U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL,5) says the country is falling behind when it comes to adopting forward-thinking policies meant to address climate change.
At a Chicago press conference Monday, the congressman continued the push for an urgent response to the effects of climate change, which if not addressed will continue to damage Lake Michigan and cause headaches for Illinois homeowners due to repeated flooding events, among other concerns, according to the lawmaker.
“This is the legacy we’re going to leave. We can be the first generation that leaves the world in a worse condition than we were born into it,” Quigley said. “We have a responsibility for our children and their children’s children.”
Though Quigley applauded the Obama administration and various local efforts to tackle climate change, he said it’s time for federal lawmakers to take charge and make the issue a top priority. Appropriate climate change policies not only help the planet but can also create jobs and boost the economy, the congressman added.
During his past two terms in Congress, Quigley said he’s served in the worst House of Representatives in history when it comes to environmental issues. Many of his colleagues in the House, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH,8), are climate change doubters, he added.
“We average a bad vote on the environment every four days that we are in session,” the congressman said. “This cannot continue.”
But “thank the heavens”, Quigley said, that President Barack Obama is a climate change believer, and his administration is doing something significant about it. On Friday, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s issued a proposal containing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new power plants.
Nonetheless, Quigley stressed that more work is needed, specifically to protect one of the area's most prized possessions: Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan’s water levels in January 2013 were at an all-time low, and six feet lower than the record high set in 1986.
The low water levels are mainly due to drought and evaporation, and the problem will only get worse if climate change is left unchecked, said Debra Shore, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Water is evaporating from the lake, because it’s freezing later in the winter and thawing earlier in the spring. Currently, lake levels are, however, up nearly 20 inches from the record low in late January, Shore noted.
Low lake levels are tied to various economic impacts. For instance, commodity shippers may scrape the bottom of the lake when the water levels are low. As a result, carriers have to lighten their load and take more trips, which ultimately drives up the price of commodities and the use of energy. Low lake levels also impact recreational activities. Small boats, for example, can have difficuly getting in and out of marinas when the water is too low, Shore explained.
According to climate scientists, the Chicago and northern Illinois regions are set to see more frequent periods of droughts and precipitation in the future. Some precipitation may come in the form of rain in the winter when the ground is frozen, during which the water cannot be absorbed, leading to more flooding, Shore noted.
She cited numerous local, extreme weather events in recent years, including the massive flooding that swept through the state back in April. The heavy flooding prompted Gov. Pat Quinn to declare a state of emergency.
“These [extreme weather events] are happening, and I think any person who’s watching and paying attention will suggest that more will come,” she stressed.
Flooding can destroy homes and property values, and it is also associated with various human health problems caused by mold or contaminated water, said Hal Sprague, water manager at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).
Overall, the costs associated with flooding are extremely high too, he added.
CNT issued a report in May that looked at the prevalence and costs associated with flooding in Cook County over a five-year period. During that time, the total amount of money paid out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or private insurance companies via basement backup policies was $660 million. That figure is a significant underestimate, he said, because it doesn’t include claims from those who don’t have insurance or those who didn’t report the flood damage, among other factors.
In an effort to help reduce flooding costs for residents, federal lawmakers should work to break down the barriers associated with the National Flood Insurance Program, which Sprague said is currently burdensome for people to use. More also needs to be done to improve the mapping of flood-prone areas. Historically, FEMA has only mapped flood plains, or areas where rivers and lakes overflow, he noted.
The flow of water into sewers also needs to be slowed during extreme weather events. More funding would be helpful for municipalities to install things like rain barrels, rain gardens, green roofs and permeable surfaces on driveways, patios and parking lots to capture rain, Shore said.
At the local level, the water reclamation district is looking to pass a watershed management ordinance early next month that would set minimum standards across Cook County for development and redevelopment of devices and systems meant to capture more water and reduce the amount that goes into the sewer system.
Overall, the costs associated with climate change for the city of Chicago are significant, said Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert. If climate change continues at its current pace, its future impacts could cost the city anywhere between the hundreds of millions to even billions of dollars, she said.
“We know (climate change) is here,” she stressed. “We’ve seen the impacts. We need to get into gear.”