Published September 2nd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
For decades, the biggest question about climate change in Kansas was a basic one: Are greenhouse gas emissions really changing the climate?
Now in some parts of the state, residents are increasingly asking a different question: What should communities do about climate change?
The topic hasn’t exactly been top-of-mind in recent months while the news about the coronavirus has dominated and stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic drove global carbon emissions down 17% between January and April. By the end of this year, the journal Nature Climate Change estimates the decline in carbon emissions could range between 4% to 8%, but that’s expected to be temporary because the economy hasn’t changed fundamentally.
Meanwhile, 2020 is on schedule to be one of the five hottest years on record, Nature Climate Change reported.
The prospect of economic recovery amid wide-scale unemployment caused by the pandemic and the response to it will help test whether the political changes related to the climate change debate are permanent.
Until the pandemic hit, Kansans were increasingly getting on the same page about some aspects of climate change. A 2019 Yale Program on Climate Change Communication survey showed that 62% of Kansans believe climate change is happening. Nationwide, the figure is 67%.
Sentiments can be complicated though. For instance, only a plurality of Kansans believe that global warming is caused by mostly human activities or that most scientists think global warming is happening. Yet according to NASA, multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that it’s extremely likely that climate-warming trends over the past half century are the result of human activities.
A slight majority believes that global warming is already harming people in the U.S., and 49% don’t believe they will be personally harmed by global warming, subjects that were explored in a 1,656-page climate threat assessment released by the U.S. government in 2018. Among its findings were that increasing temperatures threaten human health in the southern Great Plains in a variety of ways, including increased incidents of heat illnesses; disease transmitted through food, water and insects; and extreme weather events.
By and large, a majority of those polled expressed support for doing more to address climate change at all levels of government on down to individual citizens.
With little action at the federal level in regard to climate resilience, the focus has shifted to the local and regional levels. Despite the daunting global nature of the issue, groups of Kansans are demonstrating that anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere, on climate change.
It’s not happening in a lot of places yet. Only a few communities across the state are developing plans to adapt to climate change by preparing for hazard events, working to mitigate risk and integrating what the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit calls the “ability to bounce back from disruptions – in a proactive and continuous manner.”
However, fears over the Earth’s future are evident across the 10-county Kansas City metropolitan area, engaging dozens of governments seeking protections for residents and involving activists from all walks of life, from the inner cities to the suburbs, from high school and college students to retirees.
The movement is a result of the 2016 election of Donald Trump, who as president has rejected mainstream science on climate change and whose administration has followed an agenda of fossil fuel expansion.
Where once the federal government took the lead on climate change regulations and paid for their enforcement, people now have to look to their local governments for assistance in combating the threat, says Lindsey Constance, a Shawnee councilwoman, who with Roeland Park Mayor Mike Kelly began a compact in 2018 called Climate Action KC.
Constance says with the federal government’s step back, she and Kelly thought that local governments were in a better position to implement solutions.
“We are past the point of questioning the science,” Constance says. “We realize it’s in our hands as local leaders. All along, complex problems require participation at all levels.”
Constance points to a Weather Channel report last year that ranks the Kansas City metro area fifth on a list of 25 cities predicted to be most impacted by climate change as impetus for local action.
The report says climate change’s impact on Kansas City will be in the form of heat islands, extreme drought and severe storms.
However, climate activists have more than theories. There’s been a trend in increased temperatures worldwide, and Johnson County has not been spared. According to a dataset prepared for The New York Times by the Climate Impact Lab, back in 1960 Overland Park could expect about 32 days annually of 90 degree or warmer weather. Now it’s 40 days. By the end of the century, that number is projected to be somewhere between 51 and 89 days. Statewide, the mosquito season has grown longer, and winters have warmed.
But rather than focusing only on dire warnings, the two officials have sought to work across factions and start where others are to energize them on the issue. Climate Action KC has drawn hundreds of people, including many government officials, to its meetings as its leaders develop a plan to combat climate change. The list of partners in the effort includes the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, AdventHealth, Johnson County Community College, the National League of Cities and the Mid-America Regional Council. The plan is expected to be made public by late 2020.
In September, representatives from climate action programs in Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and their counterparts from Europe will gather in Kansas City for a summit to discuss their work, says Kelly, who is organizing the event.
