You may be asking yourself: Is Chicago in for another summer like the one we had in 2012? But that's the wrong question. The right question is whether or not the weather we had that summer is going to become the norm.
Few will have forgotten that brutal heat, when a string of humid, hot days led to heat-related deaths and significant impacts of crop yields in Illinois. Back in 1995, Chicago experienced a tragic heat wave when 700 people lost their lives. With the long, cold, snowy winter of 2013-2014 fresh in our memory, it's easy to wonder if the climate is truly warming. It is. That is not a controversial conclusion among climate researchers. Climate, or average weather, is getting warmer globally and in Illinois. While we slogged through the past winter, parts of Europe, Asia, and South America experienced record heat, making March 2014 the world's fourth warmest on record. The 15 hottest years on record worldwide have occurred since 1998.
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Climate change is not only about the loss of glaciers: it's also about human health. Carbon pollution from human activities is impacting food security, water resources and the occurrence of disease. Climate change in our part of the world is about more than just a few uncomfortably hot days. The Great Lakes are getting warmer, increasing the risk of toxic algae blooms that pose a health hazard to humans and fish. Higher temperatures increase ground-level ozone smog, which threatens health for people with asthma. Mosquitoes and ticks that can spread disease are moving into areas that are no longer too cold for them. Increased moisture in the air is an effect of climate change that can lead to extreme precipitation.
The 1993 Mississippi River flood and the April 2013 floods are examples of extreme events that resulted in numerous federal disaster declarations. Not only is flooding costly and distressing, but it can lead to disease outbreaks and mold growth in water-damaged homes.
The National Climate Assessment, developed by scientists from 13 federal agencies such as NASA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Transportation, was released on May 6. This report, the definitive source of information about the U.S. climate, provides clear evidence of climate change that has already occurred and is expected to accelerate. The severe water shortage impacting millions in the Southwest is likely a taste of things to come. The just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that in order to avoid unmanageable increase in global temperature in the coming decades, the world has perhaps 15 years left to significantly decrease our carbon emissions. If we do not, the costs of hurricanes, sea wall construction, food shortages, and disease outbreaks will be astronomical.
This is a fact: things will get much worse if we don't address climate change now. United States leadership is key. President Obama has made a start by reducing emissions from cars and with forthcoming carbon emissions reductions requirements from coal-fired power plants. More needs to be done. Congress needs to get on board. States can cut energy waste and promote the use of low-carbon energy sources. Chicago-area municipalities can make a difference by supporting mass transit and promoting green infrastructure. By walking, bicycling or using mass transit rather than driving, we can each play a role in reducing carbon pollution. And we can take our elected officials to task so that future generations will be spared from the worst consequences of a warming planet.
• Paul Brandt-Rauf is dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Samuel Dorevitch is an associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is preparing a climate change adaptation plan for the Illinois Department of Public Health.