Summer of extreme weather stresses need for climate action in northeastern Illinois

Extreme weather has rocked the country’s coasts in recent weeks.

Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as one of the state’s strongest storms ever recorded. Wildfires in California have scorched 3.7 million acres and shattered previous records — despite a fire season that has only just begun. And temperatures in Los Angeles County soared to a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit.

These headlines — and other extreme weather events connected to climate change — can feel far removed from life in our region. But northeastern Illinois is not immune to the effects of climate change. In fact, a changing climate is already having a significant impact on infrastructure in communities across the region, contributing to more frequent and severe storms, extreme heat, and drought. Projections point to even more significant changes in the future.

ON TO 2050, the region’s long-range plan, urges communities to both plan for climate resilience and intensify climate mitigation efforts. Through comprehensive action, we can reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, while at the same time preparing our region for the new challenges posed by a changing climate.

What climate change means for northeastern Illinois

The region has seen its own share of historic weather events in 2020. Chicago experienced the hottest summer, as well as the wettest May on record — setting a new high for the third year in a row. Heavy storms that month caused major floods across the region, particularly in communities along the Des Plaines River, such as Des Plaines and River Grove.

These events are part of larger, long-term changes in the region’s climate. In Illinois, the average annual temperature has increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. By the end of this century, temperatures in Illinois are expected to rise 7 to 12 degrees.

The region is already seeing the consequences. Flooding, in particular, is a serious and growing challenge for northeastern Illinois, with significant implications for our economy, ecosystems, residents, and built environment.

Chart, waterfall chart

Description automatically generated

Currently, more than 450,000 properties in Illinois are at substantial risk of flooding, according to the First Street Foundation. The city of Chicago has the greatest number of at-risk properties in the state — and the second highest in the country — with 154,824 properties at any risk of flooding. By 2050, an additional 5,244 properties in Chicago are expected to be at risk.

Flooding causes property damage threatens public health and safety, and impairs productivity. Many municipalities in the region are already contending with the effects of flooding, from major road closures to mold and sewer overflows, and disruptions to freight traffic. Flooding also has real economic costs for communities: Wet basements can decrease property values by 10 to 25 percent, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has found that 40 percent of small businesses never reopen after a flooding disaster.

Flooding — and other impacts of climate change — also tend to disproportionally affect low-income and other vulnerable communities. A CMAP analysis found that economically disconnected areas, or communities disconnected from the region’s economic progress, are more likely to be in flood-susceptible locations. A contributing factor could be that disadvantaged communities often have older infrastructure and limited resources to maintain an infrastructure replacement program. In the City of Chicago, 87 percent of flood damage insurance claims were paid in communities of color, according to CNT.

An image shows a "Sidewalk Closed" sign and yellow caution tape at the top of a staircase, with flood water submerging the bottom steps.

After a particularly wet May, flooding may be top of mind for many local governments. But it’s far from the only impact of climate change. Heat waves have caused illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in vulnerable communities, and drought has had significant adverse effects on the region’s agricultural sector and natural areas. Communities across the region will face different climate challenges. For example, extreme rainfall is the most significant climate threat in Cook County, while water stress is the top threat for Kane County, according to an interactive graphic from The New York Times. Water stress occurs when the demand for water exceeds the available supply, either due to over-consumption or drought conditions.

The Chicago region will likely face increased challenges going forward. For example, warming winters can lead to more freeze-thaw cycles, which cause more rapid deterioration of roads and other infrastructure. And as the climate warms, populations from regions more severely harmed by climate change — such as the southern and coastal U.S. — may migrate to northeastern Illinois. That will have new implications for our economy, natural resources, and infrastructure.

Adapt and mitigate: Our plan for climate change

ON TO 2050 calls for the region to proactively address climate change. The plan encourages local communities to both adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, and offers specific strategies and actions to implement these recommendations.

Plan for climate resilience, the first recommendation, covers how communities can prepare for and increase their ability to recover from the acute shocks and chronic stresses of climate change. This will mean re-envisioning the way road, water, and energy infrastructure is built and maintained, protecting natural and agriculture areas, implementing stormwater management best practices, and providing residents with resources to withstand climate impacts. 

The second recommendation, intensify climate mitigation efforts, calls for communities to actively work to reduce emissions and lessen future impacts of climate change. The plan sets a target for the region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Reaching this goal will require a variety of strategies — from increasing electric vehicle infrastructure to promoting renewable energy systems in zoning and building guidelines — across many communities, partners, and levels of government.

CMAP recently kicked off a project on transportation mitigation strategies, which will examine potential contributions the region can make toward reducing emissions in the transportation sector. Working together to put these plans into action is our best strategy to proactively address future stresses.

Resources for climate action

CMAP offers resources for local governments and partners involved in implementing ON TO 2050’s climate recommendations, including:

Communities are also encouraged to join the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ Greenest Region Compact (GRC), which offers common goals and practical strategies to support sustainability efforts. The GRC Framework offers a menu of various actions communities can take across 10 sustainability categories, from energy to waste and recycling.

For example, Franklin Park built its police station with LEED Gold certification, a designation recognizing sustainable design and construction, while Highland Park launched the Highland Park Composts! program, which encourages businesses to improve single-stream recycling and begin composting food scraps. Meanwhile, communities like Elgin, Lake in the Hills, and Montgomery have joined SolSmart, a national designation and technical assistance program that helps local governments reduce the barriers to solar energy.