Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Don Wilhite works with state legislator to raise climate change awareness
Almost 40 years after Don Wilhite accepted a teaching position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the man known as Dr. Drought is retiring from teaching.
That’s not to say he’s retiring from the research he has made his passion for the past four decades, though. In fact, the former director of UNL’s School of Natural Resources is using his newfound time to spread the word about one issue in particular – climate change.
“We have this perplexing situation in the U.S. where people say they believe in climate change or they don’t believe in climate change,” Wilhite said. “Other countries accept the science of it and are moving forward, but here we’re encountering a lot of pushback from members of Congress.”
Wilhite is no stranger to the thorny relationship between climatology and government. He was hired as a faculty member at UNL in 1977 and founded the International Drought Information Center in 1988, then the National Drought Mitigation Center in 1995. The organization’s mission is to help government take a proactive approach to droughts and implement strategies to control the damage they cause. He served as the director there until 2007, when he became director of UNL’s School of Natural Resources, a position he held until 2012.
During that time Wilhite, whose research earned him the title Dr. Drought, worked with governments across the globe and traveled to more than 70 countries, educating lawmakers on the need for climate-conscious legislation.
“All these governments were dealing with drought in a reactive or crisis management mindset,” Wilhite said. “They don’t prepare for drought – they just respond to it when it occurs. That’s very inefficient, and it’s not cost effective.”
Not all legislators are ignorant on the subject of climate issues though. In recent years, Wilhite has worked closely with Nebraska state senator Ken Harr, who has taken an interest in climate change and what government can do about it.
“I’ve been in the legislature eight years now, and climate change and global warming has emerged in my thinking,” Harr said, citing his grandchildren and his desire to leave them a hospitable planet as one of the main reasons he cares about climate.
It had been on his mind even before meeting Wilhite. Three years ago, the senator approached the Nebraska Climate Assessment Response Committee, proposing it study long-term climate change. The committee agreed, with one condition – it would not consider humans as a cause of climate change. That decision received enough negative reviews in the media for UNL to take it upon itself to do its own climate change study.
“On a lot of these forward thinking issues, it takes kind of a champion to get things going,” Harr said. “(Wilhite) was at the center of that. He was the guiding force behind this.”
Harr read the study when Wilhite and his colleagues completed it in 2014. It signified the beginning of a partnership between the professor and the legislator.
“He was very interested in the report I took part in,” Wilhite said. “He’s been really pushing this issue pretty strongly.”
Wilhite and Harr continued to work together, eventually organizing a full-day seminar at UNL, where professors presented to legislators on a wide range of climate issues.
In April 2016, Harr and Wilhite worked with the state legislature to establish a committee which will draft a climate action plan for Nebraska. Harr said passing that resolution in a conservative state was a statement in and of itself.
“The scientists at the university were willing to step out front and tell this story,” Harr said. “We need the scientists to step out of their laboratories. I’m so proud of the University of Nebraska.”
In December 2016, the committee Wilhite and Harr worked to create will begin writing the climate action plan.
Even so, Wilhite shows no sign of resting on his laurels. In addition to his international projects, he is at work on a second edition of a 2005 book on drought and water he edited, as well as producing a comprehensive atlas of of Nebraska.
Harr, who praised Wilhite and his colleagues for their persistence on climate issues, ended on a more personal note.
“I’m so proud to call him my friend,” he said. ❖
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