early June, the earliest Arkansas has seen such highs, according to the National Weather Service. The U.S. Drought Monitor recently showed over 95 percent of the state experiencing some type of drought, ranging from "abnormally dry" to "extreme drought" in some of the southern counties.

Make no mistake: the Natural State has forever been subject to dramatic shifts in the weather. But no matter what you believe about the reality of climate change, severe weather, higher temperatures, longer growing seasons and the threat of flooding and drought are the new norm for those who live and farm in Arkansas.

Dr. Robert Coats is a professor of economics with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and has been involved in farming nearly all his life. He's reluctant, as even the staunchest climate change believers are, to attribute the latest round of extreme weather events specifically to climate change, but says the weather over the last few years has caught his attention.

"We've started this year with historic floods, wet weather, followed by dry weather, but the dry weather was accompanied by heat at an extreme level," Coats says. "Whether you want to call it climate change or weather issues, we've had four years of outlier [weather] events ... It has to be addressed. It doesn't matter if you're a hill farmer or a row crop farmer or what."

Ron Bell, a Batesville cattle and tree farmer and the former president of the Arkansas Association of Resource, Conservation and Development Councils, has noticed changes in Arkansas's climate from his days growing up on a farm in the 1950s. After spending time in the military, Bell began his own farming operation in the early 1990s.

"I'm not going to enter into a debate about whether it's something natural, or long-term cyclical change or short-term man-made change, but I can just describe what I've seen in my life as a farmer here," Bell says. "The growing season has been extended about two weeks at each end. But how you manage your crops, both grain, cattle and others, is significantly affected by what happens during that dry period in the middle, which instead of being three or four weeks long is now closer to five or six."

Not only are high temperatures making some types of farming difficult, but it can be extremely costly too. In 2009, some crops like rice and soybeans, had to be planted as many as four times. Those costs ad up, Coats says.

"The heat last year gave us milling yields that the president of Riceland Foods said were the worst yields he had experienced in 40 years. You roll into this year and now you have another wet planting season, you have record flooding and part of the flooding issue is associated with breaches of different levees. Our producers have experienced back to back to back to back challenging planting seasons that have been costly."

Politically, the issue of climate change is a deeply divisive one. Democrats believe in it wholeheartedly enough to get behind cap-and-trade legislation like the unsuccessful Waxman-Markey clean energy bill that came before Congress in 2009. Republicans tend to ignore the scientific consensus around the issue, choosing instead to side with less than one percent of published scientists who raise questions about the conclusions of 99 percent of their colleagues. Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma even said that global warming was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

The scientific community, however, is overwhelmingly in agreement on the question of climate change.

Dr. Art Hobson is a retired physics professor with a keen interest in our changing climate. He designed a class while teaching at the University of Arkansas that taught students about the practical applications of complicated physics principles. The course, and the textbook Hobson wrote to teach it, also focused on other pressing scientific issues like climate change.

"I teach the scientific consensus to the students and I don't make any apologies about that," Hobson says. "Today the scientific consensus is really in. There's no question that the peer-reviewed scientific literature is essentially unanimous. It would be far less than one percent that is outside of this consensus, which is that climate change is really happening, that it's here now. There's a handful of half a dozen scientists that disagree with that consensus and they disagree loudly. They're not stupid, they're decent scientists. But they're biased. In my view they're extremely biased on this issue. They can't look at the evidence objectively. They seem to be incapable of doing it."

But the general public doesn't seem to be quite so sold on the idea. A poll conducted just over a year ago by the Arkansas News Bureau found that 66 percent of Arkansans thought "global warming," as it was called by pollsters, was unproven. Only 25 percent said it was a reality. Nine percent did not know. Pollsters said those results were not particular to Arkansas, that similar responses were given in other states.

But how could it be possible that such a high percentage of the general public believes one thing, while scientists who study climate for a living almost unanimously believe the contrary? Hobson says it's part politics, part media.

"For a long time it was the media, who unfortunately always look for both sides of every issue even if one side has nothing to say for itself. They'd give two minutes to one side and two minutes to the other side. So the public got the notion there was division on this when there wasn't. But the news media's gotten better at this in the last couple of years. Lately, it's been more the fault of the conservative/liberal division in American politics, where conservatives tend to go along with business and a whole lot of them will tend to be dubious about global warming. They think it's cooked up by a bunch of liberal scientists who are just a bunch of bully-headed environmentalists. And that's not true. These are very serious scientists."

