Future Tense

The U.S. Fight Against Climate Change Has to Start at Its Center: The Midwest

An irrigation system on a field.
JJ Gouin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

On Wednesday, Dec. 2, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host Heat Map: A Climate of Change in America, an online event about how the next president can fight climate change by working with local officials making decisions every day. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Dan Hughes grows corn, wheat, pinto beans, millet, and yellow peas on his family farm near Venango, a tiny town on the far western edge of Nebraska. “Since I can remember,” said Hughes, a serious, bespectacled man in his mid-60s, “the weather has always been paramount in our family and our livelihood.” That weather has been causing a great deal of trouble for Nebraska farmers of late, with drought conditions this year and a record-setting “bomb cyclone” in the eastern part of the state in late 2019. “But the impact of man’s activities in causing that are being really overblown,” Hughes said. My conversation with Hughes was one of a series that New America’s Resource Security team engaged in over the past year with a variety of people around the country who work on climate-related issues every day.

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In many ways, Hughes is a stereotypical Midwesterner. He is polite and hardworking, with deep roots (so to speak) in the region and a certain amount of skepticism about outsiders—and about climate change. “I take the extremes in weather a little more in stride than the normal person,” he shrugged.

That probably sounds about normal for a farmer. But Hughes is also a senator in the Nebraska state Legislature. And while he engages in farming practices that are good for both the environment and his farm, in July, he helped kill a bill to study the risks of climate change in Nebraska. The study would have cost $250,000. The 2019 bomb cyclone cost the state $1.3 billion.

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Just as the Midwest became a political battleground that national candidates ignore at their peril, this region will be crucial to the success of any national climate change plan. When it comes to cutting greenhouse gases, however, what works for San Francisco or New York City is not necessarily going to fly in the middle of the country.

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“The United States is not losing the climate change conversation on the coasts,” said Rolf Nordstrom, CEO of the Great Plains Institute. “One reason that previous attempts at federal climate policy have faltered is in part because we have not managed to galvanize the middle of the country. … We need a center-out strategy.” A strategy, in other words, that starts at the country’s core, calibrating to what works there, and then carries out to other parts of the country, customizing as it goes.

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A center-out strategy speaks to the Midwest’s particular character—and its economic importance. The region is a global breadbasket, the source of most of America’s amber waves of grain, as well as soybeans and other staple crops. In 2019, it accounted for almost half of all farm income in the United States, generating $162 billion. And while the Midwest is maybe not quite the manufacturing powerhouse it once was, it still produces most of the cars and auto parts made in the United States, among other goods.

With all of that manufacturing and agriculture come greenhouse gases; the Midwest produces  one-quarter of the country’s emissions. The region is already suffering the effects of climate change; average annual temperatures, the number of rain days, and the frequency of heavy rainfall events are all on the rise. According to the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration in 2018, climate change will mean increases in extreme heat, humidity, soil erosion, rainfall, and flooding across the region. The report also warns of possible declines in crop yields, as high as 20 percent. That could mean higher food prices or empty shelves not just in other parts of the United States, but around the world.

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Yet environmental advocates in the Midwest say they can’t even use the term climate change if they want to work with state legislatures. “We have to be very thoughtful about how we talk about climate change,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Some lawmakers embrace the American scientific consensus and see the term as strictly a scientific one. Another set of lawmakers automatically associate the [term] with government overreach, higher energy prices, and misguided subsidies.”

But even if Kharbanda and his colleagues can’t say climate change in the Midwest, they can still deal with it. There are plenty of clean energy, land management, and disaster resilience policies in place today in Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and across the region. The president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Lewis Reed, told us the Missouri city has committed to a goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2035, the biggest city in the Midwest to do so, even though St. Louis is home to the world’s largest coal company. Three states in the region have greenhouse gas emissions targets (Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota), all states in the region except Nebraska have some form of a state electricity portfolio standard, and Minnesota and Missouri have alternative fuel standards, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. According to the World Resources Institute, emissions across the Midwest declined by almost 17 percent between 2005 and 2017, even as the regional economy grew by 11 percent, thanks to advances in technology, innovative state and local policies, and favorable market conditions.

The private sector has played a role as well. Tom Linebarger, CEO of the Indiana-based Fortune 500 company Cummins, said that he takes climate change seriously, both for moral reasons and as a matter of good business. He has customers around the world, for example, and has to be competitive in countries with carbon markets. Further, one of St. Louis’s most famous companies, Anheuser-Busch, has committed to 100 percent renewable electricity for its own operations no later than 2025.

The key, according to leaders across the region, is to tailor climate policies to the can-do Midwestern culture, and that means opting for measures that are practical and focused on local solutions and benefits. “This is not Seattle or California,” said Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “If you want to be effective in a place like the Midwest, where the manufacturing base is so significant, you simply cannot say we want to put the environment first and economy and jobs second.”

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Some approaches that can fight climate change don’t even require people to believe it’s real. Hughes, the farmer and state politician, practices no-till cultivation and other carbon sequestration techniques that also improve soil conditions and water retention, even though he doesn’t believe human activity causes climate change. “I’m very protective of my environment because that’s where my living comes from,” he said, adding that local solutions and “problem solving on the ground seems a better fit with Nebraska.”

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That preference for local flavor can extend to education. Learner said that a scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, might not get an entirely warm reception in the Midwest, but local talent is another story. Fortunately, the university system in the United States has reservoirs of talent and research that do both globally significant and locally relevant climate and disaster resilience research in every state, including the Midwest.

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David Fike is one of those Midwestern scientists (from Washington University in St. Louis), and he reports that he does, indeed, work collaboratively with farmers around the state. They share information with him about “changes they see in rain and crops, or in the spread of pests,” and in turn, he helps them “understand the context within which those changes are happening.” Fike says that this kind of dialogue creates a “shared understanding, as opposed to science talking down to the public.”

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Although the Midwest has a significantly larger white majority than the nation writ large, both the pandemic and environmental pollution more strongly affect the region’s Black population. Any center-out strategy has to take that disparity into account, and that can be a win-win proposition. Cutting emissions from transportation, for example, means increasing mass transit options, which in turn benefits disadvantaged communities. Currently, these same communities are underserved when it comes to transportation options, even though nationwide, according to the American Public Transportation Association, about 60 percent of mass transit riders are people of color.

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These transit and environmental inequities are tied to the systemic racism that has provoked unrest in Midwestern cities, such as Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin. As St. Louis Alderman Lewis Reed said, “When you look at a lot of climate issues and sustainability issues, we also need to talk about social and economic justice because it all plays together. It’s all one subject matter.” One way to close the gap, community advocates told us, is to include local residents in the design process upfront, whether the policies are focused on cutting emissions, growing jobs, or improving resilience. It matters not only to have “a seat at the table,” said Shalini Gupta, a Minneapolis-based health and environment expert, but also to have the right data and information “to be able to engage in these very technical spaces.”

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Indeed, there’s a downside risk of being too pragmatic and too polite, of letting uncomfortable or unscientific views go unchallenged, supposedly in the name of local culture. The Midwestern states rank among the lowest, for example, in percent of the population that reports regularly wearing masks and have some of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country. So, while local solutions and perceptions are the key to success with climate change, the Midwest, like other regions, can’t always be left to its own devices.

At the national level, a center-out strategy should follow two tracks. The first relies on and respects local voices and is designed in partnership with local communities, even if that means never using the words climate change. The other track should use the national bully pulpit and tools, be unflinching about the scientific realities, and empower local champions, including the private sector, universities, governments, and people of color, to talk openly about climate change in their communities.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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