By Tony Briscoe
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order Wednesday to join the United States Climate Alliance, aligning himself with 17 other governors who have committed their states to reduce carbon emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement after President Donald Trump vowed to withdraw the United States from the pact.
By joining the coalition, Pritzker has pledged Illinois will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. Pritzker said Illinois is on track to get 25 percent of its power from renewable sources, referring to a requirement by the Future Energy Jobs Act, the bill that resulted in a boom in solar energy across the state.
As of 2016, Illinois has already reduced its carbon footprint by more than 16 percent, according to state emissions data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
However, the country as a whole is still not on track to meet the Paris Agreement's end goal of keeping global temperatures below the threshold for potentially devastating impacts from climate change. In fact, last year, even as coal plants were retired at a record pace, carbon emissions rose sharply from increased production at industrial sources and greater-than-normal energy use from buildings withstanding inclement weather, according to estimates from Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. The 3.4 percent spike marks the second largest rise in emissions in more than two decades.
On Wednesday, Pritzker became the first of three newly elected Midwestern Democratic governors to make good on his promise to join the Climate Alliance after Trump's rollbacks of Obama-era environmental regulations and attacks on climate science. If Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin's Tony Evers follow suit, the additions of their states to the climate alliance would mean half the country's population was represented.
As politicians continue to spar over environmental regulation, scientists warn that policymakers have a little more than a decade to stave off catastrophic climate change.
"Today we're here to make clear that this administration will stand on the side of science and of reason," Pritzker said at a morning news conference. "We know that climate change is real. We know there is a threat, and I think there's just no disputing it anymore. And we know we must act."
"We're already experiencing the damaging effects of climate change, and the challenges we face require immediate action, and that's what we're doing today," he added.
Pritzker's move leaves no doubt where Illinois stands on climate change, an area of science that's become political in recent years.
His announcement comes one day after a new survey shows almost half of Americans are more convinced climate change is happening than they were five years ago, and their views have largely been shaped by extreme weather events that have killed thousands and cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars, according to survey data collected by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The polling occurred in November when the deadliest wildfire in California's history scorched more than 150,000 acres and claimed 86 lives.
A federal report released in November revealed that extreme heat, unpredictable water availability, among other things, could lead to significant losses in U.S. agricultural production, the biggest of which will be seen in the Midwest.
"When we think about climate change, the future is alarming," said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. "I'm very alarmed by extreme weather events, by the changes that will happen in agriculture."
As it stands, 71 percent of Americans accept climate change is happening, according to the poll. Nineteen percent of the country remains uncertain. Climate change deniers are at 9 percent.
In Lyons Township in Cook County and York Township in DuPage County, propositions asked voters if U.S. representatives and senators should address the "serious threat posed by climate change," to which more than 75 percent in each township voted yes.
Perspective on climate change continues to be divided along party lines, the poll found. Among Democrats, 86 percent believe climate change is occurring as opposed to 52 percent of Republicans.
Wednesday's move to join the climate alliance was praised by a number of environmental advocates, including Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, who stood by Pritzker for the signing ceremony.
"When it comes to climate change, Illinois' own scientists are already telling us change is already here and it's a real threat to our farmers, to our communities, to our public health and, most importantly, to our future that we want to pass on children," Darin said
A number of states, counties and local governments have made lofty promises to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable or "clean" sources in the coming decades. In December, Evanston set a goal to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity for all properties by 2030.
On the campaign trail, Pritzker has said he wants to set Illinois on a path toward 100 percent "clean, renewable energy," an oath he reiterated Wednesday.
While renewable can only refer to energy collected from naturally replenished sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, "clean" energy has a looser definition. Some have considered natural gas a source of clean energy, given it produces 50 percent less carbon dioxide compared with coal.
Nuclear power has also been regarded as as a clean source of energy, given nuclear reactors do not directly emit carbon dioxide. Illinois is home to 11 nuclear reactors -- the most of any state -- that produce about 50 percent of the state's energy. However, whether this nuclear power is part of Pritzker's 100 percent clean energy portfolio remains unclear.
Environmentalists appear to be satisfied that the state has a new sense of direction.
"In the face of federal negligence, Illinoisans are looking to the state's elected leaders for bold action to avoid catastrophic climate change -- like Gov. Pritzker's promise to put Illinois on a path to 100 percent clean energy," J.C. Kibbey, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Illinois clean energy advocate, said in a statement. "Today's announcement is a critical first step toward Illinois becoming a national leader on clean energy."
(c)2019 the Chicago Tribune