Smile Politely

U of I climate scientist warns of major disruptions, but remains optimistic

In this edition of “Peering into the Ivory Tower,” we’re talking climate change with Don Wuebbles, atmospheric chemist and Harry E. Preble Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois.

But first, the latest news: In late February, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second installment of its ongoing Sixth Assessment Report. The 3,675-page report, authored by IPCC Working Group II, focuses on the current and future impacts of our warming climate. Unsurprisingly, it paints a rather dismal picture.

Having already increased the global temperature 1.1 degrees Celsius, humankind is feeling the effects, with millions displaced and suffering, especially in low-income, coastal communities in the Global South. Food security is weakening, vector-, water-, and food-borne diseases are ticking up, economies are crumbling, and mental health challenges are on the rise. 

Ecosystems the world over are also changing, in some cases irreversibly. Oceans are acidifying and rising, permafrost thawing, seasons shifting, plants and animals retreating to higher elevations or toward the poles, and some are already going extinct. And according to the report, the extent and magnitude of these ecosystem changes are far greater than scientists previously thought. 

And those are all changes we’ve already experienced. What’s to come, if we don’t get to net-zero carbon emissions and cap warming to 1.5 degrees C, will be much, much worse.

Trying to wrap your head around an issue of such gravity and enormity is, frankly, overwhelming. It’s why the IPCC and organizations like the American Psychiatric Association are recognizing climate change as a threat to our mental health. Thinking about climate change as a global problem also sets us at a distance, keeps the issue abstract. So, let’s turn our attention to Illinois. 

Here’s where Wuebbles re-joins us. I don’t introduce him here because his scope of research is limited to Illinois. Far from it. Wuebbles was a coordinating lead author on the first IPCC assessment and has contributed to others, work that resulted in a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He developed climate change metrics at the core of IPCC modeling efforts and the Paris Agreement. He also contributed to national climate assessments for the U.S. and served as the White House expert on climate science from 2015-2017 under the Obama Administration. 

But last year, he led a first-of-its-kind climate assessment specific to Illinois

“We provide [information specific to individual states] through the national climate assessments, but, as a policymaker, you get very little. You might get a page that relates to your state, but it’s not a detailed analysis,” Wuebbles says.

The Nature Conservancy-sponsored report aimed to provide Illinois policymakers with clear, detailed data to inform actionable laws and regulations. With national climate policy mired in intractable partisan politics, forward-looking states know they can’t afford to wait. 

Wuebbles and his team used downscaled model results – data extracted from high-resolution global climate models and scaled for Illinois – to analyze and predict changes in temperature, precipitation, weather extremes, hydrology, agriculture, human health, and ecosystems. 

The bottom line?

“We’re going to see major increases in temperature and severe weather, and it’s going to have an impact on the people of Illinois. There’s no question of that,” Wuebbles says. 

According to the report, Illinoisians will need to prepare for more extreme heat, precipitation, and storms, including more frequent tornadoes. 

“At the same time, I think we’re more capable of adapting to these changes than some other areas of the country, and that could actually make Illinois a more desirable place to live in some respects,” Wuebbles adds. “In the end, we may be winners, but we’re going to have to face the adaptations we need. And we need to lead in mitigation as well, reducing the emissions that will keep us from seeing the largest of the impacts.”

When climate scientists talk about adaptations, they’re referring to actions needed to survive within the bounds of our new circumstances. Because agriculture drives much of the economy in Illinois, the report specifies several adaptations regarding crops; for example, adjusted planting dates and breeding to increase drought resistance.

Beyond agriculture, Wuebbles says Illinois leaders should build infrastructure to mitigate urban and residential flooding, develop warning systems and evacuation plans around tornadoes, and invest in public health measures to avoid excessive deaths when heatwaves hit. 

Mitigation, on the other hand, refers to actions that could halt or reverse climate change. This includes the not-at-all-simple task of stopping greenhouse gas emissions, as well as deploying nature- and technology-based carbon capture strategies. 

Again, in the context of Illinois, many salient mitigation strategies relate to agriculture. For example, we could turn to perennial cropping systems and adjust our use of nitrogen fertilizers, which can wind up back in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Like all mitigation strategies, these actions would require a strong collective will, as well as major infrastructure changes.  

The most important mitigation effort will be not just cutting, but stopping greenhouse gas emissions. Completely. And we need to do it now.

“If we, along with all the other states and countries, fulfill the need to greatly reduce emissions by mid-century and beyond, then we can hold the changes to the smallest level. It will make adaptation a lot easier and there will be less suffering. We can deal with this, but we will have to adapt,” Wuebbles says.

Perhaps our focus on Illinois hasn’t exactly alleviated your feelings of overwhelm and helplessness. Wuebbles, however, manages to stay positive. 

“People say, ‘My God, Don, how can you be so optimistic?’ And I say, ‘We have to be. Do we have a choice?’ It doesn’t help us to be pessimistic about it. Let’s get it done. We’ve learned over time that we as people, no matter what the issue, can come together. We can deal with issues. Let’s just recognize we have a problem here. Quit calling it political, and let’s move on to come up with the right solutions. And by God, I just feel we can do this.”

The science is clear: we need big culture-shifting and immediate changes to avoid the worst of the climate emergency. How can we make it happen? Wuebbles has this advice:

“The most important thing we can do as individuals is to talk with our officials and to get those who represent us to recognize this is more than just a political argument. This is science, and there’s no longer a debate about it. If they want a debate, let’s debate the solutions, not the science.” 

So, please, call your representative today

Top photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

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