On Aug. 15, the Associated Press reported that July of 2019 was officially the hottest month on record, predictably following the hottest June in 140 years. On the whole, this year has been 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average. And it’s not just this year; 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 were all above average — and on, and on. To put it simply, climate disruption, or climate change, is here, and it’s getting worse.
But what’s the value in “putting it simply”? To be honest, for me to just tell you that your annual temperature is going to increase by a few degrees isn’t especially frightening. In a Wisconsin winter, it might even sound nice. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much response in telling people that their rainfall has increased in 10% or that the Great Lakes have risen to almost three feet above average in some places, or that winter ice coverage on our lakes has decreased by 63%. These numbers are important, but, too often, people don’t believe in or care about an issue until it reaches out and touches them personally. But, guess what? If it hasn’t already, it’s about to.
Let’s pretend you’re a dairy farmer. Dairy farming is obviously one of Wisconsin’s most storied industries; it brings in billions of dollars into the state economy every year. But if you’re a dairy farmer, you’re at risk of losing output to heat stress among dairy cows. A study conducted in the United Kingdom last year shows that milk yield could decrease over 18% by the end of the century. For many already struggling Wisconsin dairy farms, that could mean the end of the line.
Let’s pretend you’re an older adult with a health condition. Maybe this is your mother or your father, your grandmother or grandfather. Maybe this is you. Maybe this is me. Regardless, over the next few years and decades, temperature increases will dramatically increase your risk of heat stroke, especially if you already have a chronic illness. Poorer air quality will increase your risk of a heart attack or worsen your condition if you already have asthma or COPD. More frequent extreme weather events like floods and severe storms will cut power and limit access to medical treatment, and it will leave some at risk of difficult evacuation. Climate change will also increase the prevalence of insect and water-borne illnesses that pose a large risk to older immune systems.
Let’s pretend you’re a hunter. Climate change will cause habitat shift as certain species head north to maintain niche temperatures. Suddenly, your hunting ground might be less than ideal. For white-tailed deer, longer summer seasons will also increase the prevalence of diseases like EHD, potentially threatening fall hunting.
Let’s pretend you’re one of thousands of Wisconsinites who travel up north to a lake house on the weekends. Climate change will increase the number of algal blooms and E. coli outbreaks in warm summer waters, putting humans and pets at risk. Summer fish kills will also become more and more likely, and some cold-water species will become locally extinct. Varying lake levels will both cause property damage as well as shorter boating seasons and limited dock usage.
Let’s pretend you’re a homeowner almost anywhere in Wisconsin. Increased rainfall, lake levels, and extreme weather events are going to create increased flood frequency, causing property damage across the state. Increased temperatures and occasional drought up north will lead the way to dangerous wildfires.
Let’s pretend you’re a taxpayer. With increased rainfall and flooding, you’ll need to foot the bill for necessary stormwater management improvements. Health risks will increase public costs. Disaster relief needs will also rise. And, temperature variability and increase will create new infrastructure costs for roads that will need to be repaired even more frequently.
In the most urgent sense, no matter who you are, this is something that you should be worried about.
Climate change is not just about numbers. It’s about people. Over the next few decades, climate change is going to directly affect you, me, and countless other Wisconsinites. And, while your experience with it may be limited thus far to a hot Fourth of July or to a disappearing beach, it’s about to get worse. The only question that remains is how bad we’re going to allow it to get.
So, if you care about climate disruption. If you care about the impacts that it’s going to have on you, your family, or your neighbors, don’t stay quiet. Talk to your friends about it. Talk to your kids about it. Talk to your legislators about it. No matter your position, no matter your party, this is something that you should care about before it’s too late.
Doug La Follette is a scholar, author, longtime environmental advocate, former state senator and current secretary of state for Wisconsin.