“I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this,” Tom Vilsack said at a White House press briefing when asked about the connection between climate change and the disastrous drought now plaguing much of the United States.  With the same amount of effort, and more accountability, he could have said, “Our top scientists tell us there is a connection between human-caused global warming and the likelihood of more of these severe droughts, and we need to deal with that in addition to the immediate drought-relief steps we will be taking.”  We commented to Al Jazeera English, which also showed Vilsack’s response.  Continue for full text of what Vilsack said and comment.

[UPDATE July 25:  Forecast the Facts petition:  Tell Secretary Vilsack: Farmers Deserve the Facts about Climate Change and Drought

From a White House press briefing July 18:

Q:  Could you talk a little bit about the drought itself?  Is it very unusual?  Did anyone see it coming?  Is it from climate change?  Is there anything you can do to prepare?

SECRETARY VILSACK:  I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this.  All we know is that right now there are a lot of farmers and ranchers who are struggling.  And it’s important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what’s causing this, what can we do to help them.  And what we can do to help them is lower interest rates, expand access to grazing and haying opportunities, lower the penalties associated with that, and encourage Congress to help and work with us to provide additional assistance.  And that’s where our focus is.

Long term, we will continue to look at weather patterns, and we’ll continue to do research and to make sure that we work with our seed companies to create the kinds of seeds that will be more effective in dealing with adverse weather conditions.

It’s one of the reasons — because they have done that, it’s one of the reasons why we’re still uncertain as to the impact of this drought in terms of its bottom line because some seeds are drought-resistant and drought-tolerant, and it may be that the yields in some cases are better than we’d expected because of the seed technology….

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I want to follow through on the climate change question.  Is there any long-range thinking at the Department that — you had the wildfires and the heat wave and the rise in sea levels, and now this drought — that there’s something more going on here than just one year of a bad crop, and you need more than better seeds, maybe do something about climate change?

SECRETARY VILSACK:  Our focus, to be honest with you, in a situation like this is on the near term and the immediate, because there’s a lot of pressure on these producers.  You take the dairy industry, for example.  We’ve lost nearly half of our dairy producers in the last 10 years.  They were just getting back to a place where there was profitability and now they’re faced with some serious issues and, again, no assistance in terms of disaster assistance.

So that’s our near-term focus.  Long term, we obviously are engaged in research projects; we’re obviously working with seed companies.  Don’t discount the capacity of the seed companies.  These technologies do make a difference.  And it’s one of the reasons why, at least based on the yields today, we’re looking at potentially the third largest corn crop in our history.  Now, that may be adjusted downward, it may be adjusted upward — depends on the rain, depends on circumstances.   But even with the difficulties we’re experiencing, we’re still looking at a pretty good crop as of today.  Tomorrow it could change, obviously.

And this on Marketplace (American Public Media):

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack on the worst drought in decades

… Hobson:  Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you one more question before I let you go. This is — as you said – the worst drought in decades, the first half of this year, according to the government, was the hottest in 118 years of record keeping across the country, the U.K. just had its wettest June since records began there. Is it the view of theU.S.government that this is climate change?

Vilsack:  Well, I’m not an expert on climate change so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond specifically to that question. My focus and I think the focus of the USDA and the President, right now is on making sure that we get help to these folks, making sure, for example, that people know that they got to contact their insurance agent, if they have crop insurance, that they may have a damaged crop so that they won’t lose rights under their policy, that’s our focus.

It’s not to trying to figure out, today, what may be causing this or what may be impacting it. We know it is impacting farmers and ranchers. Our hearts go out to their families and these hard working folks. We just want to be able to provide them some help and assistance.

Thus, another apparent example of the Obama Administration’s politicized evasiveness on forthright communication about anthropogenic climatic disruption.  Vilsack surely knows better, or should.  Is his response any better than what we would have gotten from the Bush-Cheney Administration?  It does a disservice in multiple ways.

The U.S.faces a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in record heat, severe drought combined with extreme precipitation, extraordinary wildfires, and Arctic melting.  How does the country begin to address this reality if the Administration has decided that it is politically inconvenient to discuss climate change as such?  And to fail to say even a single appropriate sentence, even when an obvious opportunity presents itself?  How does the public get the message it needs to hear from government leaders at the highest level about the need for a strategy for adaptive preparedness, if the Administration finds it acceptable to maintain virtual silence on this subject that Obama once referred to as “a matter of urgency and national security”?

Will Administration officials be maneuvered into evasiveness for as long as the right wing and denialists continue to spin up the idea that there is something controversial about discussing global warming and its impacts?

Vilsack’s response shows a failure of accountability in clearly acknowledging the best advice that Administration officials are getting from the leadership of the scientific community.  Does the Administration really believe that only scientists should say anything about climate change?  Where does that leave the connection between science and policymakers?

The US Department of Agriculture has a Climate Change Program Office and plays a significant role in the US Global Change Research Program, the leading climate change research program on the planet.  Secretary Vilsack has no excuse for this.

Also see Joe Romm’s testimony at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands hearing July 20, which included this:

What we are discussing here today is the single most important question facing the nation: Can we prevent the extreme drought and wildfires ravaging the country today from becoming the new normal?

But the real question — and I am addressing myself to the members of the majority now – is how you want to be remembered….

Earlier posts:

Kevin Trenberth on US wildfires, drought, and global warming

Ben Santer on the attribution of extreme weather events to climate change.

Texas wildfires rage amidst historic drought conditions. Denial of science in Washington, DC, confronted by climate reality.