chicago climate change

Issue Feature: Climate Change and Chicago - by Rob Samuelson

Friday, December 26, 2014 HALFSTACK MAGAZINE

The smell of freshly poured asphalt is not pleasant. Nor is the process of pouring it. There are jackhammers pounding away at my early morning sanity, orange cones closing already clogged street lanes, people in neon safety gear telling me to stop when there's a green light. It's all a sign of change, and change is irritating. This is what it was like for my neighborhood through most of the early autumn. I live on Chicago's far north side, nowhere near the prime real estate and commuting corridors that typically receive the City's attention for infrastructure improvement. But the City is doing a lot of it lately, even touching my little corner, and in the long run, it's a good thing from economic, safety, health, and especially environmental standpoints. And infrastructure isn't even the whole story of how this city is changing. There is a burgeoning, all-hands-on-deck movement, with local government, business leaders, and organizations pushing to create a more efficient and healthy civic space for everyone here.

This is why I'm grudgingly okay with the annoyances of construction in my neck of the woods. The stretch of Sheridan Road from Howard to Pratt badly needed to be resurfaced. Potholes were everywhere after the miserable 2013-2014 winter. The “bike lane” I had been riding for the last year and a half was really a strip of craggy, bumpy concrete beside the parked cars. It's difficult to pay attention to the uneven riding surface and to the drivers exiting their resting vehicles – a door waiting to happen. This is why my heart fluttered with possibilities when I saw the building crews arrive. I was finally going to get my safe, protected bike lane, safely separated from the moving car traffic.
Turns out that wasn't their plan. Sheridan is smoother, sure, but no painting has yet been done to create a legitimate lane for cyclists. For now, weaving in and out of traffic, close calls, and angry honking remain on the agenda. But Lesley Tweedie, co-owner of Roscoe Village Bikes, says the emphasis in the preceding sentence should be on the “for now.” Taking an immediate look at the state of bicycling in Chicago can make you tug nervously at your collar.

“Only one out of 20 miles of Chicago roads has a bike lane,” she said recently at the “Midwest Business, Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Risks and Opportunities” event in West Town.
Luckily, though, Tweedie knows the present is not everything. In her speech, she said the City of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have committed to doubling the amount of cycling and walking from the 2011 baseline of Emanuel's election. The Chicago Department of Transportation's Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 is projecting a “645-mile network of biking facilities” by decade's end, which would far more than double what we had before the mayor's inauguration. Imagine the headaches! Tweedie says it's taken a lot of work to get the City to implement these plans, and it's just as frustrating to ensure they follow through. “I work with my alderman's office and the Department of Transportation if I note a specific problem like a need for a bike rack or an obstruction in the road,” she says. “We also receive free bike maps from the city to distribute at our shop.”

“I've found the City to be responsive to these sort of requests,” she says. Tweedie notes that these improvements and Chicago's cycling trajectory have earned it the distinction of being America's second best city for cycling, according to Bicycling Magazine. Trajectories are all well and good, but they're not the same as on-the-ground realities. “I think Chicago is doing a great job in adding bike lanes, but there are a lot of intersections that are not safe for pedestrians or cyclists,” she says, mentioning streets like Damen, Elston, and Fullerton specifically. “It takes time and money to redesign and install infrastructure, and it can't be done overnight, but I'd like to see improvements made more quickly.”

With the move away from gas stations and into people-powered transit, the way we fuel our traveling obviously needs to change, too. Irv & Shelly's Fresh Picks, a grocery delivery service based in Skokie, is getting in on the game. Irv Cernauskas, co-owner with his wife, also spoke at the “Risks and Opportunities” event, where he talked about how the way we eat can be about more than just nourishing ourselves. We can do it much better for ourselves and our planet. “Even though climate change seems like such a huge challenge, it is important for each individual to be thoughtful about the impact of their day to day actions,” he says. “Simply being mindful about the choices we make when buying food gives us daily opportunities to make a difference by opting for local organic food that has a lighter carbon footprint.”

But people typically would rather not inconvenience themselves with changing their habits. Cernauskas and his wife recognized this innate bit of human silliness, and they set out to create a way to help others lighten their contributions to carbon emissions. The way Fresh Picks works is threefold. The food they get is all locally grown in Illinois and neighboring states, which drastically cuts transportation emissions because the produce isn't coming from, say, Florida. While they aren't a vegetarian business, they focus less on meat products that require a lot of water to serve the animals, which in turn emit their own greenhouse gases by simply digesting – for some reason, though, people seem reticent to make a Smokey the Bear-style ad campaign to warn us of cow flatulence. Cernauskas and his wife also deliver the food to their customers' doors, decreasing overall driving to supermarkets and increasing convenience for those who order, making that habit change much more palatable. It can't get much simpler than not even having to leave your house to buy your food.
Cernauskas says we are strengthening ourselves and other regions by focusing on the foods grown in our backyard.

“We have some of the most fertile agricultural land on earth right here in the Midwest, and plenty of water,” he says. “All types of vegetables, grains, dairy products and meats are produced here, and we get great fruit from Michigan.”

“Wisconsin has more organic farms than any state other than California,” he says. “With an extended drought in California, and depleted aquifers that farms there have relied on for irrigation, the upper Midwest is well positioned to make up for reduced vegetable production from the West that is likely to become the new normal.”

The new normal Cernauskas mentions is driven in part by a changing climate, and he says increasingly more adaptation, in all aspects of how we deal with food, will be required as we see more cumulative warming. Stupid circumstances making us do stuff we'd rather push off.
“In order to increase farm production, farmers will need to focus more on production and will have less time for transportation, marketing, and sales,” he says. “Distribution and retail businesses like ours are necessary partners for farmers who want to grow more food.”