“The final nitty-gritty of the agenda is still being worked out, but there will be a debriefing… to discuss what was successful, lessons learned,” Kelly says.
Along with the debriefing there is going to be a panel discussion among leaders. That discussion is expected to be public but because of the pandemic, the type of media that will broadcast it is still being debated.
Later this year or in early 2021, a summit will be held for the public to more fully discuss the final climate change plan, Kelly says.
But it isn’t just elected officials and prominent Kansas City organizations taking on the issue. Concerns about climate change are prompting high school and college students and minorities to raise their voices, too.
There are also examples of young people organizing around the issue in Kansas City. For instance, a chapter of the American youth-led political advocacy group Sunrise Movement has formed and has more than 100 members of varying involvement, says Michael Wolfe, a spokesman.
Mary McConville, a recent Shawnee Mission East High School graduate headed to Wellesley College and member of the Sunrise Movement, says students are filled with anxiety over climate change, but the problem seems so large they don’t know where to begin.
“I have run across people who thought it was a waste of time, because individuals can’t make a difference,” McConville says. “I told them Greta Thunberg started with just herself and a couple people, and now she has 10 million people.”
Meanwhile, attempts to educate minorities about climate change and solutions are being spearheaded by Richard Mabion, a civil rights activist in the 1960s and now a grassroots environmental activist from Kansas City, Kansas. He was able to obtain a federal grant of hundreds of thousands of dollars for minority green jobs. He too is working with Climate Action KC.
“My climate change action plan was to find a way to create a climate change consciousness,” Mabion says. “This is something you have to feel inside. Heck, they don’t even recycle in the inner city. That’s what’s got us doing all this stuff. All those jobs (created by the grant) have to be environmental work, so they are now being taught about energy efficiency and climate change, killing two birds with one stone.”
One reason that resistance to action on climate change is lessening is that supporters have been able to build a common purpose around responses that feel more like common sense rather than radical change. Many prospective solutions improve public health and government services or save money, so people don’t have to view themselves as climate activists or even believe in global warming to support them.
“Honestly, many of the solutions, such as workforce development, green jobs, energy efficiency, you could put the conversation of climate change aside and implement these solutions, and it would be good for our communities,” Constance says.
But climate change seems destined to remain politically controversial, and advocates fear that the Kansas City region’s efforts to respond could be undermined or hindered in places by partisan-tinge or ideological warfare.
National polls show that Democrats and Republicans have increasingly diverged on the issue. A Pew Research Center survey last summer showed 84% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think climate change is a major threat to the country’s well-being, up from 58% in March 2013. Only about 27% of Republicans agree, about the same as 2013.
How do conservatives in the suburbs of Johnson County view Climate Action KC’s activities?
Michael Ashcraft, a Johnson County commissioner known for his fiscal conservatism, says, when asked if he agreed that climate change was occurring: “The climate is always changing.” But then he says, “I don’t have a dog in the fight (over climate change); If there are proposals that are cost beneficial, I would consider them.”
Ashcraft says the new Johnson County Courthouse that is to open in January is an example of an environmentally friendly and fiscally efficient design. But when it came to having the building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, he and others opposed it, saying it would be too costly.
“A plaque is nice, but if we don’t have money for housing and other services, then shame on me,” Ashcraft says.
But some regional political conflict over climate change may be inevitable as Election Day approaches. The newest member of the Kansas Senate is Mike Thompson, a former local TV meteorologist, who was selected earlier this year by Johnson County Republican officials to represent the 10th District, which includes large parts of Shawnee and Lenexa as well as Lake Quivira. Thompson is filling the last year of the term of Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, who resigned in January.
Thompson, who rejects the mainstream science on climate change, became a policy adviser in 2019 to the Heartland Institute, a suburban Chicago free-market think tank that contends global warming isn’t human-made, isn’t a crisis and there is no need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
A statement on the Heartland website says, “Most scientists do not believe human greenhouse gas emissions are a proven threat to the environment or to human well-being, despite a barrage of propaganda insisting otherwise coming from the environmental movement and echoed by its sycophants in the mainstream media.”
Thompson did not respond to requests for an interview. But he’s spoken about climate change at Johnson County Republican meetings, using charts and maps to explain his rationale. His views stand in stark contrast to those of Constance, who is running for the 10th District seat as a Democrat and faces Thompson in the November general election. Thompson defeated state Rep. Tom Cox in the August GOP primary.
