/Midwest Flooding and Climate Change

Midwest Flooding and Climate Change

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is a companion piece to yesterday’s “Midwest Flooding, the Corn and Soy Crops, and Knock-On Effects.” In that post, I did not address the planet in the room: climate change (and many midwesterners have that problem, too, as we shall see). In this post, I will. First, I’ll look at what government scientists say about the relations between flooding and climate change; then, what other scientists say; next, what polling says; and finally what Midwesterners themselves say. (I’ll also have something to say about “settled science,” and the role of the Democrat party.

Government Scientists

Here is the view from NOAA, from Reuters’ “Climate change’s fingerprints are on U.S. Midwest floods: scientists.” But not all scientists:

Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring at the National Centers for Environmental Information, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that the type of heavy precipitation that immediately led to the upper Midwest floods is generally increasing over time.

But trying to link the role of climate change to an individual event is a “fool’s errand” akin to trying to determine the cause of a car crash while the wheels are still spinning, he told reporters on a conference call.

More research needs to be done to find a definitive answer on climate’s link to the floods, Arndt said.

I respect Arndt’s[1] caution, but if his implication is that “more research needs to be done” to make policy judgements about climate change, I disagree. Let’s replace Arndt’s “car crash” metaphor which, oddly for a climate scientist, is linear, with a metaphor that involves a feedback loop. Imagine a system where I am bringing a pot to the boil on the stove, and watching it. The feedback loop runs from the water in the pot (is it bubbling or not?) through my eyes and brain, through my hand, to the dial on the stove, to the stove’s flame, to the water. No bubbles, I turn the flame up; bubbles, I turn the flame down. Now, in this metaphor, the flame maps to the sun, the water maps to the Mississippi basin, and the bubbles map to the floods. Do I need to understand the causal linkage that causes an individual bubble to rise to the surface and burst? No. All I need to know is that rising bubbles in the aggregate show the pot is boiling. Now, to broaden the metaphor — here I appeal to Arndt’s Catholicism, if he ever reads this — the stove is in my house, and I am the steward thereof. So I have a duty to turn down the pot before it boils over — not just to watch the bubbles (even if I think that’s my calling). Further, if there’s a capitalist toddler in the house, it may even be my duty to take the pot off the burner and extinguish the flame. Concluding, I don’t accept the idea that we have to know everything before we can do anything (the whole “settled science” discussion). There is no grand unified theory that explains both gravity and quantum mechanics. More research was not needed for the Apollo program that took us to the Moon. There is no scientific explanation for consciousness. More research was not needed for social media to manipulate consciousness through the dopamine loop (or, more mercifully, for some forms of therapy to work, some of the time). We are discovering new feedback loops for climate all the time; I check Nature for them every day, and half the time there’s something new. We don’t need to wait until the scientists run out of things to study to make policy decisions. We don’t know everything. But we know enough.

Non-Government Scientists

Here are the views of some scientists outside[2] government. From National Geographic, “Midwest flooding is drowning corn and soy crops. Is climate change to blame?”

[T]hough it’s difficult to link one single weather event to climate change, climate scientists say the devasting rains falling over the Midwest are exactly in line with what they’ve been predicting.

“Overall, it’s climate change,” says Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We expect an increase in total precipitation in the Midwest, especially in winter and spring, with more coming as larger events.”

In the most recently published National Climate Assessment, in 2018… researchers concluded that the U.S. would face more catastrophic flooding that would affect infrastructure and crops.

So, the interagency process actually made a good call. To which we should listen. Here are some scientists less cautious about tracking causal chains. From Yale Climate Connections, “Did climate change cause the flooding in the Midwest and Plains?”:

What made this year so bad?

The answer is a perfect storm of factors. The fingerprints of mid-March flooding in the area can be traced back to the summer of 2018 and the wet months that followed. Some of the root causes – like wetter weather and rapid spring warm ups – have become more likely due to climate change.

“Having frozen ground, having snow on the ground, having moderate to heavy rainfall,” [Bryan Peake, a service climatologist at the Midwest Regional Climate Center] said, “all those things together made it so that the snowmelt and the spring flooding was so much worse.”

So, if “total precipitation” is the level of water in the pot, “all those things together” are the rising bubbles. The causal chain looks something like this: Rainy fall > frozen soil > snow melt before thaw > bomb cyclone > river flooding. (Read the whole article; the teased-out interconnections, unpleasant though they may be for us humans, are things of beauty.)

Oh, and this chilling vignette. This is how saturated the soil is:

In his yard in [Hudson,] Iowa, [Zach] Van Stanley said he could hear the water bubbling in the thawing ground.

Reminds me of the time I heard water bubbling in the basement. A heart-stopping feeling.


