Cli­mate re­port a warn­ing for Mid­west

Fore­cast: Stronger storms, higher temps, crop woes

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Briscoe

Ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in the Mid­west are pro­jected to be the largest con­tribut­ing fac­tor to de­clines in U.S. agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity, with ex­treme heat wilt­ing crops and pos­ing a threat to live­stock, ac­cord­ing to a sweep­ing fed­eral re­port on cli­mate change re­leased Fri­day.

Mid­west farm­ers will be in­creas­ingly chal­lenged by warmer, wet­ter and more hu­mid con­di­tions from cli­mate change, which also will lead to greater in­ci­dence of crop dis­ease and more pests and will di­min­ish the qual­ity of stored grain. Dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son, tem­per­a­tures are pro­jected to climb more in the Mid­west than in any other re­gion of the U.S., the re­port says.

With­out tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in agri­cul­ture, the on­slaught of high-rain­fall events and higher tem­per­a­tures could re­duce the Mid­west agri­cul­tural econ­omy to lev­els last seen dur­ing the eco­nomic down­turn for farm­ers in the 1980s.

Over­all, yields from ma­jor U.S. crops are ex­pected to fall, the re­ports says. To adapt to the ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, sub­stan­tial in­vest­ments will be re­quired, which will hurt farm­ers’ bot­tom lines.

These are some of the find­ings of the re­port re­leased by the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The 1,600page re­port — vet­ted by 13 govern­ment agen­cies and writ­ten col­lec­tively with the help of 300 sci­en­tists — is per­haps the most au­thor­i­ta­tive and com­pre­hen­sive state­ment on the risks of cli­mate change, which has con­trib­uted to

ex­treme weather that has cost the U.S. nearly $400 bil­lion since 2015, the authors found.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the threat to Mid­west­ern agri­cul­ture is just one po­ten­tial blow to the re­gion.

Sci­en­tists say hu­man ac­tiv­ity is chang­ing the planet’s cli­mate faster than at any point time in mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion, herald­ing costly and, in some cases, life-threat­en­ing con­se­quences in ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try. Though the mon­strous 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son and wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia in re­cent years may be some of the most vis­ceral im­ages of the dev­as­ta­tion a chang­ing cli­mate can wreak, the sub­tle ef­fects from in­creas­ingly un­pre­dictable wa­ter avail­abil­ity, more fre­quent heavy rain­fall and hot­ter con­di­tions in the Mid­west are just as im­por­tant, ac­cord­ing to Jim An­gel, Illi­nois’ state cli­ma­tol­o­gist, who con­trib­uted to Fri­day’s re­port.

“Some of those things don’t grab head­lines as much but are still sig­nif­i­cant,” An­gel said. “We kind of got a taste of that in 2012 with the big drought that shook not only U.S. mar­kets but world mar­kets. Those kind of things should be a big con­cern by mid­cen­tury.”

Illi­nois, a lead­ing pro­ducer of soy­beans and hogs, ranks third among the states in ex­ported agri­cul­tural com­modi­ties, with $8.2 bil­lion worth of goods shipped to other coun­tries. The state has be­come 1.2 de­grees warmer and 10 to 15 per­cent wet­ter in the past cen­tury. An­gel said farm­ers are try­ing to adapt by in­creas­ing drainage and plant­ing cover crops that will pro­tect against heav­ier rain­fall and runoff that can cause soil ero­sion.

“The ques­tion is can they adapt fast enough,” An­gel said.

Mean­while, William Ho­hen­stein, direc­tor of U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s cli­mate change pro­gram, said the fed­eral govern­ment is help­ing farm­ers track drought con­di­tions.

“We are work­ing to ad­vance the ... drought fore­cast­ing,” Ho­hen­stein said. “USDA is also part­ner­ing with seed com­pa­nies to de­velop new cul­ti­vars of crops that are more re­silient to drought. To help im­prove soil health and con­serve wa­ter, we are pro­vid­ing guid­ance through our Mid­west Re­gional Cli­mate Hub on con­ser­va­tion prac­tices.”

The re­ports cites other im­pacts cli­mate change could have on the Mid­west.

Warmer air also can hold more mois­ture, lead­ing to more fre­quent and se­vere storms, which would over­whelm ag­ing stormwa­ter sys­tems across the re­gion. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate the an­nual cost of retrofitting ur­ban stormwa­ter sys­tems will ex­ceed $500 mil­lion for the Mid­west by the end of the cen­tury.

