The Nebraska Climate Change Study

November, 2013

Lincoln -- The State of Nebraska has embarrassed itself nationally over legislation to study the potential effects of climate change on the state. The Nebraska legislature authorized and funded such a study but before it could get underway, a state senator (who is running for governor) announced that his last minute amendment to the legislation before it passed was intended to prevent those doing the study from looking at any man-made influences on climate.

A State Department of Agriculture official said that the study could therefore look only at "cyclical" climate change, as opposed to anthropogenic effects. Whereupon some University of Nebraska scientists concluded that they could not participate in the study if the politics of climate change limited their freedom of inquiry.

National television news channels pounced on the contretemps.

Happily, the Vice Chancellor at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources has stepped up to say the University could do an independent study; he provided a modest budget and suggested a graduate student could pull together existing studies free of ideological baggage.

This might be easier said than done, given the passions and the rhetorical excesses from all sides.

Any such author would do well to start with the history of climate change in Nebraska and the previous controversies that surrounded the subject. The University has often been in the thick of the controversies. An early professor, Dr. Samuel Aughey, told 19th century settlers inaccurately that "rain follows the plow," resulting in over-settlement of many rural areas and an inevitable de-population that is still in progress over a century later. During the First World War and the decade that followed, University agronomists and extension agents urged farmers to put prairie land into production with newly mechanized farming techniques. But conservation measures were not in place, so the winds blew the soil and exacerbated (if not caused) the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

One heroic professor stands athwart these unhappy eras, as he witnessed them firsthand, studied them, learned from them, and remediated their environmental consequences.

Dr. Frederic Clements, Lincoln-born and NU-educated professor of botany and ecology, established (with his wife, Dr. Edith Clements) a laboratory in the Rocky Mountains where he could study the effects of climate on plants. Scores of Nebraskans and others trained at their Alpine Laboratory from 1900 to 1940, first supported by the University of Nebraska, then Minnesota, and finally the Carnegie Institution. As the devastating consequences of the Dust Bowl became apparent, the U.S. government turned to the Doctors Clements for remedies. The husband-wife team traveled the country (Edith driving), visiting the conservation experiments of those they had trained at their lab. They recommended to the nation such new conservation measures as small shelterbelts, contour farming, minimum tillage, and cover crops, along with the establishment of citizen-controlled Soil Conservation Districts.

When drought once again raised fears of another dust bowl in the early 1950s, much of the land had been restored and protected with these conservation techniques. Scientists and conservationists of the time credited these man-made countermeasures.

The Clementses were not political; they believed that the climate disasters they had witnessed were both cyclical and man-made. Frederic Clements joined with the founder of the science of dendrochronolgy, A.E. Douglass, to examine the effect of solar activity on climate. He likewise was a severe critic of the kinds of farming techniques that destroyed the prairies and caused them to blow.

Nebraska -- its state university in particular -- has every reason to conduct an independent study on the potential effects of 21st century climate change. A good place to start would be to review the lives and times of Frederic and Edith Clements.