Earth scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UN-L, are balking at, and avoiding identification with, a state-funded study of climate change in the Cornhusker State. Their reason: The study will ignore impacts of human activities and focus only on “cyclical climate change … only natural external forcings such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations.”

The UN-L scientists say such a study will be meaningless and unscientific, so the university is initiating its own independent study and timing release of it to coincide with that of the state-funded $44,000 effort.

Defining ‘Cyclical,’ Left Undefined by Legislature

The fracas between UN-L and the state arose recently at a meeting of the Nebraska’s Climate Assessment and Response Committee, CARC, under the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, which reports to Republican Governor Dave Heineman. The issue involves the state’s definition of “cyclical,” an adjective added to — but left undefined in — the mid-2013 legislation calling for the study, which is to focus on agriculture in particular as part of the review of climate change impacts statewide.

That legislation was passed by Nebraska’s unicameral legislature after it was amended to include the term “cyclical” before the words “climate change.” That amendment was advanced by a state legislator known to be averse to evidence of human causation of warming. That state senator is Beau McCoy, now seeking the Republican nomination to become Nebraska governor.*

The bill’s principal sponsor, State Senator Ken Harr, a Democrat identified by the state’s largest daily newspaper as “the leading environmental voice in the legislature,” said he supported the “cyclical” amendment when it was being considered. But he did so “with the intention of taking ‘politics’ out of [the] bill and making the focus on science and how climate change, regardless of its cause, will impact us here in Nebraska.” Harr now has written to the other 32 state senators who voted for his bill (LB583) saying, “Unfortunately, it appears that politics may be interfering with the purpose and intent” of the study.

When the study and its “cyclical” terminology came up October 23 at a CARC meeting, the state group batted around the legislative intent behind the term.

Haar: Let’s not ‘look stupid…embrace ignorance’

Omaha World-Herald weather reporter Nancy Gaarder reported after that meeting that McCoy, during debate on the bill, had said “I don’t subscribe to global warming. I think there are normal, cyclical changes.”

In her subsequent reporting and blog posts on the “cyclical” brouhaha, Gaarder — formerly the World-Herald’s environmental reporter, but now one of the few designated “weather reporters” at a U.S. daily paper — quoted Haar saying after that meeting that a study oblivious to the science on human causation would make the state “look stupid.”

“Let’s just embrace ignorance, and let our children deal with the consequences. That’s what this sounds like,” Gaarder quoted Haar. The legislator made similar points in an October 29 TV interview he did with the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

Gaarder also reported rancher McCoy’s saying he “lives and dies” by the weather and saying “It’s environmental groups who have an issue with our way of life, who have an issue with farming and ranching and the way we feed the world… . They are seeking to destroy farming and ranching as we know it.”

Skeptical of the relatively small amount of funds available for the study and of a short turn-around time for doing it — but skeptical in particular about the “cyclical” wording and omission of human impacts — several scientists at the meeting indicated they would not participate in the study. Gaarder quoted well-regarded UN-L scientist Mark Svoboda, of the National Drought Mitigation Center, saying “Personally, I would not send it out” to his science peers if it excludes consideration of the role of humans.

Gaarder also quoted the climatologist and director of the High Plains Regional Center, Martha Shulski, whose group is also housed at UN-L, as saying, “If it’s only natural [causes], but not human, we would not be interested.” A National Weather Service meteorologist, Barbara Mayes, objected that the term “cyclical” is not a term of science and that “you won’t get a credible response.”

Among the concerns apparently fueling some of the critics’ opposition to the narrow scope of the state report is that those bidding to conduct the limited study might come solely from interests, including those from out of state, predisposed to maintaining that human activities do not play a substantial role in the warming over the past six decades, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another issue for some is that UN-L itself in October 2013 had completed its own report on projected climate impacts across the state, and it is unclear how much the new study, for a relatively modest cost of $44,000, could add to that report. That UN-L October report concluded that:

A large percentage of the land in Nebraska is used for agricultural or rangeland purposes. An increase in temperature, especially in the summer months, can lead to an increase in evapotranspiration that can impact soil moisture. Both of these lead to an increase in irrigation demands, which could put a strain on the water resources in the region. Extreme warmth during summer is expected to increase, and this may cause more stress for human and animal comfort, as well as influence crop production with a higher frequency of hot days. With a decreased frequency of extreme low temperatures during winter, however, there will likely be less stress on humans and animals due to exposure to cold conditions.

The Assistant Director of the state’s agriculture department and head of the state’s drought and climate task force, Bobbie Kriz-Wickham, however, maintained at that October 23 meeting and since then that the focus of the new study is to be on cyclical weather events.

The state’s official solicitation announcement, known in Nebraska as a Request for Information, directs that would-be vendors consider only climate change resulting from “natural internal processes and only natural external forcings such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations.”

So UN-L’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources now says it will proceed with its own independent study.

“For the good of the state, we need to know the full breadth of the science,” Gaarder quoted Vice Chancellor Bonnie Green as saying. “Our scientists are absolutely correct [in objecting to a limited study] and I support them.” The university’s effort basically is to consist of a literature review and not of new research, and the university reportedly has set aside $20,000 for the effort to complement the work of its own faculty members.

The current schedule calls for the initial state report, limited to natural causes, to be completed by September 1, 2014, looking at climate projections and possible impacts on agriculture, water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests, and outdoor recreation. “Key points” and “overarching recommendations” from that initial state report are to go to the governor and state legislature by December 1, 2014.

* Nebraska is the only state in the U.S. to have a unicameral, or one-house, legislature. Its senators run as nonpartisans, but most do have specific party affiliations

Topics: Climate Science, Policy & Politics