This is the time of year to be thankful, but it is also a time to create new resolutions.
For me and many of my environmental science and advocacy peers, we are thankful that the deadly wildfires in California have now been fully contained by first responders, fire and land managers; we are thankful that intense storms passing through Illinois this week have slowed, though, unfortunately, many in its wake were hurt or lost power, their homes or businesses to the intense winds and flooding. We are also thankful that, at long last, the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows what scientists around the world have known for decades — climate change is real, not a talking point or merely a political strategy, and its impact is literally at our front door.
The new report gives a strong illustration of the damage that climate change can wreak on our communities including our economy, infrastructure, freshwater, agriculture and socio-economic challenges. In Chicago and statewide, we’ve seen it: Longer stretches of unbearably hot weather, crop-crippling droughts and life-altering flooding to homes and businesses.
But, embedded in the report like a newly planted seed in the spring, there is affirmation that the solutions in which we and a host of city, state and federal entities have invested, are indeed on the right track.
For example, stormwater trading (paying people to hold storm water) has the potential to bring more natural solutions to neighborhoods where they will have the most benefit. We are beginning conversations with city and county developers to create and enhance tools to identify those places especially vulnerable in the face of a changing climate while supporting economic development.
Also, an offshoot of the Array of Things data network project — sensors placed around Chicagoland to gather infrastructure and environmental information — has been funded. These nodes are created specifically to detect water levels, providing critical data on flooding in Chicago’s communities. With an eye toward replication for any Illinois community and beyond, the data is meant to spark conversations about resources to prepare residents for storms and outages and to demonstrate how different levels of rainfall interact with existing infrastructure.
Years of freshwater research in central Illinois can help us get a handle on water quality issues. Scientists have demonstrated that small constructed wetlands can significantly reduce nitrates up to 64 percent in some cases. We know that when floods occur in Chicago, flooding and sedimentation is imminent down state making wetlands — which allow sediment to settle and for toxins to neutralize — an important solution.
And finally, being that we are the Prairie State, it’s quite appropriate that in almost any direction we face, one can find rooftop gardens, prairies, urban gardens, parks and preserves that function as peaceful spaces while also providing tons of heat-trapping carbon storage. We’ve mimicked our prairie work at Nachusa Grasslands in western Illinois’ Lee and Ogle counties as well as in Markham. Over the past 30 years, conservation staff, volunteers, partners and friends have become experts at recreating prairie of which precious few acres remain in the Prairie State.
A recent report by The Nature Conservancy and 21 partner entities highlighted how natural solutions like wetlands, trees and implementation of agricultural best practices such as cover crops have the potential to cut global carbon emissions by one-fifth, akin to removing all the cars and trucks from U.S. highways. While there are caveats to this research, it is clear that natural systems can and should play an important role in achieving greenhouse gas reductions and improving our quality of life.
Like most resolutions, actually following through requires a strong will to succeed, collaboration and accountability. Newly elected state lawmakers as well as the crowded field of Chicago mayoral candidates should work closely with the myriad conservation groups, academic institutions, local, state and federal entities to advance the work of natural areas protection, improvement of green and grey infrastructure, data, research and finance, all of which build on the city’s sustainability leadership. And residents of Chicago should speak up and request, no require, a plan forward.