The Paradox of American Farmers and Climate Change

Photograph by Ryan Donnell for Fortune Magazine

There’s a strange paradox in the world of agriculture: farmers are perhaps the segment of the population most affected by climate change, and yet a significant number of them don’t believe in it—especially the notion that it’s man-made.

I encountered this phenomenon as I reported a feature for Fortune on how agricultural giant Monsanto is attempting to help farmers both mitigate their impact on the environment and adapt to climate change. All the farmers I talked to readily acknowledged that the weather patterns governing growing seasons had been turned upside down in recent years, but I was on the receiving end of a lot of eye rolls whenever I brought up climate change.

Monsanto (MON) gets a similar response from the growers who buy its seed. The company’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, told me he’s received numerous angry emails from farmers asking why the company is supporting what some call “this government effort.”

I don’t want to suggest that all farmers reject the concept of climate change. That’s not the case. But here’s what some of the numbers show: A survey conducted by Iowa State Professor J. Arbuckle and Purdue University professor Linda Prokopy of 5,000 Cornbelt farmers—representing about 60% of U.S. corn production and 80% of farmland in the region—found that only 8% believed climate change is taking place and caused primarily by human activity. That 8% figure is significantly lower than the general population. A poll from January found that 27% of the general public primarily blames human activity.

Meanwhile, 33% of the farmers surveyed said climate change was caused more or less equally by natural changes and human activities, 25% said it was caused by changes in the environment, 31% said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to know if climate change is occurring, and 4% said climate change is not happening.

So, what’s driving this sentiment? “In some quarters of agriculture the term climate change can be politically charged,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told me, “and there is a reluctance to embrace that term while also recognizing weather patterns are changing and that farmers need to adapt.”

The politicization of science is nothing new. Just think of the anti-vaccination movement. But it comes out in full force within the world of agriculture, especially when considering climate change and genetically modified organisms—one of the industry’s hot-button issues. Many farmers who accept the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified seed reject the consensus on climate change. Meanwhile, many environmental activists reject the science on the safety of genetically modified seed but embrace science that supports their views on climate change. Monsanto gets hit from all sides because it believes in both.

Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who studies science communication, has written that “when people are shown evidence relating to what scientists believe about a culturally disputed, policy-relevant fact … they selectively credit or dismiss that evidence depending on whether it is consistent with or inconsistent with their cultural group’s position.” This leads people to “form polarized perceptions of scientific consensus even when they rely on the same sources of evidence.”

We’ll save examining the GMO vs. climate change debate among environmental activists for another day. But if you look at farmers, they “are simultaneously the most skeptical when it comes to climate change, but the group that uses climate science in decision making the most,” Kahan says.

Kahan has written extensively on this paradox, but he doesn’t view it as an inconsistency. “There are two climate changes,” Kahan explains. “There’s the one that people have a position on that reflects a kind of cultural identity that’s associated with accepting it or not, and then there’s the climate change that people make decisions about with consequences for their life. They’re totally different things.”

Kahan summed this up nicely in one of his papers: “Peoples’ answers to whether one ‘believes in’ human-caused global warming doesn’t measure what they know; it expresses who they are.” Kahan says it’s no different from the person who wears a pro-climate change t-shirt but knows absolutely nothing about the science behind it.

Citing a parallel to farmer sentiment about climate change, Kahan points to work by Donald Everhart and Salman Hameed, who have studied Pakistani physicians in the U.S. In their work, they describe an oncologist “who ‘disbelieves in’ evolution at home but ‘believes in’ it at work.” The doctor believes in evolution to treat his patients, but rejects it as a devout Muslim.

At work, farmers acknowledge changes in the growing season and adopt practices like no-till farming and cover crops that help deal with climate change’s effects on agriculture. “They really seem to be working hard to adapt,” Arbuckle says, “but then much of their base doesn’t want to talk about climate change.”

Kahan has found that there’s no correlation between belief in man-made climate change and measures of scientific knowledge, but there is a high match between beliefs in climate change and political identity. One study Kahan has cited found that 75% people who viewed themselves as liberal believe that human activity is the main source of global warming; only 22% of respondents who classified themselves as conservative held the same belief, and 58% said they did not believe there was enough evidence to show the planet was warming. “We know that farmers tend to be as a group more conservative than the average member of the public,” Purdue University professor Prokopy told me.

So, does it matter if farmers believe in climate change? Maybe not if they are already adopting practices that help with both mitigation and adaptation. But it does show that scientists and regulators (and journalists) need to be careful about how they talk to farmers about climate change.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.