Iowa scientists: Pandemic, drought, derecho show need for science-based climate policies

Grain bins in Luther were flattened by a derecho storm featuring winds of more than 100 mph. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The coronavirus pandemic and drought that have swept across Iowa this year show the importance of letting science guide public policies on climate change and other pressing issues, a record 230 scientists from 37 Iowa colleges and universities said Wednesday. 

The scientists’ 10th annual Iowa Climate Statement said key messages have emerged from the juxtaposition of COVID-19, the Aug. 10 derecho, drought, and climate change:

Policy makers need to acknowledge and use the best available science. 

Dave Courard-Hauri is chair of environmental science and sustainability at Drake University. (Screenshot of Iowa Climate Statement news conference)

“Unfortunately, in the face of political polarization, some have taken up the strategy of de-legitimizing science, but this distrust in expert guidance has led to preventable deaths and economic damage to working people and businesses,” Dave Courard-Hauri, chair of environmental science and sustainability at Drake University, said at an online news conference. “Professional public health and climate change experts are the most reliable source of information for decision-makers and citizens in making informed choices that protect life and property.”

It’s cheaper to prepare for disasters than to respond to them. 

“The cost of not being prepared for the pandemic has far outweighed the costs of prevention and preparation,” said Silvia Secchi, associate professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. “The cost of ignoring climate change is no different. Proactive efforts to address climate change have been proven to save lives and money.”

Eric Tate is an associate professor of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa. (Screenshot of Iowa Climate Statement news conference)

Events such as the pandemic and climate change affect poor communities disproportionately. 

“The third lesson we should take from the pandemic is how incredibly vulnerable many people and families are living in our communities,” said Eric Tate, associate professor of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa. “The disproportionate number of poor people and racial minorities who have suffered severe illness or death from this pandemic has highlighted deep inequities. Inequity reduces resilience, leaving poor communities, particularly communities of color, disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate-related natural disasters, just as they are to disease.”

Targeted investments in public health and climate mitigation will make communities more resilient. 

“As the country considers stimulus investments to rebuild our economy, our leaders should adopt comprehensive rebuilding strategies that invest in energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, electric and smart vehicles and research and development,” Tate said. “These smart investments now will better prepare us for the coming decades when extreme weather events will become more costly, more common and more severe.” 

An Aug. 10, 2020 storm known as a derecho brought strong winds that pushed over corn on more than 10 million acres in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agricuture)

Courard-Hauri said the derecho alone left 75,000 Iowans without power, destroyed $1 billion in crops and flattened $300 million worth of grain bins. “Damage from extreme events continues to pile up in our state at an unprecedented rate,” Courard-Hauri said. 

Iowa faced the latest in a series of major floods in 2019. 

Gene Takle, an emeritus professor at Iowa State University and one of the state’s most experienced climate modelers, said while it’s statistically impossible to directly tie the derecho to climate change because derechos are infrequent, projections show Iowa is in for far more severe weather events such as floods, droughts and severe storms. 

Secchi  agreed.

Sylvia Secchi is an associate professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. (Screenshot of Iowa Climate Statement news conference)

“We are likely to be confronted by more numerous and intense threats,” Secchi said. “In a global economy, public health emergencies such as COVID will also remain a constant danger. We cannot afford to waste resources on ineffective policies.”

Courard-Hauri said addressing climate change, and other global challenges, can help the economy.

“We want to highlight that there are significant economic benefits in investing in green infrastructure, alternative energies, research, those sorts of things,” Courard-Hauri said. 

The new report can be found here. The text of the presentations also is available