The work being done by Tweedie and the Cernauskas family is intensive and creating a lot of change around Chicago, but as usual for our warming planet, solutions need to be more complex and multifaceted. Riding bikes and eating locally produced food are part of a whole, but our energy needs must be addressed somehow. Whether we like it or not, advanced technology is part of our lives, and to utilize it, we need a lot of electricity, much of which is currently created through the burning of coal. That will slowly change as solar and wind power grow, but there are ways to squeeze more juice out of Santa's favorite bad kid punishment.

This is where Sustainable Solutions LED comes in. The Chicago-based distributor is helping to make the blue-hued LED technology the standard for our lighting needs. Senior Account Executive Ellen Wesley says LEDs are the most efficient form of lighting around, and can and should be implemented rapidly due to their competitive cost and more economical brightness, the kind you may recognize from being blinded by the high beams of a high-end SUV. “Efficiency needs as much attention as renewables,” she says, and that lighting is the biggest part of that equation.

Wesley says, based on current Department of Energy projections, that by 2027, LEDs could be saving us as much energy as is currently produced and that they could reduce our electrical consumption at least 50 percent. That would mean “60 to 90 percent savings on [our] lighting bill,” she says.
That's a lot of numbers in a row, but basically there are a lot of pennies to be saved and earned in the next couple decades, plus you don't have to worry about mercury poisoning like with the former efficiency darlings, the spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs.

Of course, these things can only grow so much on their own. Usually, to reach near-universal acceptance and use, these businesses and organizations often must partner with all levels of government at various stages. That can be a volatile situation when the electorate has a mood swing every two years, putting new people in power. Henry Henderson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest Director, deals with policymakers constantly as part of NRDC's advocacy for climate action. He recently participated in a panel of climate change activists at the Organizing for Action headquarters following the midterm election, which saw Republican Bruce Rauner win the Illinois gubernatorial race.

It was a dour crowd filled with people who are skeptical of the prospects for climate action under a Republican, a party that has often adopted a position of denying the existence of anthropogenic global warming in recent years. But Henderson struck a different, almost excited tone regarding our Governor-elect, comparing him to Michigan governor Rick Snyder, another Republican bucking convention and pleasantly confusing people.

“[Snyder] is really leading the way in the Midwest on efficiency and renewables,” he says. “They are making major progress on the clean energy economy.” “Before the election, [Snyder] was talking about how Michigan has the capacity, need, and interest in moving even faster and further,” he says. “I have every reason to believe that Governor-elect Rauner will be of the same opinion,” he says.

Henderson says that, along with Rauner's education – he spent time in college as an environmental studies student – and his wife, Diana, being an NRDC board member point to good things ahead for climate action. There's another fact about the pro-business Rauner that gives Henderson hope.
“As a private citizen, he invested in renewable energy and earned from it,” he says. And when a businessman strikes big on something that works financially, chances are he's not going to stop doing it. This is why we saw a nearly 70-year-old Indiana Jones discovering aliens.

But, this being Illinois, the governor doesn't always (ever?) matter as much as Chicago's political ruling class. And Henderson says there are some encouraging signs that the City is modernizing its miserably outdated infrastructure, going a little deeper – and ickier – than the streets and bike lanes.
“We're sitting very near the Chicago River, where a whole lot of untreated sewage dumps into it regularly,” he says. “When it rains a little bit, we've got massive amounts of untreated sewage in there – it's a threat to the city.” “We have a sewer system, some of which goes back to pre-Civil War,” and he says Chicago is finally getting around to updating the 150-plus-year-old pipes, some of which are made out of long rotted wood. Yes, some of the pipes below you are made out of old, likely diseased wood, and people knew about it. “Those are a disaster,” he says. “They're being replaced.” Phew.

Since the City is so far behind the curve in this, and other, areas, Henderson says they have a long way to go to be a truly modern metropolis, but these things are all pointing in the right direction.
“What we need to be doing is building for the new climate regime and putting in green infrastructure,” he says. “The kind of green roofs” – actually painted white to reflect, rather than absorb, sunlight – “that we see happening in Chicago are an essential part of that.”
Those efforts, along with things like retrofitting buildings across the city for more efficiency, are opening new economic doors.

“This creates jobs, reduces waste, puts more money in building owners' pockets and homeowners' pockets,” he says. “It's a way of employing the job base in Chicago.” “You don't pick up a building like this that we're standing in, send it to China to get retrofitted,” he says. “It's Chicago businessmen, Chicago laborers, and Chicago supply chains that all make this building operate more efficiently and waste less money.” Oh yeah, all those loud noises, delays, and frustrations support people's livelihoods. So what's the road forward? Henderson echoes what everyone above mentioned by essentially saying more of the same – no backsliding, please – sounds about right.

“Energy efficiency remains the most immediate, most cost effective, and most affordable way to move forward,” he says. “There's also the cost curves on solar [that] are rapidly changing, and that is, within the next five years, that is a very, very advancing thing with regard to energy generation.”
“So you've got both the reduction of need, which is a major job creator, plus what is coming in terms of generating capacity through renewables that is highly, highly promising.”

It looks like we Chicagoans have decades to look forward to of getting new, non-crumbling infrastructure, avoiding traffic jams by pedaling around them, having the grocery store come to us, avoiding the ugly-inducing qualities of fluorescent lights, and pushing our policymakers to perpetually improve things further. How annoying.

If you liked this article, you can read more like it in our winter issue! Check it out at:

You Might Also Like



Contact Form