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Global Warming's Impact on Iowa

posted on October 26, 2007 at 6:30 PM

Researchers working for a variety of scientific organizations around the world are saying that CO2 emissions increased by an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the years 2000-2006. That compares to an average annual increase of 1.3 percent in the '90s, and even the worst case growth rate was projected to be only 2.4 percent.

We have Gene Takle, who is an ISU scientist and in fact is a member of the U.N.'s Nobel-winning scientists, and David Osterberg is a former Iowa lawmaker known for his interest in environmental matters. He now heads the Iowa policy project, which is a think tank that researches a spectrum of public policy issues. Welcome to both of you.

Takle: Thank you for inviting me.

Osterberg: Yeah, thanks.

Mundt: Professor Takle, you’ve been talking about this issue for a long time. Let's say in ten years, the past ten years, how has your message about the importance of making change before global climate change reached us, how has that message changed and evolved?

Takle: Well, a lot of that has stayed the same. We find that the early global models were getting the actual big picture right. And we've now, with global models having been refined, we're getting more details and finding that things are different when you look down at the regional scale.

Mundt: And go down to the regional scale for a minute. What are you looking at when you're hovering over Iowa in our future, potentially?

Takle: Well, we see that winters are getting warmer. That’s already happening and that was projected long ago. Winters are getting warmer faster than summers are getting warmer. We're seeing more precipitation and more precipitation in extreme events throughout the year. Nighttimes are warming more than daytime temperatures, so there is some subtle changes that all fit into the theoretical model and are projected to increase in the future.

Mundt: David, what do you see as far as your views on this particular issue? It does seem as though, although there is a continuing debate about whether this is happening or not, that does seem to be shifting now even to causes but also now to mitigation, we hope.

Osterberg: Yes. I think the debate's over. I mean, the scientific debate's over. Global warming is a reality. It's happening because humans are causing it. The debate is in what we do about it either in mitigation or in trying to stop it from going on. And Iowa is well positioned to do a number of things which are good for the environment and also good for the bottom line for companies.

Mundt: Like what?

Osterberg: Well, right now we have a firm -- We have three firms in Iowa that make turbines for wind power generators. We also have one that's opened up to make these tubular towers and a blade manufacturer. In fact, there may be another blade manufacturer going into Newton, that you just showed about how they’re losing jobs.

These are great opportunities, and we ought to make sure that we push those opportunities and, hopefully, the governor is saying he wants to make this place really the renewable energy capital. The first thing you do is push those. The second thing you stop coal-fired power plants because that’s totally inconsistent. It is the cause.

Mundt: And the governor has a task force that’s working on issues like this.

Osterberg: He has two. I mean it's interesting. First of all, you have this power fund headed by Fred Hubble, who is trying to make strategic investments. If you have one of these problems, like you don't have somebody making tubular towers, you get somebody to make those. And then you have this climate change organization headed by our friend, Gerry Snore, from the University of Iowa. And they're looking at the bigger picture of global climate change, how do we generate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and how do we get it to stop.

Mundt: Do we have all the bases covered? Is there anything else that we need to be looking at and thinking about on a statewide level?

Takle: I think the governor has a good strategy for looking at both sides of it.

Mundt: Let's talk about water, then, for a few minutes. A wetter, warmer future means potentially more water in the state. We already have particular issues with water and pollution and, potentially, more rain and runoff. Maybe I'm, you know, not exactly -- There's a way to game this out and begin thinking about the impacts of this. But how do you think about a wetter, warmer Iowa and what that actually means for us?

Takle: Well, first of all, you have to recognize that water is going to be a key issue globally in the future. Access to fresh water is already a key problem and it’s a growing concern, particularly in the western U.S., in our country. We're very fortunate here in Iowa to have abundant water. We have the right amount for crops. We may get a little more. That can be good in the late summertime when generally we're a little bit short on water. There may be higher stream flow, may be more flooding, but these are some things we need to be thinking about now, perhaps looking at strategies for coping with that in the future.

Mundt: Is there any possibility that western states or other parts of the country that may feel the burden of lack of water, are we really talking about enough water that they would want to come to us and say we want to buy some of this?

Takle: I think that's always a contention, and the great lakes are something that's been looked at for a long time. Long-range transport of water is a tough thing to do.

Mundt: How do you consider, David, the public policy framework for this particular, whether we're talking about issues of water? What are particular ways in which the state of Iowa needs to be thinking now sort of gaming out some of these issues? What happens if Iowa is wetter in the future? What happens if there's an impact on the yield that our crops bring in in Iowa? Are there ways in which we need to act now?

Osterberg: Well, you always think about what you might do. If you see the direction, then you ought to start making plans for that direction. The problem is I don't think we know well enough. We think it's going to be wetter. We think generally those places that are dry, they get drier, unfortunately. Those places that are wet, they get a little wetter. How much, though, kind of guides how much investment you want to make.

