To Adapt to Change in the Inland Pacific Northwest, or Not to Adapt

By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

Multiple climate projections for the Pacific Northwest suggest that our region’s agriculture will be impacted as our climate continues to change. Are farmers preparing for these changes? And if not, why not? These are the questions I hoped to answer as part of my research.

Rolling hills with green wheat field in the foreground and flowering yellow canola in the background
Wheat and canola crops planted at the Washington State University’s Cook Agronomy Farm near Pullman, WA. Photo: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally.

Working with the Northwest Climate Hub—where I conduct social science research and climate outreach with farmers—I recently completed a study published in the journal Environments that examines the perceived risks associated with climate change held by farmers in the inland Pacific Northwest, the semiarid region stretching over central Washington, northwest Oregon, and northern Idaho.

I took on this research project because I was curious about inland Pacific Northwest farmers’ awareness of climate change risks and wanted to know how their perceptions of these risks influences their willingness to make significant changes to their farming practices.

To understand how farmers’ perceptions of climate-associated risks related to their intentions to respond to those risks, I examined a subset of questions from two recent surveys of farmers in the inland Pacific Northwest. These two surveys were conducted by researchers at University of Idaho, Washington State University, and Oregon State University to explore a suite of questions regarding farm management practices and beliefs around climate change and attitudes towards adaptation.

Some Farmers Anticipate Making Changes

In the two surveys, farmers were presented with a plausible future scenario based on climate projections and related impacts. Specifically, farmers were asked to consider a world in which the inland Pacific Northwest’s winters had become warmer and wetter while the region’s summers had become hotter and drier. Farmers were then asked to rate how likely they would be make significant changes to their farming practices given this scenario. (Farmer respondents assessed whether they would make significant changes to their cropping system, crop rotation, tillage system, soil conservation, and crop insurance practices.)

Out of the 1,209 survey participants, only about a quarter of farmers anticipated making changes to their farming practices in response to projected climate changes. Why did only 300 or so farmers plan to take action in response to projected climate change while the others did not?  Here’s where things get interesting.

Risk Perceptions Inform Future Action

To understand how perceptions of risk translated (or not) into intentions to change behavior, I used a statistical model. My analysis revealed that the more climate risks a farmer perceived, the more likely that farmer was to plan on making changes to his or her operations in the future.

Farmer with dog examines soil in recently plowed row in a wheatfield
Farmers that perceive greater risk of climate change impacts showed greater movement toward action. Photo: Hilary Davis.

So, how—you might be wondering—do you measure perceptions of risk? Let’s answer that by defining what I mean by risk. Typically, risk refers to a situation or event where something people care about is threatened. Risk perception is a way to grapple with our perceptions of the severity of a given threat and what we suppose might happen to that thing we care about.

In my study, I found that higher levels of perceived economic and environmental risks associated with climate change helped to explain the intentions of the roughly 300 farmers who intend to change their farming practices. In other words, the greater the perception of risk, the greater the movement toward action.

Supporting Adaptation for more Resilient Farms

Based on the results of my study, I would argue that more extension and outreach efforts in the inland Pacific Northwest are needed to better convey climate change impacts, their effects on specific cropping systems, and how those changes might impact farmers and their economic livelihood. Given the extent of the projected impacts to the region, only a quarter of farmers taking action simply won’t be enough to build region-wide resilience to the more extreme and variable weather expected to increase due to climate change.

Improved extension efforts in the region could better frame the risks associated with climate change; however, highlighting risks alone won’t be enough. Instead, there is an opportunity to pair risks with potential actions that farmers can take to reduce their vulnerability to projected changes. Inland Pacific Northwest wheat producers could focus on crop diversification and soil health strategies to enhance on-farm resilience. By taking adaptive action, these farmers may be able to reduce risks associated with climate change now and in the future.

Acknowledgments

The two surveys reviewed for this article and the associated study were conducted as part of the Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH) project by REACCH collaborators at the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and Oregon State University. REACCH was a U.S. Department of Agriculture funded effort to explore climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies for the inland Pacific Northwest wheat and cereal crop industry. The climate scenario used in the surveys was developed by REACCH.

Publication

Roesch-McNally, Gabrielle E. “US Inland Pacific Northwest Wheat Farmers’ Perceived Risks: Motivating Intentions to Adapt to Climate Change?.” Environments 5, no. 4 (2018): 49. Online Access.

A longer version of this article will be published in fall 2018 in the Climate Impacts Research Consortium’s monthly newsletter, The CIRCulator