What does the alarming new climate report mean for Iowa?

August 14, 2021 10:00 am

Homes and businesses are surrounded by floodwater on March 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth state-of-the-science report this week, and it should be alarming for Iowa, the nation, and the world.

Climate change is powerfully upon us with heat waves, ice melts and extreme events occurring much more frequently and intensely than originally projected. In California, Greece and Turkey, climate change is evidenced by unprecedented wildfires. In British Columbia, Seattle and the Northwest, it caused a heat wave so severe the human signature of greenhouse gases was unmistakable. In Belgium, Germany, China and Omaha, climate change manifests in extreme rainfall and flooding.

It seems half the world is on fire, and the other half is in flood. These are “climate disasters” — never say “natural disasters,” because the human element is now so strong. Many locales are becoming “uninsurable” for floods and wildfires. That is the first step to being uninhabitable. We are in danger of handing a wrecked planet to our kids and grandkids.

For Iowa, it means we can expect more intense rainfall events and increased flooding due to increased ocean and air temperatures. Warm air holds more water. Still, these precipitation events will be likely punctuated by occasional heat waves and drought because soil moisture dries out faster in a warmer atmosphere.

In Iowa, we have decreased our greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% over the past 10 years. But that is not nearly fast enough. We need to have a 50% reduction by 2030 and net-zero in 2050 to contribute to stabilizing climate. We have improved our emissions in Iowa by replacing coal power with wind energy, and that must continue. But the missing piece is a massive build-out needed in utility-scale and distributed solar photovoltaics. Iowa wind and solar power go very well together, and investment in our electrical infrastructure and grid will also be needed. Incorporating carbon from the atmosphere into rich Iowa soils as organic carbon can be accomplished with a move toward regenerative agriculture, perennial crops, cover crops, buffer zones and prairie strips.

It is difficult for me to see how we can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris agreement, because we are already near 1.2 degrees C warmer (2.16 degrees F) and countries have not met their pledges for reduced emissions so far.  Even if they meet their obligations under the 2015 Paris agreement, we expect global warming to be 3 degrees C by 2100 (5.4 degrees F).

Truly we are witnessing a climate crisis, and it requires much faster action toward renewable energy now. Climate action creates jobs, pristine air quality, better health, and a stable system for future generations.

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Jerry Schnoor
Jerry Schnoor

Jerry Schnoor is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa.