In Our Backyard

If you don’t believe climate change is having a negative impact on America’s Heartland, ask Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie.

In 2008, he and local leaders across Iowa had to respond to a  so-called 500-year flood. Two years later, parts of the state were hit by three near-500-year floods. Those were followed by three years  of low rainfall.

“This issue affects health,” he told a DMU audience last year.

Local leaders got a voice at the White House in 2013 when President Barack Obama established, as part of his Climate Action Plan, a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise ways the federal government can assist communities “that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.” Made up of eight governors, 16 local officials – including Cownie – and two tribal leaders, last November the task force presented 464 recommendations to the White House.

“This is not a problem for another day. The investments  we make today – this week, this month, this year – will determine  our economic future.”

“In 2012 alone, the cost of weather disasters exceeded $110 billion in the United States, and climate change will only increase the frequency and intensity of these events,” the task force stated in its executive summary. “That is why, even as efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continue, communities must prepare for the impacts of climate change that can no longer be avoided.”

The task force’s recommendations relating to human health – one of seven themes – include addressing the needs of vulnerable populations; improving the capacity to protect public health; assisting communities in building food system security; and improving disaster preparedness.

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Obama called on the nation to “act forcefully” to counter climate change. By then, Cownie had other issues on his mind. Agriculture-related runoff, exacerbated by drainage systems designed to efficiently move groundwater into rivers and streams, caused nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers to exceed EPA standards. That threatened the quality of water that the city’s water works provides to 500,000 central Iowans, requiring additional costly denitrification treatment.

More grim news came from a report released in January by the Risky Business Project, a task force created to quantify climate change’s economic risks, co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasurer Henry Paulson and former hedge fund manager-turned environmentalist Tom Steyer. For Iowa and other Midwestern states, the report predicted crop yields could wither by as much as 85 percent by the next century and livestock productivity will decline, among other negative effects.

“This is not a problem for another day,” the Midwestern section  of the Risky Business Project report concluded. “The investments  we make today – this week, this month, this year – will determine  our economic future.”

Learn more about Des Moines University’s efforts to educate and inform others about the effects of climate change at DMU’s Global Health website.

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