UCS Extreme Heat Report: A Call to Action on Midwest Clean Energy

July 22, 2019 | 11:08 am
James Gignac
Midwest Senior Policy Manager

Excessively hot weather spread across the Great Plains and Midwest states last week. On Friday, Chicago faced heat indexes well above 110 degrees, and many other areas endured dangerous heat warnings and advisories.

According to a sobering new report issued earlier this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the heat impacts of climate change will bring increasingly frequent extreme heat events such as these if we don’t take aggressive action to mitigate global warming pollution.

The report, Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days, is scary news—but it’s also a call to action. Clean energy is moving forward in the Midwest and that’s a good thing. By pursuing rapid emission reductions, we can work to lessen the brunt of extreme heat we’ll face in the years to come.

What are the projected heat impacts in the Midwest?

Here’s some findings from the Killer Heat report focusing in on our region assuming no action to limit global heat-trapping emissions:

The U.S. Midwest region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin), which has historically seen an average of 6 days with a heat index over 100°F, is projected to see an average of 53 days per year with a heat index over 100°F. The region will also see 38 days per year with a heat index above 105°F and seven “off-the-charts” days per year by the end of the century.

For Illinois specifically, there have historically been 34 days per year on average with a heat index above 90°F. This would increase to 80 days per year on average by midcentury and 107 days by century’s end. The state has historically had 7 days per year on average with a heat index above 100°F, but this would increase to 43 days per year on average by midcentury and 69 by the century’s end. And instead of having an average of two days per year with a heat index above 105°F, Illinois would see such extreme heat events 26 days per year on average by midcentury and 51 days a year by the century’s end.

By mid-century (2036-2070) regions of the United States with little to no extreme heat in an average year would experience such heat on a regular basis. Heat conditions across the Southeast and Southern Great Plains regions, including Southern Illinois and Missouri, are projected to become increasingly oppressive, with off-the-charts heat days happening an average of once or more annually.

While dangerous to everyone, these extreme heat events are especially risky to outdoor workers and vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Lower-income neighborhoods may also be more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and death due to lack of transportation and air-conditioning infrastructure—similar to what happened during the tragic 1995 heat wave that gripped Chicago. My colleague Joe Daniel posted a blog today focusing on utility disconnection policies and the need to ensure that vulnerable populations are not cut off from vital services during extreme heat events.

An opportunity to reduce extreme heat days

Even with rapid, aggressive action to reduce emissions, it’s going to get hotter in the Midwest and everywhere else. But perhaps the most important finding from this new analysis is that curbing emissions can reduce the number of days of extreme heat.

For instance, the UCS report found that, with global action to limit emissions, the average number of days in Midwest states with heat indices above 90°F could be reduced from 62 to 54 by mid-century. And instead of averaging 30 days with heat indexes of 100°F or more, we could have 22.

So yes, it’s going to get hotter in the Midwest. But by reducing the number of dangerous heat days, we can save lives. Indeed, another recent study found that limiting global warming to 2°C or 1.5°C can avoid hundreds of heat-related deaths in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis.

Taking action in Midwest states

In addition to demanding climate action at the federal level and supporting international agreements to limit carbon pollution, we can take important steps to ensure Midwest states are leading the way and doing our part to reduce emissions.

For instance, advocates in Illinois are pushing for enactment of the Clean Energy Jobs Act to provide additional clean energy policies and build on the progress that has made the state a leading wind energy producer and a developer of solar programs to benefit all communities.

In Michigan, UCS and other stakeholders are urging electric utilities to continue phasing out coal-fired power plants and replace them with clean energy technologies like wind and solar power and energy efficiency instead of natural gas.

Minnesota is considering legislation to increase rapid deployment of solar and wind power, as well as energy storage, in a smart and cost-effective manner to complement Xcel Energy’s own plan to reduce carbon emissions and boost solar power.

Moving forward

In addition to last week’s heat wave, we have seen climate change affecting us here in the Midwest through the extremely wet weather in recent months contributing to the Great Lakes’ record high water levels and the disruption of corn and soybean planting season due to flooded farmland.

Last week’s Killer Heat report stands as a warning of not only a wetter, but a dangerously hotter region.

We don’t have to accept this outcome as a foregone conclusion. Starting at the local and state level, we can take action to lessen the severity of extreme heat in ways that save lives and revitalize our economy through clean energy and clean transportation.

Thank you to Sarah Sung, Midwest Clean Energy Policy and Outreach Intern, for assistance in preparing this blog post.

About the author

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James Gignac is Midwest Senior Policy Manager for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Prior to joining UCS, Mr. Gignac served as environmental and energy counsel and as assistant attorney general to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, where he worked on a variety of regulatory, legislative, and litigation matters involving clean energy, climate change, and environmental protection.