Farmers, leaders, Skilling: A look at climate change on the local level

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The UN Climate Change Summit ended this past weekend in Glasgow under criticism that world leaders did not do enough to cut global warming emissions.

Looking long term, world leaders do appear to have more work ahead of them following the Summit while President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Climate agenda is still on the table. Closer to home, Governor JB Pritzker is ready to implement his recently signed Climate and Energy Law.

But what about our condition now? Many, but not all, say Illinois is struggling with the effects of climate change.

Powerful storms have sent Lake Michigan over its banks, causing a great deal of damage. A citywide assessment estimated $15 million dollars in damage to the lakefront parks alone this year.

There have been historic highs three years in a row due to climate change according to Dr. Aaron Packman, director of Northwestern University’s Water Research. He’s been studying these signs for 20 years.

 “Long term we do expect to see more hazardous, more damage and more extreme storms,” he said.

 WGN’s resident expert Tom Skilling has spent more than 50 years watching this shift in the weather.

“The warming has been happening faster than predicted. So is the ice melt,” he said. “The trend is very, very clear and irrefutable. We’re warming up and we’re getting wetter in our part of the country.”

It’s not just Lake Michigan that concerns climate change experts. It’s Illinois’s farmland too. According to the Department of Agriculture, 75 percent of the state is farmland.

Lifelong farmer Barry Bultema of Beecher, Illinois, brought WGN News along as he finished harvesting his corn crop.

 “I’d say climate is changing. It’s been changing since the beginning of creation,” he said.

Bultema believes these events are cyclical. Though he admits noticing the springs are getting a little cooler and the falls are a little warmer. Bultema, like many other farmers in the Midwest, say they’ll simply adapt to the changing environment thanks to technology and research.

Not everyone agrees with his optimism.

Karen Petersen is Climate Change Manager with the Nature Conservancy of Illinois.

“In the future, it’s going to be really hard to adapt,” she said.

The group released a comprehensive environmental assessment of the State last April. They compared two scenarios: Action or no action to mitigate climate change.

“Under the scenario where we don’t take action, by the end of the century we would expect a temperature increase of 8 to 14 degrees and that’s a huge increase,” she said.

It’s a dire prediction. However, Petersen is among a growing number of experts who believe the path to climate disaster can be stopped. She supports the Pritzker’s comprehensive Climate Change law signed in September and showcased the UN Climate Summit. It calls for moving to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and closing coal plants by 2045. The key, experts say, is to keep the momentum going.

 “I think as more of these extreme events showing up, more and more people (will take it) seriously,” Skilling said.

“People are accepting it more,” Packman said. “I think you’re seeing industries. Not doing business as usual and changing their practices.”

Among the short-term solutions suggested by climate change experts: Fortifying infrastructure and stabilizing the lakefront with barriers to protect against powerful storms. Also, adding more green space, shade trees to reduce the effects of extreme temperatures in the summer.  

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