Despite warnings from numerous sources (including a 2014 report from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Nebraska has been complacent about planning for climate change.
Given its agriculturally based economy with its sensitivities to weather, Nebraska should heed the warning of the most recent report from the United Nations. These warnings ("UN report carries life-or-death warning," Oct. 8) illustrate the dire consequences of not taking decisive and urgent action to reduce sharply carbon pollution.
The consequences of our inaction include continued and accelerated far-reaching effects on public health, agriculture and food security, water supply, economic growth, national security and livelihoods.
Climate scientists have predicted dramatic changes in our climate for decades, only to have those predictions largely ignored, even denied, by policy makers and the public. These predictions of the eminent threat of climate change are now the new reality.
In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, the U.S. experienced 16 disasters with economic losses exceeding $1 billion (e.g., hurricanes, droughts, floods, fires, and severe weather events). Combined, these losses totaled nearly $400 billion. Hurricanes Florence and Michael are the latest examples of how climate change now affects us. Although extreme weather-related events have occurred in the past, climate change is altering the severity and frequency of these events.
Alarmed by the denial and the lack of progress in addressing the eminent threat of climate change, the global community came together and reached an agreement to reduce significantly greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement, the Paris Climate Treaty of 2015, was signed by 195 countries. Its goal is to limit the warming that will dramatically increase the climate-related risks for both natural and human systems.
Unfortunately, President Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris treaty. This places the responsibility for America‘s climate action squarely on the private sector, on state and local governments and on us as citizens.
At the state government level, adopting a climate action plan to coordinate the efforts of state government, institutions of higher education, natural resource districts, environmental interest groups and the business sector is essential. This can mobilize the resources necessary to reduce the impacts of a changing climate on the state, while taking advantage of the opportunities associated with climate change to bolster sustainable economic growth.
Several major planning efforts are underway in Nebraska that should incorporate the implications of a changing climate on the state’s future.
The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce recently launched Blueprint Nebraska, a citizen-led economic development initiative intended to bring together business, agriculture, government and higher education to create a proactive plan to stimulate the state’s economic growth. Similarly, UNL has initiated the Nebraska Commission of 150 "to envision what the university should look like a generation from now."
Unless climate change and its implications on the state’s economy, social fabric and natural resources are an integral part of these two efforts, the outcome of both will fall far short of their goals.
Nebraska has the resources to address climate change. For example, NU and other institutions of higher learning possess enormous human resources and expertise to assist the private sector and governments in addressing climate change in a systematic, pragmatic manner. The natural resource districts represent another powerful institutional tool to manage our precious water resources in the context of a changing climate.
The recent UN report should be a wake-up call to the private sector and state and local governments, that climate change is a real and existential threat to Nebraska.
We must take action now to address the risks associated with climate change. Continuing to deny this reality places our economy, natural resources and citizenry at greater and greater risk.
Actions now that address these risks are preferable and more cost effective than reaction later. Simply waiting to react is foolhardy. It is time for our state’s leadership to step up to meet the challenge of a changing climate. As citizens of this state, we must demand action.
***Article originally appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star's "Local View". on Oct. 23 2018.
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Donald Wilhite is a climate scientist, professor and director emeritus at UNL's School of Natural Resources, as well as the founding director of the National Drought Mitigation Center.