Climate change could present opportunities for Nebraska, speakers conclude

By: - June 15, 2022 10:15 pm

Corn burst from a grain bin which was soaked with floodwater on March 23, 2019, near Union, Nebraska. Damage estimates from flooding in Nebraska top $1 billion. Midwest states are battling some of the worst flooding they have experienced in decades as rain and snow melt from the recent “bomb cyclone” that has inundated rivers and streams. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A wide-ranging “conversation” about climate change Wednesday night might have reached agreement on one thing: Climate change could present some opportunities for Nebraska.

From increased income from leasing land for wind or solar farms, to helping Fortune 500 companies sequester carbon, to utilizing the state’s abundant water resources for new crops, panelists suggested that Nebraska might be in a good position if predictions of hotter summers and wetter winters in the future hold true.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about adaptation,” said Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, who owns a small renewable-energy business and has worked as a director of the clean energy group New Power Nebraska.

The development of wind farms has generated jobs in northeast Nebraska, Moenning said, and has increased tax revenue and income for farmers leasing land for wind turbines or solar panels.

Mark McHargue, a Central City farmer and the president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said that the state’s ample water provides a great advantage if climate change forces a change in agricultural crops.

“We can grow whatever the market wants,” McHargue said.

Those two officials, and representatives of the Nature Conservancy and University of Nebraska Medical Center, engaged in a 90-minute discussion entitled “Weathering Uncertainty: Our Connections to Climate.”

A conversation about adapting

The event, held at Lincoln’s Lied Center for the Performing Arts, was sponsored by Humanities Nebraska and drew a crowd of about 100 people, as well as others watching online.

It wasn’t a debate about whether climate change was real or not or what role humans played in the change, but more of a conversation about how different sectors in Nebraska were adapting to an increase in extreme weather.

Hannah Birge of the Nature Conservancy, who works with farmers and ranchers to increase production while adopting conservation practices, said some believe the climate is changing and some don’t.

“One thing we like to say is we don’t need to be right, we just want to be happy,” Birge said.

Jesse Bell, director of the water, climate and health program at UNMC, said climate change is already having health impacts in the state, citing the longer season for ragweed pollen.

Bell and others on the panel said it’s clear that Nebraska is having more “extreme weather” events, citing the unprecedented 30-tornado outbreak in December and the wind-blown wildfires earlier this year.

‘Bomb cyclone’

He said the March 2019 “bomb cyclone” flooding in Nebraska and Iowa was the “costliest inland flooding event” in U.S. history, causing an estimated $2.9 billion in damages.

Martha Shulski
State Climatologist Martha Shulski
(Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Among other comments:

  • McHargue said farmers and ranchers are engaged every day in dealing with the climate. But he said voluntary and incentive-based programs work best with those in agriculture, rather than top-down solutions.
  • State policymakers should get more engaged in addressing climate change, Moenning said, noting that Nebraska is one of the few states that hasn’t adopted a climate action plan.
  • Birge said that the growth and expansion of eastern red cedar trees across the Sand Hills and other grasslands will make wildfires more damaging in the future.
  • Bell said that “extreme heat events” likely kill more people than any other form of extreme weather, which calls for more “cooling stations” in cities, as well as shaded areas for bus stops.

The moderator for the event was state climatologist Martha Shulski, who called climate change “weather’s big brother.” Sometimes, she said, it gives a nudge to daily weather events ,and sometimes it provides a “take-down wrestling move.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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