Nebraska state lawmakers and conservationists who have seen a major drought, historic flooding and gigantic wildfires over the last decade are pushing to prepare the state for climate change, but if history is an indicator, legislators won’t be warming to the idea anytime soon.
Nebraska is one of seven Plains states that haven’t created a formal plan to confront the local impact of more extreme weather, bucking the trend of 33 others and the District of Columbia that have done so since the mid-2000s.
A 2016 report endorsed by a bipartisan legislative committee called on lawmakers to write a plan “based on empirical evidence and Nebraska-based data.” But a bill that would have started the process died in the Legislature in 2017, leaving some supporters exasperated.
“I don’t know if it’s politics. I don’t know if it’s just climate deniers. I just think this is very serious for our generation and future generations,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln. “Just winging it is not a plan.”
North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming also have no plans in place, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Virginia-based nonprofit that tracks state climate plans.
Pansing Brooks has again introduced the measure, calling for the University of Nebraska to develop a plan for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change. University officials would submit it to lawmakers and the governor by Dec. 15, 2020.
The plan would require university officials to estimate Nebraska’s total greenhouse gas emissions, outline goals to reduce them, and identify the positive and negative impacts of climate change on the state economy.
They also would have to drill down on how it would affect specific state resources, including farms and ranches, water, public health and energy. The university would get up to $250,000 from a state environmental fund generated by landfill waste and tire sale fees.
Pansing Brooks will present the proposal to a legislative committee Monday with backing from Nebraska’s state climatologist, university forestry officials and environmentalists, but its prospects are unclear.
Nebraska has endured several stretches of record weather in the last decade. Nebraska State Climatologist Martha Shulski said researchers can’t conclusively tie any specific weather event to climate change, but the planet’s gradual warming likely made those weather outbreaks worse and is expected to fuel severe storms, floods and droughts in the future.
In 2011, a giant snowpack in the Rocky Mountains led to weeks of flooding along the Missouri River, threatening Nebraska cities and leaving farmland deep underwater.
A major drought in 2012 killed trees throughout the state and caused a cattle feed shortage so severe that some ranchers had to harvest ditch weeds to keep their animals alive. State officials ordered more than 1,100 farmers to stop irrigating their crops to compensate for low water levels.
The drought also contributed to more than 1,600 wildfires that year that burned a total of 813 square miles — an expanse more than six times the size of Omaha.
Despite the weather extremes, some members of Nebraska’s Republican-dominated Legislature remain skeptical about efforts to prepare for climate change.
Sen. Dan Hughes, who will review the bill as a member of the Legislature’s Executive Board, said he was concerned about the proposal’s $250,000 price tag and the potential cost of its recommendations.
Hughes, a farmer from Venango, said he questions whether man-made made climate change is real and noted that Nebraska has always dealt with droughts, floods and wildfires. He argued the state shouldn’t spend money to prepare for problems he said may never materialize.
“I’m concerned it would be detrimental to our economy for no measureable benefit,” he said.
The influential Nebraska Farm Bureau, which represents farmers and ranchers who routinely deal with harsh weather, said it doesn’t plan to take a position on the bill.
“We are aware of it, but it’s not a top issue for us,” said Craig Head, a group spokesman.
The reluctance in Nebraska may be driven by the political polarization of climate change science, said Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Christensen said the Nebraska proposal “appears to be a very sensible and cost-effective approach,” but the issue too often gets hijacked by extreme positions on both sides — those who deny climate change and others who demand dramatic and immediate changes.
“It’s so polarized because both climate and the environment have become identified with political parties,” he said. “If you ask people whether they’re concerned about potential changes in rainfall and crop productivity, I suspect you’d get a very different answer than if you ask if they’re concerned about climate change.”
All the states without climate plans lean conservative, but those that have approved plans include the Republican-led states of Arkansas, Alaska, Kentucky and South Carolina.
“Climate plans are a really important step because it shows states are serious,” said Doug Vine, a solutions fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Shulski, the state climatologist, said developing a plan could help state officials mitigate some of the effects of climate change.
In the meantime, Shulski said she’s working with individual Nebraska cities to develop their own plans. Some are looking to buy more snowplows and improve their storm drains to accommodate heavier precipitation, while others have identified shelters for the elderly and poor to escape extreme summer heat.
Shulski said scientists don’t know exactly how much Nebraska’s average temperatures will rise, but the state will likely experience more frequent flooding from intense rain and snowstorms and hotter, longer summers that could stress livestock and crops. River and groundwater levels could drop as well, requiring more conservation.
“The best time to plan for a tornado is not when you hear the sirens going off,” she said.