A year of rising rivers, flooded fields and now triple-digit heat has increased the attention paid to a critical issue - climate change, and what, if anything, policy makers can do. We dig deeper into the potential impacts for our state on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.       


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 19 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: As Iowans hunker down with air conditioners running full blast and triple-digit heat this weekend, a stark reality confronts everyone from farmers watching the rain gauge to lawmakers confronted with the task of responding to climate change. And as democratic presidential candidates crisscross the state promoting their climate platforms, just what might be the future impact here in Iowa. Joining us are Dr. Gene Takle, Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University and Dr. David Courard-Hauri, Professor and Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you for inviting me.

Thank you.

Yepsen: It's good to have you with us. Across the table, David Pitt writes for the Associated Press and Katarina Sostaric reports for Iowa Public Radio.

Sostaric: Dr. Courard-Hauri, we're in the middle of a heat wave. Is more extreme heat the new norm?

Courard-Hauri: Yeah, well as Gene can tell you we have certainly not seen significant increases in temperatures up until now, a lot of that has been hidden by the increased moisture in the air that has been going up. But it looks like that is the direction that we're going. So again, as moisture increased that led to cloudiness and that sort of thing that allowed nighttime temperatures to go up but less in the day. And that seems to be changing.

Yepsen: Dr. Takle?

Takle: Yes, that's the pattern that we're seeing. The precipitation is more the issue that we're dealing with right now and so this excess humidity and precipitation is what is really masking the increase in temperature. We expect that after beyond the middle of the current century we'll see much more of this rise in temperature.

Sostaric: Heat kills more people than any other extreme weather. What can policymakers be doing now to help protect people from that?

Takle: Certainly we need to protect those portions of our population who are disadvantaged with regard to lack of air conditioning, may be at risk because they are in a demographic that is at more risk. But we need to be paying attention and we have learned a lot from previous heat waves, the Chicago heat wave a few years ago really has helped cities to understand and cope with these issues better.

Yepsen: How?

Takle: Well, just by better awareness, working with neighborhoods, working with churches and so on to make sure that we're in touch with people who don't even have fans or air conditioning and need help from neighbors.

Pitt: Well, we've certainly seen this year impact on crops from the wet season that we've had. I wonder, I know some of your research has shown by mid-century we're going to be seeing the impact on crops maybe more significant, particularly corn, if the temperature rises corn doesn't pollinate as well. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Takle: Yes, the rise in rainfall, particularly April, May, June has been probably the most notable change in climate that is affecting Iowa right now. It has delayed the planting substantially this year and so then the crop is behind and it's not going to be able to complete the pollination and grain filing periods that are necessary before harvest.

Pitt: So the long-term prospects? Will we see difficulty with corn being able to pollinate in a hotter environment if we indeed by mid-century reach those triple-digit temperatures that maybe are expected? And maybe is it time to start looking for a third crop or something else that thrives in a hotter environment? I know that raises a lot of implications I guess but can you maybe address that?

Takle: As David mentioned the excessive heat has been suppressed by all the moisture we've had. And so our bigger problem is going to be moisture and humidity during the next two or three decades. But as we move toward the middle of the current century we're going to see a substantial rise in heat. The Midwest has been projected to be more, have higher changes in extreme temperatures than any other region of the country. So we're not looking forward to that but this is the time to plan, to as you say maybe examine our crops, if corn isn't going to pollinate under these kind of conditions then we need to be thinking about different ways or looking at planting schedules differently or different hybrids so you can spread out that pollination period.

Yepsen: And what is your answer to that same question, a third crop?

Courard-Hauri: Well, Gene studies crops so he's going to be able to tell you more about that than I can. But the most important thing that farmers need is some kind of understanding of what is coming and some kind of certainty about what to expect and that has been hard to get especially as we kind of cloud the ability or as we question some of the results that are coming out of models that can be a difficult thing to communicate to people who are skeptical of changes being anything but natural. So I think that's a danger is how do we say things in ways that people will respond to and be able to make the adaptations that they need?

