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An Uncertain Climate Future for Chicago

By San Diego Supercomputer Center News Office // April 8, 2014

It’s a short question, but a massive one: How will climate change impact Chicago? Scientific studies and climate models tell us that climate change is happening, and make broad forecasts about how different the Earth’s climate will be over the next century. But when it comes to making specific predictions about how climate change will affect the lives of people in a particular city, today’s models don’t provide any clear answers.

But when Chicagoan Mark Mesle, creator of 50 Year Forecast, submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City series, it prompted the radio station to organize a panel of experts and environmental justice advocates to discuss what can be said about the future of Chicago under an uncertain climate. Along with Mesle, the February panel included Liz Moyer and David Weisbach of the CI’s Center for Robust Decision-Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP) and Kimberly Wasserman Nieto of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Right from the start, Moyer tempered expectations about whether the panel would be able to make any specific predictions about climate change and Chicago.

“The real damage of climate change may not be something that’s easy to pin your finger on, like counting how many buildings were destroyed in a storm,” Moyer said. “That is thequestion in climate change, and part of why policy is so difficult. People say, ‘If this is so bad, what will it cost us?,’ and we can’t put a number on it.”

At least in general terms, the panelists agreed that Chicago may be better positioned to deal with climate change than many other cities around the world. But while the direct effects may not be as serious as those in Texas and Florida, Chicago will still be susceptible to indirect effects of rising sea levels and water shortages.

“Chicago, in the US, is one of the less vulnerable cities to climate change,” Moyer said. We’re not at sea level, we don’t depend on snowpack for our water supply. We are a fairly comfortable flat-lying, midwestern city with a huge supply of fresh water right next to us. We are in a good position, but there is plenty of the rest of the US that will be heavily impacted, so how will that impact us?”

Weisbach focused on these “knock-on” effects — economic ripples felt in Chicago from climate change-related events around the world. Even far-off food shortages, drought, political instability, and war over increasingly limited resources could disrupt the world’s markets and be felt here at home.

“If you think about what the effects of climate change will be in Chicago, it’s going to be the knock-on effects,” Weisbach said. “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.”

Wasserman Nieto, whose group advocates for improved public transit, clean power, and climate justice in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, warned that low-income populations in Chicago and around the world will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change. Health impacts, job losses, and the potential influx of “climate refugees” into Chicago could exacerbate an already-stressed infrastructure and population, she said.

Unfortunately, the same people would also feel disproportionate pain under an abrupt switch from fossil fuels to more expensive alternative energy sources. Moyer criticized the recent expiration of the production tax credit, a federal program to subsidize cleaner energy and make it more competitive with carbon-emitting fuel sources. Meanwhile, Weisbach pointed out the political challenges of making the sweeping energy supply changes that are needed to slow the rate of carbon emissions and climate change.

“It’s very hard for a politician to say your energy prices are going up, and that’s what we need to do to get off of fossil fuels,” Weisbach said.

While Mesle’s question didn’t exactly receive the most optimistic answers, he said that hopes panels like these convince the public to push back against that political resistance.

“I’ve sort of always felt there needs to be international cooperation,” Mesle said. “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.”

For more on what Chicago might look like in a climate-changed future, and on what the city and local businesses are doing to try to prepare in the face of uncertainty, read reporter Chris Bentley’s comprehensive feature on the panel. You can also listen to the full audio of the panel below.

[Photo by Seth Anderson via Flickr]

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