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Climate Report Highlights Illinois’ Environmental Equity Issues

The fifth National Climate Assessment found that the Midwest region faces threats caused by rising temperatures, drought and extreme precipitation. Since 1980, the region has incurred over $49 billion in economic damage due to flooding.

a woman walks through a flooded basement
Lori Wainwright, 63, walks through the flooded basement of a friend's home two days after almost 9 inches of rain fell Sept. 17 in Calumet City.
Armando L. Sanchez/TNS
The Chicago area has experienced historical levels of flooding in recent years and its low-income communities of color have often suffered the brunt of climate-related disasters.

That pattern is also a problem nationally.

With the release earlier this month of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, a federal report that outlines the impacts of climate change on the country, billions of dollars in investments were announced to build more resilient communities.

Two funding goals — $300 million to reduce flooding risks and $2 billion to meet environmental justice challenges across the country — are of particular interest for Chicago and its surrounding areas, where residents and businesses are still recovering from this year’s storms.

In the national assessment’s Midwest chapter, scientists and economists pointed out that the region faces threats posed by rising temperatures as well as drought and extreme precipitation.

“I think if you look at climate change only through the lens of warming, then you miss the big story of what else is happening,” said Rao Kotamarthi, science director for the Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont. “So we need to understand a little bit more before we claim that the Midwest is going to be the best place to live ... It won’t be what we are used to right now.”

The previous national report, released in 2018, had warned that the largest threat to U.S. agricultural productivity would be not only rising temperatures but also heavy rainfall in the Midwest. According to the most recent assessment, the Midwest has incurred over $49 billion in economic damages due to flooding since 1980.

Even if the main findings remain the same, public and expert perceptions of climate change have continued to evolve in this short time span.

“When the last report came out there still was, I would say, more of a distance in how it was characterized, particularly in how people perceive climate change as being part of their lives,” said Michelle Carr, the director of The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. “And what we’re seeing in our urban environment is, climate change isn’t something that’s just about melting poles and polar bears — it’s about erratic weather events that are quite unusual to the everyday person.”

Carr said the conservancy’s chief scientist often refers to global warming as “global weirding” — meaning that climate change entails more than rising temperatures as weather has become much less predictable.

Disproportionate Impact

After a statewide drought in the late spring, dry weather this summer was punctuated by short periods of heavy rain, such as that on July 1 through 2, which dropped up to 9 inches of precipitation on some parts of the Chicago suburbs and Cook County.

Sporadic yet heavy downpours throughout the summer flooded basements, streets and sidewalks. As it often does, heavy rainfall also overwhelmed the region’s sewer pipes causing waste water to flow into area rivers before being properly treated, which increased the presence of fecal matter in these waterways.

Infrastructure design has to account for the added uncertainty of climate change, according to the national assessment’s chapter on water. This can include creating green infrastructure or green spaces, planting trees and using native species in rain gardens, all of which absorb and filter runoff stormwater and help prevent flooding.

It also entails weaving more blue infrastructure into urban environments, such as ponds, lakes and streams, and making traditional gutters, drains and sewers more resilient.

As far as traditional infrastructure goes, the Chicago region’s $3.8 billion project to control sewer overflow and flooding began construction almost 50 years ago in 1975, raising concerns that it is outdated and won’t prove sufficient for future natural disasters.

Residents and suburban leaders pointed to the heavy rains during the first weekend of July, which swiftly saturated the Deep Tunnel. Recent storms suggest that rain can now fall so quickly and suddenly that these stormwater tunnels can’t move runoff to the system’s reservoir fast enough to prevent sewage overflows and basement backups.

Then in September, heavy rains again rolled through but only targeted a small area. Calumet City and Riverdale experienced 7 to 9 inches of rain and Dolton had 5 to 6 inches, but Midway Airport only reported 2 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service.

Last week, President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration that will make federal funds accessible to Cook County residents still recovering from the Sept. 17-18 storms — in addition to $375 million the county has already received in assistance since the July rains.

In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences released a report saying that between 2004 and 2014, flood losses in the city and suburbs cost taxpayers $1.8 billion in subsidized grants, loans and insurance payments. Only hurricane-ravaged areas of coastal Louisiana, New York and Texas received more federal flood aid during that decade.