But there's no question on energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is the cheapest way you can reduce your carbon dioxide footprint. The cheapest kilowatt hours you can get are the ones you don't use. That should be happening. Renewable energy should be happening.

And as was said before, coal-fired power plants should not be happening in this state. On Monday they stopped one in the state of Kansas. The governor came out and said, you know, the Supreme Court has decided carbon dioxide is actually a pollutant. We're going to base our decision to close -- not allow that power plant to open based on that. I think that's very exciting and I think we ought to do the same.

Mundt: And nuclear power? Either one of you, gentlemen?

Takle: My perspective is that everything has a risk and that we need to be evaluating the risk. Carbon or -- coal-fired plants have a risk. Nuclear plants have a risk, a different kind of a risk. But I think we need to be looking at the various risks.

Mundt: David?

Osterberg: Yeah, I think when it comes to nuclear power, it's a great way of making electricity without putting out carbon dioxide. It's a very expensive way. Every time we talk about how much these plants are going to cost, I get very nervous because the guys are predictable. They’re always wrong and they're always wrong by like two orders.

It's very, very expensive to make nuclear plants. Better to make a wind-powered plant, pump some compressed air back into the ground and let that come out, which is very expensive too, but expensive without having some of the other risks.

Mundt: Are the incentives aligned up properly so that the wind-power industry really feels like it can get in here and make a difference, or is it poor?

Osterberg: The state has really come out and done some things too. I mean, there's a federal tax credit that Chuck Grassley is very important in having kept going. He’s done a good job on that. The state also came out with its own tax credit for renewable energy.

If you generate a kilowatt hour with renewable energy from a small source, not these big wind farms, but individual, you know, twos and threes, you get an extra thing for the state. Now, they've run through that credit. They could expand it again. That's the kind of policy that I think we could do.

Mundt: We're really leaders in wind power out here. I forget the exact figure. I think it's third highest per capita?

Osterberg: No, third total.

Mundt: Third total.

Osterberg: Probably first or second per capita.

Mundt: Are there other ways in which Iowa can lead in the mitigation of the effects of environmental change? Can we lead the rest of the country? Industries, techniques, practices?

Osterberg: Well, too bad they closed down Maytag because they were making wonderful washers.

Mundt: The Neptune, yeah.

Osterberg: The mid 1970s we were putting out refrigerators that used 1800 kilowatt hours in a year. Now we're putting out refrigerators that put out 500 kilowatts a year, and they're bigger. Energy efficiency is the biggest payoff. We should think energy efficiency before we think solar and wind and ethanol, but we should think both.

Mundt: Gene, you give a lot of talks. You talk to people who probably would say to you, or maybe you see it in their faces, the impact of the change upon us is so great that there's almost this shutting down that occurs. I can buy the light bulbs, you know, but I can't do enough to make a change. How do you talk to people about that and try to convince them that there is a way they can, by reducing consumption is some way or other, can have an impact on all this?

Takle: Well, there have been these programs started in the schools to change light bulbs. These are infectious. Students get involved in it and they take the message home to their parents and then one thing leads to another. You discover, well, we can do without this or we can cut down on our travel for this or that. Part of it is just the awareness and the fact that it is something we're going to all have to pitch in and play a part in. And certainly conservation is the key in reducing our personal amounts of energy.

Mundt: What would you say to that, David?

Osterberg: I think we all have an obligation to do something, whether you're an individual or company or government. Everyone needs, really, to do something. And conservation sometimes means you don't use as many kilowatt hours, but it doesn't mean necessarily you live worse.

Remember, there are all kinds of places in the world who are equally as developed as we are. France, Sweden, Germany. And they use a fraction of the total amount of energy that we do. We use a whole bunch. Energy efficiency is the first way that we can cut stuff back and not suffer many consequences.

Mundt: Should there be a tax incentive or some kind of incentive from the government that would allow us to continue in the same way that, you know, if we buy a car that is a hybrid, for instance, that we get potentially some kind of credit?

Osterberg: Not enough. Exactly, more of those kinds of things. You kind of push industry. You start out with some mandates, and then, you know, industry catches on.

You lead with MidAmerican bragging about all its wind. They fought us so hard when we passed a law that said you have to buy renewable energy. They fought for sixteen years. They put up one wind machine, one farm about 100 megawatts, and they then decided, well, we like this, we're going to put in 350 more, and then decided we putting in 550 more.

That company has completely changed its perspective, but you had to hit them with a baseball bat before they would.

That's how I like to work with the government. The first thing you do is you get that incentive or you get that mandate out there and then hope that the market is going to take it from there.

Mundt: Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time for coming to talk with us. Gene Takle with us and also David Osterberg.

Tags: climate change global warming Iowa