Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing examining the current and projected impacts of climate change in the Midwest, as well as strategies being developed to mitigate the associated risks. The Midwest (defined in the National Climate Assessment as Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio) has about 20 percent of the nation’s population, and produces 19 percent of the nation’s GDP. According to the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), climate change has wide-reaching impacts in the region, affecting the agricultural industry, the Great Lakes, northern forests, the energy system, and public health, generally in detrimental ways. In addition, the Midwest’s economy is highly energy-intensive, releasing 22 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than the U.S. average. Briefing speakers discussed how reducing emissions and taking action to improve the resilience and adaptation of Midwest communities, businesses, and farms can help mitigate climate change-exacerbated economic and social stresses.

  • Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, University of Michigan and Lead Author of the Adaptation Chapter of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, said that in the 24 years since Congress called for regular national climate assessments to be conducted, the question is no longer whether the climate is changing, but rather, how can we adapt and respond to the changes taking place?
  • Climate change is no longer a future potentiality, it is happening now. Dr. Bierbaum said we are seeing the effects of sea-level rise, which exacerbates natural events such as hurricanes. Impacts are apparent in every region and in every important sector, including health, water, agriculture, and energy.
  • The Midwest had some of its largest temperature anomalies on record in 2012, with annual average temperatures four to six degrees Fahrenheit above normal. The drought and the heat had a detrimental impact on crop yields.
  • According to Dr. Bierbaum, the NCA report shows that heavy precipitation events are becoming more frequent and flood magnitudes are increasing up to 18 percent per decade in the Midwest.
  • Climate change is affecting agriculture. The growing season in the Midwest has lengthened by 1-2 weeks, and by 2100 the growing season may be 1-2 months longer. This may seem like a positive outcome, but crop yields decline under high temperatures.
  • The region’s forest composition will shift and its ecosystems will struggle to keep up.
  • The NCA report shows that public health is vulnerable to many of the impacts of climate change. There will be more heat waves, degraded air quality and water quality, increases in pests, and lengthening allergy seasons.
  • In the Great Lakes, climate change will cause changes in the range and distribution of fish species, increases in invasive species and harmful algal blooms, and declining beach health. On the other hand, less lake ice cover will lengthen the navigation season.
  • Dr. Bierbaum called for adaptation efforts, including sharing best practices and lessons learned. She said it's not too late to take action to combat climate change. And, it's not too soon for the nation to become more resilient.
  • James Brainard, Mayor of Carmel, IN, and member of the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, reviewed the history of city development since World War II, and pointed out that city planning should be optimizing the quality of life of its residents rather than designing for cars. Mayor Brainard explained that Carmel is returning to traditional neighborhood development principles, such as making neighborhoods walkable since that is what people want.
  • The city of Carmel has launched many green initiatives to make itself more appealing. For instance, it has more than 80 roundabouts, more than any other American city. Carmel’s roundabouts have reduced injury-causing accidents by 78 percent and have saved 24,000 gallons of gasoline per year.
  • Mayor Brainard is also promoting energy efficiency, through LED street lighting and LEED building standards, for example.
  • Mayor Brainard pointed out that mayors tend to be less partisan. Their constituents “just need to see a result." He said natural conservation and environmental sustainability should be a nonpartisan issue. In fact, conservation has been a Republican principle for years: President Theodore Roosevelt created the country’s first national parks, and President Nixon signed legislation creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Larry Falkin, Director of the Office of Environment and Sustainability for the City of Cincinnati, OH, said the city of Cincinnati made climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience all priorities years ago. The Green Cincinnati Plan was adopted in 2008 and continues to be updated.
  • In compliance with the plan’s target of a 2 percent reduction in carbon emissions per year, Cincinnati reduced its carbon emissions by 8 percent between 2008 and 2012.
  • Several programs made it possible to reduce carbon emissions with minimal public outlays. With Energy Service Performance Contracts, private contractors made city buildings more energy efficient, and were compensated only if their improvements resulted in lower electricity bills. With Solar Power Purchase Agreements, private companies paid for the installation and upkeep of solar panels on city roofs, and then sold the electricity generated to the city at the same rate the city was paying for grid power. With Electricity Aggregation, the city was able to negotiate better rates for a pool of 60,000 customers, giving them access to 100 percent green energy while saving 23 percent in energy bills.
  • Falkin found the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) a very useful document in helping the city of Cincinnati plan for climate adaptation. Like many Midwest cities, Cincinnati faces acute climate threats (heat waves, wind storms, floods), chronic threats (droughts, invasive species, tree loss, crop losses, exotic diseases), and the local effects of global climate disruption (food shortages, energy shortages, displaced populations).
  • Climate change means more rain, more storms, and more droughts at the local level, depending on the season (summer will be drier, winters wetter). Extremely heavy rains are not only projected but are occurring in the Midwest, and new emergency preparedness plans are required to address these extreme weather events.
  • Extreme heat is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of climate change in the Midwest, in terms of human health. The poor and elderly are particularly vulnerable to heat waves, which could be exacerbated by power outages.
  • Climate change may also increase the price of food. Currently, Cincinnati public schools are the primary source of nutrition for 50,000 children. If food prices double or triple, there is a high possibility that public schools will no longer be able to provide food for these children.
  • Falkin also underlined that Midwest communities have to prepare for the possible influx of displaced populations following extreme coastal climate events such as Hurricane Katrina.
  • Falkin pointed out that one of the key results of climate change is that the future won't look like the past, so that we cannot plan for it by only looking at the past.
  • Jeremy Emmi, Managing Director, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said climate change may push farming into more northern soils. These are less amenable to agriculture and contain more carbon, which would be released into the atmosphere through farming.
  • Though longer growing seasons in the Midwest would seem to be a positive effect of climate change, the Third National Climate Assessment shows that higher temperatures cause lower crop yields and lower nutritional values. A paper published in the May 2014 issue of Nature showed that elevated C02 concentrations result in lower concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein in certain crops.
  • The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is pursuing 8 key goals. In particular, the organization seeks to promote energy conservation; increased energy efficiency; and on-farm solar, wind, and other renewable energy production as ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency. The Coalition also seeks to inform farmers and ranchers about methods and practices that would make their operations more environmentally and economically sustainable.