Hundreds of American communities, including many in the Kansas City area, are now talking about climate change.
Not stopping it, or dramatically slowing it down. Getting ready for it.
The precise reasons for changing global weather patterns remain a subject of fierce political disagreement. Those disputes will grow louder later this month, when nearly 200 nations meet in Paris to discuss climate change.
But most local government officials say they’re increasingly convinced the emerging effects of a changing climate — hotter summers, milder winters, shifting patterns of rain and snow, with more extreme weather events — are now largely unavoidable, and must be addressed sooner rather than later.
“We’re already seeing the impacts,” said Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer for Kansas City. “We need to take action.”
Some of the decisions cities face seem mundane and obvious: Should they move money from snow plows and salt to air-conditioned public spaces? What’s the added cost when paved streets buckle in hotter summers, and bridges corrode in heavier rain? Will residents be more prone to illness as the climate changes?
Other choices may be even more complicated. Social scientists believe hotter summers may increase violent crime, for example, suggesting a need for additional police. Yet some experts say planting additional street trees would cool a community, reducing the need for law enforcement.
Which is the better option?
No one can say. Yet all of these options, and more, are beginning to land with a thud on the desks of mayors, council members, city planners and other public officials in the Kansas City area, and across the nation.
Last week more than 140 people attended a Kansas City seminar on what’s called climate change “resilience” — the effort to find a way to live with the phenomenon.
“Every doctrine we have — water, food, transportation, soil, social systems, health, education — all those underlying doctrines are obsolete,” said Bob Berkebile, who has studied ways to address climate change for 25 years.
“We are, as a region, starting to wake up to this.”
Climate scientists think the Kansas City area will get warmer over the next 25 years, both in summer and winter, by an average of about three degrees.
Heat waves will be hotter, and the number of days over 95 degrees may double, but winter cold waves will be more mild — by almost five degrees, on average. The first freeze will come five days later than normal, and the typical last freeze will take place in late March, not early April.
The scientists say those temperature changes are a concern, but the immediate climate focus for the Kansas City area is in the clouds: warming ocean water could mean a 20 percent jump in average spring precipitation by 2050.
That may sound good, but the water will come in bursts. “The events that we’re going to see with rainfall are going to be more intense, in isolated periods,” said Christopher Anderson, a climate scientist at Iowa State University. “You might have a 10-day or 20-day period that just looks like something you’ve never seen before, followed by 30 or 40 or 50 days of no rain.”
Violent rain events in and around Kansas City are hardly new, of course.
The area has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades in a largely successful effort to address the flood threat along familiar regional watersheds — Brush and Turkey creeks, the Blue River, even parts of the Missouri River. Kansas City is in the middle of a major effort to rebuild its stormwater and sanitary sewer system.
But intense downbursts are expected to strain local drainage systems throughout the area, city planners now believe, posing a threat to lives and property. Downpours will also wreak havoc on gardens, lawns, ballfields and parks. Bridges may rust more quickly than in the past.
All of those challenges will add pressure to local budgets already woefully behind in infrastructure maintenance and construction.
“Climate change threatens the safety and reliability of the infrastructure systems that local economies and community security depend upon,” a federal task force concluded a year ago.
Still, if the impact of a changing climate were limited to additional water and more humidity, it would likely cause less local concern. An abundance of rain is a problem some communities would like to have, after all — and the region won’t face the threat of low-level flooding caused by rising seas, a huge concern along the coasts.
But there are other worries:
▪ Health. Lots of springtime rain, followed by hot summers and mild winters, will also mean more insects — and potentially more disease. Health departments believe they’ll face major challenges as the climate changes, including an increase in heat exposure, deaths from heart disease and mosquito-borne illnesses, even increased mental illness.
“We’re already seeing new disease vectors move in,” Murphey said. “Lyme disease. West Nile virus.”
Allergies? The ragweed season is already a week longer than it used to be.
“I have allergies,” said James Joerke of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. “I always wait for the first hard freeze. I’m still waiting. That’s something that is increasingly going to become an issue.”
Not everyone will feel the effects of a changing climate the same way, some local experts say. The poor may struggle the most.
“The folks who are going to be most impacted by these changes are the folks who are least able to adapt to them,” Joerke said. “We have a heat wave? Hey, go out and buy another air conditioner. Unless you can’t afford to buy an air conditioner.”
▪ Heat. While springs will be wetter and winters warmer, increasingly severe summer heat events are still likely. That’s a health concern, but also a worry for firefighters, who anticipate more wildfires in rural areas.
Kansas City, Kan., fire chief John Paul Jones is president of the Missouri Valley division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, representing departments from eight states in the upper Great Plains and Mountain West. He says departments are studying the rural wildfires that threaten cities.