Yepsen: We've got a lot of presidential candidates crisscrossing our state. Dr. Courard-Hauri I'll start with you, what do you think of some of these proposals that they're talking about to deal with climate change?

Courard-Hauri: Well, I think the thing that we need to realize is that we've been told so often that it is going to be, addressing climate change, reducing our carbon dioxide emissions is going to be a thing that changes society and is economically so expensive and that's just not true anymore. You can look at Iowa, we're producing almost 60% of our energy that is sold in Iowa from wind and we have, I'm sorry MidAmerican, we have some of the least expensive electricity around. If you look at studies on solar and wind they compete with just the fuel, not building new plants, just buying coal, you can build new alternative facilities for less than you can just buying the coal. So the economics have changed so much and the conversation hasn't changed along with the economics. So my sense is that a lot of the proposals will be a lot less expensive than people are imagining.

Yepsen: Dr. Takle, what do you think of the Green New Deal that is being talked about?

Takle: I think there are elements of that, that are really things that we should be looking into more. I think where Iowa can play a role there is more on carbon sequestration, storing more carbon in our Iowa soils. By our tillage processes we have removed about half of the carbon from our Iowa soils over the last 100 years. So there's a big potential reservoir there. We need more research on the chemistry of soils in order to understand how to capture that carbon and tie it up for long periods of time. Interestingly enough most of the carbon that is left in our soils remains from the prairie fires of the last thousands of years because it forms a biochar that does not break down easily and so if we can create more of this biochar either chemically or by other means we can store a lot of carbon in our soils.

Sostaric: I think there are a lot of people who are skeptical that really any efforts would be enough to slow climate change as it is right now. Is it too late to change things?

Takle: That's a good question. It's true that the magnitude of the increase in carbon is just very staggering. A study done some years ago by the University of Iowa showed each of us here in Iowa puts about 30 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Well, how many trees do I need to plant to capture my 30 tons of carbon to clean up after myself? The task is a daunting one. But on the other hand there are measures and we need to start by reducing our emissions so that we don't just add to the burden that we have to clean up. And so these innovative solutions really need to be explored.

Courard-Hauri: One thing I'd like to add, when people talk about is it too late, we keep talking about this issue as if there is a cutoff point. And there certainly are places where the danger increases dramatically because you run the risk of hitting feedbacks where you start melting the permafrost and you get methane coming out and things like that. So there are definitely places, temperatures that you want to avoid. But what we have to realize is that all along the spectrum, the more than you warm the worse things get. So it may be it's too late to avoid a one degree change, we've already hit that and we're seeing impacts now, and it's too late to avoid probably a one and a half degree change. But there's a big difference between one and a half degrees and two and a half degrees and two and a half degrees and three and a half degrees. And so you can always do better. And so as Gene is saying the sooner you start the less damage you do. And so I just, I worry about the too late or we have 10 years. Yeah, we have 10 years to avoid a certain level of damage that we really want to avoid. I think we can do that. But even if we don't I worry that then people are like well we missed the boat and what can you do. But no, you can still continue to reduce emissions.

Pitt: It seems like a great illustration of that is the fact that we see increased nitrates in our water and I've always been told by politicians and farmers and people I talk to is that the increased nitrate in our river water, particularly our surface waters, is an issue of the weather. On wet years you see much more nitrates coming down than in drier years. So my question is, if we're indeed seeing a really wet climate now, and I think we have been seeing that, are we going to face an issue with controlling the level of nitrate that we see in our river waters, particularly that's an issue for Des Moines? Is it going to be an increasingly difficult problem to tackle?

Takle: I think, I agree, I think that's correct and it points to a fact that we really need to think about redesign of our landscape. How are we planting our crops? And how are we managing the water on the landscapes? In the past it has been to put in more subsurface drainage tile to get rid of the water faster. But we need to be using prairie strips, contour farming, ways of holding that water in place longer so that it doesn't get down into the rivers before the nitrates are taken out.

