Iowa scientists: Latest UN climate change report means Iowa politicians must act to avert ‘crisis’

By: - August 9, 2021 3:32 pm

President Joe Biden will arrive at the U.N. Climate Conference without a deal on his environmental agenda. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Iowa politicians must act to curb greenhouse gas emissions after a new United Nations report showed the strongest evidence yet that human activity is worsening extreme weather events globally, Iowa scientists said Monday.

The comments came in a series of interviews a day before the first anniversary of a derecho storm that turned out to be one of the most devastating weather events in Iowa history.

Jerald Schnoor is a professor at the University of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of UI)

University of Iowa engineering professor Jerald Schnoor, who has studied climate change for decades, said it is doubtful the world can avoid a post-industrial temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius, let alone international scientists’ goal of keeping in under 1.5 degrees C. The globe already has warmed 1.2 degrees C, the new report found, prompting U.N. scientists to warm of more severe weather if something isn’t done soon. 

Iowa’s extensive wind energy offerings help, but adding massive solar power installations also would cut greenhouse emissions, which have fallen 5% in the past decade, Schnoor said. 

‘Missing piece’

“The missing piece is a massive build-out needed in utility-scale and distributed solar photovoltaics. Wind and solar power go very well together here, and investment in our electrical infrastructure and grid will also be needed,” Schnoor said. 

Agriculture will have a role, too. “Incorporating carbon from the atmosphere into our soils as organic carbon can be accomplished with a move towards regenerative agriculture, perennial and cover crops, buffer zones and prairie strips,” Schnoor added.

Schnoor and other scientists said the U.N. report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change drives home how serious the situation is.

“This is a climate crisis, and it will require much faster action towards renewable energy in the coming decades,” Schnoor said. “That will create jobs, pristine air quality, better health, and a stable climate for future generations.”

Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, said Iowans need to heed the report’s warning that conditions could worsen without cuts in emissions.

“You listen to your doctor, you listen to your dentist. So, listen to scientists who have studied how the planet works,” Enshayan said.

“Communities, utility providers, businesses, institutions need to develop a plan for their community/business/institution to transition away from fossil energy and towards massive energy conservation and renewable energy,” Enshayan said. “State government needs to have an office and programs to enable and support that transition. It will not be easy, but neither was organizing ourselves to defeat fascism in WWII. That’s the level of action needed. Local governments, where people live, have a huge role to play.”

Kamyar Enshayan is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa. (Photo courtesy of UNI)

Iowans need to understand that reducing consumption and living more simply could help, Enshayan said. “Renewable energy is not enough, we need to use less energy. Much of what needs to be done to protect the atmosphere are cultural and moral approaches. We need to rekindle a culture of frugality — a this-will-do economy — and dramatically ratchet down our culture of overconsumption.”

Des Moines and other Iowa cities have moved to address climate change in part by switching to electric vehicles. Des Moines has an aggressive program to inventory greenhouse gas emissions by businesses and to support changes to reduce the pollution. The city is also pushing to have carbon-free electricity citywide.

This is a climate crisis, and it will require much faster action towards renewable energy in the coming decades.

– Jerald Schnoor, University of Iowa engineering professor

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has assembled a panel, including supporters of a carbon pipeline through Iowa, to study carbon sequestration. That means sweeping carbon from the sky to be stored underground.

“Because of our existing supply chain and emphasis on renewable fuel infrastructure, Iowa is in a strong position to capitalize on the growing nationwide demand for a more carbon-free economy,” Reynolds said in a statement in June.

‘Drastic impact’

Jennifer Zwagerman, director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, said Iowa faces economic damage if people don’t take the international climate report seriously.

“This report highlights the drastic impact climate change is having and will have in the future, in a thorough fashion. Whether it makes more people recognize the concerns and start to take significant actions is debatable, unfortunately,” Zwagerman said.

Iowa is already seeing serious consequences, particularly in severe weather events that can no longer be considered unusual. “They are quickly becoming the new norm, and this will have real economic impacts on the state,” Zwagerman said.

“We need advocacy, a willingness to consider and accept change, and a recognition that this process is not cost free,” she added. “Understanding that this is not just a concern for future generations, but the present, is something we need to work on as well, as I am not sure that the majority accept that premise. 

Agriculture part of the answer

Part of the answer will be using a mix of incentives, cost-share programs and regulations to reduce agricultural emissions and capture carbon with cover crops and other plantings, Zwagerman said. “Agriculture is the obvious concern, with changes to climate, growing seasons, crops that work with warmer and drier conditions, all of those will be impacts on farmers and industries in the state.”

Silvia Secchi is a professor at the University of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of UI)

Silvia Secchi, a professor of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa, said the U.N. report should persuade people to ignore climate change deniers and focus on what to do about it. 

“The report means that we need to be serious about acting immediately on both adaptation and mitigation at all levels of governance,” Secchi said. “The fact that the science has improved in  attributing extreme weather events to human influence should give every Iowan a pause. We have more conclusive evidence that heatwaves, heavy precipitation, and droughts are caused by our actions.”

David Courard-Hauri, chair of environmental science and sustainability at Drake, said the U.N. report notes that the health benefits of reducing pollution would warrant the investment, even without considering climate issues. 

 Technological advances bring hope, Courard-Hauri said. 

“Cuts are both easier than ever and have so many benefits that we’re harming ourselves by not making these cuts,” Courard-Hauri said. “But we have to get started. All of these things will reduce emissions. We also need to take climate change seriously in decisions going forward, so we build resilient systems that can withstand the extremes we will be seeing going forward.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.