AP Photo / John Gaps III

How Iowa Scientists Are Fighting To Get Climate Change On The Political Radar

A little less than three weeks ago, over 180 Iowa scientists sent a clear message to their state’s leaders: climate change is here, is impacting Iowans and needs to be taken seriously.

The Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans was the fourth iteration of an annual effort by the Iowans who actually study climate change to raise awareness among their fellow residents, their state lawmakers and their national representatives.

Each year’s statement has drilled down on a different aspect of climate change. In 2014, the scientists chose to highlight the threats to public health: more cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as heat exacerbates air pollution, more exposure to molds from floods, more toxic algae blooms in lakes and waterways, more diseases like Dengue Fever and Ehrlichiosis as higher temperatures expand the ranges of mosquitoes and ticks, more asthma from ragweed pollen, and so on.

Iowa was viewed by both the Romney and Obama campaigns as a crucial battleground state in 2012, and is considered a major player in the national primaries. This year, with days to go until the November midterm elections, the Senate contest between Republican candidate Joni Ernst and Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley is one of the most-watched races in the nation.

Braley has stated his support for efforts to fight climate change, but by all accounts Ernst remains loyal to — and supported by — the right-wing opposition to climate change policy, and the growing partisan split over whether to take the threat of global warming seriously.

All of which makes Iowa a rather interesting test case. What can climate scientists do to spread accurate information about climate change and, ultimately, to move the needle in terms of what voters will and will not tolerate from their elected officials on the topic?

Putting Climate Change On The Discussion Table

Jerry Schnoor speaks on May 13, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jerry Schnoor speaks on May 13, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.

CREDIT: AP Photo

Public opinion and the broad political pressures that make some policies happen and others don’t is a vast, complex, and mysterious ecosystem. Which makes measuring the effect of any activist effort an inherently tricky business.

In the case of the Iowa Climate Statement, the scientists send out copies and announcements to media outlets, they make themselves available for interviews, and there’s a roll-out event at the statehouse. Signatories including David Courard-Hauri, who put his name to all four statements and is an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy Program at Iowa’s Drake University, sent letters to every Iowa state legislator, to every member of the national delegation — including Braley’s office — and both the Braley and Ernst campaigns.

As of press time, neither candidate had responded to the climate scientists, nor had Ernst responded to requests for comment on this article. But the Braley campaign did make its commitment to the issue clear: “Bruce believes climate change is real and that Iowa is uniquely situated to be a global leader in confronting this threat,” campaign spokesperson Sam Lau told ThinkProgress. “He’s continually fought for the expansion of wind energy and biofuel production, which have added nearly 80,000 jobs to Iowa’s economy, and made Iowa a global innovator in renewable energy technology. This puts him in sharp contrast to Joni Ernst and her plans to stand with the oil billionaire special interests who want to end renewable energy policies like the Wind Production Tax Credit and the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

The scientists didn’t necessarily expect a direct response, however. “I think a lot of times you disseminate this information and a lot of times you don’t expect to hear back from people unless they have a particular question,” admitted Peter Thorne, a veteran of all four statements and the director of the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center at the University of Iowa. To a certain extent it’s just about the principle of the thing, making sure Iowans and their lawmakers “have current information in an easily digestible form from scientists in Iowa,” as Courard-Hauri put it.

For an indication of their impact, the scientists pointed to the buzz generated by each successive statement. “It was successful, in terms of it got press and people talked about it,” Courard-Hauri said of the original 2011 statement. “I think it helped people in Iowa to understand some of the things that were going on. So we kept going.”

Most everyone also mentioned education specifically as the place where long-term efforts have made the real difference. Peter Thorne, for instance, has been teaching climate science for 25 years, and says he’s seen the change in how older and younger generations discuss climate change.

“Early on it was, ‘What is the evidence for climate change? What is the evidence that it’s anthropogenic or human associated?'” Thorne said. “Now it’s all about, ‘What is the mitigation strategy and how can we adapt? What about geoengineering?’ The discussion is starting at a different place.”

But Thorne also admits the public and policymakers are a bit further behind. Climate change still splits Iowa’s state legislature, with a cadre of Democrats — State Sen. Rob Hogg from Cedar Rapids, State Rep. Mary Mascher and State Sen. Joe Bolkcom from Iowa City, and State Sen. Liz Mathis from Robins, among others — pushing for their state to grapple with the seriousness of the issue. They’ve also stumped for state-level policies like a wind energy tax credit, charging stations for electric vehicles, and expanded passenger rail, all of which died in the GOP-controlled Iowa House of Representatives. Democratic members of Iowa’s national delegation like Braley and Rep. Dave Loebsack also planted their flag by voting for the national cap-and-trade bill in 2009.

Building The Community

One of the assumptions that runs around the climate debate a lot is that there’s enormous amounts of social pressure for everyone to think the same thing on the issue. But according to Courard-Hauri, it’s actually sort of the opposite, at least within the scientific community itself. The kind of consensus you see around climate change and humanity’s responsibility for it is actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve.

