Few global warming doubters among Norwegian farmers

September 3, 2014 - 06:08

But few do anything to address the problem.

A total of 646 farmers in various regions of Norway took part in the study. (Photo: Lars Sandved Dalen, Skog og landskap).

Around six out of every ten Norwegian farmers are convinced that human activities are playing a part in climate change, and seven in ten think the agricultural community takes the situation seriously. 

The Centre for Rural Research, an independent research foundation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, has just completed an extensive project on Norwegian farmers’ attitudes and knowledge about climate change.

Climate denial?

On the flip side, a minority of Norwegian farmers are sceptical about the conclusions of the world’s leading scientists. Nearly three out of ten fully or partly disagreed that the industrial pollution and activities of 7 billion people could have such a large impact on the Earth’s climate.

Farmers in large agricultural countries such as USA and Australia tend to be far more sceptical. Earlier studies showed that over half of all Australian farmers are in denial, while only a third agree that climate change poses a threat for the future.

American studies have surmised that roughly 60 percent of the farmers in the Midwestern Corn Belt remain unconvinced that human activities have resulted in climate change.

A study also indicates that Swedish farmers share some of these doubts.

Norwegian agriculture employs around 3 percent of the labour force but is a sizable contributor to the county’s greenhouse gas emissions, representing approximately nine percent of Norway’s annual releases.

The greenhouse gas emissions from Norway’s farming sector consist mainly of nitrous oxide (N2O, or laughing gas) from the use of artificial fertilizers and methane (CH4) from animal husbandry — which mainly comes from the belching of ruminants.

CO2 from tractors and other farm equipment represents only about one percent of the total emissions.

The researchers who carried out the study point out that farmers exhibit pretty much the same attitudes in this regard as the Norwegian public overall,where 60 to 70 percent say they are convinced about the seriousness of human-induced climate change.

Still, this leaves a considerable number who are unconvinced by climate research and the dire warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Taking the climate seriously

A total of 646 farmers in various regions of Norway took part in the study.

Why don’t Norwegian farmers share the scepticism of their counterparts in the USA and Australia? In part it relates to the Norwegian agriculture’s relationship with the state and the government.

“I think it ties in with the Norwegian agricultural system, which entails subsidies and negotiations with the state, because farmers have an official role,” says Jostein Brobakk of the Centre for Rural Research, Norway, who carried out the survey.

“Norwegian farmers are accustomed to getting advice from the state. New regulations are commonly accompanied by new subsidy schemes. Norwegian farmers thus have a safety net that independent Australian and American farmers lack,” explains Brobakk.

“This means that talk of adapting to prevent climate change could be seen by American and Australian farmers as a threat to their livelihoods. But Norwegian farmers have this safety net they can rely on.”

For example, the former coalition government provided funding for drainage (ditch digging) of fields last year. The Oslo-based foundation Zero Emission Resource Organisation (ZERO) deemed this an effective measure as it helped raise levels of oxygen input to the soil and reduced nitrous oxide emissions. The Norwegian Agricultural Agency expects to be spending all its allocations for this environment-friendly initiative this year.

Brobakk also thinks that Norwegian farmers receive very reliable information through their organizations and cooperatives, which have staff that work with spreading information about the changing climate and countermeasures that can be implemented.

The survey found that Norwegian farmers have a lot of confidence in this information, as well as in climatologists.

Convictions vs. action

While a majority of farmers are convinced that human activities are triggering climate changes, the numbers doing something to mitigate the problem are less impressive.

Very few have initiated changes to reduce their discharges. Even though most farmers in the survey asserted that the agricultural community takes the climate threat seriously, seven in ten thought agriculture did not pollute the air with climate gases.

Why such a contradiction in responses?

Brobakk thinks this paradox relates in part to feelings about food production.

“They think they are involved in a fully essential and beneficial activity, producing our food in a much cleaner way than in other countries, with little use of antibiotics and a minimum of crop spraying,” says Brobakk.

This was also revealed in another phase of the research project, which involved lengthy interviews of many Norwegian farmers.

Farmers ranked reduction of climate gases last when they evaluated the priorities that Norwegian agriculture should focus on over the next few years. The farmers who were interviewed were most concerned about the viability of agricultural production and ensuring that Norwegians can produce and store sufficient amounts of food to cope with potential shortages.

What could motivate farmers to act?

The researchers also asked what measures the farmers thought would spark climate-enhancing initiatives on their farms.

Topping their list was higher profits for food produced in a climate-friendly way.

The farmers also favoured the enactment of new support and subsidy schemes in agriculture for reducing climate threats. 

“The investments have to be profitable for the farmers. Many climate measures entail long perspectives. Farmers are uncertain as to whether they can get a return on their investments,” says researcher Frode Flemsæter of the Centre for Rural Research, Norway. He was head of the part of the project that involved interviews.

One example of such measures would be more effective and precise use of fertilizers, which would reduce N2O emissions. Another would be GPS steering of harvesters and tractors, which would reduce soil compression. The development of small-scale biogas facilities that could use manure and waste as fuel and generate power is also considered a smart move.

“You cannot expect the individual farmer to take responsibility for initiating these kinds of changes. It is very hard for a farmer to tie daily activities in with global climate change, just as it can be for consumers.”

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Translated by
Glenn Ostling