A derecho—a violent wall of wind—brought down trees and knocked out power for 1 ½ million people in Chicago and throughout the Midwest on August 10. $4 billion in homes and crops were lost; and flooding, car crashes and road blockages were reported throughout the city and most of Illinois.
About two weeks after the derecho hit, on August 27, Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., pounded Louisiana and Texas with 150-miles-per-hour winds, causing water levels to rise almost ten feet above normal, and telegraphing a ferocious hurricane season. Laura’s tragic toll included at least six lives and devastation everywhere in sight—flooded roads, downed power poles, houses leveled, and brick buildings dismantled.
Also late in August, after a bone-dry California winter and unprecedented heat waves that turned grasslands and forests into tinder, nearly 12,000 lighting strikes sparked more than 600 wildfires, claiming at least seven lives, burning 1 ¼ million acres, and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
While no single weather event can be attributed only to climate change, most scientists see a link between global warming—largely the product of human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—and extreme weather. The weather-related catastrophes now testing the country, one disaster overlapping the next, are exactly what we should expect in a warming world.
As the derecho suggests, Illinois is not immune to the ravages of climate change. Higher lake levels in the state are washing away beaches and battering shorelines. Last year the U. S. Department of Agriculture declared every one of Illinois’ counties an agricultural disaster on account of flooding which destroys crops and weakens our already fragile economy. And some of the state’s most economically distressed communities are prone to flooding and heat waves because they lack tree cover and parks.
Yet the Trump administration, disregarding overwhelming scientific evidence about the risks of climate change, has cavalierly rolled back more than 100 environmental rules since the President took office in 2017. According to press accounts, he even toyed with the idea of withholding wildfire aid to California over political differences.
The administration recklessly continues to advance policies that degrade the environment. Just last month, it was announced that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be open to oil and gas development. Unlocking the vast reserve of fossil fuel and greenhouse gases would accelerate climate change in Illinois and around the globe. Days later the Administration went on to reverse the rules that have successfully prevented methane from leaking from oil and gas pipelines.
However national climate policy plays out after Nov. 3, Illinois must aggressively shift away from fossil fuels.
Nuclear energy is our most practical path to wind and solar power. But, blaming market rules that disfavor nuclear energy, Exelon Corp. plans to close its nuclear power plants in Byron and Dresden which generate much of the state’s carbon-free energy. The move would open up Illinois’ power grid to natural gas-fired power plants and cost the state thousands of union jobs.
Despite the recent scandal at Exelon’s ComEd unit over lobbying practices, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the General Assembly should find a policy compromise to keep the company’s power plants going and deny fossil fuels an even greater edge in the marketplace. And while they’re at it, let’s urge them to extend and expand the state’s solar installation program.
Illinois’ full-throated support of a clean energy economy would help cool the planet, reduce our public health costs, promote environmental justice, develop next-generation technologies, drive entrepreneurship and innovation, and create good-paying green jobs. We deserve no less.
Marc J. Lane is a Chicago attorney and financial adviser and vice chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.
Reprinted from Marc Lane's September 11, 2020 editorial which appeared in Crain's Chicago Business. Crain Communication Inc.'s permission is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright © 2020 by Crain’s Communications Inc.
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