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Monday, October 25, 2021
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Local manifestations of a warming world

A dramatic display of weather disasters across North America this summer underscored the volatility of a changing climate. Heads turned northwest as lethal heat and wildfires enveloped the upper Pacific coast. Heads turned south, then slowly northeast as Hurricane Ida wrought havoc from the oil wells of coastal Louisiana to the subway tunnels of New York City.

Soon, heads will turn to Glasgow as international climate negotiators assess possible pathways to meet the target set in Paris six years ago: Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

From Madison, these events may seem distant. The ravages of tropical cyclones and runaway wildfires pose little direct risk here. But the quieter, more insidious risks of climate change – including the basic fact that warmer air can hold more moisture – could have real implications for local residents and businesses.

Madison city officials and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are at work assessing future risk while proposing strategies to prevent further warming and adapt to a changed, and changing, climate.

Global crisis, local effects

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific body studying the effects of a warming planet, flatly stated in a report released in August.

But the effects of this warming manifest differently in different places, filtered through the complexities of regional geography and demography. In Wisconsin, the combination of increased rainfall and warmer average temperatures shape the contours of climate change’s local fingerprint.

For instance, higher average winter temperatures and wetter-than-average spring conditions have “created economic and management hardships for Wisconsin farmers in recent years,” according to a 2020 report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). The organization expects the number of days per year that reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit to triple in the state by the mid-century.

Air can generally hold around 7% more moisture for each degree Celsius it warms. This means that climate-fueled storms will each have a higher potential to hold – and dump  – increasingly large amounts of water on the localities they impact. Accordingly, the increasing severity of summer storms is taking a growing economic toll on Wisconsin. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks all “billion-dollar” severe storms (storms that caused at least $1 billion in overall damages) that have occurred in the United States since 1980 – and Wisconsin’s statewide trend is clear. According to NOAA, the 1980s and 1990s contained a single billion-dollar severe storm per decade. Then, between 2000 and 2009, six billion-dollar severe storms hit Wisconsin. Between 2010 and 2019, that total was 11.

It may elude traditional sea-level rise, but Madison – a community of lakes, rivers, and creeks – faces a mounting risk of potential climate-driven flooding. A new interactive flood risk assessment tool from the nonprofit First Street Foundation shows that around 10% of all properties in Madison – or nearly 6,000 properties – could be flood-prone if a cloudburst forces water over riverbanks and onto nearby streets.

City officials are aware of the flood risks in Madison posed by increasingly severe downpours.

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“We’re a bathtub,” Stacie Reece, sustainability program coordinator for the city of Madison, said. 

Reece explained that as cities like Madison grow, the development of land creates “mini-watersheds,” such as large parking lots that change where rain gathers and in which direction it flows. She said city engineers are actively researching these mini-watersheds to develop tailored solutions based on these assessments. 

This work became more urgent after a historic flooding event in August 2018


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Following that event, Daniel Wright, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, published a report on how extreme rainfall, combined with high water levels in Lake Mendota, set the stage for the flooding that occurred that day. In the report, Wright explained that “similar or larger storms can be expected in the coming years. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by continued climate change impacts on extreme rainfall.”

Mitigation in Madison

Discussions of climate change regularly invoke “mitigation” – a term that encompasses any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. At the city government level, Madison released a comprehensive sustainability plan in 2011 that laid out a panoply of mitigation objectives, from increasing the city’s use of renewable energy sources to enhancing its system of bike lanes in order to promote low-or-no-emissions modes of transportation.

Reece noted that in 2017, Madison was the first municipality in Wisconsin to set a goal to make all of its energy consumption come from carbon-free renewable sources. The city plans to meet this goal within its own facilities and operations by 2030, while the target for 100% community-wide clean energy consumption is 2050. The goal sounds simple, but its implications are massive: The complete integration of solar, wind and other forms of renewable power into every part of the city’s energy sector, including electricity and transportation.

The vision is, within fewer than 30 years, to have renewable sources powering the lights residents turn on every morning, the stoves on which they cook and the modes of transport that take them where they need to go.

Toward this end, in April, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced her administration’s climate-related goals for the next two years, including the implementation of a rapid transit system featuring electric buses. The system could have real mitigation effects; more than 40% of the city’s emissions come from transportation, according to the city.

