UNL tackles global issues, implications for Nebraska in report and lecture
October 18, 2014
A raise of a single degree in temperature doesn't seem like much. Its implications for the state of Nebraska, though, are impossible to dismiss.
At the end of September, the first of this school year's Heuermann Lectures at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln addressed the implications of climate change on Nebraskans and the state's agriculture. At the head of the Sept. 25, discussion was Don Wilhite, professor in the School of Natural Resources and a climate scientist. Wilhite, along with UNL professors Deborah Bathke, Robert Oglesby, Clinton Rowe and multiple contributors, authored a report called "Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska" in response to a legislative struggle to define climate change.
In 2013, the Nebraska state legislature introduced a bill to modify the language of a bill passed in 1991 that established the Climate Assessment and Response Committee (CARC). According to Wilhite, this committee was originally tasked with observing the environment and its impact on industries, but not with observing the actual changes in the climate. Sen. Ken Harr of Malcolm, Neb., introduced the 2013 amendment, L.B. 583, to the original bill, L.B. 274, to propose inclusion of climate change research and information.
There, the plot thickened. According to Wilhite, several state senators — one in particular — opposed the idea of climate change in relation to humans. During debate on the bill in April 2013, Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, Neb., spoke in opposition.
"It strikes an appropriate balance of recognizing that weather is cyclical. That might be a short-term cycle, might be a long-term cycle. One year we're dry, one year we're wet, as a state," McCoy said. "I, for one — and this is a philosophical position — don't subscribe to global warming, to that theory. I think there are normal, cyclical and rhythmic climate changes that are not caused by man-made attempts."
On April 23, 2013, McCoy filed an amendment to the bill to include the word "cyclical" before the first mention of climate change within the bill. On the same day, Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, Neb., also filed to include "cyclical" before several subsequent mentions of climate change.
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The bill was approved by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman on June 4, 2013.
Part of this bill required that by Sept. 1, 2014, a report on cyclical climate change would have to be filed, and by Dec. 1, a review of the report would have to be presented to the governor. Wilhite said he was asked to contribute to the report, but refused.
"I couldn't do a report that would exclude human causes," he said.
He wasn't the only one. An October 2013 meeting of the CARC, several university scientists and climatologists refused to participate in the study, according to an October 2013 report from the Omaha World Herald. The Omaha World Herald reported again in December 2013 that Heineman cancelled the study after the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UNL announced its own, independent climate change study.
Wilhite said it has not yet been decided whether the CARC will use UNL's report, but university scientists thought it would be important to put out their own study on the effects of climate change including human impact.
UNL's report discusses the current trends in climate change that have been seen not only in the state, but globally, and then dissects the impact the changes could have on several sectors of the state.
In the report, the importance of the inclusion of human influence is discussed early on.
"Is there a debate within the scientific community with regard to observed changes in climate and human activities as the principal causal factor? The short answer here is 'no,' at least certainly not among climate scientists — that is, those scientists who have actual expertise in the study of climate and climate change," the study reads. "For more than a decade, there has been broad and overwhelming consensus within the climate science community that the human-induced effects on climate change are both very real and very large."
The study, which Wilhite said is a comprehensive literature review of existing reports and studies of climate change, points out that since 1895, Nebraska has seen temperatures raise an average of 1 degree fahrenheit. Although this may not sound like a large change, the distribution of the temperature changes shows otherwise. Winter months, which see the largest rise in temperature, have seen an average minimum temperature increase of 2-4 degrees, the report reads. Since 1895, the frost-free season has gotten progressively longer. The statewide average is an additional week added to the growing season, but that number varies anywhere from five to 25 days. The report also said this lengthening growing season will continue through future years.
"A significant portion of the land in Nebraska is utilized for agricultural production. As such, the length of the growing season and changes over time are particularly important," the report reads.
By 2099, the average temperature increase for Nebraska could be anywhere from a 4-degree to a 9-degree jump, depending on the emissions model used, the report found.
"That's a pretty scary change," Wilhite said.
With the extreme drought of 2012 still fresh on the minds of Nebraska's producers, numbers like these could have massive scope. The report found that with increased temperature and a higher number of days with temperatures breaking 100 degrees, years like 2012 could become the norm by 2070.
The report detailed a wide spectrum of climate change components, from models to projections to different factors that could be influenced globally. Some of the key points included not just temperature shifts, but changes in moisture, melting of ice, warming of oceans and increased frequencies of extreme weather events.
Beyond just the potential impact within Nebraska, the report highlights the dangers global warming could pose if Nebraska's agriculture, along with other states', was to be compromised. With challenges and decreases to production, Nebraska's exports would be affected. Globally, when food insecurity becomes more prevalent, so does instability in struggling areas, the report reads.
"If droughts do increase in frequency and severity in some parts of the world, as the research suggests, the result could have major impacts on national security and Nebraskans," the report reads.
Another section of UNL's report features contributions from other experts, both at UNL and around Nebraska, on various sectors of the economy that could be impacted by climate change. These special reports include water, energy, agriculture, forestry, human health, ecosystems, both urban and rural communities and insurance.
"The fact that climate change has become a highly politicized issue has no bearing whatsoever on the reality of human-induced climate changes," the report reads. "Politics — or personal beliefs — are not part of the evidence based scientific process, and we cannot simply legislate away the reality of human impacts on the climate system."
This sentiment was echoed by Wilhite in his discussion with the Fence Post. He emphasized the importance of ignoring the politicking involved in the climate change debate because it is "not productive for anyone."
"I think one basic thing is we need to get out of the political debate that we seem to be seeing on this particular issue," he said. "I think we need to hold our elected officials accountable to look at the science behind climate change to make some effective decisions, rather than waiting."
In addition, Wilhite emphasized the importance of work, like that at UNL, of bringing the facts of climate change into education.
"The education is really an important thing that we need to be engaged in," he said.
"Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska" can be found at Go.UNL.edu/ClimateChange.
The Heuermann Lecture, which includes Wilhite's discussion and a question and answer session with the co-authors of the report, can be found at http://HeuermannLectures.UNL.edu. ❖