Clair LaFrance thinks the public's views on climate change are much more nuanced than professors, pollsters or politicians might expect. LaFrance is an environmental activist and executive director of the group Earth Cause Organization. She and her colleagues have been traveling the state for over a year and a half, filming a documentary to find out what Arkansans believe about their environment, how it's changed over time and what they expect from the future.

"The issue is so politicized that people get heated about it," LaFrance says. "But we'd have conversations where these people would say, 'Well, Al Gore's full of poop.' Then they'd go off on the Democratic Party and five minutes later they'd be telling us how there aren't any ducks on their land anymore, or how they can't go to the pond behind their mother's house in the winter and see it frozen over like it used to be. All these stories come out about what they can and can't do and the differences they've seen over their lifetime here in Arkansas."

LaFrance and her colleagues interviewed over 200 people around the state, from local politicians and civic leaders to folks at Lion's Club meetings and people walking down the street.

"People did bring up weather, obviously," she says. "That's the most typical, real, tangible connection people have with climate change and its effects. The really dangerous territory is linking a specific extreme weather event to climate change because I don't think the science is sound enough there. But it does make things more intense. The cold will get colder, the hot will get hotter.

"It's not like Arkansas is going to see a tidal wave or something. People are going to see the same things they've always seen. These things aren't new. I think people are realizing – especially farmers who have a very deep connection to their fields and the weather – I think they are starting to understand the complexity of [climate change], and not in a political way but in an experiential way."

The future outlook for farmers is a difficult one, Hobson says.

"The prognosis under global warming for the United States is extreme weather," he says. "And we're getting weather extremes. And sometimes it may be, paradoxically, extreme snow. That's because of the extreme moisture in the air. But there are going to be lots of economic impacts from this and farming is one of the main ones because it has everything to do with the weather. Extreme rain means erosion and it means washing out the crops at the wrong times and things like that. Drought makes things difficult. Right now farmers are not sure that with the current drought they're going to be able to get a second batch of hay grown and cut. So they're really worried about their supply of hay for the winter."

That's exactly the situation Bell finds himself in. Aside from about one half inch of rain in late June, his fields haven't had a drop of precipitation since mid-May. He says those types of short term problems are manageable. It's the long term he's worried about.

"I can do things at different times of the year, or I can cut back on my herd," Bell says. "I can make those adjustments year by year and I'm sure others can too, but as a tree farmer my concern is this: How do I plant a tree now that's going to be right for its environment 50 years from now when it reaches maturity? I've described how things have changed over the last 10 or 12 years and I wish I could project that out 50 years and know what climatic conditions were going to be like then, but I can't do that. As a guy concerned about forestry, that really concerns me."

The changing conditions aren't just a concern for timber farmers. Coats says some row croppers might have to make changes in what they plant based on what part of the state they're located in.

"From an economist's perspective some of our row crop land is going to be forced back into timber," Coats says. "For our producers, increasingly you develop these land resources where you can manage drought or flooding or rain events. You're simply going to have to. Farmers in the Mississippi River Valley delta will have to become focused on developing their land resources so they can manage during wet conditions, flooding conditions, drought conditions."

A long-term solution, like some sort of cap-and-trade system, will be difficult to implement because of the political climate. But Hobson says that's one of the only ways to curb predicted long-term shifts in climate.

"We're building up a whole pile of trouble for ourselves now," he says. "We really need to get on this. It's sad, to say the least, that political divisions are one reason [there's no movement on this]. There's also a lot of oil and fossil fuel money going into making people feel good about the oil companies. What we need is a tax on fossil fuels or a cap-and trade-law on fossil fuels. If corrected, it would make a big difference."

Others are a little more hopeful. For one, LaFrance says that according to what she's seen in Arkansas, the debate over whether climate change is really occurring is one that's almost over.

"Arkansans get spoken for all the time by their delegation," she says. "I think politicians really take Arkansans for granted and probably even think these issues are too complex to talk about. I think decisions are being made on false assumptions about what people think about this issue. People really do understand this issue and they're seeing changes, regardless of their political affiliation."

Bell says as long as the national debate on climate change continues, solutions will emerge, albeit slowly.

"I think it's the presence of the national debate that has gone on over a period of years and everybody's been free to listen to that and take sides if they wish," he says. "A lot of folks listen to that. And they know how to sort out the extremists from both sides, and they form their own opinions independently. So I think that's healthy. In the long term, as that occurs and those kinds of folks have private conversations with their legislators, that's probably what will drive future legislation. We're probably a little ways away from that point yet. But we'll get there."

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