Risky Business Project Finds U.S. Midwest Faces Economic Risk from Climate Change

Risky Business Midwest Report
Changing summer temperatures by state. Image courtesy of Risky Business Project

The Midwestern United States faces potential disruptions to its agricultural economy, and dangerous levels of heat in many of its largest cities, if climate change continues unabated, according to a new report released today by the Risky Business Project.

Heat in the Heartland: Climate Change and Economic Risk in the Midwest details how extreme heat – the signature impact of a changing climate – could transform the Midwest’s economy. Absent significant adaptation, overall crop yields will likely decline, potentially shifting growing patterns for major commodity crops to the north and putting individual farming communities at risk. Left unchecked, a changing climate will also increase the incidence of extreme heat, particularly in the Midwest’s southernmost cities like St. Louis, Des Moines and Indianapolis, leading to significant public health and safety risks. However, the report shows that the Midwest can still avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate if it joins in efforts to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The results of the report are being were presented at a lunch meeting of the Economic Club of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Climate change poses a tremendous threat to the key sectors of the Midwest economy, particularly manufacturing and agriculture. As a lifelong Midwesterner, I’m gravely concerned that our ‘business as usual’ path is dangerous, unsustainable and threatens our way of life,” said Hank Paulson, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Risky Business Project co-chair. “Our business leaders, our cities, and our investment community need to focus on these risks and act now before it’s too late.”

“A changing climate will present new risks and new opportunities as we face the complex task of producing enough food, feed and fuel for a world on its way to 9 billion people. Given the importance of the Midwestern United States to the world’s agricultural production, it would be irresponsible to dismiss these projections lightly,” said Greg Page, Cargill executive chairman and Risky Business Project Risk Committee member.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation, and it is already having a devastating impact on our communities. The Heat in the Heartland report outlines the very real impacts that climate change is having on our economy in the Midwest—affecting our businesses and the agriculture industry,” said California business leader and Risky Business co-chair Tom Steyer. “The facts are clear, this is not just an environmental issue, but a pocketbook issue, and we can no longer afford to wait to address this critical issue.”

“This new report finds what more and more business leaders are already recognizing: Climate risks are real and too dangerous to ignore,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P., 108th Mayor of New York City, and Risky Business Project co-chair. “Forward-looking business leaders are monitoring, measuring and responding to these risks with real action.”

Heat in the Heartland details the risks of unmitigated climate change in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. The report also provides new data by metropolitan region, providing businesses and governments with the ability to better understand the likely impact climate change will have across the Midwest’s many interconnected cities, towns and counties.

The report shows that communities, industries, and properties across the region face profound risks from climate change. These impacts could affect transportation, labor productivity, energy use and agriculture. However, the report concludes that the most severe risks can still be avoided through early investments in resilience, and through immediate action to reduce the pollution that causes global warming.

Among the major findings:

  • By the End of this Century, Dangerous Levels of Extreme Heat are Likely Across the Southern Midwest
    • By the end of this century, the average Missouri resident is likely to experience 46 to 115 days above 95°F in a typical year – about as many extremely hot days as the average Arizonan experiences each year in recent decades;
    • The average Chicago resident is expected to experience more days over 95°F by century’s end than the average Texan does today – with a 1-in-20 chance that these extremely hot days will be more than double Texas’s average; 
  • Northern Midwest States May See Fewer Deaths as Winters Warm – but also Fewer Fish, and Less Winter Recreation
    • By the end of this century, only two upper Midwest states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) are expected to have average winter temperatures below the freezing mark;
    • As streams and lakes become warmer, fish and other sensitive water-based species may be threatened;
    • Fewer freezing days translates into less energy used for heating and fewer cold-related deaths – however, warmer winters will also lead to decreased snow and ice for outdoor winter sports like outdoor hockey, snowmobiling, and ice-fishing.
  • Changes in Temperature and Precipitation Will Shift Agricultural Patterns and Affect Crop Yields, with Gains in Certain Crops Offset by Losses in Others
    • Over the next five to 25 years, without significant adaptation by farmers, some counties in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana will likely see average commodity crop losses up to 18 to 24 percent due to extreme heat each year;
    • On the other hand, warmer winters may extend growing seasons in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, allowing farmers to practice double-cropping;
    • If we continue on our current emissions path without significant adaptation, by the end of the century the Midwest will likely see overall agricultural losses for corn and wheat of 11 percent to 69 percent across the region as a whole, with a 1-in-20 chance of more than an 80 percent decline.

The Heat in the Heartland report also found that rising temperatures will likely reduce labor productivity and could increase crime rates and heat-related mortality. Also, rising heat will cause more consumers to use air conditioning, thereby increasing overall electricity demand while decreasing energy system capacity. Even accounting for lower energy use in the warmer winter months, this overall increase in electricity demand will likely lead to higher energy costs, particularly in the manufacturing-intensive southern Midwest states. Precipitation across the region, though harder to measure than heat, will also likely become more extreme.

Heat in the Heartland is the second report from the Risky Business Project. Last summer, the Project released Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change to the United States, which employed a standard risk-assessment analysis to determine the range of potential consequences of climate change for each region of the U.S.—as well as for selected sectors of the economy.

The full report can be found at www.riskybusiness.org.

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This post was prepared by Solar Thermal Magazine staff.