Sustainability Interview: Dr. Donald A. Wilhite


Dr. Donald A. Wilhite – professor of applied climate science in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources (snr.unl.edu); coordinating author for UNL’s recent report on climate change; founding director of the National Drought Mitigation Center and the International Drought Information Center at UNL

What role do you and your organization play in sustainability?

Obviously, the School of Natural Resources plays a large role from the perspective in both research and educational programs related to sustainability. We coordinate the environmental studies major, for example, for the University of Nebraska, and that program has been growing and trains students on a lot of these issues and gets them engaged in community activities and that sort of thing. Being the former director of the school, when I became director I put lot of emphasis our building, our facilities and our unit itself being a role model for the rest of UNL in terms of recycling and drawing attention to the environment and protecting the environment. More recently, I’ve been heavily engaged in this climate change activity, trying to educate the state policymakers as well as the public about climate changes and the implications of climate change for Nebraska. That’s a major component of the whole sustainability discussion, how climate change is going to change the management and use and conservation of natural resources in the future; that’s another important aspect of what I do and others do in the School of Natural Resources.

What elements of negative human impact concern you most, generally and in your area of expertise? 

This trend in greenhouse gas emissions that’s driving the whole climate change issue and the debate about this is something we all need to be more aware of and understand the implications of this locally, regionally, nationally and globally. The lack of understanding of this issue and the importance of climate change by the general public is of considerable concern. And if you think of this issue particularly from a national perspective, but also from a local perspective, it’s the partisanship that has developed over this issue and the fact that that there has been such a significant political divide, unfortunately between the two major parties, about climate change and whether we should do anything about it and whether we even believe it’s real. That is of major concern because I just see that Congress is not really taking action, and they’re derailing attempts by President Obama to do things in a positive fashion to address this issue. I think, politically, the parties—particularly the Republican Party—is really out of touch with the science of this issue and the concern of many, many people about the implications of this for not only their generation, but for future generations. I hear a lot from adults who are worried about their kids and their grandkids and what the environment’s going to be like on this planet and locally in the future as we move through this century; that’s a major concern.

What good news is out there regarding sustainability?

I think you have a growing momentum on the part of a lot of environmental groups and the faith community and so on that are trying to get people to understand the importance of this issue. It’s a moral issue in terms of our future and our children’s future, but also a moral issue in the sense that the people that are going to be most affected by climate are those that are the most vulnerable to these kinds of changes. That tends to be the most vulnerable of our own population: the elderly; the less advantaged in terms of the poor people in our society, minorities and so forth; but also developing countries are going to be tremendously disadvantaged by this. I think the fact that there’s this growing groundswell of information and commitment to try to do something about this by various advocacy is a very, very positive thing and I hope it begins to have an impact on national politics and so on.

What needs to be done first and by whom locally?

We all need to do things locally both from the standpoint of sustainability, recycling and protecting environment and reducing our carbon footprint and engaged with our politicians and our elected officials. We all need to do what we can individually, but as a society, we need to move forward. There’s a lot you can do individually but essentially our country needs to make a decision to move forward and address this and our state needs to move forward and address this. We’re trying to provide leadership for that within my program and others at the University of Nebraska in terms of how we’re going to move that conversation forward, in terms of how we’re going to mitigate and adapt to climate change as it continues to occur. 

What are the most important actions individuals here can take to make a difference?

Number one is to vote. People need to be taking this issue seriously and challenge people who are running for public office as to where they stand on this issue and how they are going to take some positive action to support communities and states and at the federal level to provide initiatives to address this issue. There are a lot of things we can do to improve our energy efficiency individually, within families and communities: reducing our carbon footprint, recycling —all of these things are incredibly important— moving to alternative fuel sources, and so on. We can all do things individually but we also need to expect more in terms of change from our politicians.

What do you wish more people here knew regarding sustainability?

I think there’s confusion about the issue of sustainability and that people sometimes people take the extreme view that it means we can’t do anything…it’s really about preserving our planet and so forth. With regards to the climate change issue, one of the key things I wish people knew is the fact that there is consensus within the climate science community. So the scientific evidence about climate change is in fact well-understood and well-accepted and so forth, but through the media and through the political debate we have in this country, that message is not getting across to the average person. In fact, there was recently a survey done—there are a number of groups that track public understanding and perception on various issues—less than 10 percent of the population in the United States, according to this survey understood that there’s really consensus within the climate change community, that climate change is real, and that the date supports that. Because they get confused by media and political conversations about this, and they think that there is no consensus so they don’t need to take it seriously. It’s really astonishing. For one thing, it illustrates that the average education level of the population on the understanding of earth science and things like that is at such a low level. This is a very complex issue and if people don’t understand and they listen to politicians debate it, they’re very easily swayed to ignore the issue and not place it as a very high priority. People are more concerned—obviously, I mean I understand this and we all understand this—people are more concerned about making a living and providing for family and doing things that are very personal. But trying to get them to think about something that’s broader and something that’s kind of a creeping phenomenon—it’s slow environmental change up to this point but is expected to accelerate—it’s a huge issue.

What resources can help people here learn and understand more about the issue?

There are a lot of science-based resources out there that can become very technical in terms of trying to communicate the science. I would refer people to our climate change report (go.unl.edu/climatechange). It was produced locally based upon an assessment of issues at the global, national and local level, and that report was really done to try to provide a baseline in terms of understanding the science of climate change, why it’s important, what are the implications for Nebraska in the near and the more distant future, and so on. The document is there for people to read and I think it’s written in such a way that most people can understand what we’re talking about; it’s not written for a scientific audience. So I think that’s a good baseline. 


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