While Omaha develops its climate plan, The Reader sat down with Martha Durr, Nebraska’s climatologist and a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to understand what threats climate change poses to the Omaha area.
This interview has been edited for clarity, style and length.
The Reader: How can we expect climate change to affect Omaha?
Martha Durr: The key issues for Nebraska are heat events. With Omaha in particular, I think about the underprivileged communities that don’t have the ability to stay cool in the summertime. Another thing is an increase in frequency of extreme events, like flash flood events. And then on the flip side of things when it’s too dry, we need to be prepared for having too little water as well. In 2021, we had the warmest December on record. So we need to be prepared for these weather events that happen at any time of year.
Another consideration is that changes in other parts of the world could impact us. Wildfires in the western half of the US are very likely going to increase. So people could have their respiratory system compromised from smoke from wildfires that are happening elsewhere. Another important part of this is climate refugees. People will move into an area from another area because climate related events have driven them out. Some of them will likely come into Omaha or into Nebraska.
One more thing we should be thinking about is the cost of dealing with these extremes. The cost to recover from things like drought, floods and wildfires is going up. Some people maybe won’t be able to afford insurance because it’s just getting too costly.
TR: Can you speak to how climate change will affect disadvantaged communities?
MD: [In urban areas] there’s a lot of concrete, there’s a lot of absorption of energy and it retains that energy. So the amount of change [felt in urban environments] is going to be even more intense. Poor areas typically don’t have trees, don’t have parks, and don’t have as much shade. So, it’s hotter in these [poor] areas and there’s less of a capability to handle these exacerbated temperatures.
TR: What is the biggest difference between how you expect climate change to affect greater Nebraska versus Omaha and Lincoln?
MD: I think the effects of extreme precipitation, like heavy rainfall events, are going to be exacerbated in urban areas where you’ve got a lot of concrete, roads and buildings and so forth. We also have a tendency for people to move from rural to urban areas. So we need to make sure that we are building urban infrastructure that can handle both the hot, dry periods and these high intensity rainfall events.
TR: How much variability is there in these models based on how fast we decarbonize?
MD: In climate projections, there’s fast decarbonisation and then there’s business as usual. And the difference between those two climate futures is quite significant. If we don’t pursue [emissions] reduction measures, we’re looking at no stabilization of our climate and just kind of these runaway climate impacts. It’s critical that everybody do their part, from the personal level, to the city, state, to the country, to set these goals that let us keep our global temperature rise within a 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial time.
TR: What can our readers do to protect themselves, their family and their community from the impacts of climate change?
MD: In terms of mitigative action, you can vote with your dollars. Look at your retirement accounts and ask, are you putting money into the fossil fuel industry? What are your consumption practices and how can you keep those as low and as local as possible?
We can also focus on our mental health and make sure that we are doing okay. Climate anxiety is a significant mental health issue. You want to make sure that you are moving anxiety into some sort of action, which will hopefully help with your overall mental well-being.