Media Center Op-Ed Articles

Skilling & Wuebbles: Heading into the late innings on climate change

We’re numbers guys. Climate science is all about observations and data. They reveal the past and help us plan the future. In meteorology, observations and data are the backbone of forecasts and statistics are the vertebrae of narratives. We’re also fans of baseball, which offers us lots of opportunities to dig into numbers. In baseball, numbers can make goats and legends. In climate and weather, they show we’re in a whole new ballgame.

Our planet is on a record-shattering streak. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now over 400 parts per million. This is the first time in more than 800,000 years that there has been this much carbon in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, carbon dioxide concentrations were around 280 ppm. That’s a jump of more than 43 percent, and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are likely to get much higher.

Carbon isn’t the only thing rising. Globally, June was the hottest month on record. It broke a temperature record set just a month earlier. The hot streak prompted Derek Arndt, climate monitoring chief at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to declare: “We are living in the steroid era of the climate system.”

A rainbow arcs over Minneapolis after a Home Run Derby rain delay in All?Star activities last month. (Brian Mark Peterson, McClatchy?Tribune) Between the 1980s and the 2000s, baseball saw the average season-leading total for home runs jump to almost 50 home runs from 36. Even casual observers knew something was up.

Congress and Major League Baseball took action. But when it comes to carbon dioxide, the stakes are far higher than peanuts and Cracker Jack. Earth’s atmosphere is a dynamic system affected by things we can and can’t see. Disturbances to this complex system, such as those caused by increased amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, can cause dramatic shifts in local weather patterns. Climate is the long-term statistics of weather but it is not weather itself. However, changes in climatic conditions have a real impact on the weather we experience.

For decades, data analyses and climate modeling indicated that increasing levels of carbon dioxide would change weather patterns in the Midwest. Some changes, like longer growing seasons, offer short-term benefits. Other impacts, like more intense heat waves, more downpours and more allergy-causing pollen, reveal that we have more to lose than gain from climate change.

Climate change is here. With the intense heat and drought of 2012, our state and region experienced one of its hottest, driest years on record. We experienced significant agricultural losses, and Lake Michigan and Mississippi River water levels fell to historic lows.

In recent years, the intensity of our rainfall has been impressive. Four of Chicago’s 10 wettest summers have occurred since 2001. This summer is already in sixth place and inches upward with every downpour.

When baseball got out of whack, congressional hearings led to modifications to America’s national pastime.

However, it has become apparent that Congress is not inclined to act on stemming the pollution that leads to the extreme weather-causing climate change that we’re experiencing.

Almost 40 percent of that pollution comes from power plants that spew large amounts of pollutants into the air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft rule that would require Illinois to cut carbon pollution by 33 percent by 2030. Now we need strong state leadership to cut carbon pollution by boosting renewable energy resources and cutting waste by increasing energy efficiency.

Several steps are already underway. From 2005 through 2011, Illinois cut its carbon pollution by 2 percent. In the next three years, it’s estimated that energy efficiency will cut enough electricity demand to power 450,000 Illinois homes for a year. And we’re growing our economy too. More than 60,000 Illinoisans work in energy-efficiency related jobs and more than 20,000 are employed in renewable energy fields.

Last month, Major League Baseball held its annual All-Star festivities in Minnesota and a spectacular image of rainbows was captured after a Home Run Derby rain delay. Climate change is not a game, but if it were, the box score would be clear. We need a rally.

Thanks to data, we know exactly what’s coming. Let’s not the take our eyes off the ball.

 

Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist at WGN-TV, is a member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association.

Donald J. Wuebbles is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Milwaukee JS: ELPC Science Advisory Council Chair Donald Waller – What We Do To The Weather

By Donald M. Waller

“Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” The idea that anyone could affect the weather seemed ludicrous 20 years ago. It seems less comical now that we know that each of us does affect our weather, locally and globally, every day. We here in the Midwest produce some 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. So we should think twice about what we do to the weather and, increasingly, what the weather is doing to us.

Wisconsin weather shows conspicuous trends toward warmer nights, warmer winters and more variable weather overall. We’ve just felt the coldest of recorded winters on the heels of several of the warmest. Intense storms are spawning an uptick in tornadoes and flash floods. We expect winter ice to disappear from Lake Mendota within the next 15 to 20 years. Ticks bearing disease and crop pests are moving north and into our state. Farmers worry about which crops to plant and if they will survive to harvest.

