Findings from a U.S. report on the impacts of climate change are grim. A scientist's take on Minnesota's climate future

U of M climate science professor Heidi Roop
Heidi Roop one of the authors of the Midwest Chapter of the latest National Climate Assessment, which comes out every five years.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota 2020

Damage to buildings, ruined crops, medical bills: Climate change is costing people money. It’s also fraying our ties to places that are important for culture, spirituality, or recreation.

These are some of the findings in a new report by the U.S. government, which looks at the impacts of climate change, as well as what people are doing to slow it down and adapt to it.

Heidi Roop one of the authors of the Midwest Chapter of the latest National Climate Assessment, which comes out every five years. She is also the director of the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership, and she joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about findings from the study.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Damage to buildings, ruined crops, medical bills, climate change is costing folks money, substantial money. It's also fraying our ties to places that are important for culture, spirituality, recreation. These are some of the findings in a new report by the US government, which looks at the impacts of climate change, as well as what people are doing to slow it down and adapt to it.

Our next guest is one of the authors of the Midwest Chapter of the latest National Climate Assessment, which comes out every five years. Heidi Roop is the director of the University of Minnesota's Climate Adaptation Partnership Program, and she's on the line. Dr. Roop, welcome back.

HEIDI ROOP: Always a pleasure, Cathy. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Say what findings from the Midwest Chapter were you most involved in.

HEIDI ROOP: Well, I think to be clear, this report that, as you mentioned, comes out every five years, it's a federally mandated sort of stock take of what we understand about the science of climate change, its impacts on the nation, and critically what we do is this assessment. And so we as authors are tasked with reviewing the knowledge that exists to understand what have we learned, what do we know, and what are we experiencing in a climate changed world.

And so I contributed to the Midwest Chapter. So this is the stock take of climate and climate action for our region that is part of this broader assessment that includes regional chapters, as well as really specific chapters related to national understanding of, say, the implications of climate change on health, a chapter on adaptation, there's a chapter on Indigenous peoples. And so really this whole through-line of not just the science, but what it means for society, what it means for ecosystems, and critically, what it is we do and how we do more.

CATHY WURZER: Well, here in Minnesota, as you know, we've been dealing with this kind of roller coaster of drought, and then drenching rain or inches, feet of snow, which really can impact not only health and the built environment according to this report. Can you talk about how this looks like in Minnesota?

HEIDI ROOP: That's exactly right. Welcome to a climate changed world, I think that's really important to note that as we're experiencing this oscillation between extremes, we understand that to be the fingerprints of climate change. And so that becomes one of the real challenges that we face as a region and thinking about how do we respond.

And as a state, how do we respond? We have to hold sort of two truths simultaneously. We have to prepare for it to get drier and we have to prepare for it to get wetter. So if you're someone who's, say, managing our critical water resources for both natural uses, as well as human consumption, this becomes a really complex challenge in decision making as sort of how do you prepare our systems, both for the times when there isn't enough and at times when there is an abundance of water and how do we manage that.

Not only for health and safety, but how do we ensure that we're making necessary proactive investments today in the critical infrastructure that we all rely on every day that are at risk from climate change, and in some cases, already failing or experiencing climate change. I talk a lot about potholes sort of jokingly, but we know sort of freeze thaw cycles are actually making our roads more stressed, less enjoyable to drive on. Heard about a lot of broken cars this winter.

And so those are sort of the real-life implications. That's a small example, but of course, our infrastructure in the Midwest is pretty terrible. It rates at a C or a D-plus by some ratings that we talk about in the assessment. And there's a substantial monetary investment needed to bring our critical infrastructure up to snuff, and quite frankly, to make it ready for a future climate.

And that is not yet happening in many conversations. Minnesota leads the way. Our Department of Transportation, the state is actively thinking about how do we incorporate future climate risks in the design and prioritization of transportation investments for our critical roadways and bridges as a positive example of how science is moving into decision making.

