Opinion: Climate change concerns in Kansas

Last month a state district court judge in Montana ruled in favor of young environmental activists — ranging in age from 5 to 22 — and their claim that the state of Montana was violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by allowing fossil fuel development.

Essentially, this ruling sets a first-of-its-kind precedent that government has a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

What does this mean for Kansas?

Well, that’s a bit more difficult to unpack.

The Kansas Constitution, unlike Montana’s, does not provide explicit protections for the environment, though there are numerous state laws in place for varying levels of environmental protection.

For example, the rise in wind energy utilization over the past two decades has led to a consistent decline in the state’s carbon emissions — a well known contributor to global climate change.

Though, Kansas has not yet adopted a 100% renewable energy goal like other environmentally conscious states have, including our western neighbor, Colorado.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering the oil and natural gas industry is a major contributor to the state’s economy — according to the Kansas Geological Survey, run by the University of Kansas, there are currently 45,402 oil wells and 19,015 natural gas wells in operation across the state — and the state is home to one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the country.

But one thing is clear in both Montana and Kansas, citizens — especially young people — are concerned about the effects of climate change.

Data from the 2022 Kansas Speaks public opinion survey distributed by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University supports this assertion. Nearly half (49%) of Kansans expressed that climate change was a crisis or major problem and another 28% said it was a minor problem.

Furthermore, nearly 75% of respondents said that state government policies could have some effect on limiting climate change — 78% said federal government and 68% said local government could have some effect.

Notably, 78% of Kansans also indicated that business and corporate policies could have some effect on limiting climate change.

Exit polling conducted by Fox News during the November 2022 election also found that 52% of Kansans are very or somewhat concerned about the effects of climate change on their local community.

Responsively, Kansas has made great strides toward being a leader in renewable energy — wind energy accounted for 47% of our electricity generation in 2022, which was the third-highest share of wind power for any state after Iowa and South Dakota, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And in 2019, wind energy surpassed coal for the first time as the largest energy source for generating electricity in Kansas.

Furthermore, the Kansas Renewable Energy Standards Act, passed in 2019, established a voluntary goal that 20% of a utility’s peak demand will be generated from renewable energy resources by the year 2020.

The state also has some tax incentives in place to encourage individuals and businesses to use alternative energy sources.

The EIA has dubbed Kansas among the states with the most wind power potential due to our wide open plains, yet a vast majority of Kansas’ wind resources still remain untapped.

Considering the broad concern about climate change among Kansans, an increase in climate related temperatures and disasters across the globe, and evidence that climate change is responsible for the slow depletion of the High Plains Aquifer System — including the well-known Ogallala Aquifer, which is the most important water source for much of western and central Kansas — let’s hope that state policy continues to move in the direction of renewable energy, leaving fossil fuels development a thing of the past.

— Alexandra Middlewood is the department chair of political science at Wichita State University.


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