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Climate Change in Illinois Means Frequent Flooding Could Be Normal Within A Decade

The arch leading to a Clarksville park reads "Touch the Mississippi." You could do that well up the street from the entrance during a flood in 2014.
Amanda Vinicky
NPR Illinois
The arch leading to a Clarksville park reads "Touch the Mississippi." You could do that well up the street from the entrance during a flood in 2014.

An international panel on climate change this week warned greenhouse gas emissions will keep increasing if left unchecked and called for urgent action. According to one Illinois scientist, that means frequent heavy rain events and flooding could become the norm.

Listen to a summary of the story.

Jim Angel is the state’s leading expert on climate change. As Illinois’ climatologist, he studies changes in precipitation, and watches for spikes in heavy rainfall. Recently, temperature changes around the world have been leading to more downpours here in Illinois.

“Those are the ones that cause the flooding, the erosion, and all the damages that we see across Illinois,” he said.

Angel says the increased rain is a financial drain on farmers, who stand to lose more crops to flooding.

The UN report itself calls for "unprecedented changes" in global energy production and agriculture. Angel says that would take massive effort, especially from the U-S.

“The only thing I could compare it to would be what we did in World War II, where we went from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy." he explained. "We did a remarkable turnaround there. That’s kind of what we would have to do to meet these kind of goals moving forward.”

Things like limiting vehicle emissions, reducing food waste and producing less meat could help reach that goal. But changes like that, Angel says, are needed sooner than later. And he’s worried few will heed the call.

Right now, Illinois and the US together give off about 15 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, second only to China.

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Jim Angel, which has been edited for length and clarity.What are your takeaways from the report? Is this anything different from what we’ve been saying for the last twenty or thirty years?

JA: “It’s quite a report to look at, and to look at the kind of things that you have to consider for that, but I think it’s a good exercise to do it. Even if we don’t make it, it at least gives you kind of an idea of the scale that we’re gonna have to undertake to make these kinds of changes. In the past, I know I’ve given talks like this and other have people have too; we talk about climate change and what we can do to reduce our greenhouse gases, but a lot of it is just polishing the rails on the Titanic! You really have to make some pretty substantial changes to make a big difference.”

Is there any way for you to put that in context for us? What sort of stuff would we need to tackle first and what do you suppose would be most dramatic that needs to change that we’re doing now?

JA: “I think some of the big things are changing how we produce energy. Most obviously you do a total switch to renewable energy and phase out all fossil fuels. That’d be one, and one of the other ones that would be impactful for Illinois is changes in agricultural practices. I know there’s concern that we waste a lot of food, so we’d need to reduce the waste in food, and some of the things like meat production have a possibility of having a higher carbon footprint than a food based diet. Some manufacturing processes would have to change as well. [These] are not only very big changes, but they also have to happen in a very short order.”

What sort of evidence have you’ve found of climate change at work in Illinois, as the state climatologist?

JA: “Most of my work is actually looking at changes in precipitation and especially in heavy rainfall events. That’s where we’re really seeing a strong signal and an increase in those really heavy rainfall events, and those are the ones that cause the flooding, the erosion, and all the damages that we see across Illinois. In fact, I would say, and it’s my opinion, that it’s probably the number one financial drain from climate change that we’re seeing in Illinois right now. Temperature-wise, we are getting warmer, but it’s not as dramatic as some other places. If you look at Alaska or the West Coast or our neighbors to the north, we’ve warmed some, but not nearly as much. We’re getting more milder winters, fewer really cold days, and more of the warmer days. We’re seeing a shift in the spectrum there, but I’d say the heavy rainfall events [are] where we’re seeing the biggest dollar loss, and also the higher risk for life loss as well.”

I want to talk about the suggestions you made earlier about changing the way that we do agriculture, something that’s particularly pertinent in Illinois.

From your perspective, is that possible? Given how much money is dumped into keeping these practices just the way they are, is this an insurmountable goal from a policy perspective?

JA: “In the last 24 hours, I’ve changed my mind about 10 times, going from optimistic to pessimistic about how we would accomplish that. It is a hard thing to imagine that we could do that big of a change in that short of an order. I mean, we’ve had difficulty making even modest changes over the last thirty years, so to start talking about what we’re gonna in the next 10 to 12 years in making major changes, that’s gonna be tough. It’s not impossible. We’ve done it before, but usually it takes a national emergency for that to happen. It’s a pretty tall order to fill as we move forward.”

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