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Dr. Donald Wilhite

Retired faculty member and former administrator Donald Wilhite of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln retired this summer and took professor emeritus status.

When Don Wilhite hears politicians say they don’t believe in climate change, he responds with dry sarcasm.

“Well, climate change is not a religion,” he said during a recent interview from his cozy office on the seventh floor of Hardin Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

“The scientific evidence is overwhelming that climate change is real and that humans are the driving cause.”

Wilhite has spent his adult life examining issues of climate, focusing on drought monitoring, response, planning and preparedness.

Countries around the world have looked to the University of Nebraska to help them prepare for drought because of the resources, expertise and faculty Wilhite has helped gather. 

He joined UNL in 1977 and during his time as the university's Dr. Drought, Wilhite has flown more than 2 million miles and visited 70 countries.

He retired this summer, taking on the title of professor emeritus.

Wilhite’s career took off as federal officials began taking a serious interest in how to prepare for, mitigate and respond to drought in the wake of one that left the southeastern United States parched from 1985 through 1987.

He was the impetus behind the creation of UNL’s International Drought Information Center in 1988, then went on in 1995 to be the founding director of National Drought Mitigation Center. He also spent five years as director of UNL’s School of Natural Resources, starting in 2007.

Wilhite has authored or co-authored 150 or more journal articles, monographs, book chapters and technical reports. And he’s credited with lassoing more than $20 million of external funding for projects

Chancellor Ronnie Green has worked closely with Wilhite over the years and calls him a committed and respected climate scientist who leads both in Nebraska and internationally. The importance and impact of the work -- especially in this era of significant climate change and increase in variability -- motivated Wilhite, Green said in an email.

Robert Stefanski, chief of the agricultural division of the World Meteorological Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, said Wilhite is the world’s foremost expert on drought monitoring and management.

“He has tirelessly advocated for better drought management and preparedness plans for countries and local communities around the world," Stefanski said in an email. "These concepts that are used today were developed by him and his team at UNL.”

For Dr. Drought, retirement doesn’t mean sipping fruity drinks on the beach.

But it does give him the flexibility to focus on projects close to his heart, like spending time with family, producing a second edition of his book, "Drought and Water Crisis," working on an atlas of Nebraska to be published next year, chairing management and advisory committees of the Integrated Drought Management Program sponsored by the UN's World Meteorological Organization and participating in the Mid East/North Africa drought management project sponsored by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

And continuing to champion another issue a little closer to home: Spreading knowledge of the implications of climate change for Nebraska and urging the state to take it seriously.

“This is such a critical issue, not just for today, but for the future that we just can’t continue to sort of just dabble around the edges," Wilhite said. "We have to jump into this.”

Politics and the fossil fuel industry’s attacks on the science of climate change have made progress difficult and hard-fought, he said.

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“We have a governor in the state who doesn’t believe in climate change. This is a really difficult issue. State agencies need to be working together to try and address this issue in the best interest of Nebraska, and you don’t see a lot of that happening. It starts at the top.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts has called himself a skeptic of human-driven climate change.

“The governor believes the climate is always changing," Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said in an email Monday. "The question is what level of impact man is having on the climate, and on this question the science is still unsettled.”

Wilhite disagreed, saying the comment is based on politics not on a knowledge of science. He points to reports by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which engaged more than 1,000 scientists.

"Climate change is real, and humans are the principal cause," Wilhite said.

In 2014, he was lead author of the landmark report “Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska.” Wilhite then went on to be part of eight roundtable discussions around the state to address the issues it raises.

As the amount of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere rise, the UNL study said, Nebraska will see more severe storms, floods, warmer nights, scorching summers and withering drought. Its findings have fueled grassroots groups in Nebraskans seeking to pressure the state to action.

Wilhite proposed UNL do an independent study because state legislators at the time planned to commission another climate change study that would not have allowed human influences to be mentioned as a cause. The Legislature’s proposed study eventually was dropped.

Humans will adapt to the changing climate, Wilhite said. They have no choice. But the world needs to take seriously the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate warming of the globe.

“The huge danger here is that the projected changes in the temperature of the earth to mid-century and beyond are such that our ability to sustain agriculture and life on this planet that we know are really in jeopardy here,” he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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