Dusty, red-state bailout

The drought could cost $50 billion in a taxpayer-funded payout to farmers. Do we need a climate-change safety net?

Topics: Global Warming,

Dusty, red-state bailout (Credit: iStockphoto/Drbouz)

Dust bowl, here we come? The worst drought in the United States in 50 years is still looking for more records to break. On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared another 39 counties in eight states disaster areas, bringing the current total to 1,297 counties in 29 states — or one out of every three counties in the country. According to the Drought Monitor, 61 percent of the continental United States is currently experiencing “moderate to exceptional drought.” The situation is most extreme in Iowa and Illinois — two states responsible for a third of the U.S. corn production.

With each day that passes, the disaster is getting worse, and there’s no imminent help to be expected from the weather gods — the near-term forecast for much of the grain belt is “hot and dry.” Corn and soybean prices are spiking to record heights, even the mighty Mississippi is drying up, and food prices are bound to rise, both in the United States and globally. Most troubling of all: If you are inclined to believe the consensus prediction of climate scientists, this is exactly the kind of extreme weather catastrophe that we can expect to see more of in the years ahead.



Never mind the wishy-washy dilly-dallying that warns us not to attribute any specific climate event to rising temperatures. The circumstantial evidence alone is broadly compelling. The last 12 months, NOAA tells us, were the warmest in North America since detailed records started being kept in 1895. In June, 2,284 temperature records were broken in the U.S. — and lo and behold, a historically massive drought hammered the country in July. The most recent climate science suggests that rising temperatures will increase the intensity and frequency of future extreme weather events. With desiccated cornfields sending farmers into fits of gloom across the nation, now might be a good time to wonder if we ought to be doing anything to prepare for even worse climate-induced agricultural mayhem in the future.

Intriguingly, you can make a case that farmers are already prepared. Those crispy fried fields are not a total loss. Most farmers in the U.S. today enjoy the benefits of heavily government-subsidized crop insurance. As a result of the current drought, farmers are likely to receive one of the largest insurance payouts ever, possibly in the neighborhood of $30 billion to $50 billion — about 60 percent of which will come straight out of taxpayer pockets. This is an agricultural safety net, mind you, that primarily benefits red states, or red portions of blue states (like Illinois).

There are serious problems with how crop insurance works in the United States. Special-interest lobbying has insured that taxpayers are paying too much for a system that is skewed toward boosting the bottom lines of private insurance companies and big agribusiness. But there’s an important principle here that anyone concerned about climate change should take to heart. It’s better — and much cheaper — to be prepared for disaster in advance than to be forced to respond, ad hoc, after a catastrophe hits. Insurance companies, always desiring to avoid the potential for large payouts in the future, also look for ways to mitigate risks before disaster hits. Shouldn’t we be doing the same, as a nation, and a planet? Where’s our climate change safety net?

– – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – –

Federally subsidized crop insurance dates back to the New Deal. Before Franklin Roosevelt, farmers were left on their own to confront the perils of both overproduction and weather-induced calamity. But in the wake of the Great Depression, protecting the food supply was deemed strategically important enough to authorize government intervention when “natural forces” conspired against agriculture.

Roosevelt laid out the rationale in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace in 1936.

The time has come to work out permanent measures guarding farmers and consumers against disasters of both kinds. Crop insurance and a system of storage reserves should operate so that the surpluses of fat years could be carried over for use in the lean years.

Measures of this kind should make three important contributions to the general welfare of the country as a whole: First, protection of the individual farmer’s income against the hazards of crop failure or price collapse; second, protection of consumers against shortages of food supplies and against extremes of prices; and third, assistance to both business and employment through providing an even flow of farm supplies and the establishing of stability in farm-buying power.

The basic rationale for federal involvement in crop insurance has to do with the fact that a calamity like a drought is a systemic event that affects everybody at the same time. Private insurers are willing to insure you against the chance that your house gets burnt down, but insuring that the entire state of Iowa will be safe from a month of 100-degree temperatures is a different order of business. Even so, the shape of federal crop insurance has evolved in a bewildering sequence of twists and turns ever since the New Deal and has repeatedly come under fire from both left and right. In 2000, Congress enacted a particularly egregious set of changes to the system that increased the burden borne by taxpayers and primarily benefited the biggest farmers and private insurance companies. If you’re a small organic farmer, it’s a lot harder to afford insurance than if you are a massive producer of genetically modified corn or soybeans.

Junking the system entirely ignores politically reality. When disaster hits, Congress will act, and doling out emergency aid is always more expensive than making sure everyone is properly insured beforehand. The current political dysfunction in Washington offers a useful reminder. Congress’ inability to pass a new farm bill led to the expiration of a raft of farm disaster assistance programs last September. At the time there wasn’t much squawking because Washington’s primary focus was on deficit cutting. But with widespread agricultural calamity threatening in the short term, pressure is now very high to get a new farm bill passed. When Republican constituents need help, Republican senators are suddenly a lot friendlier to the welfare state.

Properly administered, insurance programs can do a lot to lessen the scope of a disaster. One reason the current drought isn’t creating dust bowl conditions (yet) is that the original crop insurance program required farmers to adhere to soil conservation and erosion prevention guidelines that have lessened the chances that entire farms will just dry up and blow away.

That’s a lesson that we should be paying attention to as we watch temperatures continue to rise. What could we do that might lower the cost of future disasters?

It’s amusing, if a little bit unfair, to compare Roosevelt’s comments to Wallace to a statement of profound helplessness made by the current secretary of agriculture to reporters on Wednesday, with respect to what the federal government could do for farmers above and beyond making access to emergency loans cheaper.

I get on my knees everyday and I’m saying an extra prayer right now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.

As Gov. Rick Perry found out in Texas, prayer doesn’t bring rain. Nor is simply hoping for the best or appealing to native spirits likely to decrease the number of extreme weather events in the future.

What might help, however, is paying the proper attention to what science can tell us about how future risks might be mitigated. Put the political and ideological battle over the earth’s temperature aside: For the companies that stand to lose the most from massive weather disasters — the reinsurance companies that backstop regular insurance companies across the planet — the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is a very big bottom line deal.

As John Coomber, former CEO of the reinsurance giant Swiss Re wrote earlier this year, “Our business is built upon the identification of risk and measures which can mitigate its impact, the measurement (frequency and severity) of the residual risk and the use of our balance sheet to diversify it.”

Mitigating the impact of risk associated with climate change means, Coombs writes, finding “ways to stop the accelerating accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

That’s the functional equivalent of soil conservation programs designed to prevent future dust bowls. And it’s likely to be a hell of a lot more effective than a rain dance.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>