2021 Symposium

2020 Symposium





We're teaming up with the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communication's climate change reporting project for this conference. See the project below.

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Great Plains Conference: April 1-2, 2021

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Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change. Although questions remain about the speed, complexity, and consequences, scientific organizations around the world have agreed on this point, but why haven't the everyday people?

Rather than engaging in a productive debate about how to address this issue, our national conversation has devolved into a culture war in which one side denies the very existence of the problem. The debate on climate change in 2021 could be seen as one piece of a larger division attached to partisan politics and driven by distrust of establishments and science. A global pandemic and the rise of conspiracy theories have pitted truth against opinion in a parallel way.

We know about greenhouse gases, rising average temperatures, increased coastal flooding, retreating glaciers, more frequent severe weather events, and other consequences that will upset and transform daily life. The Great Plains faces similar challenges. Agriculture is our region’s largest industry, so we are intimately connected to the land and climate, with both short-term weather patterns and longer-term climate conditions affecting our daily decisions. Farmers and ranchers are, in a sense, first responders to the consequences of climate change already occurring. Indigenous communities, such as those along the Missouri River, are also disproportionately vulnerable to these changes. The Great Plains, long a region of weather extremes, will likely experience massive environmental impacts from future climate change with significant societal implications.

How did climate change become such a divisive issue? How does culture—meaning the beliefs, values, social practices, language, and attitudes by which we organize daily life—affect our understanding of climate change and limit or advance our possibilities for addressing it? Why have some embraced climate change denial and tried to delegitimize climate science? How can literature, art, history, politics, economics, psychology, language, and other social science and humanities disciplines bring new and constructive ways of communicating? And how can we move beyond the cultural impasse over climate change? These questions motivate “Climate Change & Culture in the Great Plains.”

Thirty years ago, in 1990, the Center hosted a conference called “Climate Change on the Great Plains,” which was described as “Looking Back from the Twenty-First Century at Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Plains.” We return to that topic three decades later.

Scientists track climate change, but we all will have to decide what to do about it. How can we focus national and regional attention on the key issues? This conference will examine the connection between climate change and culture through the Center for Great Plains Studies’ unique regional and interdisciplinary lens.

Featured conference speakers

Andrew Hoffman

Andrew Hoffman is the author of How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, one of 16 books and over 100 articles/book chapters he has written. In this work, he focuses on how environmental issues emerge and evolve under the influence of social and political ideas and the underlying cultural values that are engaged when people debate these issues. He is Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School for Environment & Sustainability.

Jes Thompson

Jessica Thompson’s research involves improving climate change communication through social science. She led a National Science Foundation project on building place-based climate change education tools for the U.S. National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thompson is an expert on the social and cultural foundations for effective promotion of environmental policy with an interdisciplinary approach involving history, culture, government, and media. She is Professor at Northern Michigan University and the founder of the Northern Climate Network.

Daniel Wildcat

Daniel Wildcat writes on indigenous knowledge, technology, environment, and education. He is co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center. A Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, Wildcat recently formed the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group, a tribal-college-centered network of individuals and organizations working on climate change issues. In 2008, he helped organize the Planning for Seven Generations climate change conference sponsored by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is the author of Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge and Professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.

Ursula Kreitmar

Ursula Kreitmair joined the UNL Department of Political Science as an Assistant Professor in the Fall of 2016. Her research interests lie with environmental policy. In particular, she researches how we might overcome collective action problems underlying (large scale) social dilemmas as found surrounding many environmental issues. Kreitmair uses an inter-disciplinary approach (behavioral economic experiments, computational, and institutional analysis) to refine policy tools used in environmental management based on insights from the behavioral sciences. Kreitmair teaches classes in environmental and public policy and research methods.

Conference schedule

April 1

6:15-6:30 p.m.: Welcome and introductions

6:30-7:15 p.m.: Keynote Speaker Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan

7:15-7:45 p.m.: Q&A with Hoffman

Title: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate

Though the scientific community largely agrees that climate change is underway, debates about this issue remain fiercely polarized. These conversations have become a rhetorical contest, one where opposing sides try to achieve victory through playing on fear, distrust, and intolerance. At its heart, this split no longer concerns carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, or climate modeling; rather, it is the product of contrasting, deeply entrenched worldviews. This presentation will examine what causes people to reject or accept the scientific consensus on climate change by synthesizing evidence from sociology, psychology, and political science.  And, it will make the case for a more scientifically literate public, a more socially engaged scientific community, and a more thoughtful mode of public discourse.

April 2


8:45 a.m.: Welcome and introduction

9-9:40 a.m.: Ursula Kreitmair, UNL Political Science

9:40-10 a.m.: Q&A with Peter Longo

Title: How to Design Climate Policy in a Polarized World

Culture is a main determinant of how we think and feel about climate change. As such, culture must be considered when designing mitigation and adaptation strategies to meet the rapid emission reductions necessary to avert the most damaging of climate impacts. Cultural cleavages, both domestic and international, threaten to mire us in political conflict when we need to be working collectively to address this major challenge. This talk uses culture as context to identify limits of current climate policy initiatives and to sketch out viable policy options that may be more palatable to individuals on different sides of the climate divide.