The contrast between Thompson, who has about four decades of experience as a weather broadcaster, and Adin Alem, a freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, illustrates the generational divide that tends to emerge on this issue.
“Young people believe climate change is real,” says Alem, a Sunrise Movement activist. “If we continue to deny the obvious… it is going to be irreversible.”
Activists like Alem are increasingly trying to prod elected officials, even ones who generally agree with them, to take more action on climate change.
The Sunrise Movement has held several strikes and protests. McConville and Alem have been involved in strikes in Johnson County and Kansas City, Missouri.
Both women think their elected leaders aren’t doing enough, and the steps that leaders are taking seem small.
“I think they are taking steps, but I don’t think they are taking them as fast as they should. But I’m hopeful,” McConville says. “The lack of action coming from older generations is really disappointing to me, and a lot of young people are not willing to sit around and be like that generation.”
Both think U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat who represents the heart of the Kansas side of the metro area, could do more. They wish she would sign on to the Green New Deal, a proposed resolution that tries to address climate change and economic inequality. It would call on the federal government to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create high-paying jobs in clean-energy industries, while ensuring clean air, clean water and healthy food are basic human rights, according to The New York Times.
But the plan is a lightning rod, and critics deride it as wildly unrealistic or politically untenable. It’s been mocked by some Republicans as a seizure of power that would ground airliners while eliminating ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes.
McConville and Alem have taken part in several demonstrations at Davids’ Overland Park office.
At a demonstration late last year, Richard Mabion, who wanted to discuss low-income housing with Davids, taught the new activists “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Mabion “led us in that song, and it was very moving and very inspiring,” Alem says.
Davids says that she respects the youth movement.
“I just think it is really exciting. In the not too distant future, they are going to be our scientists, our teachers, our voters.”
She says the Democratic-led House has held more than 70 hearings on climate change since she took office. One bill would set a nationwide standard to have a 100% clean energy economy by 2050. Another would have the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate accord. She doesn’t agree with the Green New Deal because as a resolution, it is nonbinding.
But for all the work that the House is doing, and all the bills that have passed, little is getting by the Senate, Davids says.
“It’s unfortunate to be in this polarized situation,” she says. “Still, it’s exciting that so many people are getting engaged in this.”
What exactly is it, though, that one region of the state can do about a global issue?
The origins of Kansas City’s latest climate change movement can be traced to a 2018 gathering of newly elected officials. It was there that Constance, who had just joined the Shawnee City Council, met Kelly, a lawyer and mayor of Roeland Park.
They quickly discovered their shared concerns about the impact the atmosphere’s warming would have on their communities and, as parents, what that could mean for their children and grandchildren.
In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report with detailed warnings of the impact of the climate crisis. Kelly and Constance had also read the Weather Channel report. Both were aware the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change that brought together almost 200 countries to find solutions.
They were well aware of how the scale of the problem represents a barrier to action.
“People feel helpless, because they don’t think it can be solved,” Constance says. “They feel almost paralyzed.”
But the two officials were determined. They figured a meeting was the best way to gauge the interest and energize others to come up with a climate change plan that their area could implement.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the reception,” Kelly says. “We were hoping 40 people would come, and 135 showed up. It was a broad coalition, utility and school board members, all walks of life. It’s continued to gain momentum, people on both sides of the state line.”
From that meeting, the coalition evolved to become Climate Action KC, involving more than 100 elected officials, 25 municipalities, county and city governments, school districts, and water and community boards.
Their touchstone for formulating action has been “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming,” a 2017 New York Times bestseller edited by business-minded environmentalist Paul Hawken. They sketched out a plan that would not only draw down greenhouse gases but also would create more prosperous, healthy and resilient communities.
Last September, more than 700 people attended the region’s first climate action summit. Speakers included Hawken, Davids and Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Then in December, Constance and Kelly released the Climate Action Playbook to a full house at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center. The document serves as a guide and toolbox for cities to take action. Examples include installing LED lighting, solar panels and micro wind turbines; reducing food waste; planting trees and native plants; and designing walkable cities and incorporating bicycle infrastructure.
