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Chicago's Smog-Eating Cement vs. NYC's Fancy Flood Maps

Which city will win the climate change preparation smackdown?

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Editor's note: What's the best way to adapt to our rapidly warming world? That's the question journalist Mark Hertsgaard asks in his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. The following article is the second of a two-part adaptation about how American cities are preparing for global warming. Part 1, "Why Seattle Will Stay Dry When Your City Floods," detailed the efforts of Ron Sims, King County, Washington's forward-thinking former chief executive, to ready greater Seattle for climate change.

As a brawny commercial giant and the hub of America's transportation network, Chicago could hardly be more different from the leafy, liberal Pacific Northwest Seattle. But nowhere has Seattle visionary Ron Sims' climate-change adaptation message had greater influence than in Chicago.

According to Sadhu Johnston, who served as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's point person on climate change, Chicago's main champion of adaptation was the mayor himself. About a month after Johnston joined the mayor's staff in 2006, Daley sent him a note asking, How is climate change going to affect Chicago? "I had to respond that I didn't really know," said Johnston. We went back and forth on it a while and finally decided we had to pull in some serious science." So Johnston and a commissioned a report.

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"When we got the impacts study back, it was actually a big relief," Johnston said. "We're better off in Chicago than most major cities will be. It turns out there are advantages to not being on a coast. We expect no serious water problems. Our two major concerns over the next 50 years are going to be frequent extreme summer heat and more severe storms, especially in winter."

But more extreme heat is no small matter: Chicago is already very hot and muggy in summer. By the year 2100, said Johnston, Chicago could experience 30 days a year when the temperature exceeds 100°F (40°C), compared to three days a year currently; on 70 days a year, the temperature will exceed 90°F (35°C), compared to 12 to 15 currently.

"We've started to map this stuff," Johnston told me, unfolding a series of detailed city maps on a worktable in his City Hall office. The first map showed so-called urban heat islands—parts of the city where temperatures were markedly higher than elsewhere. A second map charted density of tree cover. When Johnston overlaid the second map on the first, the areas of low tree density often overlapped with the areas of high temperatures. "In the past, we planted trees in an ad hoc manner," he told me. "Now we're going to target the urban heat islands, which often"—now he overlaid a third map on the first two—"are areas populated by lower-income people, who tend to be more at risk from heat waves.

Chicago also aimed to become America's capital of wind power manufacturing. Already, eight of the world's leading manufacturers had chosen Chicago as their North American headquarters, said Howard Learner, the director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. Learner explained, "They're here because the Midwest is the Saudi Arabia of wind power. There are 25,000 megawatts of wind power now under development in Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas." Chicago offered the transportation infrastructure, manufacturing facilities, skilled labor, and positive policy environment these companies needed, Learner said. "The blades of modern wind turbines are two hundred feet long. They're not like refrigerators you can manufacture in China, put on a container ship to California, and truck over the Rocky Mountains to sell at Best Buy in Peoria. That's why wind manufacturing—not just turbines but gear boxes, switches, ball bearings—is coming to the Midwest."

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