Looking out for climate change in Chicago

There’s no foolproof picture, but here’s what to consider when it comes to how we’ll live, spend and work.

April 3, 2014

(Flickr/yooperann)

Editor’s note: Key interviews that contributed to this story about climate change and the future of Chicago were first presented during The Raw Report, a live media event co-produced by WBEZ and The Public Square, a program of the Illinois Humanities Council. 

Some people find it hard to get worked up about the fate of future generations. But Mark Mesle, who came to Curious City with a big question about climate change, has no problem putting a face on future environmental anxieties.

Her name is Parker. She’s Mark’s 18-month-old daughter. He and his wife Abbey have another kid on the way, and it got him wondering:

How will climate change impact Chicago?

Mark runs a website, www.50yearforecast.org, devoted to raising awareness on climate change, so he’s no stranger to the topic. What he asked us for was a higher-resolution picture of the problem: a better understanding of how greenhouse gases might change life for his kids here in Chicago.

“You always see 2100 projections,” said Mark, who is 33 years old. “How about 2045, when my daughter is my age?”

Mark wants to know what kind of world his kids will grow up in, so understandably he asked for a high degree of detail.

“Do the Cubs not play August games anymore?” he asked, for example.

But here’s the thing: Mark’s asking for something that we don't have a clear answer for, according to Liz Moyer, an assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry and transport at the University of Chicago.

“We know physically that climate change will happen. We know geologically what’s happened to species in the past,” Moyer said. “How do you turn that into saying, ‘It’s going to cost this much, it’ll change our economy in this way.’ That’s something we’ve had trouble doing, and the economic models are set up to reflect that.”

The basic science is settled. Greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, most notably) trap heat within the atmosphere, causing a global temperature rise. As it gets warmer, sea level rises due to the physical expansion of heated water and melting ice around the globe.

What all this means for Chicago is harder to say — the climate models scientist use don't provide that kind of resolution. But the situation could be improving. In March the federal government announced it would release data from NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense, and other Federal agencies on its website, climate.data.gov, to help cities and regions plan for climate change. The Illinois Climate Network's data is part of that growing cache of information.

Globally, though, scientists are concerned. A report issued March 18 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science warns, “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”

So, if we won’t be able to give a foolproof picture of what Chicago’s climate will be like in 2045, is there any insight we could send Mark’s way?

It turns out there is.

We found scientists, economists, activists and Chicago officials who are on the lookout for local effects of climate change. While none gives a full-blown prediction, each identifies which areas of life — the local economy, the lake, whatever — are most vulnerable and why Mark (and the rest of us) should consider them.

What’s on Chicago’s radar

The city laid out what it knows in its Climate Action Plan, which was adopted in 2008. City Hall has three main concerns: it will get hotter, exacerbating problems with air quality and perhaps making deadly heat waves stronger and/or more common; flooding could get worse as intense rainstorms become more common, further burdening an already swollen sewer system; and Chicago's native ecosystems could change, forcing farmers, gardeners and landscapers to change their habits.

High school students at Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy in the West Englewood neighborhood are working on that last problem, studying which tree species are best suited to a warmer climate. So Parker Mesle and her forthcoming sibling will likely plant different saplings than her father, our question asker.

In the future there might be less Lake Michigan than Mark’s used to, if a trend toward low lake levels continues. On average, warmer average temperatures should mean less ice cover during winter, which means the Great Lakes may evaporate faster than they’re recharged. That could change coastal ecosystems and hurt the lucrative shipping industry in the region, which the U.S. Department of Transportation says supplies $14.1 billion in annual income to U.S. citizens, and $33.6 billion in annual U.S. business revenues.

The city’s thinking through effects of climate change that may not be so dire, however. If Mark’s kids choose to live in Chicago, they could have plenty of company. That’s because, under some scenarios, transportation (especially forms that involve climate-changing fossil fuels) could become more expensive, making life in the dense, urban core more attractive.

Chicago is thinking through encouraging or adapting to higher residential density, and strategies include everything from neighborhood walkability to historic preservation and affordable housing.