All this is chronicled in the recent National Climate Assessment Report, reflecting the work of hundreds of scientists and approved by an advisory committee that included NASA and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture and Health and Human Services. But we hardly need the weatherman or another government report to know which way the wind is blowing. Altered weather is in our news and faces every day.

So what can we do? Because most greenhouse gases come from producing electricity and transportation, we need to reduce these sources. Even conservative economists support a carbon tax as the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions and the high future costs of global warming. Yet we continue to ignore their advice.

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Chicago Tribune Editorial: Illiana Expressway would be state’s top road fund priority

The highway Illinois doesn’t need will be first in line for state funding — ahead of every other road, bridge and overpass in the pipeline — if lawmakers go along with Gov. Pat Quinn’s latest concession to potentialbidders for the Illiana Expressway.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has already put taxpayers out on a limb by promising that the state, not the privateinvestors who will build and operate the road, will cover the costs if tolls come up short. That pledge was necessary because everyone involved knows the road won’t pay for itself for a long time, if ever.

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Op-Ed: Chicagoland Can Lead on Climate, Here’s How

Howard Learner’s op-ed in “Make It Better,” published April 2014

Solving climate change is the moral, business, policy, political and technological challenge of our time.

Fortunately, there are steps that are good for jobs and economic growth and good for our environment and public health. Chicago should be a leader in advancing solutions with innovative technologies.

Energy efficiency is the best, fastest and cheapest solution to climate change problems. Modern lighting technologies, HVAC systems, Energy Star appliances and improved pumps and motors all save money on utility bills and keep money in our local economy. Energy efficiency retrofit businesses are growing and creating jobs.

Illinois’ Energy Efficiency Performance Standards are leveraging billions of dollars of investments in HVAC and lighting upgrades and other efficiency strategies across sectors. The city’s Retrofit Chicago program is accelerating efficiency improvements for commercial, municipal and multi-family residential buildings. Full speed ahead!

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Howard Learner Op-Ed SunTimes – Scorecard For a Greener Chicago

BY Howard A. Learner

April 22, 2014

Given that Tuesday was Earth Day, let’s assess how Chicago has progressed on becoming a “green city” and Illinois as a “green state” while recognizing some key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. Let’s be proud of what we’ve accomplished and candid about some important environmental problems requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,568 megawatts today. A decade ago, who believed that Illinois would become fourth in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 13 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Challenge: What will it take to get Illinois policymakers to finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard — which helps drive wind power development — to make it work well to advance Chicago’s and Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market?

Solar Energy can be our next boom. Chicago has been advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Meanwhile, solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving — think smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds — and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology and when combined with battery technology improvements can be a “killer app” for residential rooftops, industrial buildings’ spacious flat roofs and conversions of “brownfields to brightfields” in Chicago.

Challenge: Can Argonne National Labs’ engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost in five years? That’s a game changer.

Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago’s local economy. Commonwealth Edison forecasts that electricity demand declines (-0.2 percent) while the Chicago regional economy grows (2.3 percent) in 2014. Chicago’s economy is growing while electricity use is declining through more energy efficient appliances, cooling and heating equipment, lighting, pumps and motors and other technologies.

Challenge: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama administration’s investment of $1.6 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Challenge: Let’s better protect the Great Lakes from threats and perils of oil refinery spills, oil pipeline leaks, coal ash dumping from coal plants and the S.S. Badger, nuclear plants, marine terminals and other facilities on the shoreline. We cannot afford a BP Gulf of Mexico-type disaster in Lake Michigan.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting 14 major metropolitan areas and the mid-sized cities in-between. Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership between Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. New railcars being assembled in Rochelle, Ill., will soon run on Midwest tracks. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.

Challenge: Modernizing Union Station so that it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with the CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let’s accelerate high-speed rail development here.

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Howard Learner in Chicago Sun-Times: Scorecard for a greener Chicago

Given that Tuesday was Earth Day, let’s assess how Chicago has progressed on becoming a “green city” and Illinois as a “green state” while recognizing some key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. Let’s be proud of what we’ve accomplished and candid about some important environmental problems requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,568 megawatts today. A decade ago, who believed that Illinois would become fourth in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 13 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Challenge: What will it take to get Illinois policymakers to finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard — which helps drive wind power development — to make it work well to advance Chicago’s and Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market?

