Environment Illinois: New report on weather-related disasters shows need for carbon pollution regulation

April 5, 2012

By Environment Illinois

CHICAGO — After a year that saw many parts of the country hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, severe storms and record flooding, a new report finds the vast majority of Illinoisans live in counties recently affected by weather disasters.

Given that global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Environment Illinois, and experts called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize pending rules to cut the largest sources of dangerous carbon pollution.

The April 4 report found that 97percent of Illinoisans live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006.

The report highlighted two weather-related disasters that took place in Illinois last year: the spring flooding of the Mississippi River, which forced the evacuation of the entire town of Cairo, Ill., killed seven people, and caused up to $9 billion in damages; and Chicago’s Groundhog Day blizzard, in which 70 mph winds and 20 inches of snow stranded up to 1,500 motorists on Lake Shore Drive. That storm killed 36 people in the Midwest and inflicted $1.8 billion in damages.

Millions of Illinoisans have lived through extreme weather, causing extremely big problems for Illinois’ economy and our public safety,” said Max Muller, Environment Illinois’ program director. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”

Durbin, who joined Environment Illinois to release the report April 4, said: “We ought to face the reality of greenhouse gas emissions and create energy and environmental policies to reduce their destructive impact. We need to invest in renewable energy and pollution controls to help slow the effects of climate change and protect our public health. It is critical that we leave our children and grandchildren with a sustainable planet and a promising, bright future.”

The new report, “In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States,” examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many Illinoisans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters.

The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available on Environment Illinois’ website. The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms. Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase because of other impacts of global warming, such as sea level rise.

Key findings from the Environment Illinois report include the following:

Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 97 Illinois counties housing more than 12 million people, or 24 out of 25 Illinoisans.

Since 2006, Cook County has experienced four federally declared weather-related disasters.

In 2011 alone, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 84 Illinois counties housing well more than 11 million people.

Nationally, federally declared weather-related disasters have affected counties housing 242 million people since 2006 — or nearly four out of five Americans. The number of disasters inflicting more than $1 billion in damage set an all-time record last year, with total damages from those disasters costing at least $55 billion.

Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend toward extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.

Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.

Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.

Environment Illinois applauded Durbin for his continued efforts to advance global warming pollution reductions and reject continued attacks on clean air standards in Congress.

I held a hearing last year to examine whether or not the federal government is prepared to handle the growing number of severe weather events. The answer was no,” Durbin said. “Yet, the economic impact of severe weather events is only projected to grow in future years as their frequency continues to rise.”

Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert, Louis Block professor in the geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, said, “Science is clear on the fact that the more we pump out carbon pollution by continued reliance on fossil fuels like coal and oil for our energy, the hotter it is going to get.

We are hitting the reset button on climate, and the scary thing is that we know things will get worse, but we can’t tell just how bad things are going to get,” Pierrehumbert said. “It is certain that it will be a bumpy ride. The only way to protect ourselves against this risk is to simply stop pumping out so much carbon pollution. The Obama administration’s landmark EPA regulations on carbon pollution from power plants represent a sensible step towards protecting future generations against the risk of the severe weather that comes with a warming world.”

Keith Bolin, a farmer and member of the board of the American Corn Growers Association, added: “There’s simply no substitute for good soil and a stable climate for growing crops. That puts farmers at the front lines of global warming — it’s a grave threat to rural livelihoods and quality of life. That’s why I support EPA policies to cut global warming pollution from automobiles and power plants.”

IEMA Assistant Director Joe Klinger said: “In the past few years, we’ve had to deal with several major weather-related disasters in Illinois. Personal preparedness, such as assembling an emergency supply kit, developing a family emergency plan and having a weather alert radio, is the key to keeping you and your family safe whenever disaster strikes.”

Power plants, cars and trucks are the biggest sources of carbon pollution, which fuels global warming, so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.

We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” Muller said. “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”

Posted April 5, 2012

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