More than 150 people attended the first Alternative Futures Forum Series event, "Thriving in a Changing Climate," at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on Thursday, April 6.
Moderated by Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune investigative reporter, the panel -- which included Thomas A. Wall, infrastructure and preparedness analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory Risk and Infrastructure Science Center; Kim Wasserman-Nieto, executive director at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; and Karen Weigert, senior fellow for Global Cities with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- discussed how the Chicago region can plan now to be more resilient in a future with intensified climate impacts. This was the first of five forums scheduled monthly through August around CMAP's Alternative Futures campaign, an effort to spark conversation and garner public input about the Chicago region's future as CMAP develops the next comprehensive plan, ON TO 2050.
"By understanding the Alternative Futures, we can plan more effectively as a region to meet these potential challenges and opportunities," said CMAP executive director Joseph C. Szabo while introducing the panel.
How climate change will affect Chicago
The climate in northeastern Illinois is already changing, with more extreme weather events and warming temperatures.
"Chicago will get hotter and Chicago will get wetter," said Wall about the climate projection work at Argonne National Laboratory. Those changes will be hard for people to handle in their daily lives, he said, while also increasingly putting stress on the region's power grid and transportation infrastructure.
As described in a new Alternative Futures Changed Climate memo, CMAP's research on climate change shows that other consequences could include increased pollution to our lakes and rivers, dwindling groundwater in parts of the region, increased property damage from flooding, and increased health challenges.
Weigert said those outcomes mean metropolitan Chicago will need to think about what communities can do to support one another and how to build infrastructure that can withstand the effects of climate change. "The weather has already started to change. We're going to have to be resilient," she said. "We have a lot of work to do here."
Wasserman-Nieto -- who had been featured in a Tribune story previewing the forum -- reminded the audience that the issue of climate change is not happening in a vacuum. In fact, intersects with many other issues that disproportionally affect vulnerable populations such as people of color, people living in poverty, and the elderly.
According to the Changed Climate memo, the urban heat island effect -- caused by the fact that urban centers have more impervious surfaces such as roadways, parking lots, and rooftops that heat up during the day and stay hot into the night -- means the city is typically 2°F warmer than surrounding communities.
"It's not just about the heat," Wasserman-Nieto said. "Add not being able to breathe because your neighborhood is polluted, then add not being able to cool off because you can't afford your utility bills."
How metropolitan Chicago might thrive
However, with our region's Midwest location -- next to a body of fresh water rather than on an ocean with rising sea levels and potential typhoons and hurricanes -- the region may be better positioned than others around the country.
CMAP analysis shows that as other parts of the country become more difficult to live and work in because of intensified climate change impacts, metropolitan Chicago might see its population and economy grow.
"Chicago is relatively well positioned," Weigert said. "It is in times of stress that we have to build new ways of working and living together. If we can get creative about finding solutions, it will actually strengthen the fabric of Chicago."
Our region is also fortunate to have such strong educational and intellectual institutions doing research, developing new technology, and putting us at the forefront of finding solutions to climate change, Wall said.
Panelists said that although solutions can take time, there are identifiable moments of progress that the region can point to, such as the closing of two coal-fired plants in the city, the launch of the Green Corps Chicago Youth Program, and a partnership between Argonne National Laboratory and the Illinois Institute of Technology to create a micro-grid that can absorb energy in certain areas in case the power grid is overloaded.
How to get involved
Responding to an audience question about what individuals can do to help build the Chicago area's resilience to climate change, panelists had a lot of different ideas.
One suggestion was to take small action, from changing your lightbulbs to looking for where you can install green infrastructure at your own home.
Be an ally to communities who will be hit the hardest, Wasserman-Nieto said. She encouraged the audience to pay attention to issues of social justice that will intersect with climate change now and in the future.
"We would be taking two steps backward if we continued to have this conversation isolated and not connecting the dots to everything else that is happening around us," she said.
Stay educated and help raise the literacy of others around climate change issues, said Wall, because the more people who understand and care about this future, the more of a demand there will be to find solutions.
"Dig deeper than posting on Twitter or Facebook. We have to increase the fluency around climate change to increase the awareness," he said.
Kristen Pratt, sustainability manager for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum suggested people learn more about the topic by exploring the museum's latest exhibit, "Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate," to understand how scientists and architects are designing homes to withstand the effects of climate change, reduce our environmental impact, and support natural habitat for plants and animals.
More on this Alternative Future
To learn more about the Changed Climate Alternative Future, visit http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/onto2050/futures/climate, where you can take a survey about how climate change might affect this region and how to plan for it.
Next: Walkable Communities
Register for the next Alternative Futures Forum Series event, "Where We'll Live in 2050," hosted and co-sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (224 S. Michigan Ave.) at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 4.