Why you should care
The heartland's fears of climate change could affect who becomes president.
It was the night of the Liberty and Justice Celebration in Des Moines, the biggest campaign event of the Democratic presidential race so far. And when Tom Perez was asked what he would like to hear more about from the candidates in Iowa, the Democratic National Committee chair didn’t reach for bromides about issues like rural health care or ethanol subsidies. No, it was climate change that caught his attention.
“You talk to folks in Iowa, Nebraska, elsewhere, climate change isn’t simply the West Coast and East Coast — you know it here,” he said.
Indeed. Landlocked Iowa, the heartland of the country, is being crippled by climate change, as seemingly biblical floods ruin crops and retirement plans. In fact, historic rainfalls battered both eastern and western parts of the state this year. Which led to a surprising finding from a report by the Iowa Policy Project and the University of Wisconsin …
The impacts of climate change on increased rainfall are much clearer in Iowa and the Upper Midwest than anywhere else in the country.
The region’s average annual rainfall has been steadily rising at almost 1 inch per decade — a total increase of more than 12 percent since the mid-1970s. “Iowa’s statewide trend over the same period is still higher, at 1.25 inches per decade — the largest increase across the U.S.,” writes University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire chemist James Boulter, the lead researcher on the study.
What’s more, Boulter warns, the Upper Midwest is likely to see the largest increase in premature deaths and be disproportionately affected by hotter temperatures caused by climate change. “Compared to cities, there’s a lot greater emphasis in rural areas on people that need to be outside to do their job,” Boulter writes. It’s no wonder, then, that 7 in 10 Iowa voters say they support government action that addresses climate change, according to a Climate Nexus poll from July.
That reality has led to the Democratic candidates campaigning directly to the weather-related concerns of Iowans in the critical first caucus state. Bernie Sanders recently moved to refocus his Iowa strategy around climate change, furthering a $1.3 million Iowa ad buy with a television spot about the Green New Deal and campaigning with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Des Moines to talk about the $16 trillion climate-focused stimulus plan.
In October, Elizabeth Warren organized a pop-up climate change conversation in Cedar Rapids, saying “we are in a crisis today because of 25 years of corruption in Washington.” The day before, Joe Biden was doing his own Cedar Rapids town hall on the issue, touting a green plan that would create 10 million new jobs and $400 million in investment in new green technologies. Proposals, such as one to encourage Iowa farmers to participate in carbon farming (which traps carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the air), would encourage farmers to “be part of the solution,” Biden told the crowd.
Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur now polling sixth nationally, has released perhaps the most extensive plan focused solely on flooding. He would update the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zone map to include 41 million homes at high risk for catastrophic flooding and would encourage the agency not to rebuild in those areas (he notes that one home in Baton Rouge was rebuilt 40 times, rather than simply relocated). He has also suggested looking to examples like the Netherlands, which invested $500 million over six years to build a flood gate to protect residents below sea level, contrasting it with the $161 billion cost New Orleans faced in a matter of days after Hurricane Katrina.
“We have to own up to the devastation that climate change is causing across the country and then we need to federalize the response,” Yang tells OZY. “We are leaving communities to fend for themselves, and we respond after the fact. We need to be clear-eyed, and more proactive.”
John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who is the only presidential candidate to have visited all 99 counties in Iowa so far, sees a “huge opportunity” to address climate issues in the heartland. “We’ve got to change agricultural practices, and obviously Iowa can be a leader on that,” he says.
In the digital realm, Tom Steyer has emerged as the top Democratic spender online, spending more than $10 million on ads mostly pushing his reputation as an environmental activist. And Pete Buttigieg, who recently rocketed up into second place in Iowa polls, has been specifically targeting climate change for months. In September, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor ran a Snapchat campaign touting his plan and targeting adults in Iowa and New Hampshire who classify as “collegiates, green living enthusiasts or political news watchers.” When a heat wave hit the state, Buttigieg promoted a Facebook ad with a local article saying that “climate change will make these heat waves more common” and that the nation needed to “increase energy efficiency, invest in building retrofits and support rural resilience” to help curb it.
Interest in climate change from candidates is increasing, confirms David Osterberg, a former Iowa state representative and founder of the Iowa Policy Project. Not nationally maybe, considering the last Democratic debate didn’t include a single question on the issue. “But here, all the candidates are talking about it,” Osterberg says. And because Iowa has such a huge role in selecting the nation’s next president, the effects of this downpour are guaranteed to trickle through the rest of America.