CATHY WURZER: I thought it was interesting to read the report saying climate change is blocking our access to natural spaces. Lake Ice was an example there. What are the implications of that?

HEIDI ROOP: Yeah, that's right. This is such a wonderful example of taking the science of climate change from just the physical impacts to understanding what it actually means for people and ecosystems. So our ice-covered inland waters, they offer subsistence. They're used as recreation. They're are ceremonial. They're artistic connections to our ice-covered inland waters. Our winters are warming faster than any other season in Minnesota.

And so we know from the science, from our Indigenous communities in the Midwest region, our recreation, which is a huge driver of our economy, that loss of these what we call ecological services like ice-covered lakes really bring not just costs, but they threaten our cultural identities, our connection to place and heritage.

I've been on conversations on Minnesota Public Radio, where we've heard callers call in and talk about the feeling of loss from not being able to say teach our children how to play hockey on ice-covered lakes or go cross country skiing. So we know that as climate change continues to emerge and worsen on the landscape, that the impacts aren't just physical, but they're spiritual and emotional and cultural. And we have to tend to those as we think about what it is that we do moving forward. How do we address these challenges and preserve those critical aspects of what it means to be a Minnesotan?

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering here, Dr. Roop, can we help nature heal herself? Are there nature-based solutions to this? Reading the report, there seems to be some interest in green spaces that provide-- in trees, planting trees that provide cooling and flood mitigation and that kind of thing. Are there some adaptation steps using nature herself that you're excited about?

HEIDI ROOP: Yes, absolutely. And I think it's really important to note a first step in doing that I think is acknowledging that as humans, we are reliant upon and interconnected with our natural environment. And so in many cases, we've started to disconnect that deep, meaningful connection between the natural world, and quote-unquote, "the human world."

We are intimately connected to and dependent upon the natural environment. And as we think about the opportunity and the imperative to act to address climate change, those natural climate solutions are incredibly important. They're important for not just things like you sort of alluded to there like improving tree cover to reduce the urban heat island effect in our urban communities, but there are adaptations that help across the agricultural sector.

Things like perennial cover crops are really important sort of, quote-unquote, "natural climate solutions," yes in a system that's modified by humans, but they bring multiple benefits. So we talk a lot about climate smart agricultural practices in the report as being a critical investment, one where there's active investment, but where we need to do more investments like cover crops and thinking about how to reduce emissions from the landscape, as well as improve, say, soil carbon sequestration and the overall health of our soils.

That can yield lots of benefits, including increased agricultural production, but also water quality for downstream communities. We talk also about things like preparing for those extreme precipitation or flood events that you mentioned at the top, which is things like thinking about how we manage our forest landscapes, thinking about how we restore rivers and the connectivity of river systems.

How we support what we call riparian buffers, which are essentially the natural lands around the edges of rivers. That become really important, not just for reducing flood risk, but provide critical habitat for cold water fishes and other species that are at risk from a warming world and a warming state.

CATHY WURZER: Who's reading this report Dr. Roop?

HEIDI ROOP: Oh, well, certainly as an author, we hope everyone's reading this report. But the report itself is really intended, yes, to increase public awareness of the relevance of climate change in different communities across the country, but it's really intended to be a tool as well to help natural resource managers, tribal resource managers, state agencies, and federal agencies and others making decisions about how we manage our landscapes, our natural environment, the human environment, and how we manage, say, our economy.

We're really hoping that the report is written in a way and structured in a way that enables all sorts of decision-makers and community leaders to take on this information and critically understand the role that they can play in being part of the solution.

CATHY WURZER: Dr. Roop, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Heidi Roop is the director of the University of Minnesota's Climate Adaptation Partnership Program. She's an author on the Midwest Chapter of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which came out recently. You can hear more about the report, by the way, Wednesday on Climate Cast. Paul Huttner will be talking with University of Minnesota Professor Mike Dockry who helped write the chapter on Indigenous people and climate change.

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