Smile Politely

We can no longer ignore this climate emergency

View down a campus street with buildings and trees lining the road. There are cars traveling in each direction. The air is gray and very hazy.
Andrew Pritchard

The realities of climate change are more apparent each year, and this summer, it has been particularly real around here. For two days at the end of June, smoke from wildfires in Canada enveloped the Midwest. Our area remained solidly in the “Very Unhealthy” category during that time, even reaching “Hazardous,” the worst air quality category, at one point. On June 28th, Decatur had the second worst air quality in the world. It was difficult to maintain any sort of optimism for the future during those two days — it felt like a glimpse into a dystopian existence that will eventually become our daily reality. As weather becomes more extreme, the potential for fire seasons in places that don’t typically experience them increases.

Last month, we experienced a derecho. Iowa was greatly impacted by a couple of these violent windstorms a couple of years ago. It came on the heels of a significant drought in Illinois, as well as other parts of the U.S. As temperatures generally continue to inch up year after year, extreme weather will become more common. Beyond dealing with storm damage in the aftermath of these events, we are also seeing farmers and food supply impacted. In this month’s Market Watch, Alyssa mentioned the effects of overall warmer temperatures on the peach crop locally and nationwide.

It’s all quite depressing and overwhelming. We are certain we are not alone in feeling like we are on this trajectory towards climate disaster, with very little control over what the future holds. A 2021 climate assessment from Nature Conservancy describes Illinois in 80 years:

Summers could get a lot hotter, with temperatures reaching up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas. The state could see up to 150% more rainfall per year than it does currently, with more storms dumping more rain more frequently. Snow days would mostly turn to rain days and the number of days with below-freezing temperatures would decrease significantly.

Of course, it’s not just an Illinois problem —  it’s an everywhere problem. But here at Smile Politely, we think at the community level. As individuals, we are not likely to have a global impact; we need to think smaller. However, this is not going to be a call to eat less meat, or recycle, or bring your reusable bags to the grocery store. Those things are good and important, but unfortunately are not enough to counteract climate change.

This Vox article examines a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and how it addresses individual actions in relation to climate change impact. It summarizes the report’s findings this way:

…a single person taking well-meaning steps to lessen their footprint doesn’t change the fact that billions of people are living off fossil fuels. It’s the default, and sometimes, it’s the only option. But there are things individuals can do at work and in their communities that will do more to push structural change.

So what can we do to effect change at the community, and possibly state level? The first step is a reframing of how we think about the issue. The UN is referring to our current state of affairs as a “climate emergency,” and we should be thinking of it in those terms. 

You can vote for people who see that this climate emergency is real, and who are willing to make policy with that in mind. This Pew Research article highlights how the majority of Americans support carbon neutrality, and want our government officials and corporations to be doing more to address the climate emergency. However, when you break it down by political party:

Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats (78%) now describe climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being, up from about six-in-ten (58%) a decade ago. By contrast, about one-in-four Republicans (23%) consider climate change a major threat, a share that’s almost identical to 10 years ago.

We made it clear in the recent midterm election that we felt it was imperative to vote for Democrats. Looking at those percentages quoted above, it continues to be true in regards to this issue. The League of Conservation Voters maintains a Congressional Scorecard that evaluates members of Congress on their voting records pertaining to “critical environmental, climate, environmental justice, and democracy legislation.” Senators Duckworth and Durbin have lifetime scores hovering around 90%. Rodney Davis’ was 11%. Stats aren’t available yet for Nikki Budzinski, but her candidate profile lays out her experience regarding clean energy. At the state level, the Illinois Environmental Council lays out several climate and clean energy policies that Governor Pritzker has advanced during his tenure. They also have a scorecard for votes in the Illinois General Assembly. Out of a perfect score of 100 in support of action on environmental issues, here were the scores of our area elected officials: the late Senator Scott Bennett (D) – 73; Senator Chapin Rose (R) – 60; Representative Carol Ammons (D) – 89; Representative Mike Marron (R) – 47.

The aforementioned Vox article discusses what the IPCC refers to as “middle actors” in the context of climate action. These include schools, counties, cities, professions, and peer groups. Looking at this locally, what are our school districts, Parkland College, the University of Illinois, large entities such as Carle and Kraft, and our municipalities doing to address the climate emergency? The U of I has readily available links to their Illinois Climate Action Plan, which is the “campus’s strategic sustainability plan for achieving carbon neutrality, or net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, by 2050 if not sooner.” The City of Urbana has a portion of their website dedicated to climate action and sustainability plans, as does Urbana Park District and MTD. If your city, school district, place of employment, doesn’t have a plan, or doesn’t have that information readily available, how can you be of influence? When county and municipal elections come around again, what can we be demanding of candidates in relation to the climate emergency and their plans to make an impact at the community level?

Collective action is another way to take your individual drive to make a difference, and multiply your efforts. From established organizations such as Prairie Rivers Network, to groups of concerned citizens such as the Champaign County Climate Coalition or the  newly forming group called the Climate Avengers, there are other people in your neighborhood who share your desire to make an impact.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore this climate emergency, and its burden on our everyday lives. And if we who live middle class existences are feeling the effects, know that it’s already had a disproportionate effect on marginalized communities. Donald Wuebbles, Harry E. Prebel Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois, was the lead author on the Nature Conservancy report we mentioned previously. As he shared with Illinois Newsroom, “When it comes to climate change, we have three choices: we can mitigate, adapt or suffer. And right now we’re doing some of all three. We need to be thinking more about how we mitigate and adapt, and do those in the most effective way.”

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

If you have an opinion about something happening in C-U, we’d love for you to write about it. Email [email protected] to pitch your ideas.

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