LINCOLN — Kat Woerner has learned not to use the words “climate change” when talking about climate change with some Nebraska politicians.
The 22-year-old environmental advocate said the words have a stigma that causes many conservative lawmakers to shut down as soon as they hear them.
These roadblocks have been on display in the Nebraska Legislature, which has made little to no progress in approving climate change legislation in recent years, despite pleas from scientists and advocates. A rare exception came earlier this year when lawmakers appropriated up to $150,000 in federal funding for an update to a statewide climate change report.
Though experts and some lawmakers say much more work is needed, there are several notable details about the planned update. Unlike the initial statewide climate change study completed in 2014, the update will involve students — an effort to harness the passion of younger Nebraskans — and it will provide lawmakers with recommendations for combating climate change. It also will be better funded.
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That original study was slated to receive about $40,000 of state funding under legislation passed in 2013, but the state’s sponsorship of the study stalled due to a key stipulation. Retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Don Wilhite said the legislation limited the study to consider only the “natural causes” of climate change — effectively barring researchers from looking into the human causes.
Because of this, when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture asked him to lead the study, Wilhite refused.
“That was just incomprehensible to me,” Wilhite said.
Other prominent Nebraska scientists shared Wilhite’s misgivings. He worried that the state would end up with an unqualified person leading the study, so he went to UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green to request an independent university study, and received $20,000 for the project. The study was published in September 2014.
With significantly more funding this time around, researchers will have more resources at their disposal. The funding from the state doesn’t limit what causes of climate change can be included in the updated report.
Martha Shulski, a professor at UNL and director of the Nebraska State Climate Office, is heading the project, which is slated to wrap up by the end of 2024. She said some of the funding will be used to conduct surveys related to the study, while other expenses will be devoted to building an online interface that will serve as an interactive tool people can use to understand the study’s main points.
Shulski also hopes to involve students in the update — people like Woerner, a recent UNL graduate. She is even considering creating a graduate-level course to allow students to do literary research for the study, she said.
“We’re at a university, so let’s involve these passionate, young students,” Shulski said.
Although there are many older Nebraskans who participate in climate change research and mitigation, younger generations are becoming increasingly invested in the issue. Shulski said students in her freshman-level courses have expressed anxiety about climate change. Students even younger than that have advocated for action by the Nebraska Legislature.
At a March 16 hearing, grade-school students from Lincoln’s Prairie Hill Learning Center pleaded with lawmakers on Nebraska’s Natural Resources Committee to pass a resolution that would acknowledge that the world is in a “climate and ecological crisis” that was caused by humans and that lawmakers have a “moral obligation” to take steps to mitigate the crisis.
“It is the smallest step you can take in the right direction,” student Alex Hamric told lawmakers.
Committee members didn’t have much to say in response.
Of the eight-member committee, only State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha asked any questions. He asked if the students had any suggestions for what the Legislature could do to combat the crisis. Willa Hamric, Alex’s twin, suggested the state expand on its wind energy potential.
The hearing was the last time Nebraska lawmakers considered the resolution. A vote was never taken.
Woerner, who has advocated for environmental policies to a range of public officials in Nebraska since she was 16, and others said the outcome reflected the frustrating reality when it comes to climate change and Nebraska politics.
While funding the updated study is a step in the right direction, Wilhite said the Legislature may actually be regressing in its willingness to pass climate change legislation, with more lawmakers outspoken in their denial on the issue, and fewer lawmakers making it a top priority.
Woerner said the Legislature is full of “climate change deniers,” several of whom serve on the Natural Resources Committee.
Sen. Bruce Bostelman, chair of the committee, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the subject.
“Nebraska’s political system is not built for change,” Wilhite said.
Since the beginning of his legislative career in 2021, Cavanaugh said, climate change bills have never made it out of the Natural Resources Committee. Though some environmentally friendly bills have passed in recent years, he said none of them have included the words climate change. Multiple attempts to create a statewide climate action plan, including one bill introduced by Cavanaugh, have failed to advance.
A 2020 bill made it out of committee but was later killed by a filibuster. Opponents, led by a couple of conservative lawmakers from rural Nebraska, questioned the need for the plan and its $250,000 cost. They argued the planet is in an active weather cycle caused by nature and called the link between human activity and more extreme weather a hoax.
Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln, who introduced the bill that funded the updated study, said although some lawmakers may be reluctant to share their thoughts on climate change, he believes a majority of them acknowledge its existence. Newly elected U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, a former conservative lawmaker in the Legislature, was a co-sponsor of Bostar’s bill, he said.
Bostar said recent extreme weather has created a “concerning motivation” for even more lawmakers to take a more active role.
Nebraska is already feeling the impacts of climate change. The current drought and the devastating floods in 2019 are both symptoms of the larger issue, Woerner said.
Without significant changes, climate change will likely have a major impact on Nebraska’s driving economic force: agriculture.
Shulski and Wilhite expect the state to experience steadily rising temperatures over the coming years — with more frequent heavy rainfall and droughts that could contribute to extreme weather events like floods and tornadoes — if no progress is made.
“The extremes that we experience now, those are going to be amplified,” Shulski said.
In another difference from the original study, the update will include recommendations on what the state can do to combat climate change. Both Shulski and Wilhite said the state should prioritize development of a climate change action plan, which lays out gradual steps for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Lincoln already has its own plan in place, and Omaha officials are working on one, though progress has been slow. Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said a statewide plan could make a big difference, giving communities a framework to align with the state’s top priorities.
However, Bostar said the new study could essentially serve as Nebraska’s climate action plan, because it will include recommendations for the Legislature to consider.
Cavanaugh said the Legislature’s top priority should be implementing the recommendations of the new study. Though it wouldn’t hurt, a climate action plan would only be an “in-between step,” he said.
Regardless of what form changes come in, Wilhite said change must happen soon to prevent an oncoming crisis that younger generations will have to deal with. He said experts estimate significant mitigation measures must be implemented by 2030 to avoid or limit catastrophic damage due to climate change.
“The idea of ignoring something like it’s going to go away is just not appropriate,” Wilhite said.
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