Municipal leaders and concerned residents from around Indiana met virtually to learn how climate change is affecting the state and what can be done to lessen future damage from related factors such as higher temperatures and increased rainfall.
Earth Charter Indiana, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote and advance sustainability, hosted the Climate Leadership Summit Aug. 27. The summit was planned to be held in Evansville, but was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A series of workshops during the conference taught attendees about how man-made climate change has altered life in Indiana over the last hundred years and the strategies communities can take to minimize effects that are expected to worsen in coming decades.
Scientists from Purdue University’s Climate Change Research Center explained how, despite a perception that climate change is solely a problem that is far away in both distance and time, climate change has demonstrably impacted the state’s weather.
“We can’t ignore the significance and relevance that climate change has in our own backyard,” said Melissa Widhalm, operations manager for the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. “Climate change is not just a problem for faraway places at distant points in the future. It’s not just a problem for our granddaughters. It’s a problem for us.”
Widhalm said the effects of climate change are visible, and Hoosiers are already feeling the impacts.
She said Indiana has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, and annual precipitation has increased 6.5 inches during that same time period.
The warming has led to longer frost-free seasons, fewer cold days and significantly warmer overnight temperatures.
Climate change effects have led to a series of changes that affect vital parts of the state’s economy, said Widhalm.
Warmer overnight temperatures have suppressed maximum potential corn yields about 3 bushels per acre for every degree of nighttime warming. Increased rain has also washed away topsoil in some parts of the state.
In urban areas, increased stream flows due to heavier rain events have overwhelmed drainage systems, leading to more flooding.
Warming in the state is projected to continue and accelerate, with average temperatures increasing an additional 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century.
Widhalm said that would lead to changes like an increase in the amount of premature deaths in the state, which plants can grow in the state and how much energy is used to cool buildings.
“The severity of impacts depends on vulnerability. The severity of impacts depends on whether we take action to adapt. And severity also matters whether we take action to reduce the overall levels of warming that happen,” she said.
Other workshops taught about tools available to find out what climate change threat will most affect certain areas of the state and what strategies and aid are available to help mitigate those threats, a process known as climate resilience.
Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute presented several online tools like the ERI toolkit, which helps local governments provide information about adaptation strategies tailored to their communities; the Hoosier Resilience Index, which lets communities learn about current and future climate change impacts and how to prioritize actions to prepare; the Indiana Resilience Cohort, which lets cities, towns and county governments measure, manage and track their greenhouse gas emissions; and the Hoosier Life Survey, which tracks public opinion on attitudes toward topics like environmental change and policies to address them.
During the summit, mayors and city officials from Gary, Crawfordsville, Fort Wayne, New Albany, Evansville, Goshen and West Lafayette spoke about how they used those tools and other measures to limit the damage caused by climate change impacts in their communities.
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince said one strategy was to bring awareness of the problems to community members who may not be aware of the real cost of climate change.
“Most recently, we sponsored a climate resiliency ordinance, and the common council actually passed it. We think that was a tremendous step to bring awareness not only to our colleagues outside of local government, but certainly to make it more known to our local residents and businesses what our intentions are, what our desires are and what our priorities are,” said Prince.
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said keeping the public informed helped his city fund the $200 million Deep Rock Tunnel, a 5-mile long sewer tunnel dug 200 feet under the surface that will be able to handle increased streamflow caused by more frequent heavy rain events.
“When we took this project to the general public and told that what we were trying to do to clean up our rivers and to provide an environment that we could be proud of, and we told them it was going to be a $200 million project that they would be paying for with increased utility rates, we never received one complaint,” said Henry. “We made them a part of the decision-making process. We allowed them to provide input, suggestions, comments. We had public hearings, and I think that because they knew what we were trying to do that would not only benefit us now but certainly the next generation, we did not receive one complaint.”
Other workshops discussed clean energy strategies, expanding access to renewable energy, increasing equity for underserved farmers in Indiana and confronting environmental racism.
Earth Charter Indiana plans to hold its 2021 summit in Evansville.