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Howard Learner in The Des Moines Register – An Earth Day Scorecard for a Greener Iowa

On this Earth Day, let’s celebrate how Iowa is becoming a greener state in important ways while recognizing key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false.

Let’s be proud of what Iowa has accomplished and candid about some environmental problems requiring solutions.

Wind Energy: Iowa is a national leader in wind power development with 5,177 megawatts of installed generating capacity today and more coming soon. Iowa ranks second in the nation for wind power manufacturing and installation jobs. Clean wind energy is powering the growth of new Facebook, Google and Microsoft data centers in Iowa.

• Challenge: The stop-and-start federal production tax credit for wind power must be extended. Gov. Branstad, Sens. Grassley and Harkin and Reps. Braley, Latham, Loebsack and King are all strong supporters. They must help persuade congressional Republican leadership to withdraw their opposition.

Energy Efficiency: Energy efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Iowa’s economy. Iowa is transitioning to modern LED streetlights that save money and energy. The Environmental Law & Policy Center recently worked to improve MidAmerican Energy’s and Interstate Power & Light’s energy efficiency plans, which are estimated to save 2.1 million megawatt-hours and reduce carbon pollution by 1.54 million metric tons over five years.

• Challenge: There is still much untapped energy efficiency beyond what the utilities’ plans will capture. Let’s make sure that homes and businesses in all Iowa communities gain energy efficiency benefits.

Solar Energy: Solar energy is Iowa’s next clean energy opportunity, building on the successful wind power experience. Iowa’s solar tax credit incentive program is working, and solar panel prices are dropping while technologies improve. Iowa’s solar incentives of $2.84 million have leveraged 622 solar projects with a total $24 million investment.

• Challenge: The utilities’ anti-competitive attempts to create regulatory barriers to solar development should be rejected by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Iowa Utilities Board should adopt policies designed to support distributed solar development on building rooftops. People and businesses who arrange to install solar panels on their rooftops providing clean, independent energy supplies shouldn’t be penalized. The solar tax cap should be raised from $1.5 million to $4.5 million annually to accelerate progress.

Cleaning up Iowa’s lakes and rivers: Iowa’s lakes provide recreational enjoyment for many people, and clean lakes are economic assets helping Iowa businesses recruit and retain employees. The 11.9 million lake visits each year generate $1.2 billion in spending and more than 14,000 jobs. Cleaning up Iowa’s rivers and lakes, however, has a long way to go. Nutrient pollution from agricultural chemical run-off requires costly water treatment to protect Des Moines residents’ drinking water supplies and causes algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes and rivers that hamper recreation and harm aquatic life. The Iowa nutrient reduction strategy is bringing people together to talk about improving water quality and steps to address nutrient pollution.

• Challenges: Cleaning up Iowa’s rivers and lakes requires reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from heavy agricultural chemical use and runoff. Actions do speak louder than words for seriously improving water quality.

It’s time for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to adopt strong water quality standards to achieve cleaner water. In 2008, a panel of scientists provided recommendations to the DNR on better protecting Iowa’s swimming lakes. Progress has stalled. Let’s advance solutions now.

Higher-speed rail: The growing Midwest high-speed rail network will connect Iowans to Chicago, Omaha and the mid-sized cities in between. Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership levels between Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. Modern passenger rail can work for Iowa by improving mobility, reducing pollution, creating jobs and spurring regional economic growth.

• Challenge: Iowa should invest in modernizing and expanding passenger rail service. It’s time for Iowa policymakers to join with Iowa’s business leaders and get on board.

Clean water, clean air, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Iowans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of Iowa’s accomplishments and progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance cleaner, greener and safer communities for all.

Read the story in the Register

Cap Times: Howard Learner – Wisconsin’s quiet transportation revolution

Madison is at the forefront of the quiet revolution in car use and vehicle technologies that is fundamentally changing transportation needs, infrastructure investments and traditional financing structures. Madison is third among the nation’s 100 largest cities for declining driving miles per person (18 percent decrease), and Milwaukee is second (21 percent decrease) from 2006 to 2011, according to the WISPIRG Foundation.

As driving patterns change and gas tax revenues decline, Wisconsin should prioritize smart investments in transit and rail, which are gaining passengers, and “fix it first” when it comes to highways and bridges.

