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Take steps to adapt to climate change: Vilsack

Excerpt from a speech by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the National Press Club in Washington, June 5, 2013.

I’m the secretary of agriculture, and I am not here today to give a scientific lecture on climate change. I’m here to tell you what we’re seeing on the ground.

We’re seeing more severe storms. We’re facing more invasive species. More intense forest fires threaten communities each year. NOAA (U.S. weather service) reported that 2012 was the second most intense year in our history for extreme weather events — droughts, flooding, hurricanes, severe storms and devastating wildfire. NOAA also advised that last year was the warmest on record for the continental United States.

New technologies and advanced practices have managed to keep production steady even in the face of these new and more extreme weather patterns.

But the latest science tells us that the threat of a changing climate is new and different from anything we’ve ever tackled.

Earlier this year USDA released two comprehensive studies — one focused on crops and one on our forests — detailing the projected effects of climate change on our agriculture and forestry production.

These studies found that in the short term we have the means to manage threats, but over the next 50 years we will face new and different problems.

We’ll face the need to adapt crop production. As temperatures increase, crop production may need to shift based on water availability and other factors. Where you’re growing water-intense fruits and vegetables today, you may be growing a drought-resistant row crop in a generation.

Rising temperatures will also add to our invasive species issues, bringing with them increased costs for producers. Right now, weed control alone costs us more than $11 billion a year in the U.S. — and those costs are expected to rise with increasing temperatures. When winters aren’t cold enough to kill off invasive insects, we’ll face a new challenge to adapt to those threats. Landowners, dealing with bark beetles, are already starting to experience this phenomenon.

We will face more severe weather patterns. We’ll see more events that could harm crops and livestock, which demand new strategies.

In our forests, the troubling pattern of intense and destructive wildfires threatens to become the norm. The fire season is now at least 60 days longer than it was just 30 years ago. The pine beetle epidemic, which many scientists attribute to climate change, covers some 40 million acres of land across the interior West. Fires impact more acres. A recent Forest Service study forecasts a doubling of annual acreage subject to wild land fire by 2050.

In the Northeast, extreme precipitation events have increased faster than anywhere else in the nation, reducing yields.

Across the Midwest and Great Plains the growing season has lengthened by almost two weeks over my lifetime.

In the West and Southwest — home of more than half of our nation’s high-value specialty crop production — increased drought poses a particular threat to irrigation-intensive nuts, fruits and vegetables.

So the fact is, across America, farmers and ranchers and forest landowners are seeing the beginning chapter of what will be a long-term challenge posed by a changing climate. This problem is not going to go away on its own.

That’s why America must take steps now to adapt.



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