Iowans push 2020 candidates to focus on climate change

Source: By Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A year of historic flooding and a farm demographic eager to protect crops from extreme weather have made climate change a major issue for Iowa voters in the 2020 presidential race.

While climate change has been given short shrift on the debate stages, it’s been widely discussed as the state races toward its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Monday.

Record-setting flooding devastated nearly every corner of the state in 2019 as heavy rains swelled the Mississippi River at Iowa’s eastern border and the Missouri River at its west.

More extreme weather kept farmers from planting and harvesting, costing an estimated $2 billion in damages and heightening nerves in a state dominated by agriculture

The importance of climate as a campaign theme in Iowa signals how the issue is starting to become more prominent at a time when environmental groups are pressing lawmakers for strong action.

“I think that is a dramatic change from conversations that were happening in Iowa just four years ago,” said Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, which has hosted events with a number of the Democratic candidates in the race.

Climate change was rated as the second most important issue in Iowa ahead of the caucuses, according to polling by the Des Moines Register, which showed 90 percent of respondents calling it “extremely important” or “important,” second only to health care.

That marks a change, according to Lehman, who said candidates previously had been “much more reluctant to engage farmers on this for fear of a backlash.”

What’s changed is that farmers are increasingly raising climate change as a threat to their livelihoods — and seeking measures to address it.

“What’s been exciting this caucus cycle is just about every Democrat has talked about how farmers and agriculture need to be part of the solution,” said Tim Gannon, a Democrat who ran for Iowa agricultural commissioner in 2018 and farms corn and soybeans outside the town of Mingo.

Democratic presidential candidates barnstorming through Iowa have frequently addressed the issue after being asked about their responses to the devastating flooding.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a plan to combat climate change through agriculture just a day before the release of a United Nations report that advocated rethinking land use, including transitioning farming toward no-till practices and planting cover crops, both of which can help sequester carbon.

“Climate change threatens every living thing on this planet. And the urgency of the moment cannot be overstated,” Warren said during an event in January. “Farmers can be part of the climate solution.”

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden introduced a plan for rural America that focuses heavily on connecting agriculture to manufacturing.

“We’re not bringing back old jobs. We’re going to create entirely new bio-based manufacturing jobs that are going to deal farmers into the benefits of a new low-carbon economy,” Biden said over the summer.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) toured flood protection efforts along the Cedar River, which runs through downtown Cedar Rapids and has flooded the city repeatedly.

He used the visit as an opportunity to relate it back to his own efforts at fighting rising waters as mayor.

“Climate change has come to America from coast to coast. We’re seeing it in Iowa,” said Buttigieg.

“We’ve seen it in historic floods in my community. I had to activate our emergency operation center for a once-in-a-millennium flood. Then two years later I had to do the same thing,” he added.

Ethanol has also featured prominently in the climate change discussion between candidates and Iowans, as corn growers and ethanol manufacturers are a huge mainstay of the Iowa economy.

“Everybody from Bernie on one side to Sen. [Amy] Klobuchar on that side is talking about a low carbon future in some way, shape or form,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers.

“Every candidate I know of has used biofuels as a way to bridge that discussion into rural America,” he said.

The biofuel discussion is closely linked with dissatisfaction with President Trump’s trade wars as well as the rising number of waivers that exempt refineries from blending ethanol into their products.

Klobuchar (D-Minn.) blasted the administration during a fall trip to the state, saying the president has done “irreversible damage” to the ethanol industry.

“Discontent with some Trump administration action as it relates to farming has opened up the door for them to come and talk to farmers,” Shaw said. “Linking farms and rural prosperity to a low-carbon future with climate changes is at the center of what I’ve seen.”

Still, whether it will actually have an impact on Feb. 3 is not certain, despite the attention centered on climate change in Iowa.

While Democratic primary voters frequently cite climate change as an important issue to them, it has been overtaken by attention on other policy issues such as health care and the most important issue in the race: who’s best positioned to take on President Trump.

Nonetheless, state Sen. Rob Hogg (D), who organized climate change events across the state, hopes it will end up having an impact on Iowa caucusgoers.

“Climate change is important in Iowa for the same reason it’s important to lots of people across the country which is, basically, we’re seeing the consequences of it on a daily basis,” he said.