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The American Midwest is at a turning point as it confronts the global climate crisis. It’s a landscape of opportunity, where investment is starting to pour into renewable energy, farmers are turning to climate-friendly practices, and automakers are introducing new electric vehicles. But its path forward is still cluttered with obstacles.
The region is already feeling the environmental and economic tremors of climate change. It’s still a rare day when Chicago’s thermometers hit 100—hot enough to be deadly. But the latest science predicts that by mid-century heat waves will routinely strike the region with temperatures much hotter than was common just a few decades ago. Summers will warm faster in the Midwest than in any other American region, according to the National Climate Assessment.
And these states form the hinge of the nation’s intensifying political debate over climate change. Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, devoted to saving coal and hostile to the Paris climate accord, succeeded in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa—all won by Barack Obama in 2012. Two years after Trump’s victory, in the 2018 midterms, lots of upper Midwest congressional districts and governorships flipped the other way, putting in place new leaders with high climate ambitions.
All this change reverberates not just in laboratories and legislatures, but in the lives of 68 million Midwesterners.
Today, in a collaboration of newsrooms from nine states, 14 reporters are publishing articles on three climate-related themes: agriculture, transportation and the electric grid. The reporters brainstormed together at a two-day workshop in March in Nashville at the First Amendment Center of Vanderbilt University. It was led by InsideClimate News as part of its National Environment Reporting Network. We challenged ourselves to create a project that would offer readers in the Midwest local perspectives on climate change, at a time when climate policy is becoming a defining issue in national elections.
Each reporting and writing independently, these journalists explored diverse territories. They found change, for better or worse, everywhere. Powerful economic, political and technological forces are bumping up against each other across the region.
At a time when scientists say the whole world must pursue rapid transformational changes, Midwesterners are facing up to their choices.
Small Farms, Big Dreams
For some, it happens on the farm.
Take Dave Bishop, who spoke to Illinois reporter Madelyn Beck of Harvest Public Media and Illinois Newsroom on his 300-acre farm down by Kickapoo Creek, near Bloomington. Climate scientists may say Americans are eating too much beef—cattle and other ruminants are a major source of greenhouse gases. But Bishop focuses on raising his cattle the best way he can figure out. That means climate-friendly farming aimed at restoring the soil and, in the process, offsetting some of farming’s carbon footprint.
“Ultimately, whether we eat the cow or not,” Bishop says, “the cow is going to make the kind of contributions that we need to grow the healthy plants that you want to eat and to do so without having to resort to chemical fertilizers.”
Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio found Ranae and Kevin Dietzel using similar approaches at their small dairy operation—80 acres, a few dozen cows and heifers, and two children. It’s small-scale, low-tillage, with year-round cover-cropping of grasses and legumes, and grazing on twice-daily rotations. The Dietzels turn their milk into artisanal cheese and sell it at farmers’ markets.
Ranae also does post-doctoral research in soil science at Iowa State University. As a scientist, she doesn’t view this style of farming as a climate cure-all. As a farmer, she says it at least makes the operation more resilient to the looming climate woes of heat, drought and flood.
But in Wisconsin, the heart of Midwestern dairy country, Jennifer Lu of the La Crosse Tribune found farmers wary of adopting one of the most effective methods of reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas: building digesters to capture methane from manure. The methane can be used to generate electricity—but it’s expensive, and it’s hard to break even.
Gridlock and the Grid
For all its bucolic image, the Midwest is also a land of smokestacks and tailpipes, and other reporters went looking at transportation and the power grid for solutions to a complex mixture of climate problems.
In Minneapolis, Jennifer Bjorhus of the Star-Tribune reports that just 10,000 of the state’s 5 million vehicles run on electric power. But the barriers—distance, cold weather and cost among them—are falling fast. And it’s not just Teslas changing the picture. From pickup trucks to school buses, EV enthusiasts see attractive new options just around the corner.
In Illinois, Brett Chase, a reporter at the nonprofit Better Government Association, looked at the implications of a shift in the state’s carbon footprint, which now comes from transportation more than from coal-fired power.
The seismic change is being driven by more car commutes, compounded by the increasing popularity of home-delivery services such as Amazon and ride-hailing alternatives like Uber and Lyft. The trend threatens to swamp the progress made from decarbonization of electricity supplies.
But when the Illinois Commerce Commission, a state agency, sought public comment on how to build up a useful network of charging stations for electric vehicles, fossil fuel advocates opposed any kind of subsidy. Among them were the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy arm of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, whose fortune is greatly reliant on carbon-based fuels.
Examining the electric grid in Michigan, Tracy Samilton of Michigan Public Radio and Jim Malewitz of Bridge Magazine each found that the state’s second-largest utility stands out for its clean energy ambition: It has promised to decarbonize the grid 90 percent by the year 2040.
But in a second article, Malewitz described how the state’s public utility commission is cutting an incentive for rooftop solar known as net metering, extending the break-even point for a typical household from nine years to 13 years—a harder sell at a time when federal tax credits for household solar are about to phase out.
Questions of Fairness
As the reporters investigated the region’s power grid, no longer as firmly anchored to coal as in the past, they asked not only how fast change will arrive—but also questions of equity and justice.
Beth Edwards, writing for the nonprofit Indiana Environmental Reporter, found environmental justice at issue in efforts by the Englewood Christian Church to provide affordable, climate-friendly housing to low-income elderly people in Indianapolis.
The congregation helped build Oxford Place, a 30-unit residence that produces all the power the occupants need with renewables, including solar panels, geothermal and solar-heated siding.
But Indianapolis Power & Light requires multifamily buildings to sell the power to the utility company for the company’s lower wholesale rate, and then buy it back at the higher retail rate.
The congregation is pushing back. Mike Bowling, its evangelical pastor, describes protecting the earth and its people as “mission care.” And he describes the community as “stubborn.”
Over in Wisconsin, Rob Danielson built his dream house in Vernon County. He installed solar panels, airtight walls, an efficient wood furnace and a stingy timer on the freezer. He and his wife, Terese Agnew, wait for sunny days to run the vacuum cleaner.
But reporter Chris Hubbuch of the Wisconsin State Journal found that Danielson wasn’t happy about a power company’s plan to build an industrial solar array an hour’s drive away. Danielson, who serves as his town’s appointed “energy planner” and has spearheaded fights against two high-voltage power lines, envisions a carbon-free future where consumers—not utility shareholders—reap the benefits of locally generated clean energy.
Will change come quickly enough to head off the worst risks of climate change? That’s a global question, but in the Midwest, you can’t say the transformation is in full swing.
Bryce Gray of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that last year Missouri got 73 percent of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest of fuels, burning more tonnage than any state but Texas and Indiana and in the same league as coal powerhouses like West Virginia and Wyoming.
Still, the local power company Ameren has pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050 and 35 percent by 2030, compared to the levels of 2005. And to do that, it has been pouring money into wind power. Generators increasingly find wind and solar are becoming cheaper than existing coal plants.
It will be hard to complete that switch faster without retiring white-elephant coal plants early. And on Ameren’s current schedule, several are not slated to close until the 2030s or even the 2040s. Whether the retreat from coal happens faster may depend more on market forces than political will, private interests or public pressure.
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Top photo: Bill Clark/Getty Images