The flash flood brought torrential rain and a stubborn reminder for Omaha: Climate change is here. But while most of America’s cities have plans to deal with it, Omaha’s city government does not.

But in late November 2021, the Omaha City Council took the city’s first official step toward responding to climate change, giving Mayor Jean Stothert’s office the green light to research a Climate Action Plan for the city.

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A Climate Action Plan lays out blueprints to reduce climate change effects and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The plans were a response to an Obama administration initiative in 2008. To date, 417 cities, including 35 of the 50 largest, have some form of plan to address adverse weather effects. Today, about one in three Americans live in a place that has a Climate Action Plan.

The City of Omaha did not respond to The Reader’s request for comment on its Climate Action Plan work. The approval passed by the Omaha City Council is a half-page document outlining why councilors want to pursue the plan.

“I do think this will require some resources upfront for implementation, but I also think these efforts — when they’re done well — typically do save money anyway, in addition to being the right thing to do for our environment and our climate,” Council President Pete Festersen said then.

Clouds plume from the smokestack of a South Omaha packinghouse on March 22, 2022. Photo by Chris Bowling.

As recent years have made clear, whether it’s the flash floods of 2021 or flooding along the Missouri River two years before, the effects of climate change are here. Omaha has started to see the effects, long periods of drought, wetter winters, drier summers, dangerous thunderstorms and extremely inconsistent weather patterns.

For Omaha to catch up to other cities like Des Moines, Lincoln and even Crete, which all have or have started a Climate Action Plan, city officials need to work effectively, said Craig Moody, managing principal at Verdis Group, a sustainability and climate planning consultancy in Omaha. Moody’s organization has long helped cities like Lincoln build their own plans, and one week after last August’s flash foods, Moody published a blog giving cities a how-to guide for “one of the most important things a community can do to accelerate climate action,” saying these documents are meant to be used, not sit on a shelf.

Moody said one of Omaha’s primary focuses should be talking to citizens, because these aren’t temporary fixes but long-term adjustments.

“It’s really important that when these plans are done that they involve extensive, inclusive public engagement,” Moody said. “What do we want Omaha to look like in 2050? You don’t want to set a community-wide vision for where we want to be without involving the community.”                              

While Omaha’s local government doesn’t have a specific outline for climate change, the city does address it in the environmental element of its master plan, passed in 2010. That document calls for the city to make buildings more energy efficient, expand transit options and use water sustainably as heat-wave frequency increases.

However, other entities in the metro have made concerted efforts to shrink their carbon footprint. The Omaha Public Power District, which serves nearly 850,000 people across 13 counties, has taken action into its own hands. In 2019, OPPD set a goal to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2050 and have repurposed methane gas produced at the Douglas County landfill into energy. Eric Williams, OPPD Board of Directors vice chair, hopes his team’s actions will inspire the people of Omaha and Omaha officials to fight for a greener city.

“Setting that goal of net-zero carbon by 2050 establishes a timeline and a numerical metric to what we want to achieve,” Williams said.

Omaha’s public transportation, METRO, has also made strides to address climate change, introducing electric vehicles to its fleet and increasing service through the new rapid bus line ORBT. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Transportation study, using private automotives produced 33% more carbon emissions than taking the bus. If a planned light-rail system from downtown to midtown takes off, Omahans could be reducing that carbon footprint by 62%, according to the study.

Local stores like Exist Green in Dundee also play a part, offering zero-waste options for people to buy groceries, home goods and more.

“We don’t have all the answers, but to have a place where people can come and learn about zero waste can help,” store manager Mary Range said.

But some say for this plan to work, it has to be inclusive of all Omahans. From the Missouri River to the Elkhorn River, suburbs to the crowded city center, people in this city have different needs and abilities to change in their lives, said Ryan Wishart, an assistant professor of environmental sociology at Creighton University. While a carbon tax could be used to lower emissions, it may negatively affect low-income communities. And while transit is a huge opportunity to lower the amount of gas we pump into the atmosphere, access in areas like North and South Omaha can be limited.

“We live in such a dysfunctional and unequal economic system, that if you try and just incorporate those prices without doing anything else, you're going to deny people at the bottom of the class structure access to basic needs,” Wishart said.

Fortunately Omaha doesn’t have to look far for guidance on taking action against climate change. Lincoln implemented its action plan in 2021 after two years in development. Among its goals are to increase recycling, keep water and air clean, preserve natural resources and reduce emissions. Martha Shulski, director of Nebraska’s State Climate Office and a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the way Lincoln set up its plan pushes the city to make fast, effective changes.

“What stands out is Lincoln had the ability to recognize that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed, along with all the other immediate issues that a city must address in keeping up with roads, park systems and infrastructure, all the different aspects that the city has to think about,” Shulski said.

A building lost it's second floor during a storm in July 2021. Photo by Mike Machian.

But just because Lincoln has a plan and Omaha doesn’t, doesn’t mean one city is in front of the other. While Lincoln doesn’t offer recycling, Omaha recently boosted its recycling program from small green bins to 96-gallon cans. But having a citywide plan to inform decisions through the lens of climate change makes a huge difference — still Omaha has time to catch up.

“A Climate Action Plan is a long-term vision and it will require programs and projects and implementation that will take a very long time,” Williams said. “If some of the timelines that we're talking about are 2030, 2040, 2050, or even longer, is the two-year head start a huge difference? Probably not.”

Omaha is still in the early stages of its Climate Action Plan. Last year, the city said it would solicit requests from companies to research and propose a plan in the near future. Moody said developing an environmental plan is a long process — from approval to implementation could take two or more years. But with climate change becoming a reoccurring, unavoidable problem for the city, advocates say it’s not time to wonder if Omaha’s too late.

“We can't change what we did or did not do in the past,” Williams said. “All we can do is make decisions now about what we will do in the future.”

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