Is Chicago Prepared For More Extreme Weather?

Residents of Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood dig themselves out of the snow
Residents of Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood dig themselves out of the snow on Feb. 16, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Residents of Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood dig themselves out of the snow
Residents of Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood dig themselves out of the snow on Feb. 16, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Is Chicago Prepared For More Extreme Weather?

Chicagoans are sidestepping slush puddles as warmer temperatures melt away the remnants of last week’s record-setting winter storm, which dropped more than 18 inches of snow in some parts of the city. The catastrophic storms sweeping the U.S. are indicative of what Americans will continue to experience due to climate change, experts say — and the fallout exposed major vulnerabilities in the nation’s infrastructure.

To understand what that means for Chicago, Reset caught up with Karen Weigert, the city’s former chief sustainability officer, and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who teaches public policy and public law at Texas Tech. Here are highlights from the conversation.

Karen Weigert, executive vice president at Slipstream and former chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago. Courtesy of Karen Weigert
Katharine Hayhoe, political science professor and co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. Courtesy of Mark Umstot Photography

How did Chicago fare against recent winter storms?

Weigert: We’re lucky in that we haven’t seen some of the local tragedies that we’re reading about in other parts of the country, but we saw extraordinary snow for an extended period of time and extraordinary cold. We are seeing more and more of those weather extremes from snowfalls to precipitation. If you look at the largest snowfalls in Chicago, two of the top five are in the last decade. If you look at the wettest years in Chicago, three of the top five again are in the last decade.

Is the city prepared for more extreme weather?

Weigert: Chicago is well-prepared for storms, although no one can ever fully be prepared. As we’re seeing, several buildings around the city did collapse, but [the city is] prepared in specific ways.

Snow plows work in front of the Adler Planetarium along Lake Michigan in Chicago
Snow plows work E. Solidarity Drive, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in front of the Adler Planetarium along Lake Michigan in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

I think a big factor behind the scenes is that the grid was able to withstand this. Chicago and Illinois are part of a multistate grid, so that does provide some resiliency overall. [There’s] certainly more work to do on the grid here, but we did not have the grid collapse that you saw in Texas or the grid collapse that you saw in parts of California last summer with heat.

How could climate change impact the area in the future?

Hayhoe: I was one of the climate scientists who worked on the Chicago Climate Action Plan back in 2008, so I can tell you exactly what Chicago is going to experience. We looked at the 1995 and the 1999 heat waves that occurred in Chicago, and we asked how much more frequent is climate change likely to make those very specific events in Chicago? What we found is that if we continue on a business as usual, “let’s use fossil fuels for our energy” scenario, there could be two or three heat waves per year by the end of the century, which could be devastating.

Workers at the Cook County morgue in Chicago wheel a body to refrigerator trucks
Workers at the Cook County morgue in Chicago wheel a body to refrigerator trucks on Tuesday, July 18, 1995. Several trucks were parked near the morgue to handle an overflow of bodies, most believed to be victims of a heat wave. Mike Fisher / Associated Press

What can city officials do to mitigate the fallout?

Hayhoe: Part of [Chicago’s] climate action plan was not just preparing for the future, it was doing what we can to reduce our emissions today. So because the city has made that choice, … if we go to the lower scenario, we will see maybe one or two of those per decade, which is still a lot. But then the city went even further and looked at how they could reduce the urban heat island effect through tree planting, through green roofs, through different types of pavements and surfaces that are more reflective. That actually helps the city and diminishes the impact of heat waves on the city. … Chicago is an example of what can be done, but there’s always more to do.

Any tips for talking about climate change with science skeptics?

Hayhoe: When they question the science, that’s actually a smokescreen … for their real objections. Their real objections are that they don’t think there’s any way to fix it. But our human defense mechanisms require us to say, “Oh, well, it can’t be real, or those scientists are just making it up to try to line their pockets with government grants.” They have to say that because if you say it’s a real problem and I don’t want to fix it, that would make us a bad person, and nobody really wants to be a bad person. … Talking about positive, constructive solutions is essential.

Weigert: That conversation about solutions is incredibly important. Certainly it’s possible to go toe to toe on the science, but I’ve not found that that typically convinces anyone. It’s much more exciting to get people interested in and engage in a future that they can imagine, and perhaps even a future they can help shape.

The interview has been edited. Press “Listen” to hear the full conversation.

Steve Bynum is a senior producer on WBEZ’s Reset. Follow him @Steven_Bynum. Libby Berry is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @libbyaberry.