Illinois Issues: The State's Climate Is Changing

Jul 30, 2015

Illinois'  future summers could be as hot as Texas.

Essay  — When we think of climate change, we often imagine melting ice caps, rising sea levels that engulf small islands and changes to habitats that decimate entire species. 

 Yet the reality of climate change for Illinois — and other inland states — will be slow, almost imperceptible transformations that cause long-lasting, difficult problems. Although less dramatic, climate change will be no less disruptive for Illinois. The repercussions will be complex and influence everything from human health to electricity costs. Even our ability to grow crops will change. 

What will Illinois' climate be like in the future?

The effects of climate change will not be uniform. Some areas of the world will experience warming, while others become cooler. Likewise, some areas will dry up, while others become wetter. Globally, this information is available from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization that assesses the most recent research on climate change.

For Illinois, the U.S. Global Change Research Program predicts that the number of days each year with temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit will more than double by the middle of this century. The southern part of the state is expected to have more than 20 additional days with such scorching temperatures. Even northern Illinois and Chicago will have some areas with 15 or more days of extreme heat. In fact, the average Chicagoan is likely to experience more days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century than the average Texan does today. 


Rainfall, storm damage, floods and droughts are also expected to be significantly impacted by climate change. Spring rainfall in Illinois will likely increase by up to 10 percent in central Illinois and by 10 to 20 percent in northern Illinois. An increase in spring rainfall will add to the number and severity of annual floods. In the summers, droughts will become more likely.

  

What are likely impacts of climate change?

The ramifications of climate change on the state as a whole will be complex. It will fundamentally alter temperature and precipitation. Yet current economic activity has developed in line with the current climate. For this reason, changes to the climate will shape many economic activities and have a ripple effect on industries even outside of those that will experience direct threats.

Consider the farming industry. Illinois is a major agricultural state, producing about $12 billion annually in agricultural output. This output may decrease because extra spring downpours will likely disrupt seeding efforts while decreased summer rainfall will adversely affect the crop-growing season. Climate change is projected to increase the variability of rainfall in the growing season, which will lead crops to experience more water stress, reducing crop yields. Reduced yields will impact other sectors of the economy that rely on locally grown corn, such as livestock producers, grain storage and transportation companies. 

Higher temperatures will make air pollution worse, as heat and sunlight interact with auto emissions to create ozone, the deadly basic ingredient of urban smog.

Farmers may also see the cost of crop insurance increase. Crop insurance is a federally subsidized system and represents one of the largest safety nets available to farmers. The cost of insurance is likely to rise because of increased crop losses associated with extreme weather events, such as more droughts during the summer and more floods during the spring. Without a corresponding increase in subsidies, crop insurance may become more expensive for farmers at the same time that overall farm incomes decline.

The cost of insuring against floods will also likely go up for those who own property in Illinois floodplains. Floods are already the most common natural disaster in Illinois, representing 90 percent of disaster declarations and causing almost $700 million in damages each year.  Approximately 250,000 buildings are located within floodplains in the state. The prevalence and severity of floods are almost certain to increase. With increased flooding in Illinois, flood insurance rates will go up, unless local or state governments take aggressive measures to protect communities from flood damage. 

Climate change will not only cause problems for farmers and property owners. The state will see an increased demand for energy. In the next couple of decades, summers in Illinois are projected to feel a lot more like summers now in Texas. Hotter summers will lead more people to use air conditioning. This increase in demand will strain the state’s electricity grid and increase the price of electricity. 

Source: Data from the A2 scenario at www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web is used for maps on page 29 of Melillo et al. (2014).

There will also be a potential toll on human health. Climate change is projected to decrease deaths in the winter because of reduced exposure to extreme cold, but deaths in the summer are likely to rise. A severe heat wave in Chicago in 1995 caused approximately 750 deaths. Under climate change, the city will likely experience more frequent weather conditions similar to that 1995 heat wave.

Higher temperatures will make air pollution worse, as heat and sunlight interact with auto emissions to create ozone — the deadly basic ingredient of urban smog. Ozone puts people at risk for irritated eyes, throats and lung damage. Evidence suggests that increased air pollution may be a contributor to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.