“Scientists are kind of by nature focused on differences, because that’s the place where I can make a name for myself,” he said.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) on left, Joni Ernst on right.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) on left, Joni Ernst on right.

CREDIT: AP Photo

Which is to say, a huge part of climate activism actually just boils down to community-building. Organizers have to do the hard work of overcoming practical hurdles like day jobs, schedules and commitments. The process gathers together people who are able and willing to discuss climate change, and puts them in touch with each other, along with the press and the general public. And any particular effort to build awareness can also intersect with and invigorate other efforts: as an example of someone modeling themselves off the climate statement’s approach, Courard-Hauri pointed to a recent statement that was signed by 97 Iowa faith leaders, adding their support to the EPA’s new rule cutting carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants.

“It’s giving people opportunities to talk to scientists who are from the community. So it kind of brings the whole thing home,” Courard-Hauri said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a conversation in D.C. between special interest groups when it’s your neighbor who’s talking about it and you know that they know what they’re talking about.”

Thorne and the other scientists acknowledged that they can get a lot of traction by avoiding questions of how to cut carbon emissions or who’s to blame for global warming,while focusing instead on demonstrable changes in the here and now and how Iowans and everyone else can adapt. “What we heard this year from a number of people is sure, they know about climate change and they see the evidence regarding loss of Arctic ice and stranded polar bears and the like, but they just didn’t realize how it was affecting them here in Iowa,” Thorne said. “It’s not just somewhere else or something else, it actually has direct ramifications for the citizens of Iowa.”

Thorne brought up farmers as one example of the cross-cutting impulses and political forces in Iowa’s climate debate. Arguably, no group of people is more tied to the rhythms of the climate and the land than farmers, so they recognize growing seasons are longer now than they were one or two generations previously. Farmers today have to plant earlier, plant faster, and harvest faster than their grandfathers did.

“They know the climate, and they see that,” Thorne continued. But at the same time, the threat of human-caused climate change “isn’t the message that they often are hearing from some of the organizations to which they belong.”

But the good news is that, while the original statement in 2011 got a relatively modest 33 signatures, representing 22 different colleges and universities, 2014′s statement ballooned to over 180, with signers hailing from 38 different institutions — virtually every college or university in Iowa. “It’s safe to say that most of the great majority of people teaching science and policy classes in the state of Iowa at the secondary education level believe that climate change is very important and that it’s caused by humans, and that they’re willing to sign a statement to that effect,” said Jerry Schnoor, the co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa.

Changing The Atmosphere

All that said, in terms of climate-friendliness, Iowa is definitely a mixed bag. The state gets 27 percent of its energy from wind, and was third out of all fifty states for the portion of its energy it gets from renewables, excluding hydroelectric sources. According to Schnoor, coal has dropped from nearly 80 percent of the state’s energy mix in 2007 and 2008 to around two-thirds today. The state government also has incentive programs to boost solar and other forms of green energy.

Throne also noted that infrastructure projects are being built more often to account for the fact that Iowa and the Midwest will be in for more flooding and bigger bursts of individual precipitation in the coming decades, and that construction sites are beginning to worry more about soil erosion and pollution runoff for the same reasons.

At the same time, Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions have been effectively flat since 2005. And while California and several northeastern states have set up policies to cut their emissions on their own, Iowa hasn’t followed suit and there’s no sign it will anytime soon.

So in many ways it’s a game of inches — and there are just a lot inches left to go. Thorne pointed to the need for massive new infrastructure projects to help Iowa adapt to and mitigate climate change going forward: a revitalized and resilient grid to move electricity from renewable projects around the state and sell it to other states, along with rail and mass transit projects to connect major urban centers like Iowa City and Chicago, and to cut down on the enormous amounts of automobile traffic that currently go between the cities.

Courard-Hauri brought up the same ideas, and also emphasized the need to keep pushing on the smaller-scale efforts to build climate change into infrastructure planning, soil management, agricultural practices and so on. Not to mention a carbon tax, either at the state or national level.

For his part, Braley believes climate change is a real threat and is on board with policies like EPA’s new power plant regulations. He’s also been clear regarding his support for tax credits and another incentives to fuel the growth of clean energy sources, and has gone after Ernst for saying she’d end all subsidies.

Meanwhile, Ernst is opposed to many of these efforts, she’s promised to “abolish the EPA,” and stated in May that “I have not seen proven proof that [climate change] is entirely man-made.” More recently, she’s taken to saying she “doesn’t know the science” when it comes to humanity’s contribution to global warming.

“I would say if you’re not an expert, then what you should do is find out what the experts think and either educate yourself and become someone who really knows a lot about the topic, or trust the experts,” Courard-Hauri said. “It’s really frustrating to have people debating, or acting as if there’s debate, about some of the fundamental questions of climate change,” he continued. If humanity’s carbon emissions weren’t contributing to climate change, “we’d have to rethink fundamental physics.”

So [the Iowa Climate Statement] is an attempt to both help people understand what’s going on, and also provide people they trust to have those conversations with. That’s why I got involved.”

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