Climate change is an existential threat -- a true life-and-death threat. Reality is that the climate is changing our weather and environmental conditions in every region, as well as casting an ominous shadow over all aspects of human life on earth.
Climate change ultimately affects the health, safety and security of all the world’s inhabitants -- all humans, all animals, all plants, all life on earth. Ultimately, the question before us is this: What sort of future do we want our descendants to experience? Do we want a world with rising tides, greater weather variation and severity, compelled migration of peoples suffering climate disasters, or a world where countless species of plants and animals are erased from the face of the earth? Not me. We can do better. We must do better!
Last spring the stark reality of our ever-warming climate was painfully demonstrated in Nebraska. Disturbingly, we recall the heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt triggering massive flooding inundating countless homes, farms and communities in our state. The cities of Fremont and Valley became islands.
Norfolk was forced to evacuate a third of its residents, and the Platte River swelled to “historic proportions.” Accordingly, Gov. Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency to counter “the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced,” at a cost of $1.3 billion.
Summer still followed spring, but the weather did not get better. July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded on our planet and the 415th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures. At both poles, sea ice retreated to its lowest extent since first recorded in 1979.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere ballooned to over 410 parts per million -- an increase of 100 parts per million since 1960. Such a rapid rate of carbon dioxide growth is estimated to be 100 to 200 times faster than the warming that occurred after the last Ice Age.
Moreover, a robust 1,500 page report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services details how the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20% or more in the last hundred years.
The report, put together by hundreds of scientists from all over the world and approved by 131 countries (including the U.S.), concludes that 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. Repeat: extinction!
How many keystone species are in this slow-moving apocalypse that is picking up speed? This is scientific truth. It’s not an alternative fact we merely sweep under the rug, pretending it will go away. All the discussion of how we ought to discuss the problem has its role in combatting climate change, but the very sad truth is we are running out of time.
Instead of immediate action when confronted with this grim picture, we are paralyzed with indecision. Not paralyzed over differing potential solutions to this existential problem but paralyzed by denial that a problem even exists at all. The science is clear: Climate change is absolutely real and it’s now.
It is also clear that climate change is more politically polarizing than any other issue in America. While we are currently seeing a wave of enthusiasm and support for new and comprehensive climate plans such as the Green New Deal on one side, the issue has fallen to a level of least importance and even ridiculed on the other side. In the Nebraska legislature, I know from painful experience, that climate change bills gain absolutely no traction.
What would appear to many Nebraskans, and virtually the rest of the world, as a cut-and-dried issue in desperate need of a remedy, has engendered a degree of political polarization unlike any issue before. According to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, “Your political party is the greatest indicator to your view on climate change – more than race, age or gender.”
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It is precisely this expansive divide on this critically important issue that necessitates further efforts to communicate the legitimacy and gravity of climate change to Nebraskans as well as all Americans. Simply put, the jargon of climate science, with complicated terms such as “decarburization”, “negative externalities” or “regenerative economic outcomes” holds little meaning to the average person and pitifully fails at inspiring the kind of action we desperately need.
The language we use and how we frame this issue will be absolutely crucial as we continue to communicate climate change to a broader public audience. Unfortunately, the truth is that most people are unlikely to be moved to action unless they experience personally the damage being caused.
It’s ironic. In the week that President Trump announced that he would withdraw United States support from the Paris Climate Agreement, 11,000 scientists in 153 countries declared a climate emergency. They warned that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without huge shifts in the way we live.
While we lack a credible renewable portfolio standard for our entire state, which I hope to change during the next legislative session, we absolutely must build on the foundation laid recently by Omaha Public Power District’s announcement of going 100% carbon-free. But, time is short.
It is imperative that all Nebraska utilities are committed to eliminating emissions on an accelerated timeline. For Nebraska, the key to reducing our emissions comes in the form of solar and wind energy with battery back-up. While we may not have the intense direct rays of sun found in the Southwest, Nebraska has the 3rd best wind energy generating potential of any state. Embracing the potential of wind and solar in Nebraska will enable us to not only do our part in the fight against climate change, but to establish a safe, secure and sustainable future for all Nebraskans.
Fortunately, in 2019 as technology has continued to develop, moving towards renewable energy is not only environmentally-friendly but cost-effective and economy-boosting. And we know that doing nothing now will cost us billions as we “clean-up” after ever more frequent weather disasters.
According to Lazard’s comparison of the unsubsidized costs of energy, wind energy now costs the least of any alternative or conventional energy sources at $29 per megawatt hour. Wind, along with the rapid reduction in costs of utility-scale solar power to around $40 per megawatt hour, are both more cost-effective now than coal at $60 per megawatt hour. With over 60% of our state’s electric energy being provided by coal hauled in from Wyoming, the affordable low cost of renewable energy should be very welcome to all Nebraskans.
Moreover, a strong commitment to the widespread implementation of wind energy has the power to revitalize communities across our great state by boosting the economies of agricultural communities and creating new jobs. Simply put, solar and wind energy are cash crops.
Nebraska farmers have an immense opportunity to lease portions of their land for the installation of wind turbines and receive money in return. In fact, landowner lease payments in 2018 amounted to $289 million across the United States.
In Nebraska, landowners received between $5 million and $10 million in land lease payments, and state and local taxing entities received property tax payments of $8.5 million. This additional income provides stability for farmers and ranchers by helping them to offset decreases in farm revenues and reduces property taxes which all rural residents should appreciate. The creation of nearly 4,000 stable high paying jobs is also a very positive benefit for rural Nebraska.
Apart from our desire to expand renewable energy in Nebraska, there are some promising proposals to reverse global warming. According to the New York Times Bestseller, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, there are 100 ways to reduce our CO2 and carbon emissions. These solutions reside in energy, agriculture, forests, industries, buildings transportation and more. The book is an optimistic blueprint that should guide us as we overcome fear, confusion and apathy concerning climate change.
The history of our great nation is replete with crises that have required the coalescence of a robust, single-minded response from our government. The Civil War, the first and second world wars, the Great Depression and the Manhattan Project.
Even the space race that culminated in one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments: walking on the moon. These are the watershed moments of American history where, instead of succumbing to frozen inaction, we rose to the occasion with united and committed action. This life-threatening crisis we now face is of an even greater magnitude and should compel nothing short of the same degree of dedication and commitment that Americans have demonstrated throughout our history. It’s essential that we marshal all of our national resources to combat climate change before manageable solutions are beyond reach.
Our movement is not defined by numbers. This essential movement is defined by people who are willing to stay committed to a cause over a long period of time and keep going. Let’s stay committed! MAGA –make America GREEN again.
State Sen. John McCollister represents District 20, which covers portions of south-central and southwestern Omaha, in the Legislature.