Courard-Hauri: In national security they talk about climate change as being a threat multiplier where there are already problems, it's not that climate change created the threat, but that it makes it worse for a number of reasons. And I think the same thing can be said for the nitrates. It's not just climate that is changing that, it's not just climate that is causing even the flooding, a lot of that is changing landscapes and those sorts of things. But climate takes some of those changes that we have made and makes them worse, multiplies them.

Yepsen: I want to go back to Katarina's question about is it too late. What can individuals be doing, as it has been mentioned planting trees, but what are the things people can do? If we're not supposed to just throw up our hands and say it's hopeless, and some people are doing that, or we don't believe it, what can an individual do in our own little way to combat this?

Courard-Hauri: We get that question a lot and I always wrestle with how to answer because I think the best answer is one can get involved in making political change. You can have a lot more of an effect finding ways to get society to move away from fossil fuels than you can changing your vehicle or those kind of things. So I worry a little bit when we personalize it and everybody tries to figure out what is the thing that they can do. That said, obviously there are a lot of, there's a lot of work suggesting what are some effective things you can do. Obviously changing your vehicle can be significant. There are a lot of very low fuel using vehicles. Or changing even to electric especially as we increase the renewable fraction on the grid, making that shift to electric can be really significant. Finding ways to vacation that don't involve flying can be beneficial. Or I think there are some significant benefits that you get from buying offsets, which is a controversial issue, but if you're going to fly then finding ways to sequester that carbon can be valuable. So kind of being aware of what you're doing I think is the main way you can make improvements.

Yepsen: Dr. Takle?

Takle: On the individual level we shouldn't overlook even the small activities such as changing out light bulbs to put in LEDs. Part of the household decrease in energy use across the country is really attributed to first compact fluorescents and now the LEDs. So that has been an example of what individuals can do. But most of the action is being taken by states and cities and redesigning our urban landscapes, more trees, better building design, more energy efficiency, more insulation, better use of fuels and so on. So I think there are a lot of things being done now on cities and state levels.

Yepsen: Dr. Takle, I want to ask you about something that is a unique aspect of this problem in Iowa, methane. The amount of gas that cattle emit, big problem?

Takle: It is a big problem.

Yepsen: What do we do about that?

Takle: Well, the dairy industry has actually taken a lead in this and there are a lot of methane digesters now that have been set up around large dairy operations where they capture the methane and use it to repower the farm or to power the farm with renewable energy. So again, there are solutions that we need to be looking at. We're going to be gaining from economy of scale on these as we ramp this up. This has been shown with wind energy, for instance, that turbines are cheaper per kilowatt hour now than they were in 2009 and there aren't many things that we buy these days that are cheaper now. But that's an example where the energy is becoming cheaper and I think methane is another one where these large confinement operations can be really part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Yepsen: Katarina?

Sostaric: Dr. Courard-Hauri, we've seen historic flooding in the state this year. What will Iowa see in the future in terms of flooding?

Courard-Hauri: Well, again, what we expect to see is sort of more extremes. So certainly it doesn't look like there's any reason to expect flooding to decline. The moisture that Gene has been talking about in the atmosphere is going to lead to more heavy rainfalls, more rain coming all at once and that leads to flooding, especially if you have an altered landscape that allows for that water to make it into the rivers and waterways fast. So I think the main thing to say is we haven't been just going through a funny period where we've seen some of these historic floods but there's every reason to imagine that's going to continue and that we need to prepare for them.

Yepsen: Same question to you, Dr.?

Takle: Yes, we have two kinds of floods in Iowa and that has been exposed this year. We have the April, May, June floods which have been with us now for the last three decades. The last three decades we've had more rain in this three month period than in the previous nine decades of the 20th century. So that is not going to go away. We've drawn a very clear link between global increases in temperature and that most of this heat is captured by the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico captures a lot of that heat and so we have more evaporation over the Gulf, we have a stronger low level jet that bring sit into Iowa. So this is all related to the rise in global temperatures. So we don't see any abatement of that April, May, June rainfall. We also now have been more aware that we have floods because of precipitation falling outside of our state and that is the snow melt from the winter precipitation in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins. And those of course were revealed again this year. They have been happened in the past and it's harder for us to draw a link. We can't draw, we're not as confident that we can draw a link yet between these snow melt floods that we're having and global climate change. But we can on the April, May, June.