Higher tem­per­a­tures also are ex­pected to lead to di­min­ished air qual­ity. With­out pol­i­cy­mak­ers tak­ing steps to mit­i­gate the is­sue, hot­ter weather, which is more con­ducive to smog cre­ation, could re­sult in as many as 550 pre­ma­ture deaths per year by 2050, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Brian Ur­baszewski, direc­tor of the Res­pi­ra­tory Health As­so­ci­a­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chicago’s en­vi­ron­men­tal health pro­gram, said he fears that warm­ing will ex­tend the sea­sons in which we could see un­healthy lev­els of ozone. Peo­ple with asthma and oth­ers who strug­gle with res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases, he said, will be the most vul­ner­a­ble.

“This re­in­forces the need to cut down and get rid off of pol­lu­tants that form ozone,” Ur­baszewski said. “The prob­lem with global warm­ing is that it makes it harder.”

Cli­mate change, once a be­nign area of re­search, has be­come a po­lar­iz­ing and politi­cized is­sue in re­cent years, at times pit­ting sci­en­tists against politi­cians.

Fri­day’s re­port, the fourth Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, is the lat­est in a line of fed­eral re­search into cli­mate change. Man­dated by the Global Change Re­search Act of 1990, it seeks to as­sess the en­vi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic, and health and safety con­se­quences of cli­mate change. It builds on a 2017 re­port in which fed­eral sci­en­tists found “it is ex­tremely likely that hu­man in­flu­ence has been the dom­i­nant cause of the ob­served warm­ing since the mid-20th cen­tury. For the warm­ing over the last cen­tury, there is no con­vinc­ing al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tion sup­ported by the ex­tent of the ob­ser­va­tional ev­i­dence.”

The con­clu­sions of Fri­day’s study di­rectly con­tra­dict the views of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, an out­spo­ken skep­tic of cli­mate change who has vowed to with­draw the U.S. from the Paris Agree­ment, a global pact that aims to re­duce green­house gases. On Wed­nes­day, Trump tweeted about an in­com­ing cold snap on the East Coast, say­ing: “What­ever hap­pened to Global Warm­ing?”

Un­der Trump, the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency scrubbed ref­er­ences to cli­mate change from its web­site.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates and jour­nal­ists ques­tioned whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­par­ent dis­trust of cli­mate science in­flu­enced the de­ci­sion for NOAA to re­lease the re­port the day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing, a day when news­rooms are thin and pub­lic in­ter­est is likely dis­tracted by Black Fri­day deals. NOAA spokes­woman Mon­ica Allen ac­knowl­edged the re­port was out “ear­lier than ex­pected” but re­ferred ques­tions per­tain­ing to the tim­ing of its re­lease and White House tam­per­ing to Mike Ku­per­berg, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for the U.S. Global Change Re­search Pro­gram.

“This re­port has not been al­tered or re­vised in any way to re­flect with po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions,” Allen said.

Ku­per­berg could not be reached for com­ment.

Per­haps more con­se­quen­tial than the tim­ing was the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to dis­solve a fed­eral ad­vi­sory panel that sought to trans­late these na­tional and re­gional find­ings to the state and lo­cal lev­els. The de­funct panel, chaired by Richard Moss, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor in the De­part­ment of Geo­graph­i­cal Sciences at Univer­sity of Mary­land, was re­vived ear­lier this year when it re­ceived fund­ing from the state of New York, Co­lum­bia Univer­sity’s Earth In­sti­tute and the Amer­i­can Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal So­ci­ety to com­plete its pro­ject. Its re­port will be re­leased early next year.

Moss, a Deer­field na­tive, ar­gues that the in­for­ma­tion will be all-im­por­tant to cities and states, which he said will be key to slow­ing cli­mate change by re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions while also need­ing to de­sign their com­mu­ni­ties to be­come re­silient to the cli­mate changes.

“It shows we can’t waste any more time,” Moss said. “We have to be re­duc­ing emis­sions to avoid the worst im­pacts in the fu­ture and then we have to get ready for what we can no longer avoid. Be­cause we’ve al­ready set in mo­tion some pretty sub­stan­tial changes.”

“The ques­tion is can they adapt fast enough.” — State cli­ma­tol­o­gist Jim An­gel, speak­ing of Illi­nois farm­ers try­ing to adapt to cli­mate changes af­fect­ing agri­cul­ture


Illi­nois, a lead­ing pro­ducer of soy­beans and hogs, ranks third among the states in ex­ported agri­cul­tural com­modi­ties.

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