Unpacking the National Climate Assessment and What We Can Do

On Black Friday, the White House released the much anticipated Fourth National Climate Assessment, a sweeping Federal review of the impact of climate change on the natural environment, agriculture, human health, forests, transportation, and natural resources. The report, which was authored by scientists from 13 Federal agencies and climatologists from across the country, documents in explicit terms the changes to our climate that have already occurred in the United States.

The report paints a grim future for the country and the Midwest region, going so far as to declare that, “without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property, and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

And all of this needs to be held in light of the United Nations’ 2018 Emissions Gap Report, released on November 27, which states that even at the current pace of emissions reductions, the world is falling far short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

Climate science can be cumbersome and reading about these reports no doubt will lead to some anxiety for many of us. But we want to prepare you with information and talking points so you can advocate for climate action right now. 


“Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.”

Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21 — Midwest

On the whole, Illinois has actually fared somewhat well relative to the rest of the planet, which is to say that we are not experiencing the upsurge in natural disasters like the California wildfires, the devastating heatwaves in Australia, or the destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The changes we have felt are more subtle, and inaction will cause those changes to accelerate exponentially over the century.

1. It’s not too late to do something

One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that it is not too late to act. The 2015 Paris Agreement created a global framework wherein signatory countries would work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) — at that point, we must still expect significant changes in our climate, but we will avert catastrophe. Additionally, the Paris Agreement set the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees (2.7 F) to create a type of  safety net. There is still a chance that we can reach that goal.

2. Climate projections are viewed on a scale, and we can act to reduce and prevent some impacts

Climate change reports often present their findings with both a best case scenario and a worst case scenario. For the Chicago region, the worst case scenario is we end the century with a climate similar to that of present-day Dallas or Phoenix.

Both the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in October 2018 emphasize the importance of what are known as mitigation and adaptation tactics to address this crisis.

Mitigation is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efforts to pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to the actions we can take to prepare for the impacts and reduce the risks of climate change.

Openlands believes our response to the threat of climate change must be two-fold, embracing both of these strategies, and using solutions based in nature to put carbon back in the ground. As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands is uniquely positioned to leverage land conservation with community climate action and to ensure that our region seizes the opportunity to pioneer innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

3. Forests and land conservation are more important than ever

Both the report from the Federal Government and IPCC stress the importance of forests and land conservation as central elements in preventing climate change from wreaking ecological devastation. Large, healthy woodlands with hardy native species and vast sweeping prairies filled with grasses and deep-rooted plants suck in and absorb massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while providing havens for wildlife.

The National Climate Assessment states that, “species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.” The good news is that so many of these risks can be avoided today.

For one, we know how to protect clean water resources: we know that plants and open space can manage stormwater, removing harmful pollution and keeping adjacent waterways healthy. Trees in urban areas not only pull pollution and carbon from the air, but also lower temperatures on the ground, but across the region we need to care for these resources better and plant many more trees. And we know that restoring natural areas leads to healthier landscapes that mitigate greenhouse gases more efficiently. Ecological restoration has additional benefits beyond absorbing carbon, which include flood relief, pollution reduction, controlling invasive species, improved water quality, and better habitat for wildlife.

Focusing our efforts on protecting existing forest preserves and parks, restoring natural areas, and using these nature-based solutions all help mitigate emissions and adapt our neighborhoods and communities to a changing climate.

Chicago Neighborhoods

4. Heat, Humidity, and Human Health

Unfortunately, we have to expect that increased temperatures will unleash new complications to human health in our region. Higher temperatures and higher humidity increase the risk for heat stress, the ferocity of storms, mold and fungal disease such as oak wilt, and the potential for poor air quality resulting from smog. We can expect to see these hazards affecting those with asthma and chronic health conditions.

In both the best and worst case scenarios, we can expect greater occurrence of painful 100-degree days. This undoubtedly will result in higher utility bills and strain on transportation infrastructure. Increased heat and humidity will further impact human labor, particularly in sectors tied closely with the climate such as agriculture.

5. Agriculture in the Midwest is at Risk

The United States produces nearly $330 billion in agricultural commodities annually. Agriculture is vulnerable to direct impacts on crops and livestock from changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, as well as indirect impacts like new insects and diseases. While heat stress on crops in the Midwest has been minimal, increased spring rainfall has made planting more challenging and wet conditions in the fall can impact the timing and quality of a harvest.

Central to every study of the agricultural impacts of climate change is the assumption that farmland will always be available. While more than 80% of land in Illinois is farmland, keep in mind that we have some of the best soil in the world for growing food. We need to think of this soil as a key natural resource — and protect it like one.

Openlands is working right now to ensure that the farmland in our region stays as healthy farmland, rather than being sold off for another big box store. We also work with farmers to implement adaptive practices on their land. Integrating native prairie plants into row crops, for example, has been shown to reduce sediment and nutrient loss from fields, as well as improve biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as flood control and carbon sequestration.

6. Water Levels in the Great Lakes

There have been lots of news stories this year showing how water levels in Lake Michigan are at near-historic highs and there’s a temptation to claim prematurely a link to climate change. The reality is that we are not sure what is going to happen with water levels in the future. We can expect the Great Lakes region will get warmer and to experience warmer winters, meaning there will be greater evaporation from the lakes year-round. But we are also expected to receive far more precipitation than we have historically; therefore, water inputs to the lakes will be higher. We are unsure how climate change will impact the stable cycle of evaporation and precipitation that has governed the Great Lakes for millennia. You can read more about that here.

7. Climate change is felt most by the most vulnerable

Much like poverty, disease, crime, or debt, climate change can affect anyone, but the effects are concentrated among those who are most vulnerable. Children, elderly adults, and frontline communities will feel the health impacts of a changing climate the most. Frontline communities are often low-income and communities of color and tend to face disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, pollution (such as congested highways or power plants), inequitable access to green space, and poor air quality leading to higher rates of asthma.

In 1963, Openlands was founded as a social justice organization charged with the purpose of preserving green space because nature is vital to the well-being of all people. Since that time we have steered our region towards sustainability and now we are committed to guiding our region through climate change. We can’t do it without you.

All the information in this blog post can be found in greater detail in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which again was written and reviewed by 13 Federal agencies. The report is presented online in a user-friendly manner; you can find information on particular regions, issues, or themes; and we strong encourage you to take some time to read through the report. For more information, please contact climate@openlands.org.