Climate scientists

The shoreline of Lincoln's Oak Lake bakes in the mid-August sun as drought continued to plague Nebraska and the region at large.

ERIC GREGORY/Journal Star file photo

A warning sign on the first floor directs people to the basement of Bessey Hall in the event of a tornado.

An open door offers a view of an instructor pointing to a video display of the world’s prime monsoon regions.

Upstairs, on the third floor of his City Campus office, Clinton Rowe is dealing with a less familiar task.

He’s explaining why he and four colleagues decided it was time to go proactive, why they needed to issue a joint public statement on the evidence of increasing climate extremes and the potential for more tornadoes, droughts and floods.

The attention they’re getting for raising the alarm about global warming may have less to do with the side they’re on than with their methods.

In his 26 years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Rowe can’t remember a time when his department has chosen a similar course toward group activism.

“Have we ever done anything like this? Not that I can think of.”

It’s been two weeks since he and four other NU faculty members from climate and climate-related ranks offered their shared view.

“The time for debate is over,” they said. “The time for action is here.”

In the next few decades, they warned, average temperatures in Nebraska will rise by 4 to 10 degrees. Because of diminished snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, flows in the Platte River will drop and Lake McConaughy could become “a ditch in midsummer.”

“Climate change is real, and human activities have a profound effect on the way in which it is occurring,” they asserted in endorsing a lengthier document released in August by the American Meteorological Society.

The other signers of the joint statement are Robert Oglesby, who’s part of the faculty in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and in the School of Natural Resources; Mark Anderson and Adam Houston, associate professors in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences; and Martha Shulski, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and director of the High Plains Climate Center.

In weighing in on global warming in interview mode, Rowe, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, wants to stay true to his calling.

He keeps pointing out that he’s a scientist and an educator. He’s not a sociologist, not an economist, not a politician, and he’s not equipped to deal with nonscientific questions.

His role, as he sees it, “is to make sure the science is out there, truthfully, factually, and that the science can’t be misrepresented in the policy debate.”

And it’s important that the evidence is out there during the campaigns for president and for a U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska.

Rowe acknowledged that climate change is controversial stuff.

An unprecedented show of activism from his department could have attracted an outpouring of anger from people who don’t like hearing about the climate impacts of the way they live.

After all, agriculture, Nebraska’s economic colossus, has gotten its share of the blame for clogging the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. So have the energy-guzzling habits of a population always on the move in cities and towns.

And was he lambasted? Did he see signs that people were taking a Sept. 21 stance personally?

Well, no, he said with a laugh.

“Basically, I left the country right after this.”

The laughter is short-lived.

Rowe said his speaking trip to Mexico quickly reminded him that it’s one of many places where global warming is regarded with more urgency than in the United States.

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Why is that? He’s not qualified to say.

“My gut take on it is that we’re one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide ... and we would have to give up a lot.”

That makes denial more of a temptation. “We don’t really want to give up our SUVs or whatever.”

That leaves a contradictory situation -- ample evidence of climate change and ample evidence, so far, of failure to respond.

The 10 warmest years in global temperature records up to 2011 have all occurred since 1997, noted the American Meteorological Society.

There have been twice as many record high temperatures as record lows in the first decade of this century.

Can scientists get through to the country with the message on which a vast majority of them agree?

Rowe strokes his bearded face. He laughs. He turns serious again.

“I think we will, as humans on this planet, realize we need to do something sooner or later.”

It’s not too late, but it’s almost too late, to get on top of this situation, he said.

“I’m an optimist. I always have been. So I hope we do. I hope we do.”

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at


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