A new federal report warns that natural disasters such as the recent catastrophic wildfires in California and hurricanes in the Southeast are worsening because of climate change.
While it’s easy for Wisconsin residents to breathe a sigh of relief and feel safe from such far-off disasters, local officials insist climate change already is affecting Wisconsin and the Chippewa Valley.
And those effects are expected to get worse.
Even James Boulter, an associate professor of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies, acknowledged being surprised by the degree of havoc already caused by climate change.
“It’s all happening much faster than I expected it to,” said Boulter, who has been giving talks on climate for nearly 20 years. “I thought it would be mostly a problem for future generations, and certainly for the developing world, but I’m surprised how many common, everyday people in the United States are being impacted by extreme weather events.”
Though President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and pushed to dismantle several policies designed to lower emissions, the National Climate Assessment, released Friday by his administration, says warming-charged extremes “have already become more frequent, intense, widespread or of long duration.”
The required quadrennial report, the combined work of 13 federal agencies, discusses national consequences but also breaks down the impact by region. In the Midwest, it indicates climate change will have effects on human health, agriculture, forestry, biodiversity and infrastructure.
“Climate change is expected to worsen existing health conditions and introduce new health threats by increasing the frequency and intensity of poor air quality days, extreme high temperature events, and heavy rainfalls; extending pollen seasons; and modifying the distribution of disease-carrying pests and insects,” the report states about the Midwest. “By mid-century, the region is projected to experience substantial, yet avoidable, loss of life, worsened health conditions, and economic impacts estimated in the billions of dollars as a result of these changes.”
Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said climate change already is a major concern for public health officials in Wisconsin, as more heat and precipitation produce more diseases carried by water and insects.
“There is lots of clear evidence that climate is related to human health,” Giese said, pointing to more blue-green algae blooms on area lakes and longer seasons for mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses as among the most obvious examples.
An increase in extreme rain events also is likely to bring about more costly flooding of the kind that has hit a number of Wisconsin counties in the past two years, Boulter said.
Boulter, founder of the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, also noted the report predicts higher temperatures will reduce corn and soybean yields in the Midwest, lead to the loss of tree species such as birch and black ash, and result in more heat-related deaths.
In addition, he said, increased runoff from more rain, combined with warming lakes and streams, will lead to the loss of prized cold-water fish species and an increase in noxious algae blooms.
“These are things that really affect Wisconsinites’ quality of life in terms of enjoying the outdoors,” Boulter said.
Eau Claire City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said he increasingly hears reports about Chippewa Valley residents getting infections from swimming in contaminated water and businesses that suffer negative effects when algae blooms turn area lakes green and stinky.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to connect the dots in terms of how climate change affects their lives, but this is real stuff,” he said.
Werthmann said the city has been trying to do its part to combat climate change, in part by investing in solar energy and adopting a goal of meeting 100 percent of its power needs from clean-energy sources by 2050.
The City Council on Tuesday accepted a $180,000 grant to create a climate action plan to meet that clean-energy goal.
“You don’t get to those goals without having a climate action plan in place,” he said. “It’s a really big deal.”
The council also approved a resolution urging Congress to enact a fee on carbon in fossil fuels — a market-based approach called for in a bipartisan bill introduced this week in the House of Representatives.
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