, the Illinois state climatologist, has announced that he will retire in December 2018 after 34 years at the Illinois State Water Survey. University of Illinois News Bureau physical sciences editor Lois Yoksoulian spoke with him about his career, climate change and the National Climate Assessment released in late November.
You became the state climatologist in 1997. How has climate change influenced your role in that position?
When I started, everyone was interested in the 1997-98 El Nino event. It was one of the strongest such events on record and gave us a very mild winter in Illinois with warm temperatures and little snow. That was in the early days of the internet and there were very few tools out there to get climate data or monitor current conditions. It was much more labor intensive to do those things. In fact, one of my main jobs was to find climate data and fax/mail/email the results to people requesting information. Now there are excellent tools online to get data or monitor current climate conditions. Most of my time now is devoted to research, outreach and education on issues of climate change and climate extremes like heavy rainfall events in Illinois and how they have changed over time.
How do you think the public’s perception of climate change has evolved over your tenure? How about your own views: Have they changed?
In 1997, the public in Illinois had a relatively low interest in climate change. Now, more people want to talk about climate change. They want to know if we should be concerned and whether it has affected Illinois. The answers to those questions are yes. They also want to know how we can either reduce or adapt to climate change.
Personally, I was always interested in both natural and human-caused climate change, but many of the trends and patterns we see today had not developed yet. Therefore, I was not as concerned then about climate change as I am now.
You are the lead author of the Midwest chapter of the newly released National Climate Assessment. What do you feel is the key takeaway from that report?
There are three key points. One is that we have measured impacts of climate change in the Midwest on agriculture, forests, ecosystems, infrastructure, human health, tribal communities and the Great Lakes. The second point is that we identify a number of ways to reduce the impacts. The third point is that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the severity of potential future impacts.
What advice do you have for people who want to help curtail their contributions to climate change?
Individual efforts can help, such as buying energy-efficient appliances and vehicles, making sure your home is well insulated and reducing overall consumption and waste of material goods. I also like to buy local food when possible, and it tastes good. There is the argument that maintaining a vegetarian diet may help because meat production can have a larger carbon footprint than fruits and vegetables. That is a very personal choice. To make further inroads, we need more private and public sector investment in renewable energy and the next generation of vehicles. We also need to examine ways to capture and sequester carbon through improved agriculture and forestry practices. There is a lot of work to be done.
Here is a fun side story: One of the most influential courses in my education was the climate change course taught here at the University of Illinois by the late Dr. Michael Schlesinger. It took my understanding of human-induced climate change to another level. Guess who was in the same class? Katharine Hayhoe, the person now considered one of the outstanding communicators of climate science. For our sake, I won’t reveal what year that was.
How do you respond when a skeptic questions you about climate change? Do you have a “go-to
statement” that defends your years of experience and research?
I do not have a single statement. However, I do try to make the issue both local and relevant to the person in question. I do not talk about polar bears. Instead, I talk about corn and soybeans, or water supplies or flooding in Illinois. I also listen to people’s concerns. There are fewer skeptics of climate change, but several people are concerned about too much government regulation and control. I understand their concerns. Believe it or not, some of the more challenging discussions are not about climate change but weather conspiracies such as chemtrails.
On a related note, one of the most common questions I get is “Do you believe in climate change?” I find that fascinating because no one ever asked me if I believe in droughts, floods, heat waves or El Nino. Climate change is a physical process, just like the others, only more challenging to understand because of the complexity and longer timescales.
In closing, while I have been State Climatologist since 1997, I have been studying the climate of Illinois since 1984. I appreciate working with top scientists such as Stan Changnon and Floyd Huff at the Illinois State Water Survey – part of the Prairie Research Institute – as well as other scientists around the U.S. Most importantly, I enjoyed working with the people of Illinois as we worked towards a better understanding of climate and weather and its impacts.