Climate change is not drought and drought is not climate change. Therefore, linking drought relief for farmers to climate change preparedness is just plain silly and demonstrates a city person’s poor understanding of complex farming issues. Exceptional Circumstances drought relief is based on a one in 25 year drought event and is a recognition that no amount of preparation – for either drought or climate change – would be sufficient to see farmers through the dry times without some help.

There is no doubt that farmers have to think about how they will adapt their farming practices to a more rapidly changing climate, but that will need to be done at a regional and commodity level. What Canberra might prescribe as getting ready for climate change may be appropriate in north western Victoria for a grain grower, but would most likely be inappropriate for an apple grower in central western NSW.

Climate has always been changing and farmers have always adapted their farming practices to suit those changes. Those who have not adapted to the climate change that’s occurred in their local area and on their farms over the past 100 years are no longer in the business of farming. Previously those changed management practices have been retrospective. Now it seems farmers will be expected to estimate how climate will change in the future and put in place new management before the climate change actually happens.

Doubtless for some commodities, particularly in horticulture, a climate change threshold is being reached where, because of the changing climate (not the drought), it is becoming nonviable to grow those commodities in particular areas. Those farmers face the challenge of either moving their operations to another area or finding another commodity to grow where they are. Government has a role in helping rural communities get ready for the full impact of climate change where there will be a major disruption to the local economy.

But all that has little or no relationship to drought – either this one or future droughts. Droughts are severe aberrations in the climate and whether conditions return to so called “normal” after a drought is not relevant to the pain suffered during a prolonged drought.

If Kevin Rudd wants farmers to be convinced, he will need to differentiate the two events and not make future drought relief conditional on preparing for climate change. It already happens, and farmers are probably more conscious of the potential impact of climate change on their businesses and are more receptive to the need to be flexible than anyone else in the community. The Prime Minister should leave the stick at home and bring along some carrots when he sits down with farmers to talk about climate change.

Peter Fray

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