Should people start retreating from flood prone communities? Taxpayers are footing the bill for all the recovery efforts after this happens.

Takle: I think we need some serious attention on that because it's not going to go away. The long-term projections are that precipitation, winter and early spring precipitation in the Missouri and Mississippi upper basins is going to increase through mid-century. So it's very likely that we're going to see these episodic large floods in our river areas. So people should be making and communities should be addressing this.

Pitt: So I'm curious as to what you say to people who don't believe that this is a larger trend, that this is a global large trend issue? What do you say to them?

Takle: Well, we believe in the laws of physics. The law of gravity is not negotiable, we can't legislate that away. And so it's the same with the heat that is trapped in our atmosphere. We try to appeal to logic, logic doesn't work with a lot of people, but we try, I try to get people to think about their own experience. What did grandpa experience when he was trying to raise crops? Well, he dealt with a different climate. And so why is it changing? Well, maybe it's variability. We've looked at all of the sources of climate variability that we can, that have been discovered and we can't see anything that is even close to the impact that is now being revealed by the rise in greenhouse gases and ultimately then the rise in global average temperatures.

Courard-Hauri: And one thing I'd add is that we focus a lot on this question and if you look at surveys it's about 20% of the people who actively argue that climate change is not caused by people. And the majority of people either, well the majority of people believe the climate is changing, you can see it now, it's at that level. And then the large majority are aware and concerned and so when we spend a lot of our time focusing on that really small minority, it's a larger minority of lay people that it is scientists obviously, but if we spend a lot of time talking about that then I think we miss the fact that most people are wondering what can we be doing, what should we be doing?

Sostaric: There might be some winners in all of this. For example, the Arctic Ocean opening up for regular shipping. Could Iowa see any benefits of climate change? Or do you think it's all negative?

Takle: Iowa has already seen benefits of climate change. The study published less than a year ago pointed to the fact that we have, our summers have not gotten hot as some other regions, and this has been more favorable for corn, for instance. Also these spring rains have been, despite the fact it has caused some real challenges some years for planting, it has recharged our deep soil moisture reservoirs. And so plants have, corn has more water to draw from that five and six feet in the soil their roots will reach these. So as a result we've seen, this paper described 28% of our increase in yield since 1980 in corn to more favorable weather.

Yepsen: Same question.

Courard-Hauri: Obviously as things change there are winners and losers and there are some potential benefits. I remember back with Newt Gingrich was running for President one of the questions he'd ask when people would talk about climate was, why do you believe that this is the best climate that we could possibly have? Why is it not possible that climate change will make things better? And the answer to that is that systems that have evolved and built around something tend to get disrupted when you change that thing. And so it's not that, it might be that if we had spent the last 10,000 years evolving to a climate that was three degrees warmer then that would be the right temperature. But the problem is it's not where we are. And so as you see shifts things have to change and that is where the damage, a lot of the damage comes from is just the changing from what you have become sort of used to and expect.

Yepsen: Dr. Takle, we have 30 seconds to go here. Are there other crops that we ought to be thinking about growing in Iowa or doing things differently? Some vineyards in France are buying land in Great Britain because 100 years from now they're going to have to grow wine there. Very quickly, anything you can think of like that?

Takle: I think we need to perennialize the landscape more, we need to be planting deep rooting plants that will hold the soil better and perhaps even be nut crops or horticultural crops in maybe strips through a more uniform landscape.

Yepsen: Thank you. Appreciate you both for being here. Thanks for a fascinating conversation.

Thank you.

Thank you for inviting me.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. Before we go a programming reminder for next week. With Iowa PBS's coverage of the Girls High School Softball Championships in Fort Dodge, Iowa Press can be seen at 7:30 Friday night on our .3 World channel and then again at Noon on Sunday back on our main Iowa PBS channel. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.       

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