Ag Weather Forum

Don't Handcuff Climate Change Research

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , DTN Ag Meteorologist and DTN Analyst
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The subject of climate change research became a controversial issue this past week in the Nebraska legislature, when a state senator ordered that a study on climate change effects for Nebraska agriculture, energy and natural resource impact should not include any research into human involvement. Posted below is an Omaha World-Herald article on this controversy, titled "State Climate Change Study May Go Begging For Scientists" written by World-Herald reporter Nancy Gaarder. I have highlighted some key sentences in the article. Following the article, I have some more detail on this issue.--Bryce

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LINCOLN — Nebraska may be poised to conduct a climate change study that its own scientists don't want to be associated with.

The state's drought and climate task force wrestled Wednesday with the awkward job of developing a study on the impact of climate change in Nebraska but possibly excluding the role of humans in changing the climate.

The study is to be completed next year and cost no more than $44,000.

The Legislature approved the study this year and handed the task to Nebraska's already-existing Climate Assessment and Response Committee, a governor-appointed group that mostly advises the state on drought issues.

The sticking point in Wednesday's discussion, beyond the lack of money and time for the study, was what the Legislature meant when it voted to limit the study to “cyclical” climate change.

The word “cyclical” was added to the legislation by State Sen. Beau McCoy, a Republican who represents western Douglas County and is a candidate for governor. McCoy could not be reached late Wednesday.

Last April, during debate on the bill, McCoy said: “I don't subscribe to global warming. I think there are normal, cyclical changes.”

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a Democrat and the leading environmental voice in the Legislature, wanted something broader.

Haar said after the meeting that his intent was to include all aspects of climate change. He said that any analysis that rejected science and excluded the role of humans would make the state “look stupid.”

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“???'Let's just embrace ignorance, and let our children deal with the consequences.' That's what that sounds like,” he said.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) scientists at the meeting said they wouldn't participate in the climate study if it excludes the influence of humans. Some said they wouldn't be willing to ask others to consider doing the study, either.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the university's acclaimed National Drought Mitigation Center, said he would not be comfortable circulating a study proposal to his peers if it excluded the role of humans.

“Personally, I would not send it out,” Svoboda said.

Similarly, Martha Shulski, climatologist and director of the High Plains Regional Climate Center, told the committee that the study's scope will determine her staff's potential involvement.

“If it's only natural (causes), but not human, we would not be interested,” she said.

Both centers are housed at UNL.

Bobbie Kriz-Wickham, who heads the drought and climate task force, told her colleagues that it's her understanding, after reviewing the floor debate and final version of the bill, that the Legislature intended the study to focus on cyclical weather events.

Scientifically, weather is a narrow term applying to individual events such as storms, tornadoes and cold fronts. Climate is the broader, longer-term pattern.

A definition limited to weather concerned the scientists, some of whom were members of the committee, others who were there to advise it.

For one thing, “cyclical” isn't a scientific term, said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“You won't get a credible response,” she said.

As written, the proposed study asks for a report on “cyclical climate change in Nebraska” and a review of “historical climate variability and change; climate projections; and possible impacts.”

The committee asked Kriz-Wickham to revise the study proposal and define cyclical.

Asked after the meeting whether “cyclical” includes or excludes human influences on climate change, Kriz-Wickham declined to answer and instead referred to the Legislature's floor debate and final bill.

Kriz-Wickham is the assistant director of the Department of Agriculture, which answers to the Governor's Office. The climate committee also is under the umbrella of the Governor's Office.

Sue Roush, spokeswoman for Gov. Dave Heineman, said his office does not plan to become directly involved in defining “cyclical.” She said Heineman believes that should be left to the committee.

For now, it's clear that the state and university career employees advising the committee are wary of becoming involved with the study.

“I don't want my name on something ... and be used as a political pawn,” Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist, told the committee.

-end of article-

Some additional details here. The question may be asked--"Why does not including human impact on climate change make this study so useless (for lack of a better word)?" The answer is not a simple one, but it is important in understanding moment research and its parameters.

The major point is this--you cannot cherry pick data. You cannot assume that, just because you've run analysis on temperatures over a set period of time, that you can formally announce that all of the climate trends that you see with that data can be pigeonholed into either entirely natural variability or entirely human influence. And, to go ahead and do analysis and state positively one way or another ignores the fact that you have to try to analyze and break apart the relative contributions of natural climate variability and human involvement in that data set or long term trend.

There's more detail that could be added--but this is the big point. If you want to do research, you cannot handcuff the effort. That leads to erroneous conclusions which can have possibly disastrous consequences.

BA

(CZ/ES)

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