Steve Kirchner is a recent graduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He is a history major, a wrestling enthusiast, and — like 48 percent of Nebraskans— a Republican.
He also happens to be one of the most outspoken carbon pricing advocates in the Great Plains, a region of the country where momentum for strong climate action has stalled.
“In Nebraska, there’s really no political momentum for carbon pricing,” Kirchner said in a recent phone call with Climate XChange. “We’re very behind on climate action, and [we’re] pretty much as red as it gets.” But with Kirchner’s relentless work, an appetite for climate policy in the state is building.
Kirchner inadvertently learned of the climate crisis as a sophomore in college, when he read about it in an extra credit book for class. “It totally blew me away,” he said, “I was like ‘wow, what is going on? How have I never heard about this?’”
Upon realizing the devastating and disproportionate impacts climate change would have on his own community in Northern Omaha, Kirchner decided to take action. In 2017, he attended the Citizens’ Climate Lobby International Conference, where he learned about carbon pricing as a solution to the climate crisis. Soon after, he began serving as the president of Sustain UNL, an independent student group governed by the mission to create a sustainable world through activism, education, and service engagement.
As president, Kirchner brought Our Climate’s #PutAPriceOnIt campaign to his college campus, urging fellow students to advocate for an on-campus carbon price, as well as for federal carbon pricing policies. In July, the group will host a four-day Climate Policy Camp, which will train high school and college students from across the state on how to become climate leaders in their communities and work with the state legislature.
“Steve is really a superstar,” said Page Atcheson, Executive Director of Our Climate.
Achieving Climate Progress in a Red State
Kirchner’s efforts have been tenacious, and they have not come easily. Though Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is technically nonpartisan, in practice, 30 of its 49 Senators are Republican. Furthermore, Nebraska Governor Pete Rickett (R) said upon taking office that “it is far from clear what is going on with our climate.”
Despite these political obstacles, Kirchner remains devoted to shifting the way Nebraskans talk about climate, and promoting conversation between people on both sides of the political aisle.
“If a conservative is interested in having a conversation about climate change, have one,” Kirchner said, “don’t accept people as ‘deniers’, if possible.”
During these conversations, Kirchner stressed the importance of openly and actively listening, and highlighting what well-crafted policies can accomplish — and already have.
“When you’re listening, you can pick up on people’s values and what’s important to them,” Kirchner said. “It’s really important that we can connect people’s conservative values to carbon pricing and other policies that are conservative in nature.”
Extreme weather events, like flooding and frequent tornadoes, have intensified in Nebraska in recent years, garnering significant attention from the media. Combined with the introduction and attention to the Green New Deal, climate policy has been elevated to the forefront of legislators’ minds, even in states that have traditionally been apprehensive of taking action on climate change.
“Politicians and candidates are becoming more likely to talk about the issue of climate change,” Kirchner said. “They have had a lot more constituents bringing climate up.”
Pushing Forward a State Climate Action Plan
Despite already experiencing the effects of climate change, Nebraska is one of only sixteen states in the US without a Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive roadmap that outlines specific actions that a state will take to reduce its emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
One of Sustain UNL’s priorities this session was lobbying for a bill (LB 283) that would have provided UNL with $250,000 to develop a comprehensive state climate action plan. The bill, introduced for the second year in a row by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, mandates that the state delineate specific methods for adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change in Nebraska.
In a February hearing for the legislation, Pansing Brooks stressed the urgent need to address what she described as a ‘security issue.’ “We must plan ahead to respond appropriately, the same as we would plan for any disaster,” Pansing Brooks said. “I remember as a child at Sheridan Elementary School here in Lincoln that we had tornado drills. This is no different. It is common sense to protect ourselves, our state resources, and our economic security.”
Proponents of the bill included the City of Lincoln, American Institute of Architects, Nebraska Elder Climate Legacy,, Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and Citizens Climate Lobby. Even those that opposed the legislation did so due to logistical concerns, not because they didn’t believe in climate change or in the need for a plan.
“The questions were: ‘where does this funding come from, where are we going to get $250,000 to pay for this plan?’” Kirchner said. “It was much more about looking at the pragmatics of funding the bill, instead of questioning the need for it, and I thought that was very encouraging.”
While the bill did not move forward this session, there was public support for it; a 2015 poll found that 61 percent of rural Nebraskans supported the creation of a climate action plan.
Continuing the Fight Ahead
Now a college graduate, Kirchner has moved back home to Omaha, where he helps oversee a community center and continues climate policy advocacy with Our Climate. He remains committed to growing Sustain UNL — which now has 55 dues-paying students — beyond the UNL campus.
“We want to get out onto other Nebraska campuses, get more students to organize, and use the successful model that we’ve used at UNL at other universities,” Kirchner said.
Carbon pricing is still on the horizon in Nebraska, but as students mobilize in the fight for a healthy planet, momentum is rising. If conversations are progressing in a red state like Nebraska, that’s good news for the rest of the country.