Climate change is not just about what’s going to happen years in the future or in remote parts of the world. The impact of environmental change is being felt now, in communities across the United States and here in Indiana. We are seeing changes right now that are disrupting our homes, businesses, and communities. From farmers facing low yields brought on by drought to municipal governments trying to salvage flood-ravaged small towns, unprepared citizens are getting hit right where it hurts most – their pocketbook.
When the St. Joseph River in northwestern Indiana experienced record flooding in February of 2018, the costs to repair the damage quickly mounted. After unseasonably warm weather and record-setting levels of rain, the river finally crested at 12.7 feet, almost two feet above the previous record. The structural damage and other losses are anticipated to cost the city of South Bend millions of dollars. This is money that could be spent elsewhere, such as education, job training, or any number of other projects.
Southern Indiana has also been affected by record damaging floods. Take the historic washout of Evansville that happened in February 2018. Almost four inches of rain fell on Feb. 24 alone, temporarily closing more than 80 roads. The Ohio river nearly matched 1997 levels, when 2,000 Tri-State residents sought federal flood assistance. In order to repair the damaged infrastructure that contributes to this flooding, a $729 million overhaul of the sewer system is underway.
Environmental change is also affecting Indiana’s agriculture, which, along with manufacturing, is the backbone of Indiana’s economy. Agriculture supports 107,500 jobs and provides $9.9 billion to our economy through the sale of unprocessed agricultural commodities. More drought and rising temperatures during the hottest summer months are expected to substantially reduce yields for corn and soybean varieties grown in the Hoosier state. Indiana corn yields are expected to decline by about 16 to 20 percent by mid-century. Soybean yields are projected to decrease by 9 to 11 percent.
So what can communities do to help prevent, or at least minimize, these – and other – drastic losses? The proactive and collaborative spirit of many cities and towns, along with the development of solutions and new technologies, may hold at least part of the answer.
Tools like the recently-launched Environmental Resilience Institute Toolkit (ERIT), part of Indiana University’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge, offer a way for communities to assess their risks, and find both preventative measures and effective solutions to these problems. Tools like ERIT not only allow others facing the same problems an opportunity to use this collective wisdom to find the best solutions for their own populations, but also allow researchers to look at the "big picture" of environmental change and make the best possible state budget and policy recommendations.
These environmental changes do not just impact the national economy. They affect the farmer whose yield was too low to cover his costs for the next year. They affect the small town mayor who has to decide between flood-plain mitigation and building a new school when there isn’t money for both. While environmental change is occurring across the globe, often the problems it causes are very local, and as is the case with ERIT, some of the solutions should be, too.
Fred Cate is vice president for research at Indiana University. Janet McCabe is professor of practice at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law.