Lake Michigan shoreline, Indiana

ELPC Events

ELPC Thinks: Climate Change and the Great Lakes

Journalist Dan Egan spoke with ELPC’s Howard Learner about Great Lakes threats and finding solutions.

Last week, ELPC hosted a conversation with environmental reporter Dan Egan, who writes about the many challenges facing the Great Lakes. Egan spent years as a journalist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote the award-winning book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, and is now the Brico Fund Journalist in Residence at the Center for Water Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. His latest deep-dive into the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes focused on Chicago’s unique infrastructure, and the people affected by Lake Michigan’s increasingly turbulent shores. ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner talked with Egan about climate science, storytelling, and solutions.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:


Climate change is not a distant abstraction anymore. The media plays an important role in helping people to understand the science and connect the dots behind the extreme weather disasters we see with growing frequency on the news. Dan Egan is one such voice. As he has reported, here in the Midwest we now have higher average temperatures, stronger precipitation events, and more unpredictable jet stream patterns, which all result in more extreme lake levels in the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes’ record low levels in 2013 were quickly followed by record highs in 2020, an unprecedented six-foot swing within a short time period that is likely just a taste of things to come. Shoreline communities were built on the premise that the water was a pretty static presence, but they are having to rethink those assumptions amid devastating new conditions. As Egan put it, “these are not what if problems, they are more like whens.” Learn more about the science here and here.


As a journalist, Egan emphasized that his job is to illustrate and expose problems, and to give voice to those who aren’t being heard. That includes environmental justice communities on the South Side of Chicago, who are disproportionately impacted by both climate change and legacies of pollution. For this summer’s article in the New York Times, Egan interviewed several residents who are facing flooded buildings, eroding infrastructure, and inadequate resources.

Egan also contextualizes our current challenges within the long history of Midwestern innovation. People have accomplished incredible feats in the past, like raising a whole city out of the mud in the 19th century and digging a massive backup water retention system in the 20th century. Today’s struggles are different and will take a complex set of solutions, but he hopes that the increasingly tangible nature of climate change will make a difference. “The optimist in me says that’ll change it for people and make it more real,” he says. “I try to live my life and think about how my actions will affect my kids and so on, that’s the role a responsible human should take. On an intimate level, it matters for our kids’ future.”


So, what CAN we do to protect the Great Lakes and shoreline communities for the long-term? ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner had a few suggestions:

  1. Shoreline resilience & green infrastructure – State and local authorities can use zoning laws to reassess what is built along the shoreline in light of changing conditions. New construction should not put more residents in harm’s way or exacerbate shoreline erosion or flooding issues. Instead, neighboring communities should coordinate to reinforce shorelines with natural ecosystems like dunes, marshes, and deep-rooted native plants, and revert impermeable pavement to absorptive green space when possible. Vital federal funds like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative can go a long way towards a more resilient shoreline.
  2. Cleaning up toxic threats – Many old industrial and toxic facilities line the shores of the Great Lakes, including landfills, radioactive spent fuel rods, and coal ash pits. They may be well-contained during normal lake conditions, but these potentially dangerous compartments are becoming more precarious in the era of climate change. Local, state, and federal authorities should reassess these shorelines to ensure they can withstand more turbulent shorelines or move toxic materials somewhere safer inland to protect the Great Lakes from contamination.
  3. Climate action & clean energy – We can reduce the worst impacts of climate change in the future by reducing carbon pollution and investing in more resilient communities now. Every one of us can make a difference by reducing our heat and energy usage, not wasting food, reusing and recycling whenever possible, and taking public transit, walking, or biking instead of driving. Collectively, individual actions help, but we also must hold our representatives at every level of government accountable for large-scale changes: to stop investing in fossil-fuel dependence, provide resources for front-line communities, and build a more distributed clean energy grid that can keep the lights on even during extreme weather or natural disasters.

Watch the full video here: