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Trump Administration's Solution to Climate Change: Ban the Term

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In a bold new strategy unveiled on Monday in the Guardian, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—guardians of the planet's richest farmlands—has decided to combat the threat of global warming by forbidding the use of the words.

Under guidance from the agency's director of soil health, Bianca Moebius-Clune, a list of phrases to be avoided includes "climate change" and "climate change adaptation," to be replaced by "weather extremes" and "resilience to weather extremes."


Also blacklisted is the scary locution "reduce greenhouse gases"—and here, the agency's linguists have done an even better job of camouflage: the new and approved term is "increase nutrient use efficiency."

The effectiveness of this approach—based on the well-known principle that what you can't say won't hurt you—has previously been tested at the state level, making use of the "policy laboratories" provided by America's federalist system.

In 2012, for instance, the North Carolina general assembly voted to prevent communities from planning for sea level rise. Early analysis suggests this legislation has been ineffective: Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, for instance drove storm surge from the Atlantic ocean to historic levels along the Cape Fear river. Total damage from the storm was estimated at $4.8 billion.

Further south, the Florida government forbade its employees to use the term climate change in 2014—one government official, answering questions before the legislature, repeatedly used the phrase "the issue you mentioned earlier" in a successful effort to avoid using the taboo words.

It is true that the next year's "unprecedented" coral bleaching blamed on rising temperatures destroyed vast swaths of the state's reefs: from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale, a survey found that "about two-thirds were dead or reduced to less than half of their live tissue." Still, it's possible that they simply need to increase their nutrient use efficiency.

At the federal level, the new policy has yet to show clear-cut success, either. As the say-no-evil policy has rolled out in the early months of the Trump presidency, it coincided with the onset of a truly dramatic "flash drought" across much of the nation's wheat belt.

As the Farm Journal website pointed out earlier last week, "Crops in the Dakotas and Montana are baking on an anvil of severe drought and extreme heat, as bone-dry conditions force growers and ranchers to make difficult decisions regarding cattle, corn and wheat."

In typically negative journalistic fashion, the Farm Journal reported that "abandoned acres, fields with zero emergence, stunted crops, anemic yields, wheat rolled into hay, and early herd culls comprise a tapestry of disaster for many producers."

Which is why it's good news for the new strategy that the USDA has filled its vacant position of chief scientist with someone who knows the power of words.

In fact, Sam Clovis, the new chief scientist, is not actually a scientist of the kind that does science, or has degrees in science, but instead formerly served in the demanding task of rightwing radio host (where he pointed out that followers of former president Obama were "Maoists"). He has actually used the words "climate change" in the past, but only to dismiss it as "junk science."

Under his guidance the new policy should soon yield results, which is timely since recent research (carried out, it must be said, by scientists at MIT) showed that "climate change could deplete some U.S. water basins and dramatically reduce crop yields in some areas by 2050."

But probably not if we don't talk about it.

Bill McKibben is the founder of the climate campaign 350.org.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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