By Nancy Liebrecht
Liebrecht is a retired landscape architect and environmental scientist. She lives in Fries.
An alien from outer space landing on Earth during the 2016 election would have thought that emails were the critical issue for the American electorate. Where Hillary Clinton’s emails went was more important than healthcare, stagnant wages, Russian interference in our election, and host of other issues — including climate change. Three years later the relentless focus on Hillary’s emails seems peculiar.
As the 2020 election approaches, we have a president intent on winning a trade war with China no matter what this costs the American people, brutalizing immigrants, and tweeting nasty things about his opponents — but not interested in much else. It is rather like Nero fiddling in his palace while Rome burned. In this case the world is actually burning. We are experiencing the hottest summer ever, and the western fire season is well underway. Alaska has been burning for weeks, losing more than 2 million acres this year. Meanwhile our president casually offers American fire fighting assistance to Vladimir Putin. The slogan “America First” does not seem to mean much if Trump can score points with Putin.
During this hottest summer on record, temperatures in Western Europe soared to 109, more in some regions. Paris, which sits at a latitude north of Montreal normally has summer temperatures in the seventies or eighties, never 109. We in Southwest Virginia have not experienced triple-digit temperatures yet, but it was definitely hotter than normal in July. It will get worse.
We are becoming inured to the casualties that extreme climate events produce, the hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and wildfires, but we should not forget that heat can be even more deadly. Extreme heat, however, does not kill en masse. It kills individuals quietly in overheated rooms or when someone becomes dehydrated after working outside. It kills people by drowning when they desperately seek relief swimming in places where they should not. It is currently estimated that 300 people died as a result of July’s heat wave in Europe, which at least is better than the estimated 70,000 who perished in the last major European heat wave in 2003.
One of the greatest threats that extreme heat poses is to agriculture and thereby, to our nation’s food supply. This spring the Midwest, our nation’s breadbasket, was hit with torrential rains and flooding that delayed planting. Then came the heatwave which further impacted the harvest. The combination of extreme heat and wet soils has resulted in soil compaction and stunted plant growth. Thanks to back to back extreme weather events, Midwestern farmers are looking at low yields and economic repercussions beyond the ruinous impacts from Trump’s trade wars.
There are a great many things that the Department of Agriculture does, but protecting our food supply may be its most important job, For over a hundred and fifty years, this Department has been instrumental in developing new varieties of crops to withstand the ravages of diseases, blights and insects. It maintains comprehensive soil maps of the entire country. It advises on planting methods to increase farmers’ yields. It funds irrigation projects. And, it researches climate change so that farmers can be prepared for present and future impacts. All of this and more is done to protect our food supply.
Weeks after the inauguration, when he got around to paying attention to the Department of Agriculture. Trump’s first action was to send in a team of appointees who knew nothing of agriculture, or even science, to root-out all references to climate change and compose a hit list of every scientist who had anything to do with it—even peripherally. Next he appointed, a supporter and radio talk show host, to the position of chief scientist at the Department. Sam Clovis, Trump’s appointee, admitted that he had no academic credentials in either agriculture or science, a requirement of the job, but he thought that living in Iowa was good enough. Mr. Clovis withdrew his nomination when it became known that he was being investigated by the Mueller team for ties to the Russian scandal.
This has been a tough season for farmers, and it is likely to get worse unless we have reliable science to help us adapt to to the changes coming. In this country we have got used to abundant and relatively inexpensive food. There are no guarantees that it will always be like this, but perhaps, if it all goes up in flames, Trump’s good buddy Vladimir will send us some wheat.