Let’s start by advancing long-delayed higher-speed passenger rail connecting Madison to Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, and the suburbs and “exurbs” in between. Modern high-speed rail can improve mobility, create jobs, spur economic growth and opportunity, and reduce pollution. Gov. Scott Walker should reconsider his rejection of passenger rail upgrades. Those fast trains could have already been whisking people from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.

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Indiana Business Journal: Learner – Vehicle-miles tax would roll Hoosiers

Howard Learner/Indiana Business Journal

March 29, 2014

Indianapolis is striving to become an electric-vehicles center. Gas tax revenue is declining, though, as people drive less and as more fuel-efficient new cars require filling up less at the pump. That saves people money, reduces pollution and lessens America’s imports of foreign oil.

However, less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicle technologies produce less funding for needed transportation infrastructure improvements that are vital to Indiana’s economic growth, public health and safety.

Many politicians oppose raising the motor fuel taxes. So, some states, like Oregon, are looking to shift from gas taxes to vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) taxes, which charge motorists based on how many miles they travel on the roads. An onboard vehicle device, using GPS or other technology, records the distance driven, assigns it to the appropriate taxing jurisdiction, and calculates the tax amount owed.

Proposed federal legislation (House Resolution 3638) would establish a Road Usage Fee Pilot Program, namely VMT taxes. However, this approach doesn’t work well in practice in Indiana and similarly situated states with the interstate highways driven by millions of out-of-state drivers. It would also penalize and undermine Indianapolis’ leadership on electric vehicles.

First, Indiana’s interstate highways are a crossroads—that’s different from coastal Oregon. Changing to VMT taxes would mean out-of-state drivers who now pay Indiana gas taxes on fuel purchases would instead get a free ride as they travel through. Indiana drivers would be forced to pay the entire VMT tax burden.

Why would Indiana legislators want Indiana taxpayers to further subsidize highway use for out-of-state motorists?

Second, VMT taxes would effectively penalize fuel-efficient cars, which exert less impact on highways than heavy trucks and SUVs. Why should a gas-guzzling Hummer, which causes much more wear and tear on the highways, pay the same VMT tax as a lighter, fuel-sipping Chevy Volt, Ford Focus, Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius? Will heavy trucks pay their higher fair share?

The Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 report comparing gas taxes and VMT taxes said, “Heavy trucks travel less than 10 percent of all vehicle miles, but their costs per mile are far higher than are those for passenger vehicles, and they are responsible for most pavement damage.”

CBO suggested that VMT taxes, if adopted, should be adjusted to recognize weight-per-axle in properly allocating highway wear-and-tear to the cost causers.

Third, VMT taxes would penalize new clean electric vehicles and hybrid cars that pollute much less than internal-combustion-engine and diesel cars and trucks, and thereby provide air quality, public health and other environmental quality benefits for everyone. That penalty—the VMT tax versus gas tax—is contrary to Indiana’s cleaner air goals and undermines Indianapolis’ efforts to become an electric-vehicles center.

Fourth, the current tax is simple and inexpensive to administer at the pump. The system is already in place. The VMT tax requires that fairly costly new technology be installed in vehicles, and a new administrative system be created. The costs of operating and auditing a VMT system are higher than collecting gas taxes.

If legislators are reluctant to raise gas taxes, why would the proposed VMT taxes be any more popular with the public? The gas and motor fuel taxes are both fairer and practically better suited to Indiana’s geography and needs.

For Indiana, the proposed VMT tax for cars is not the right tool to address transportation infrastructure funding challenges.

Howard Learner in Crain’s Chicago Business: Accelerating Illinois’ electric vehicles infrastructure

The recent Chicago Auto Show was a great place to see new car models and automakers’ futuristic designs. Until recently, few automakers displayed electric vehicles. But this year, most showed clean electric and hybrid cars, and showed off their cool next-gen concepts. How can Chicago and Illinois strategically position themselves to be electric vehicle leaders as innovative car technologies move forward?

The “city that works” needs an electric vehicle infrastructure of smart policies and modern, fast-charging stations powered by clean, renewable energy. Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are working to advance broadband as leading infrastructure for our economic competitiveness. Likewise, they should advance key infrastructure needed for innovative electric vehicle technologies to thrive. The results: improved mobility, cleaner air, economic growth — and lower carbon pollution and less foreign oil used. Here are some key steps forward:

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