Chicago Institutions Just Got $25 Million to Study Local Effects of Climate Change. Here’s How They Plan to Use It

Since 1980, the number of urban residents exposed to extreme heat and rainfall has increased five-fold in the 150 largest cities worldwide, according to a study released last year. But research shows that the consequences of higher temperatures are unevenly distributed within city populations. 

Many residents in the most flood-prone areas of Chicago, which are largely made up of low-income Hispanic and Black residents, have experienced severe damage to their homes and faced health risks from sewage overflows due to extreme flooding. They also face some of the highest temperature increases from the urban heat island effect exacerbated by a warming climate. 

Now, a team of community leaders, academics and scientists in Chicago will use a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to understand climate change disruptions in the city. The award is part of a total of $66 million the DOE granted to projects in Chicago, Baltimore and the Texas Gulf Coast to study equitable resilience solutions to climate change impacts on urban communities.

“Understanding the risks of climate change and extreme weather means understanding the direct and indirect effects on people, their homes, their businesses, and the communities they live in,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in the announcement of the grant last month.

In Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center for the DOE, and more than a dozen academic and community partners will use the grant over five years to establish a center called the Community Research on Climate and Urban Science, or CROCUS, to study climate change effects at local and regional scales.

“If you don’t know what you’re fighting, it’s really hard to devise a solution,” said Cristina Negri, the director of environmental science at the Argonne National Laboratory.

The massive fund for climate change resilience research could be a turning point for environmental justice communities on the South Side of Chicago, which continually bear the brunt of flooding caused by harsher frequent storms and intensifying heat waves from rising temperatures. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities are more likely to live in hazard-exposed areas. Still, the neighborhoods that are most at risk for climate-related disasters are understudied, said Negri. 

Communities like these that are likely to pay a higher price for the impacts of global warming and are disproportionately burdened by polluting practices are a key focus of the Biden Administration, which committed to investing 40 percent of climate funds towards environmental justice communities. 

Parties involved in the Chicago project said their goals are to inform communities how to build resilience to the effects of climate change. They highlighted that its mitigation and adaptation modeling from street to regional levels would be the first of this scale and with this quantity of funding. The research efforts come as more and more science underscores the reality that climate change effects are already present and hitting underserved communities the hardest, requiring equitable adaptation solutions. 

Argonne lab will measure temperature, precipitation and soil conditions across the city with the help of community organizations and academic institutions, including community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities. According to Negri, the lab will offer internships for students in these colleges to work there.

Northeastern Illinois University, a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution, will offer a data science minor in which students will observe local climate and air quality data in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory. Olive-Harvey College, a community college on Chicago’s far South Side, will begin training students through a new Geographic Information Systems certification program in which students will conduct soil testing on South and West Side neighborhoods.

Brandon Nichols, vice president of academic affairs at Olive-Harvey, said they intend to aid “students that are residents of the community to empower themselves through urban science to understand the science of what can be harmful to their community.”

Students in the new program will teach residents of South and West Side communities who have been impacted by toxic environments to collect soil samples they can test and will educate them on the effects of the toxins they find.

Altgeld Gardens, a neighborhood in Southeast Chicago is dubbed the “toxic doughnut” because landfills, industrial facilities, sewage treatment plants and polluted waterways encircle a public housing complex. According to research by the Natural Resources Defense Council, neighborhoods like Altgeld Gardens on the city’s South Side, with large concentrations of Black and Latino residents, are most exposed to air, water and land pollution in Chicago. 

Akilah Easter, interim dean of urban agriculture at Olive-Harvey, emphasized the importance of community colleges’ involvement and of people of color speaking to their communities to help develop solutions to problems at the community level.

“You can trust community colleges to do science, and it can be impactful science,” said Easter. “I think people should start to consider us more when they are looking at impactful research.”

She hopes that new, hands-on academic programs can be replicated in other cities and colleges to create a pipeline of students ready to enter the workforce as the clean energy transition accelerates. Similarly, Negri said the goal is to make the developed climate resilience models useful as blueprints for other cities.

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Partners that will play a central role in driving community research and relaying community needs to researchers are community organizations like the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s West Side, and the Greater Chatham Initiative. The Initiative is an economic development nonprofit working to boost investments into communities in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham, one of the lowest elevation points in Chicago. The Center for Neighborhood Technology found that low-income residents and communities of color in Chicago, including a portion of Chatham, filed an overwhelming majority—87percent—of flood claims in the city over the course of about a decade.

Blacks in Green, an environmental and community revitalization nonprofit in the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn, will use part of the grant to boost its emergency management education programs. Part of those teaching efforts will include partnering with elementary schools to “create an education pipeline” that propels more kids in the neighborhood into science careers, said Naomi Davis, the founder and president of the organization. 

She highlighted that their efforts will focus on areas of the city where extreme weather strikes hardest because “everyone isn’t feeling the same blow.”

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