Even though weather is not climate, “Floods and storms are altering American attitudes to climate change.” From The Economist:

Older polling, by Pew, had suggested that coast-dwellers were more alarmed by climate change than those living 300 miles or more inland. But inlanders’ views seem to be shifting, too. A survey published this year by the Energy Policy Institute, part of the University of Chicago, found that 70% of Americans believe climate change is real. Nearly half are also more persuaded by warnings from climate scientists than they were five years earlier.

Many said that witnessing extreme weather events—like the tornadoes, storms and floods battering the Midwest —did most to form their views. Michael Greenstone, who runs the institute, says the Midwest is already affected by “hotter summers, and it is more challenging for agriculture”. The region’s farmers are already at the sharp end of change.

So, finally, let’s turn to those Midwesterners.

Midwesterners and the Democrats

From the New York Times, the discouraging headline “In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided“:

“We know there’s something going on, so how do we come together and deal with that?” said [Mayor Frank Klipsch of Davenport], a two-term mayor who said taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.” “Let’s not try to label it. Let’s not try to politicize it. It’s just a matter of something is changing.”

“I don’t see a purpose at this point to create a challenge, a straw man to argue about, when in reality we all know what the ultimate results are,” said Mr. Klipsch, who does not belong to a political party.

Davenport is a largish city, population ~102,000, and part of the Quad Cities area, population ~475,000. (It’s also home to John Deere, and to the Rock Island Arsenal, the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the United States.) So my initial thought, that Klipsch’s extreme conflict avoidance was based on living in a small town where everybody knows everybody, was wrong. More:

Floods have happened throughout history, and they have a complex cocktail of causes. In interviews with nine local officeholders in places where the Mississippi River crested recently, several politicians said they believed climate change was playing a role in the frequency of floods. Others were openly skeptical or declined to take a position.

Across those lines, officials said climate change was a politically risky topic that they generally avoided discussing — and that they considered less relevant to the flooding than levee heights, changes in river management and other factors.

Thinking of how my own town runs, I wonder where the contractors for the levees come from. And “changes in river management and other factors” make me think they want to buy a heavier lid for the pot instead of turning down the heat. More:

Not talking about climate change in frank terms can carry risk, said Louis Gritzo, vice president for research at the insurance company FM Global, which advises clients, including large corporations, about the hazards that climate change will bring. Mr. Gritzo warned of an “uncertainty trap,” in which leaders avoid talking about climate change, do not take action and expose themselves to more dire consequences in the future.

“Uncertainty trap” is better framing than usual (though there’s a post to be written the environmental “movement” and why we are where we are). However, to me, there’s one instant and obvious way to lower the political risks, and that would be for the Democrat party — not candidates, but the Party itself, as an institution — to “have the backs” of those who speak out, so as to provide a countervailing force to Koch propaganda and FOX News. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen. The Hill, “DNC chair says 2020 climate change debate is ‘not practical’ after being confronted by activists”

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez on Saturday said a presidential debate focused solely on climate change is not “practical” after a group of activists confronted him about the issue.

“It’s just not practical,” Perez told the activists after delivering remarks at the Florida Democratic Party’s Leadership Blue gala, according to The Tampa Bay Times. “And as someone who worked for Barack Obama [good gawd], the most remarkable thing about him was his tenacity to multitask, and a president must be able to multitask.”

Inslee, who had called for such a debate, reacts:

Inslee said last week that the DNC’s decision amounted to “silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field.”

“Democratic voters say that climate change is their top issue; the Democratic National Committee must listen to the grassroots of the party,” he added in a statement.

Mush. Perez also banned any Democrat candidate from particiating in non-DNC sanctioned climate debates. If Inslee had any stones, he’d defy the ban. I’m sure the League of Woman Voters, who used to organize debates, would be happy to set one up. And if Inslee did that, those in Davenport, Iowa who accept the reality of climate change might not feel isolated, and that there was nobody in the political class who would defend them, and the local equation of political risk would change.


So, we have an utterly dysfunctional system moving slowly toward greater functionality. So far, much too slowly. The Democrat Party could accelerate the process. But instead of watching the boiling pot in the kitchen, they’re sitting round the card table in the living room, playing Snakes and Ladders, or something equally childish.


[1] From Arndt’s LinkedIn page, of NOAA: “We sit at the service end of a complex, beautiful, multi-decade tradition of collecting, storing and serving data, and we strive to live up to the tradition of that whole apparatus. We provide the analysis function and we do it well.” That lovely data collection was quite evident to me as I did my research for yesterday’s post.

[2] I am making this distinction because, given the administration’s position on climate change, scientists outside government may feel more free to speak. I’m not impugning the integrity of NOAA.

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