Hello Omaha: The Dirty ‘C’ Word (Climate)

Over the next couple of weeks, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) has several pitstops around the state scheduled to collect public input on a state-level Climate Action Plan. On January 31st, we made our way to North Platte for the first of these meetings and see just how things might play out. As climate activists, we whole-heartedly support drafting and implementing a Climate Action Plan – but in a largely conservative state, many don’t.

First, some background

To give those that have never been to Nebraska some context: Nebraska is an overwhelmingly rural state. Part of the American Heartland, the state earns billions of dollars in corn, grain, and bean production annually. Even when looking at the state’s population: cows outnumber humans around 3.5 to 1! It’s an incredible agricultural powerhouse, but far from a climate-concerned state. Outside of its largest city, Omaha (Terrabyte’s home 😊), conservative values like pro-capitalism and anti-big government are the norm. Surrounding states mirror this urban-means-liberal pattern, resulting in a sea of red littered with small dots of blue at population centers.

Keeping these factors in mind: that means yes, Nebraska has never made its own Climate Action Plan (something some areas have had for years, some for more than a decade); it means Nebraska doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint outside of agriculture outside of agriculture; but most importantly – that means yes, even today, many residents don’t believe in climate change at all (let alone that humans are at fault).

The Meeting

It should then come as no surprise that there was a lot of pushback from attendees as they learned that government funds were being used to create a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Comments ranged from ‘tax cuts over tax spending’ to ‘we won’t become second to China (in regard to the number of coal plants both countries have). One man claimed that farmers don’t need the government to tell them what is best for them because they already do what’s best for them. Only minutes later, the dreaded ‘climate change is a hoax’ comment was being thrown around like it was 2006.

It took about an hour for NDEE moderators to dredge through problematic comments and actually address those with real questions/issues about a statewide Climate Action Plan (the meaning of the public forum). As the meeting concluded, it was clear some stakeholders came out as winners, and some as losers.

Winner: Climate Deniers

Especially for those that live outside of the United States, it’s hard to imagine that outright climate denial is still a huge issue in 2024. While world leaders debate on how to overcome the struggles that come with climate change at COP conferences and UN meetings, there are many that still don’t believe there is a problem to even begin with. This group is a global minority, but when a region mostly shares this belief, we know firsthand how quickly this becomes a real challenge.

Loser: The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE)

As mere government employees doing their job, it’s a shame the NDEE faced the brunt at the public forum. The NDEE has little to do with climate science, the current state of the country’s politics, or even state policy. It’s like yelling at the waiter when your food is overcooked: they had nothing to do with it, simply delivering the news and getting feedback.

Winner: Biochar

After initial comments subsided, the few in the room that were actually excited about the Climate Action Plan started to come to life. The surprising big hit: biochar. In turning organic material into charred pieces, biochar is an excellent way of removing carbon from an environment and putting it to better use, especially when that organic material is an invasive species. In Nebraska, Eastern Red Cedars have claimed countless acres of the Sandhills, but the common solution of a controlled burn results in massive carbon emissions. Biochar is really a win-win-win solution by removing invasive species while minimizing the carbon footprint, its ability to be reused as an agricultural supplement, as well as creating jobs for those to handle and process the material.

Loser: Nebraska

The state as a whole comes out as a loser, and for more than one reason. The overwhelming majority of forum attendees said they are against the state even applying for grant money to implement a Climate Action Plan (Neighboring states like South Dakota and Wyoming have already passed on these grants) – setting us back environmentally, but also financially. Because we are so far behind other areas (again, some areas of the United States have been working on Climate Action Plans for years), declining grant funds only puts us that much more behind. And the grants, funded through our tax dollars, are going to go somewhere – why not here?

Public opinion behind climate science isn’t just an issue for the state in dealing with climate change, but with education as a whole. If a big chunk of the population voluntarily decides to ignore the facts that they don’t like, where does that leave the rest of science and history?

The final decision on what the state does with its Climate Action Plan will ultimately determine how much the state will lose or gain. Of course, the best course of action for our own future is to implement a robust plan, but even a sub-standard Climate Action Plan will (honestly) be a big step for the state. But to do nothing will make us even bigger losers.

Closing Remarks (How to evoke change?)

To be entirely transparent, it’s hard to write this from a neutral point of view as a climate activist. Of course, I believe in climate science, wildlife conservation, and the importance of funding our communities – but it’s also important to give our opinions in a constructive way. It was incredibly upsetting listening to people from my home argue with those that are trying to benefit the planet as a whole, all on miseducated bias. But if I were to stand on a table and yell at everyone for not looking at the facts behind climate science – their opinions would only solidify in the wrong direction. If anything can be learned from the past few years of political tensions, it’s that rigidly standing by your opinion and shouting it at anyone who will listen is not the way to create change.

So, how do you create change? I admit that I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know a good place to start is to listen to other’s opinions. When people feel like they are being heard, they pay a bit more attention to what you are saying too. Treat other people how you would like to be treated, you know? And in listening to attendees’ concerns, moderators were able to better gauge what they had to say to align with general interest. For example, one thing that set people over the edge at the forum was environmental racism (*insert eyeroll*). Attendees said that they would rather see tax cuts than see their tax dollars go to work in neighboring communities (which goes against the state’s mantra ‘Nebraska Nice’, but I digress…). However, as moderators learned that many attendees were farmers and ranchers themselves, they gave more information on those topics. Many meat distributors are starting to request carbon intensity (CI) metrics, which when you’re a local rancher, you likely don’t have metrics on how much methane is produced by your cattle. Moderators shared that beef from Nebraska usually has lower carbon emissions due to the close proximity of processing facilities – but when they don’t have the metrics to back it up, distributors glaze right over them. So, if the state had additional funding to get farmers the metrics they need? You can imagine how the ears in the room perked up.

If you live in a largely conservative area that has also put climate change mitigation on the backburner, I highly encourage you to reach out to your local representative and let them know that this doesn’t make up the entire population. We have to start somewhere – why not with you?

Update 2/20/2024:

A couple of days ago, we attended the Omaha Metro’s own Climate Action Policy open house. Because of the disproportionate number of those living in Omaha and those living elsewhere in the state (between a third and a fourth of all Nebraskans live in the metro’s Douglas or Sarpy counties), the metro will be creating its own plan. While this wasn’t necessarily a meeting where citizens got together to share their views (making a direct comparison hard), the overall demeanor and tone was much closer to what I would expect from a metropolitan area. There was more conversation about how these issues could actually be resolved and less about if there is even a problem to begin with. The difference in tone ignited a spark of hope: maybe my (and Terrabyte’s) home can be a problem-solving, environmental kind of place that I’m happy to be a part of.

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