The writer is professor and director emeritus in climate science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the founding director of UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center.
I applaud The World-Herald for publishing several articles on climate change and its implications for Nebraska on June 18. Educating all Nebraskans about both the threats and opportunities associated with climate change is vital to adapt to and prepare for the changes that lie ahead.
Both globally and locally, few people deny that our climate is changing. Globally, we have experienced 400 consecutive months where the average temperatures have exceeded the 30-year average. However, many people still reject the notion that human actions, specifically the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes, are the primary reasons for the observed changes.
To deny that humans are the primary cause for these changes is to deny the basic tenets of climate science. We have known for more than 150 years that the concentrations of the primary greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are the heat regulators for the Earth. Changes in the concentration of these gases alter the heat balance of the Earth. As the atmospheric concentrations of these gases have changed over thousands of years, so has the Earth’s climate — responding with periods of ice ages and warm epochs.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 parts/million to more than 410 parts/million, a level not seen in more than 800,000 years. In the past, these changes have occurred over thousands of years — a much different scenario from the changes in the Earth’s climate that will occur in the coming decades and beyond. The speed at which these changes will occur and the magnitude of these changes should compel each us to demand that we not only prepare for these changes but also rapidly pursue a low-carbon future to lessen the magnitude of these changes. Responding now to these projected changes is imperative and more cost-effective than reacting as these changes become more pronounced.
The authors of the University of Nebraska’s 2014 study, “Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska,” of which I was one, concluded it is vital to prepare aggressively for our changing climate. Nebraska temperatures are expected to increase by 8 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the last quarter of this century. These changes will result in significant changes in evaporation rates, soil moisture and ground water levels and the incidence of heat waves, drought and other extreme weather events.
To better understand the impact of these changes, I co-organized eight sector-based roundtables in 2015 that engaged more than 300 stakeholders to discuss climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Participants noted the serious implications of projected changes in climate on our economy, its land and water resources and the well-being of current and future generations. Participants felt it was imperative for Nebraska to develop and implement a comprehensive plan of action to prepare for the projected changes in climate, and they were committed to participate in that process.
The political polarization that has occurred around the issue of climate change has stymied progress to respond to the challenges and opportunities before us. Although the business, public health and other sectors are moving forward to implement adaptation and mitigation strategies, our state government has largely denied the problem and refused to seek proactive strategies to address the issue. Attempts at legislation to develop a climate action plan for Nebraska have, to date, produced no tangible outcomes.
Preparing for a changing climate is integral to sustaining our strong agricultural economy and economic development. In the words of the forthcoming 4th National Climate Assessment report, “climate change poses many challenges that affect society and the natural world. With these challenges, however, come opportunities to respond. By taking steps to adapt to and mitigate climate change, the impacts can be lessened.” Burying our heads in the sand will result only in far greater costs and societal impacts that our children and grandchildren will be forced to bear. Is this the legacy we want to leave them?