10-10:45 a.m.: Jes Thompson, Northern Michigan University

10:45-11 a.m.: Q&A

Title: Let's Change the Conversation about Climate Change

The impacts of a rapidly changing climate are everywhere, yet we haven’t figured out how to talk about climate change with our friends and neighbors. Since the 1980s public conversations about climate change have been dominated by the language of science and politics. Our own fears of scientific inaccuracy and uncertainty – or political disagreement – have censored us from talking about how to live on a changing planet. This talk presents a new frame for conversations about climate change and the places that matter. We can change the conversation about climate change by connecting the issues to the places we love, while talking with the people we love.


Session A

11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Jesse Bell, University of Nebraska Medical Center

12:15-12:30 p.m.: Q&A with Liliana Bronner, UNMC

Title: Health and Climate Change

Bell's research explores the relationships of extreme weather, climate variability, and climate change on natural and human processes. The climate that we experience controls much of the world around us. When our climate abruptly changes or gradually shifts, there can be related consequences to both our communities and our health. The goal of Bell's work is to understand these linkages between climate and health, so that we can help prepare our populations for climate- and weather-related disasters. To determine these relationships, Bell uses a variety of climate and environmental data sources to explore associations with human health outcomes.

Session B

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Panel: Bridging Science and the Humanities

Graduates of the Center's Great Plains Graduate Fellows Program will speak about how big picture thinking about climate change should include cross-disciplinary teamwork. Panelists include Aubrey Streit Krug (The Land Institute), Caleb Roberts (Assistant Unit Leader at the Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit), Dan Uden (UNL School of Natural Resources). Moderated by Tom Lynch, UNL


12:45-1:30 p.m.: Daniel Wildcat, Haskell Indian Nations University

1:30-1:45 p.m.: Q&A

Title: The Climate Change We Need: The Case for a Cultural Climate Change

Worldviews are largely tacit and assumptive in character. Seldom stated explicitly or critically examined, the modern worldview of progress and technological accomplishment is a fundamental part of what needs to change today. Unless we foster a non-anthropocentric worldview, it will be difficult to successfully address the physical climate change problems humankind has produced. Making that shift might be easier than we think. This presentation suggests that many Indigenous worldviews offer examples of the kind of cultural climate change we need to successfully address the deadly and destructive physical climate change humankind now faces.


Session A

2-3 p.m.: Experts panel

What is it like working on climate change with such an intense culture clash surrounding the topic? Hear from experts in their field about what lessons they've learned and how it affects their work going forward. With Martha Shulski (UNL, Nebraska State Climatologist), Crystal Powers (Nebraska Water Center), Tonya Haigh (National Drought Mitigation Center), and Mace Hack (The Nature Conservancy). Moderated by Jenny Dauer, UNL.

Session B

2-3 p.m.: Student Journalism Climate Project

Climate change is both a humanity-scale issue and, when it impacts you, a deeply personal story. Hear from a team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln student journalists and their mentors who spent a year diving into what climate change looks like on the ground for the Climate Change Nebraska depth reporting project. Moderated by Joe Starita, UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communication with Jennifer Sheppard, UNL CoJMC.


Session A

3:15-4:15 p.m.: Panel: The 1990 Conference

Thirty-one years ago, in 1990, the Center hosted a conference called “Climate Change on the Great Plains,” which was described as “Looking Back from the Twenty-First Century at Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Plains.” We return to that topic three decades later with a panel of scholars who formed the backbone of that conference. What have they seen change in 31 years? With Ken Dewey (1990 conference co-chair, UNL), Peter Longo (Political Science, UNK), Fran Kaye (English, UNL), Clint Rowe (Earth & Atmos, UNL) and moderated by David Vail (History, UNK). 

Session B

3:15-4:15 p.m.: Climate Change Lightning Round for Students

Undergraduate and graduate students from many disciplines showcase what climate change in the Great Plains means to them in quick, back-to-back presentations. Presenters: Bailey McNichol, biology (UNL); Margaret Nongo-Okojokwu, journalism (UNL); Mar Lee, English and global studies (UNL); Matthew Thompson, environmental engineering (UNL); Kathleen Dillon, English (UNL), Cameron Steele, English (UNL), Kimberly Steward, Natural Resource Sciences (UNL).     

4:15-5 p.m.: Closing comments and breakout reception rooms

Spend additional time with a range of conference speakers or break off into chat rooms to ask questions or discuss work.

Supported by

The Center for Great Plains Studies, the Cooper Foundation, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Humanities Nebraska, and these University of Nebraska-Lincoln entities: College of Arts & Sciences, Office of the Chancellor, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Faculty Senate Convocations Committee.

2020 Symposium sponsors