Photo By NEVADA WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT Nevada’s pika population may be in decline because of less snow in the state’s mountain ranges, according to a Colorado scientist.

The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, has drawn attention to the impact of climate change on different parts of the nation.

“Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding,” Hansen wrote in the New York Times. “Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Nevada is heavily dependent on the California economy.

Hansen is also an environmental sciences professor at Columbia University and is known for developing climate models used to understand the climates of Earth and Venus.

Meanwhile, the documentary Last Call at the Oasis premiered in Los Angeles and New York and is appearing in theaters across the nation. It deals with water supplies around the world with focuses on the Midwest, Australia, the Middle East, the San Joaquin Valley and Las Vegas.

Water is the area in which Nevada is considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“If we don’t do anything, Las Vegas is a dead city—period, full stop,” Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Tim Barnett said in an interview in the film, which was produced by the company that made Waiting for ‘Superman’. There appear not to be any plans for showings of the film at Reno theatres yet.

In still another development, climate scientist K. Bruce Jones has been named director of the ecosystem sciences program at the Desert Research Institute, a scientific arm of Nevada’s higher education system. Jones is a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist.

Finally, University of Colorado-Boulder scientist Mark Williams reports changes showing up in plant and animal life in the West. A campus statement on his findings reads, “As for the future of flora and fauna in sub-alpine and alpine regions … there will be ‘winners and losers’ as the climate warms,” said Williams. Animals like American pikas, potato-sized denizens of alpine talus slopes in the West, need heavy snowpack to insulate them from cold winters as they huddle in hay piles beneath the rocks. In lower, more isolated mountain ranges in Nevada, researchers are already seeing a marked decline in American pika populations.” A pika is a small mammal in the rabbit family.

States and communities have a role in dealing with climate change, but the public’s concern about it is waning in opinion surveys, which is a source of worry among scientists because a sense of urgency is needed to get anything done. Public officials are less likely to act when the public is complacent.

Earlier this year, Alabama scientist John Christy—a noted leader of the small group of climate researchers who dispute the scientific consensus—released a report published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology that argued snowfall in the Sierra Nevada has not fluctuated much over the last 130 years. “There isn’t a trend significantly different from zero for the whole period,” he said in a Tahoe Tribune interview. That clashes with most other research. Most other scientists, including Roger Bales of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and Mike Dettinger of the U.S. Geological Survey, say Christy’s conclusions went beyond the data he offered. Official water planning policies assume a decline in snowfall.

Though warming in Nevada is usually described as milder than in other regions, the ecology of the Great Basin is also more fragile than other areas. A lack of water can be catastrophic, both for the environment and for the economy. A July 2008 University of Maryland study of the economic impact of warming on Nevada reported that reduced water would sap hydroelectric power generation for the state, leading to both higher utility bills and less tourism—particularly outdoor tourism such as hunting, fishing and golfing. “Warmer temperatures and drought will negatively affect most of these activities,” the report said.

Nevada environmental leader Dan Geary said the public’s concern over climate change has been pushed aside by more immediate concerns like jobs.

“My experience on that subject is that there has been, for as long as I’ve worked on this issue, very intense debate on climate change and [it] has been a front burner issue,” he said. “I think what’s happened is the economy has really eclipsed climate change and a number of other environmental issues.”

He said this is particularly unfortunate, because an aggressive state climate change policy would create jobs, jobs and more jobs.

“Nevada is smack dab in the center of the best natural resources,” he said. “We have sunlight 365 days a year. We have more mountain peaks than Colorado for wind production. We have the raw materials, but we don’t have significant capacity to deliver energy.”

This last is a reference to the state’s lack of transmission lines with which it can deliver energy from one end of the state to the other and send it out of state as well. Congress has authorized the construction and provided funding and the Interior Department has given final approval to loan guarantees, but the long-sought project—which would create hundreds of construction jobs—is moving at a crawl within Nevada’s borders. It was supposed to be in operation this year. An update from NV Energy, one of the partners on the project, reads:

“NV Energy, Inc. … announced on March 30, 2012, that the in-service date for the One Nevada Transmission Line (“ON Line”) under construction in Eastern Nevada will be further delayed due to on-going efforts to address wind-related damage sustained by some of the tower structures erected for the project. At this time, the Company does not anticipate that ON Line will be placed in service until the latter half of 2013.”

Geary said that Nevada environmentalists have tried to identify their movement with economic concerns. “After the last election cycle I believe there was a very clear change in messaging [by the environmental community] emphasizing job creation and technology advances in climate change,” he said.

Some Nevada projects have come under fire on grounds other than climate change denial. In Forbes magazine, columnist Larry Bell wrote, “Then there’s the matter of DoD [Department of Defense] financing of the largest North American solar plant to provide electricity for the Nellis Air Force Base. Located outside Las Vegas, it covers 140 acres of the Nevada desert with massive photovoltaic arrays. As advertised, the Air Force expects to save $1 million per year in power costs. In fact the Air Force is so pleased with the project that it hopes to double the power it gets from solar in the near future. Sounds pretty good, so far, doesn’t it? The down side is that these current and future cost savings are only possible thanks to multimillion-dollar federal and state financial subsidies and incentives. ‘Without those, prices wouldn’t be competitive,’ according to Daniel Tomlinson, editor of a solar newsletter for Navigant Consulting.”

Bell has described concern about climate change as “warm-mongering.”

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...