City governments, though, have inherent limits on the scope and impact of climate mitigation measures that they can take. As Reece notes, federal or statewide policies that require or incentivize transitioning to renewable (“clean”) energy could have greater implications for mitigating climate change.

“What we have right now is a patchwork of states and utilities that follow different paths to get to a carbon-free grid,” Reece said. “Wisconsin has fallen behind,” she says, because “incumbent fossil interests have a reason for us to stay behind.” However, Reece emphasizes that neighboring states such as Minnesota and Illinois have taken more sweeping recent statewide actions to promote the clean energy transition.

A struggle for Wisconsin municipalities has been aligning city and state policies, allowing them to work together to mitigate climate change. Reece described the city of Madison as “pushing against some of the state-level policies that preempt us from doing things, such as regulating energy in buildings through the building code.”

Relatedly, Reece noted that the clean energy initiative included in the federal budget currently under deliberation in Congress could potentially provide long-awaited additional dollars from the federal government for preventative measures.

Adaptation and moving forward post-disaster

While one broad set of climate solutions involves mitigation, the other focuses on adaptation. To adapt is to prepare for increasing impacts, to account for future risk in decision-making processes and to change course as circumstances evolve. 

Evidence is mounting that even the current level of warming can supercharge weather events and force any household to consider life-altering adaptations, such as relocation. This summer alone, nearly one in three Americans experienced a weather-related disaster, according to a Washington Post analysis detailing “the expanding reach of climate-fueled disasters.”

Governments can facilitate adaptation efforts such as “managed retreat” from flood-prone locations. The city of Madison has a new flood risk map online. But each individual resident or household will react and adapt differently after exposure to a weather disaster like a flood, and they will do so based on the ineffable intricacies of human decision-making.

Research sheds some light on how particular population groups may consider relocating after weather disasters such as severe storms that cause flooding.

Climate change poses risks for all people, but especially threatens the health and well-being of marginalized groups. That is partially because these individuals disproportionately live and work in areas more susceptible to climate-related disasters but also because they often lack the resources to prepare for or fully recover from these setbacks.

Specifically, urban flooding, made more likely by climate change, disproportionately impacts disadvantaged people, who are more likely to live in flood-prone areas and lack the necessary resources to recover from flood-related damage and disruption. 

At the same time, middle-class residents are also increasingly feeling the impacts of a warming world become more widespread. Max Besbris, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the UW-Madison, conducted a longitudinal study of dozens of middle-class households in Texas who were forced to make residential mobility decisions in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

In the study, Besbris and a co-author point out that middle-class households often decide where to live with long-term residence in mind. When middle-class residents without prior plans to move are suddenly faced with the prospect of relocation, the study found that they often chose to stay.

According to the study, “A year after the storm, only nine of the households in our sample permanently moved out of the house that flooded during Hurricane Harvey; the remaining 50 households chose to return to their flooded homes.” The researchers posit that there is a “phenomenon of activating short-term plans to move” when a weather disaster strikes. In other words, if these citizens do not have short-term plans pre-disaster, they often opt to remain in place afterward.

These insights have implications for Madisonians. What will middle- or upper-class professors, doctors, and lawyers do if their homes take on water? Besbris’s research suggests it depends in part on whether they have a plan in place to move already.

‘Get involved’

Reece said that many residents are generally knowledgeable about the global and local risks climate change exacerbates. They know the risks go well beyond potential flooding and include the health risks posed by extreme heat and threats to agricultural crops and livestock posed by the erratic weather that is emblematic of climate change.

“There’s a lot of worry out there, a lot of concern,” Reece said. “We have a really well-informed population that understands the urgency.” 

She said that even though Madison city officials have “one hand behind our back” in addressing climate change, it is crucial for citizens to have their voices heard and to push mitigation and adaptation measures forward.

“Get involved. Find out who your elected official is. Learn about how the city works, how legislation works,” she advised.

A major open question, Reece said, is how much collaboration on climate change mitigation and adaptation will take place across different interest groups within the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin at large.

She asked, “How do we pull together coalitions across all sectors to forge a movement across the state to get us where we need to be?”

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