“These wild swings, as far as weather, and drought can really cause issues,” he said.
Jones recently wrote the U.S. fire administrator, seeking a commitment for additional training and resources to deal with climate change. The White House convened a meeting on the topic last week.
▪ Public safety. Hotter weather typically means more violent crime: a recent study suggested climate change could provoke an additional 22,000 murders in America by the end of the century. A separate study by business and former government officials claims Kansas City’s violent crime rate will jump by more than 5 percent by 2100 “due solely to hotter temperatures.”
How should cities confront that?
“There’s clear data that shows the right kind of trees — not low bushes, but tall trees where people can’t hide behind them — help increase public safety,” said Tom Jacobs, an environmental official with the Mid-America Regional Council. “Why? Because you’ve got nicer places where people want to hang out.”
Adding to the urban forest can also cool a community, experts say — and help pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, further cooling the landscape.
But a push for more police officers seems equally possible. Cities may also have to spend more on prosecution, incarceration, emergency preparedness personnel and equipment, and security concerns.
Kansas City area officials say they’re just starting the process of examining options related to the changing climate.
Other local governments — from Austin, Texas, to Portland, Ore., and Boston — have already drafted guidelines for climate change decisions elected officials must face.
While cities have started to focus on adapting to climate change, they have not abandoned efforts to counter the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate. Indeed, those who are studying climate change insist local governments can’t abandon commitments to mass transit, greener energy and other steps designed to cool the environment.
“Increased resilience and taking mitigative measures are both keys to a solution,” said Martha Shulski, director of the High Plains Regional Climate Center in Lincoln, Neb.
But combining preparedness with the controversies surrounding greenhouse gas restrictions may deeply scramble the politics, clouding potential progress on the local level.
Some Americans believe climate change is a hoax. Others argue its effects are overstated, and that the science surrounding the phenomenon is uncertain. They bitterly resist regulations and taxes designed to reduce emissions.
And some Americans are skeptical of claims that man-made pollutants are trapping energy and changing the climate, and they resist calls for restrictions on cars and coal-fired energy.
More broadly, many Republicans and Democrats remain skeptical of recent announcements by President Barack Obama to cap emissions from coal-fired power plants. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently joined a lawsuit that seeks to stop implementation of the caps, while Sen. Roy Blunt has proposed legislation blocking their use. Sen. Claire McCaskill has also expressed concerns about part of the plan.
McCaskill and Koster are Missouri Democrats. Blunt is a Missouri Republican.
Their opposition has prompted sharp criticism from some environmentalists in the state. But it also illustrates the tangled politics that may hurt efforts at the local level to address adaptation to a changing climate: cities will need money and attention to adapt to climate change, and political figures are still arguing about ways to slow it down.
“The community understands this is an issue,” Murphey said. “That’s the piece that’s often lost — the sense of urgency. Things are changing much more rapidly than we predicted.”
Indeed, the social disruption of a changing climate has added to the long to-do list for mayors, city administrators and public employees across the region. The recent climate change “resilience” workshop in Kansas City is the first of several such sessions, officials say.
The first meeting focused on concrete local concerns that may seem far removed from the climate change conference in Paris or the political disputes in Washington. That’s because local officials think residents will turn to them first as the climate changes.
“We have some decisions to make,” Berkebile said. “If you’re a politician, do you wait, and get hammered even more, and have bigger problems? Or do you say, ‘This is a serious pattern, and we can do these things now.’
“The political will is starting to catch up a little bit.”
Plans in other cities
Other cities are drafting and executing climate change preparedness plans. Here are some excerpts:
Portland, Ore.: “The strategy establishes 12 specific objectives for 2030 and identifies actions to build resilience into the City and County’s policies...” Objectives: Decrease the urban heat island effect; increase the resilience of Portland’s water supply; manage the increased risk of landslides; strengthen emergency management capacity to respond to weather-related emergencies.
Austin, Texas: “Climate resiliency involves efforts to reduce a city’s vulnerability to long-term changes in climate and major weather events in order to protect the economic, environmental, and social health of the community.” Objectives: monitor climate change impact on stoplight and streetlight systems, and workers’ productivity in warmer weather; ensure continuous water delivery in drought and severe weather events; consider purchasing land to reduce flood risk to private property.
Boston: “Sea-level rise, rising temperatures, and more intense storms will increase the vulnerability of all parts and sectors of the city.” Objectives: Make climate preparedness an explicit criterion in capital planning; review and update municipal emergency plans; revise tree-planting guidelines as appropriate; monitor impact of higher natural hazard risks on city’s insurance costs.