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Climate Change and the Midwest

Climate change is not just an abstract, an inconvenience, or a disaster limited to Arctic ice or coastal populations during superstorms like Hurricane Sandy. Illinois is already affected and climate change could hurt us all worse. The saying “think global, act local” is recalled, but there are no simple or easy answers.

Dr. Jeanie Bukowski, an Associate Professor at Bradley University’s Institute of International Studies in Peoria, warned, “There is no sound-bite, short way to explain the general situation, and sometimes a little information is even worse than no information at all.”

Still, the effects of climate change are profound and obvious, and lead to additional dangers. The Union of Concerned Scientists reported, “The climate of the Midwest has already changed measurably over the last half century. Illinois has been strongly shaped by its climate. However, that climate is changing due to global warming, and unless we make deep and swift cuts in our heat-trapping emissions, the changes ahead could be dramatic.”

Experts point to heat waves and droughts, tornadoes and other severe storms, wildfires and water shortages, melting glaciers and drying soils, increasing algae and water temperatures and decreasing health for plants and animals. In the near future, higher temperatures could mean power shortages, another Dust Bowl, extreme weather damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure, profound uncertainty for crops and livestock leading to food insecurity, and higher incidence of smog and soot, contributing to adverse effects on people’s health.

Bukowski, who’s taught courses on climate change and international diplomacy, said, “While people might not respond to the global environmental effects of increased temperature, they do tend to respond if these impacts are couched in terms of public health.”

The public increasingly believes the evidence of climate change. More than two-thirds of American adults now accept the trend and forecast, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center.

The science is winning converts, too. Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, funded by the extremist conservative Koch brothers, this summer conceded that climate change was real. Calling himself a “converted skeptic,” Muller said, “Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Illinois itself is the sixth largest producer of global warming emissions among all states, but it’s taken some positive steps: strong renewable energy standards, an energy-efficiency program, and environmentally-conscious building codes for new construction.

However, deniers and apologists remain bold. If they’re ostriches hiding heads in the sand, they’re powerful birds. Fox News still tries to legitimize those who deny the evidence (recently airing a British tabloid’s story based on a report by a U.K. agency – which criticized their broadcast as misleading).

Besides disinformation, the most disturbing reaction has been from corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson suggests that humans will just adapt to changed climate, saying, “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around – we’ll adapt to that.”

The Chamber in a brief filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged officials not to regulate carbon, saying, “Should the world’s scientists turn out to be right and the planet heats up, populations can acclimate to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations.”

More sensible insights come from environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben, who recently warned about Earth facing three crucial numbers: 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 Fahrenheit), the maximum increase in global temperatures that the planet can tolerate; 565 gigatons (a gigaton is 1 billion metric tons), the most carbon dioxide that can be released into the air by midcentury and remain below that 2-degree mark; and 2,795 gigatons, the amount of proven reserves of coal, oil and gas available for burning.

International agreement seems vital but difficult, if not distant, says Bukowski, who sees conflicts between nations’ and regions’ interests and effects on countries’ economies.

She said, “Regardless of how much the scientific consensus suggests that we need to do something about global climate change, there is unlikely to be international consensus any time soon.”

There’s a lack of action in Congress, too.

Shamus Cooke, an Oregon writer covering ecological and economic issues, recently wrote, “Republicans and Democrats alike erect roadblocks to understanding climate change. By the politicians’ complete lack of action towards addressing the issue, the ‘climate change is fake’ movement was strengthened, since Americans presumed that any sane government would be actively trying to address an issue that had the potential to destroy civilization.”

Bill.Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.