In Illinois, Climate Change Issues Mirror National Dilemma: Q & A With Jennifer Fraterrigo, University of Illinois professor

Illinois, in the country’s heartland, boasts a demographic makeup that more than just about any other state most closely mirrors that of the United States as a whole.

Along the same lines, the state’s climate change challenges echo the national and global crisis of our warming planet. This moment’s urgency is documented in a 191-page report issued in 2021 by The Nature Conservancy, An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change in Illinois.

Among its key messages: “Illinois is experiencing significant long-term changes in weather patterns, especially increases in extreme warm periods and total annual precipitation, as well as greater intensities of individual rain events. The climate of Illinois and the region is changing and changing rapidly.”

Among those tackling this existential conundrum is Jennifer Fraterrigo, a University of Illinois professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Fraterrigo is also the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) Associate Director of Campus Sustainability at the University of Illinois.

In an April 1 interview with freelance journalist Matt Baron, Fraterrigo answered questions on this topic. Edited for length, they are excerpted below:

Q: Which data points are the most relevant when considering the impact of climate change in Illinois?

A: There are so many, but one that’s hard to not think about are the impacts on agriculture (such as) changes in planting times. We have lots of evidence that Spring is coming earlier. The shifts in temperatures are earlier. Also, there are the extended periods of drought that are occurring.

Q: What’s the implication of an earlier onset of Spring?

A: Pests that can tolerate warmer winters can become active earlier. If their populations are large enough, these pests could cause problems for crops early in the growing season, when plants are more vulnerable.

Earlier warming can also set into motion biological processes in the soil that are temperature sensitive, like the decomposition of organic matter. Microbes break down organic matter in the soil for energy and that releases carbon dioxide in the process. So, an earlier onset of Spring could result in more carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

Q: What are a few of the biggest challenges in influencing individuals’ behaviors in light of climate change concerns?

A: There are still skeptics and deniers out there, believe it or not. Not everybody is convinced. Also, a lot of people feel that it’s not going to make a difference what they do. There’s almost that sense that it’s not enough, so why bother?

Q: What’s the biggest challenge to influencing institutions, such as government bodies and businesses, to address this issue?

A: It goes beyond businesses, but, for example, there’s no regulatory policy that is forcing companies to change. Except for California—and they’ve made the most progress.

Q: Do you feel that there needs to be more federal mandates?

A: I do. We need federal policy to encourage and incentivize—either way it has to set some clear limits and expectations and hold businesses accountable (for their carbon emissions). There has to be some kind of consequence or incentive.