Campus hosts forum for World Environment Day observations


By Emily Johnson

Jonathan Hoekstra’s city has been flooded for the past three years.Hoekstra, managing director of the Nature Conservatory Climate Change Program, watched Seattle experience three “storms of the century” as the city’s precipitation rates continue to climb.

“Nature’s rhythms are changing,” he said. “There’s no further north for a polar bear.”

Hoekstra was one of five guest panelists invited to speak about renewable energy and climate change at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Unite to Combat Climate Change forum on June 3.

The event was sponsored by the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, the United Nations Environment Programme and UNO as part of Omaha’s weeklong celebrations for World Environment Day 2009.

Omaha was chosen by UNEP to be the host city for North America two years ago due to the city’s dedication to environmental and sustainability issues.

“I think a lot of people are looking at our part of the country as ground zero for more ways to find biodegradable fuel,” said Mace Hack, state director of the conservatory and forum moderator.

Harmon D. Maher Jr., a professor of geology and interim associate vice chancellor for Research and Creative Activity at UNO, highlighted the university’s sustainability efforts and developed partnerships.

“I think we all understand that just a week dedicated to sustainability efforts is just a start,” he said.

Hoekstra said the two steps to combat climate change are to contain greenhouse gases by reducing carbon emissions and to develop nature-based adaptations.

“Climate change is no longer a far-off threat that needs to be dealt with,” Hoesktra said. “The planet has already warmed 7.2 degrees. It doesn’t sound like much, but nature feels it and we feel it.”

The first goal is particularly significant in the Great Plains, where at least 95 percent of the tall-grass prairie that once absorbed carbon is gone, along with some of its inhabiting species. For the Midwest, climate change could affect crops farmers plant.

Amy Fraenkel, the regional director and the UNEP director for North America, urged the public to understand the connect between the environment and the economy.

“Human beings are not outside of the environment, but a part of it,” Fraenkel said. “When you disrupt the soil, forests and grasslands, you’re disrupting and taking away a system that is absorbing greenhouse gases that was already there.”

Joseph Fargione, lead scientist for the North American Region of the Nature Conservancy, addressed concerns regarding the limitations of certain habitats.

Fargione and the other panelists said the problem should be faced with the “carbon wedge” approach by investing in multiple strategies, such as researching modes of sustainable transportation, offering local power companies incentives for good energy use, slowing erosion, expanding wind energy projects and installing more satellites to observe glacial balances and weather patterns.

“What we’re excited about is that they’re proven, ready and often cost-effective,” Hoekstra said.

The panel encouraged the public to take responsibility through small actions such as using low-flow shower heads, checking tire pressure regularly and replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs.

Fraenkel said this could reduce home water consumption by 50 percent, improve gas mileage by 3.3 percent and reduce enough gas emissions to equal 800,000 cars off the road.

“I think one of the problems with global climate change is that it doesn’t feel very personal yet,” Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra compared global warming with life-threatening diseases like cancer.

Even though the dangers are realized, the problem doesn’t become real for many people until it personally affects someone they know, he said.

“It’s very clear science. Thousands of scientists have agreed it’s happening and human made,” Fraenkel said. “The costs of inaction will outweigh the costs of doing something.


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