Climate Change Wake-Up Call for Clean Energy in Midwest

The newly-released 4th National Climate Assessment describes a near-term time bomb going off well within the lifespan of most Americans alive today. It forecasts food shortages, a rise in premature deaths, an increase in (un)natural disasters, the spread of disease and an economy in collapse, all set in motion by decades of inaction on cutting back carbon pollution.
Credit: Creative Commons

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

This last year has left an indelible mark in the fight to tackle climate change, with highs and lows on many fronts.


From the devastating wildfires in California and other extreme climate-related disasters; to major reports on the impacts of climate change, including the latest report from the IPCC warning that we have about a decade to cut global emissions sufficient to avoid the worst impacts of climate change; and the Trump administration’s stunning refusal to take the lead to rise to these challenges, instead making attempt after relentless attempt to weaken essential climate and clean air protections. In contrast to inaction from Washington DC, in just the last few weeks advocates from around the world looked to the COP24 meeting in Poland to build on previous international negotiations and put the Paris Climate Accord into practice—with or without the participation of the United States.


In 2018, there has been a renewed sense of urgency around climate action around the world and in the Midwest.  


As these events have been unfolding on the federal and international stage, those of us working in the states and regions are looking to yet another wake-up call that paints a very local (and quite sobering) picture of the consequences of climate change right in our own backyards.


The newly-released 4th National Climate Assessment (NCA4) describes a near-term time bomb going off well within the lifespan of most Americans alive today. It forecasts food shortages, a rise in premature deaths, an increase in (un)natural disasters, the spread of disease and an economy in collapse, all set in motion by decades of inaction on cutting back carbon pollution.


Yet, despite the Trump administration’s failure to act on climate and its inept dismissal of its own report—unsurprisingly, White House officials have been incapable of undermining the iron-clad credibility of the climate scientists at thirteen federal agencies who authored the NCA4—Midwest states continue to lead the way towards a cleaner and healthier future.   


Standing starkly against the climate impacts articulated in the NCA4, like a beacon in the night, is a path forward that Midwest leaders are already beginning to take to cut climate-changing pollution and build cleaner and healthier energy economies in their states. The NCA4 finds that reducing the Midwest’s legacy of reliance on fossil-based energy and moving toward increasingly cost-effective wind and solar projects and energy efficiency will add jobs, reduce pollution and boost state economies.


And just as importantly, it suggests it’s not too late to avoid the worst.


Midwest Impacts in the NCA4


A portion of the report focuses on the Midwest, known for its agricultural production and its enviable proximity to the irreplaceable fresh water jewel that is the Great Lakes, spanning Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The NCA4 warns that as summer heat more typical of the South pushes further north, growing seasons will be disrupted. Spring planting seasons are likely to be plagued by increased rainfall that will waterlog fields, increase erosion, and reduce actual in-field workdays. As the growing season moves through summer and fall, drought conditions are more likely to take over—creating environments favorable to invasive pests and plant diseases. An increase in the number of wildfires such as those sweeping California is expected.


These impacts are thrown into greater relief when you drill down to individual Midwest states.


In Illinois, for example, agricultural yields will be amongst the hardest hit, with above-average rains leading to flooding that will keep workers out of the fields. The report also warns that rising summer heat could lead to drought and wildfires.


In far north Michigan, impacts will be felt in many areas, but predominantly with respect to the Great Lakes, which contain the largest supply of fresh water on earth (Michigan borders four out of the five lakes). The report finds that climate change will impact water levels in the Great Lakes that ultimately will force changes in the environment and socioeconomics.


Unsurprisingly, as the impacts of climate change stack up they will also have consequences for the 60 million people living in the Midwest. Premature deaths will rise (potentially reaching 2,000 per year in the region by the end of the century) because of ozone deterioration, asthma related to air pollution, disease, and worker exposure to rising heat.


Even beyond the public health toll, the Midwest region’s population will experience the stressors on infrastructure including highways, railroads and rivers used for commercial activity, which are all jeopardized by increases in flooding. Manufacturing and tourism will also take a hit.


A Battle for the Midwest’s Energy Future


One of the many challenging things about advocating for climate action with decision-makers and the public is that reports like the NCA4 paint such a dire picture, that it is easy to despair.


But the ray of light in all of this darkness is that solutions to the climate crisis are available to us today and are already in play across much of the Midwest.


Thus, the challenge is not whether proven alternatives exist—the primary being a dramatic shift toward renewable energy and energy efficiency and the electrification of the transportation sector—but whether our leaders will have the political (and moral) fortitude to move decisively and boldly enough to tackle this problem over the next decade.


Here’s the good news: while the Midwest historically has been intensely reliant on polluting fossil fuels in both transportation and energy production, state leaders are now working to move away from this dubious history and capitalize on the region’s industrial legacy to rebuild the region as a forerunner in the clean energy economy and in zero-carbon power generation.


Signs of this shift are all around us in the region.


In Illinois, for example, the state’s sweeping clean energy bill of 2016—signed into law by a Republican Governor, no less—is transforming the state landscape with a nation-leading energy efficiency program and an ambitious focus on wind and solar power investments (up to $15 billion in projected development) to replace the state’s shrinking coal fleet. Illinois is also leading the region in opening up the promise of solar power to communities that haven’t historically seen jobs and economic investment tied to renewable energy.


In Michigan, the state’s largest utilities have pledged to cut carbon emissions in their territories 80 percent over the next few decades, largely through investments in wind and solar power. These investments pay dividends for economic development, projected to reach tens of billions of dollars over the next ten years.


Even in the more coal-reliant states of Ohio and Missouri, renewable energy is on the rise. Ohio is currently considering the largest solar project in its state’s history, which will be located in the very heart of coal country, where new economic options are most needed. And in Missouri and its neighboring Plains states (Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma), wind energy investments are ramping up to levels that will soon rival the wind power behemoth that is Texas, with Ameren Missouri recently announcing a nine-fold increase of wind in its generation portfolio.


Indeed, the growing focus on clean energy has been a boon to the Midwest economy, with nearly 715,000 Midwesterners employed in renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs.


The Road Ahead in 2019


While the NCA4 paints a grim picture of America’s environmental future if action is not taken, the last few years have demonstrated the growing awareness in the Midwest region that this crisis must be addressed headlong.


Thankfully, many of our leaders appear committed to tackling it even more profoundly in 2019.


Leadership opportunities are particularly promising in Illinois and Michigan. Governor-elect JB Pritzker in Illinois is well-positioned to transform the state into a renewable energy powerhouse that could drive the rest of the region, and even provide a Midwest complement to the pro-clean energy Governors in California and New York. Similarly, in Michigan the election of Gretchen Whitmer to the Governor’s post opens up new opportunities for the state to double down on cutting carbon pollution consistent with the Paris Climate Accord.


The Midwest is in a unique position to forge a new path, in a region known for its pragmatism. In 2019, we will have the solutions to this crisis already at our fingertips, made even more promising here given our region’s industrial legacy that primes us to lead in both the deployment of renewable power, as well as the clean energy manufacturing supply chain. We know how to get there, but we will need decisive leadership, a clear and cohesive vision, and political will to make bold moves in the coming years.


With our leaders in Washington abandoning their posts on climate action, for Governors and other decision-makers in the Midwest there is no time to waste.