“If you think big picture, a lot of this is about creating a really livable, really competitive and really livable city,” said Karen Weigert, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer. She said urbanites have a lower per capita carbon footprint than those in less densely populated communities, which tend to have higher transportation emissions.

“Living in an urban environment, as a start,” she said, “is actually a pretty good climate choice.” Even suburbs are starting to reinvest in transit-oriented development and walkability—characteristics traditionally associated with inner cities. Reducing the distance people need to travel reduces their fuel use, which can save money as well as greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s likely Mark’s kids will have more transit options (not to mention more fuel-efficient vehicles) wherever they decide to live.

Knocking on Chicago’s door?

But what if rising seas in Florida and New York — let alone Bangladesh — send “climate refugees” flocking to Chicago? This is an example of an indirect “knock-on” effect of climate change that came up during our panel discussion in February. As University of Chicago Law Professor David Weisbach said, however, the Chicago area might be well-positioned to handle newcomers and other unforeseen impacts.

“We have a temperate environment. We have a highly diversified economy — it’s not dependent on any one sector. We have a stable fresh water supply,” Weisbach said. “If you think about what the effects of climate change will be in Chicago, it’s going to be the knock-on effects. We’re connected to the rest of the world, and what matters to the rest of the world matters to us. That will affect us potentially very, very deeply.”

When we try to figure out what those potential impacts will be, we’re inevitably speculating about the ability of our city to respond to change. One key problem with that is our ability to cope with challenges isn’t uniform. Poorer communities, or those with less political clout, get passed over.

That’s true in Chicago, according to Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, who is executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. During our event in February, she said sustainability efforts need to address communities all around the city — not just on the North Side.

“If it’s about saving the butterflies and building green streets in Lincoln Park, that’s great for them,” Wasserman said, “but what does that do for the people on the Southwest Side of Chicago?”

She said local efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions can help marginalized communities take control of their future, possibly creating jobs in turn.

“For us it’s about showing how a local economy can help a community and how that in change can also help turn the impacts of climate change,” Wasserman said. “We’re working, breathing, living in our communities, fighting for our environment, and we want to showcase that bringing it local is really one of the only ways that we can save our environment.”

Climate justice is a global issue, too, because the poorest countries also happen to be those that will get hit hardest by the effects of climate change. Countries in the tropics tend to have both fewer resources and far greater biodiversity than countries in temperate zones. Sea-level rise in Bangladesh alone is expected to displace tens of millions of people.

Northwestern University Economist Benjamin Jones recently co-authored a study examining the connection between severe weather and economic impacts. He and his colleagues found there’s a surprisingly large range of possible economic outcomes.

“For example, it’s increasingly clear that when you have extreme heat in the U.S., that you see a large negative impact on agricultural output. It’s increasingly clear that very high heat leads to at least temporary large spikes in mortality, especially among the very old and very young,” Jones said. And, he said, it can impact economic growth on a large scale. With colleagues at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jones statistically analyzed the connection between severe weather, climate change and economic impacts. One degree Celsius of warming could curb a country’s growth by as much as one percentage point — a huge effect, considering the U.S. growth rate was around 3 percent in recent years.

Climate of opportunity

But figuring out how to respond to change — what experts are calling climate “resiliency” — could create huge opportunities, too.

Jones said if Chicago innovates within the low-carbon tech sector, it can make money and jobs while coping with climate risk.

Chicago is the nation’s hub for battery technology. The wind energy industry is big here, too, as is energy efficiency and water technology. Perhaps Mark Mesle’s children will be among the scientists and engineers who will help us adapt to climate change.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. We’re already seeing a lot of innovation around clean energy, around agriculture,” Jones said. “If there is a lowest-cost way out, it will be that route.”

Ultimately it’s a question of managing short-term shocks and long-term changes. A short-term influx of climate refugees could be a good thing, providing skilled labor and boosting the local tax base. But too much too fast could overburden city services, especially if those services are already strained by severe weather.

In the six years since Chicago set out on its climate action agenda, the city has implemented a few notable initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Ratepayers voted to buy power through municipal aggregation, which doubled the share of wind energy in the city's electricity supply. That followed the closure of two coal-fired power plants on the Southwest Side ahead of schedule. And last year Chicago directed landlords of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, which account for 15 percent of the city’s total energy use, to report their energy consumption. That’s expected to improve the rate of energy efficiency improvements already hastened by a slimmed-down approval process for retrofits.