Kelly notes earlier work on climate solutions in the Kansas City area but said this new coalition plans to take it much further.
“We are not starting from scratch by any means,” he says.
Kansas City’s first climate change plans were drawn up between 2005 and 2007, although the continuing effort generated few headlines because it coincided with the start of the Great Recession. Nevertheless, a target of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 was set for Kansas City, Missouri, and Johnson County – an objective that’s been surpassed in Kansas City.
Kansas City environmental chief Andy Savastino says officials believe they have actually reduced emissions by 50% in Kansas City’s government buildings. A wind farm to be built by next year will mean that Kansas City government buildings will be 100% carbon free, he says.
“It will be a big feather in our cap, and then we can focus on transportation,” Savastino says. “That is another whole mountain to climb.”
In May, via a webinar, the Mid-America Regional Council, a planning organization for the metro region, released a report containing an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2015.
The report covers 10 counties with a population of 2.1 million people and 909,782 housing units. The counties are: Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth and Miami in Kansas; Cass, Clay, Jackson, Platte and Ray in Missouri.
The major sources of greenhouse gases in the region were not a surprise: passenger vehicles, electricity generation, energy use at commercial and residential buildings.
The report’s findings were diverse. In the 10-year period, emissions increased 4% in the region while the population increased by 10%.
Meanwhile, per capita emissions declined by 6%.
The regional council said it hopes governments will set three mitigation targets with 2005 as the base-year to comply with the Paris Agreement:
27% reduction by 2025
40% reduction by 2030
80% reduction by 2050
Other strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are underway. Kansas City, Missouri, is in the process of filling its motor pool with electric vehicles. Johnson County is waiting on a greenhouse gas emissions study to understand how much its level of pollution has gone down.
Johnson County Commissioner Janee Hanzlick, who is part of the team of elected officials leading Climate Action KC, says one of her favorite solutions was training department heads to be conscientious of doing things that are efficient environmentally.
That includes systems changes involving turning off lights and turning down the heat and air conditioning in buildings at night.
“The bottom line: It saves money,” Hanzlick says. “That’s what we see with so many of these opportunities. It’s not just about climate action geeks. It saves money, improves lives and makes our community better.”
Brian Alferman, Johnson County sustainability program manager, says by next year the county hopes to have 50% of its electricity generated from renewable energy.
The prevalence and availability of renewable energy in the state is another change that’s occurred since Kansas City started talking about reducing emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Kansas recently ranked among the top five states in total wind energy generation and has a larger share of electricity generated from wind energy (36%) than any other state. It’s accompanied major shifts in how utilities operate in Kansas.
In mid-January, after a 12-year battle with environmentalists over a proposed coal-fired power plant near the western Kansas town of Holcomb, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. announced it was letting its construction permit lapse.
Just 15 days later, Evergy, Kansas’ largest utility, made another eye-opening announcement: It plans to retire almost all its coal power plants at the end of their useful lives, estimated to be between 2040 and 2050. Only the Iatan 2 coal plant located on the Missouri River between Weston, Missouri, and Atchison will stay online, according to a news release.
Evergy said the utility would continue to make “significant investments” in renewable energy. In addition, Evergy said it would add additional wind energy, “creating one of the largest wind fleets in the United States” and reduce carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 80% in 2050.
Already it has retired 2,200 megawatts of fossil fuel generation and brought 3,300 megawatts of wind generation capacity online and is planning expansions of renewable energy.
Such changes in utility practices bolster the transformations taking place across the state. Alferman says the move to renewable energy for Kansas City is “pretty groundbreaking for this area. We sit on the doorstep for so much wind energy. … It’s the dawning of a new day and a new approach on how we look at this.”
That outlook is far more optimistic than the picture painted in last October’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which described a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires as soon as 2040. Avoiding the damage, The New York Times reported, would require transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”
How many people exercising leadership does it take to address a challenge on that scale? In spearheading Climate Action KC, Constance and Kelly have hardly solved the world’s climate crisis. But by bringing people together, they appear to be building the region’s capacity to be proactive rather than merely reactive.
“I don’t think (Kelly and Constance) knew what they were going to tap into,” says Tom Jacobs, environmental program director for the Mid-America Regional Council. “We are starting real conversations, and I’m positive we will make a difference.”
Karen Dillon is a Kansas City-area journalist.