After a major storm in Chicago in 2013, city officials used computer models to determine that the damages were mostly concentrated in low- and middle-income census tracts on the West and South sides. And the patterns of disproportionate climate impacts persist even a decade later: during the July storms this summer, East Garfield Park saw over 8 inches of rain, and most 311 calls for basement flooding came from the Austin neighborhood.

The national assessment points out that while all communities will be affected by changes in water quantity and quality, those living and working closest to hazards and having limited access to resources and resilient infrastructure will face the most risks — particularly Black, Hispanic, Tribal, Indigenous and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

“The notion is, climate change is here. We’re all being affected by it,” Carr said. “And the brunt of the negative effects are being borne disproportionately by our less-resourced communities, here in Chicagoland and throughout the nation. So it’s not just out there, it’s here as well.”

‘Still, Not Enough’

The national assessment’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of social systems and environmental justice seems to echo a growing understanding — from local, state and federal governments — on how climate change affects certain communities disproportionately.

At the local level, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration released a cumulative impact report in September that outlined how low-income communities of color in the city have been disproportionately affected by proximity to toxic waste dumps, freight yards and major highways.

The city’s assessment was released as part of a compliance agreement after a federal government investigation found the city culpable of moving heavy industry into Black and Latino communities that have long suffered from pollution, poverty and disease.

But some South and West side residents criticized the city’s failure to use proximity to industrial corridors — as well as pollution hot spots like scrap metal facilities, asphalt plants and heavy diesel truck routes — in its calculations to determine the most burdened census tracts. The report designates these as environmental justice neighborhoods, which will receive special considerations in future zoning and permitting decisions.

“I get the point of those folks that said it fell short. While it could be directionally right and a vast improvement, it could be, still, not enough,” Carr said. “I think there’s something that we all can do to continue to hold up these well-worn grooves of injustices of placing our most toxic waste in certain places where our communities of color are.”

Scientists across the city and state are hoping to contribute to this mission by studying the hyperlocal impacts of pollution and climate change.

Argonne’s urban laboratory, the Community Research on Climate and Urban Science or CROCUS, placed sensors at the Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago State University campuses earlier this year as part of a $25 million project for a node network that will allow scientists to study how severe weather like heavy rains and flooding may cause more damage in historically under-resourced neighborhoods.

“Is this because there is something different from the land use on the (South) Side? There are more paved roads, less trees, less things that absorb water and maybe the houses are constructed differently,” said the Argonne’s Kotamarthi, who is also the deputy project director for the urban laboratory.

Soon the project will expand to University of Illinois at Chicago and other places. As more instruments are spread across the city, Kotamarthi said, the laboratory is likely to collect comparable data within five or six months.

“What we are trying to do right now is increase the number of sites across the city so we can see neighborhood-scale variations in these things. That’s what we are after,” Kotamarthi said. “I know on a city scale how these things vary, because I can get the data from a satellite. But what we’re trying to see is a little bit more local.”

Carr said there is “mighty work” being done in coordination with regional and local institutions and organizations, some more resourced and tenured than others and some more community-based, in order to meet the needs of those most at risk.

“As we look at the Chicagoland region, this densely populated urban environment,” she said, “the areas that are feeling the brunt of some of these changes — most notably air quality, flooding, heat indexes that are higher — if you were to map (those) communities, they are typically under-resourced communities of color.”

The Nature Conservancy has actually mapped those communities.

It created the Chicago and Cook County Greenprint, which analyzes layers of open data from governmental agencies and other partners such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Morton Arboretum and the University of Chicago to pinpoint socially vulnerable areas where nature-based solutions can help address climate challenges like flooding, air quality issues and extreme heat.

“And that Greenprint very much points us to working on the Southwest Side, in neighborhoods where there’s typically less tree canopy, more flooding and so forth,” Carr said.

Certain neighborhoods could benefit from, for example, planting new trees to alleviate urban heat and poor air quality, and others might benefit from green stormwater infrastructure to reduce flooding risks.

“What we’re doing is setting ambitious goals but also thinking about how to make those goals with an eye toward equity,” Carr said. “I think that, at its essence, we’re trying to make connectivity and bring the resources to where they’re needed the most. And it’s not quick work. It’s slow work because it requires authentic relationships and slowing down to listen to one another.”

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