And parts of Chicago itself may look different for our question asker’s children. Chicago has invested in green infrastructure, including a stretch of Cermak Road meant to serve as a model for sustainable streetscapes. With rain gardens and smog-eating pavement, Sustainability Chief Karen Weigert said “It’s the kind of infrastructure that will be strong and critically important going forward.”

That project cost less than competing proposals, city officials said when it was announced in 2012, but not all climate resiliency infrastructure projects are easy sells. Potential costs are huge, but so are upfront investments. The Center for Neighborhood Technology found floods cost Chicagoans $660 million between 2007 and 2011 (just based on insurance claims paid out), for example. But, as we learned from atmospheric chemist Liz Moyer, cash-strapped governments don’t typically make major investments to fend off future pain that is inherently uncertain.

Global citizens

Absent national movement on a carbon tax or trading scheme that might catalyze development for climate-resilient infrastructure, Chicago will probably continue to lean on its most reliable resource: its people. As Weigert said, the city’s motto is Urbs in Horto — city in a garden.

And that city is increasingly connected to others around the world. Whether it’s in response to business opportunities, climate refugees and other knock-on effects, or carbon emissions from around the globe, Chicago’s going to change with the climate. Our question asker Mark Mesle hopes we’ll rise to the occasion. So for the sake of his kids, he’s urging action.

“I’ve sort of always felt there needs to be international cooperation,” he said at our panel event in February. “That doesn’t happen unless U.S. politicians care about it, and U.S. politicians don’t care about it unless you tell them to care about it.”

Chris Bentley is a reporter for WBEZ’s Curious City, and a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @Cementley.

The Raw Report: An experiment in live media-making

In February 2014, WBEZ and The Public Square (a program of the Illinois Humanities Council) co-produced  “The Raw Report," an experiment in live media-making. The event, held at the Jim & Kay Mabie Studio at Chicago Public Media, included a panel of knowledgeable sources that answered Mark Mesle’s question in front of a live audience. Teams of young and newly-minted reporters interpreted that answer and created their own original audio presentations in real time, which they reported back to the audience.

Moderator Laura Washington led a follow-up discussion that explored questions such as: How do the stories generated by the teams of young reporters differ and why? How important is it to realize that each story we consume in media is only one of an infinite number of ways to tell that same story?

(Full set of photos and more info in WBEZ's Flickr pool: http://wbez.is/1pXyf5r)

Sincere thanks to our panelists:

Elisabeth Moyer, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Transport at the University of Chicago. Moyer’s research explores climate modeling and impact assessment. As a researcher with the Center for Robust Decision-making on Climate & Energy Policy (RDCEP), she’s interested in sizing up and dealing with the uncertainty involved with making climate change predictions — case in point, a recent paper, “Climate Impacts on Economic Growth as Drivers of Uncertainty in the Social Cost of Carbon.”

Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, executive director, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. She led the charge to close Midwest Generation’s Crawford coal plant in her Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, as well as the Fisk power plant in Pilsen — an effort for which she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013. LVEJO’s success has been recognized worldwide, but Wasserman says the attention has only sharpened her focus on environmental justice in Chicago.

David Weisbach, Walter J. Blum Professor of Law and Senior Fellow, the Computation Institute of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. Trained as a mathematician and lawyer, Weisbach is primarily interested in issues relating to federal taxation and to climate change.

Thanks, too, to our teams of journalists, who represented the following organizations:

The Chicago Reporter: An investigative news organization that identifies, analyzes, and reports on the social, economic, and political issues of metropolitan Chicago with a focus on race and poverty.

The Mash: A weekly newspaper and website written largely by, for, and about Chicago high school students.

Free Spirit Media: An organization that provides education, access, and opportunity in media production to underserved urban youth.

The Social Justice Chicago Reporting Fellowship program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

Columbia College Journalism Department

Thanks to our partner for the Raw Report: 

The Public Square is a program of the Illinois Humanities Council.