Talking About Drought and Climate in Nebraska

Talking About Drought and Climate in Nebraska

I work in Nebraska, doing energy policy and organizing work for the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.  We’ve been hit pretty hard here by the drought and wildfires, but the economic blow has been softened by the lushness of the Ogallala Aquifer under much of the state.  (Want to ask me again for the list of reasons why we don’t want the Keystone XL pipeline to go through?)  The ability to drill for irrigation is one of the things that makes Nebraska unique and especially valuable for agriculture.

Like most places in America it is a study in gaps- gaps between what people know and want, and what their elected government bodies are willing to do. There is a huge gap on wind power. A minimum of 80% and frequently over 90% of the people tell pollsters that they want more wind power and are willing to pay a bit more to get it, and that pattern reaches back annually for almost a decade.  But at the elected public power district boards, right-wing and pro-coal factions that obstruct wind power dominate.

Likewise, I find many people who get it on the basics of global warming, but you would never know it from the make-up of political bodies.  I feel that it is likely that most folks know the basics, as polls show to be the case across the country.  But there is this gap… 

Spanning these gaps is the most important thing we can do, and it is not a simple thing. Some things we know about as we go about our work. Emphasize the message we want to get across, and respond to the dis-informer’s arguments only in our language. We want to build a movement about supporting each other in this time of distress, so don’t focus on the economic issues in a casual way like “Save the planet and get rich!” That talk just invokes the scheming capitalist side of our character and that set of brain cells.

When appropriate, don’t shy from moral issues—after all, if we are to survive this crisis of climate we surely must become the best human beings we can be.  And letting the world as we know it be transformed into a Mad Max world as we started to see hinted at this summer—that is just damned wrong!

Here is the core of my usual rap, which I have delivered on the street and in the board room. Of course, in a conversation it would be broken up into little pieces, sometimes over days or weeks.  I’ve put {brackets} around the parts that I sacrifice first when I have to.  Thanks to “the weather report” and The Weather Channel, etc., we can make certain assumptions about what lots of people know and accept.

When I want to know something about farming, I’ll ask a farmer, and it will probably be somebody with dirt under their fingernails {instead of a manager of a big industrial farm, much less a fertilizer salesman}.  I will not go to a manicurist or some talking head on tv.  {I wouldn’t rely on them any more than I would take my truck to the bakery to get fixed.}

Likewise, when I want to know about the climate and ask questions about this drought as part of the bigger, longer weather picture, I’m going to go to the men and women who are top-level climate scientists.  They are the ones who are expert at this– they do the work every {damn} day and they know what they are talking about. 

We know what causes the seasons– that “why” is what science is good at. {Any farmer who has ever had to think about planting GMO crops or plans with the help of seasonal weather forecasts relies on science.}  And if the scientists were not good, NSASA would not be scooting around on Mars with that little go-kart.  The head of NASA’s {Goddard} Institute for Space Studies is one of the world’s top climate scientists and he and other climatologists have been warning about global warming since the 1980s.  They continue to tell us that greenhouse gas pollution is changing the air we breathe and the weather around us.

For example, we know now that conditions in the Pacific Ocean have effects on our weather.  El Nino and La Nina are old news now, but back in the 20th century, back in the Dust Bowl days all that was a big mystery.  We have a pretty good idea about what causes weather, and compared to when I was a kid, we do pretty well predicting weather a couple-three days ahead.

Now, weather is not climate: climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get. And it used to be that we could expect things within a certain range, and we knew what to expect enough to know when it was a “cool summer” or a “wet spring.”

We sort of knew what the odds were in our head.  Now that we have a lot of years of actual weather measurements we can put numbers to the odds, which is one thing that climate scientists do. And what they say now is that extreme weather events — like these really bad droughts and heat weaves– that used to have odds of 1 in 300 now have odds of 1 in 10. Those are bad odds for farmers and everybody else concerned with food, and we ought to pay attention.

This is not my Daddy’s climate, and it is a pretty bad idea to pretend that is.

The way things are working these days is that we have the old climate and weather patterns, but with the new global warming influence mixing in and shifting and tweaking everything around.  It’s like, global warming does not make hurricanes– we’ve always had hurricanes.  But since hurricanes get their power from the warm water on the surface of the oceans, global warming certainly does make hurricanes stronger, and that is why we’ve had more of the Category 3, 4, and 5 storms.  {When they hit land in the US, we hear about it.} 

In this summer’s heat and drought, we have the same influences that we’ve always had, but even with just the little extra heat from global warming so far on top of that, it is sort of a different beast.  We just broke the long-term heat records from July of 1936.  That was the middle of the Dust Bowl, one of the worst natural disasters in our history.  And when you get that hot, it just finishes off any bit of moisture that it can evaporate out of the ground. Sucks it up and blows it far away.  {And if we are not really careful, it takes tons of topsoil away with it.}  {Things like this drought and the wildfires and heat have been happening for about a decade, but nobody did much about it.}  

This climate is simply not going to go back to what used to be normal.  Just like we have a pretty good handle on what causes the big weather patterns, we can tell the difference between what weather is influenced by global warming — which is almost everything– and what parts of things, like badly build levees or bad farming practices, are due to the influence of other factors.

We cannot change the fact that La Nina contributes to this drought.  But because we have known for a long time that greenhouse gas pollution causes global warming, we can do something about that.

The same top scientists who have predicted the pickle we are in now say that if we act quickly to quit burning fossil fuels like oil and gas and coal we can avoid the worst consequences of global warming.  We have waited too long to avoid it altogether, and it sure would have been a lot easier if there had not been all these people on the industry payroll delaying things by running around telling everybody that there wasn’t really a problem.  Just like tobacco wasn’t a problem!

So I’m damned if I am going to just sit around and wait to see what happens. Sitting around watching the greenhouse pollution continue has jacked up the severity of this drought, and we are just getting started with the effects of global warming.

It’s time to get busy. 

NOTE: Always, always give a solution that is meaningful!  When possible get people too busy to hit the barroom.  Push the agenda you have worked out with your coalition partners. Be concrete, and don’t shoot too low.  It is too late for that.

John Atkeison is energy policy director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation

Photo via (cc) Flickr user USDAgov