  

What can Illinois do to curb these impacts?

Demand during hotter summers will push the state’s electricity generation capacity to its limits. One obvious, albeit expensive, solution is to build additional power plants.

Alternatively, recent innovations in battery storage provide hope for cheaper, more efficient options in the future. Companies like Tesla are developing batteries than can store energy produced by wind, solar and conventional power plants for use later when demand is high. If their research proves fruitful, Illinois may be able to use cheap grid-scale storage to address the irregularities in energy demand that will be exacerbated by climate change.

Investing in water infrastructure will be key to managing new precipitation patterns. With climate change, storms are expected to occur less frequently, but to become more intense. These new rainfall patterns will impact agriculture. More intense but less frequent storms make it harder for water to soak into the soil. This weather pattern will increase crop water stress and reduce groundwater supplies. Irrigated agriculture is currently rare in Illinois, as most crops rely on rainfall. In 2012, only 2 percent of farmland in the state was irrigated. Demand for irrigation will likely increase under a changing climate. The state can begin to invest in irrigation infrastructure now to help farmers adapt.

Projections from global climate models are shown for 2041-2070 as compared to 1971-2000, under a scenario that assumes continued increases in greenhouse gasses.

  Changes to weather patterns will impact urban areas, too. Intense storms will hit Chicago — disrupting travel, flooding basements, polluting waterways and straining the city’s infrastructure. The city of Chicago has proactively implemented the “Chicago Climate Action Plan,” and it is currently working with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) to prepare for increases in heavy storm events.  Chicago is a world leader in both traditional and novel approaches to storm water management. The MWRD is implementing a $30 billion project to install underground tunnels and reservoirs to mitigate storm flooding. And MWRD has established policies to hold more storm water on site, creating opportunities to introduce green infrastructure throughout Chicago. To date, the state has invested $5 million, and the city has invested $50 million in green infrastructure projects, all of which can help reduce both storm water runoff and urban temperatures. The city of Chicago can serve as a model for the rest of the state.

Illinois plays a critical role in the nation’s food transportation network. However, the state’s infrastructure is in poor condition. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Illinois has 2,311 structurally deficient bridges, and 73 percent of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Even in the absence of a changing climate, investment in the transportation infrastructure is essential. 

As the climate changes, new demands will be placed on the transportation network. Crops will be grown in different locations, and the climate may impact the availability of different transportation modes. With climate change, for example, less ice will cover Lake Michigan, thus lengthening the commercial navigation season and enabling more winter shipping.

As policymakers consider where to make investments in infrastructure development, they could consider how crop production and transportation will change. Illinois may want to make investments in grain storage facilities, improvements to locks and dams along the Mississippi River and enhancements to Great Lakes ports. 

The state may also want to consider improvements to intermodal connectors, such as truck route connections with ports or rail terminals. Currently underway in Illinois to address this issue are programs such as the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program. CREATE is a novel partnership between the state of Illinois, the Department of Transportation, the city of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads to keep the Chicago area at the nexus of the nation’s freight network by improving rail infrastructure.

The broad nature of the challenges brought about by climate change transcends the ability and scope of any single state agency. Finding creative solutions will require coordination across many different sectors and some difficult tradeoffs. This complexity provides a unique opportunity to assemble a state advisory board to make a climate action plan that would build bridges — both figuratively and literally.

Investing in water resources, electricity and transportation infrastructure are just three potential opportunities to consider. An advisory group tasked with taking on the issue could (hopefully) find other creative solutions to climate change in Illinois.

The current climate in Illinois will change only slowly over the next one or two decades, but projections show drastic differences from 2040 to 2070, when compared with recent and current conditions.

Yet the delay is not an excuse for procrastination. Some of the needed infrastructure investment might take 10 years to install, and the whole planning process will take years before that construction can begin. The state must start that planning now.

Don Fullerton, Megan Konar and Julian Reif authored this essay. They are faculty at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, experts in the U of I’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs and participants in the IGPA Climate Policy Initiative. Fullerton is the Gutgsell Professor of Finance and IGPA associate director. Megan Konar is an assistant professor of civil engineering and Julian Reif is assistant professor of finance.