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Purdue leads climate change initiative to help Hoosiers better understand risks

Purdue University’s Climate Change Research Center is leading a new statewide initiative to compile the latest scientific research into a series of reports designed to provide Indiana decision makers with accessible, understandable and timely information about climate change impacts.

“In recent years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of climate change research,” said Melissa Widhalm, project manager for the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment. “Our goal is to share this information with the widest possible audience and help Hoosiers better understand climate change-related risks so they can prepare for challenges and capitalize on opportunities.”

Each report will focus on a single industry or theme - agriculture, climate, ecosystems, energy, health, infrastructure, tourism and recreation, and water resources. The topics were chosen during a series of 10 feedback sessions held throughout the state in 2016.

“We’ve met with city planners, land-use managers and representatives from farming and agribusiness to find out what questions they have and what issues are especially important to them,” Widhalm said. “We had a lot of one-on-one conversations with business leaders, nonprofits, NGOs and state agencies. Whenever we have a chance, we are going out and talking to people about the assessment.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard stressed the need to focus on environmental and sustainability initiatives.

“It is important that cities and communities around the globe realize that the small changes they can make can have significant impact,” Brainard said. “One example in Carmel is that the installation of more than 110 roundabouts in our roadway network has reduced fuel consumption. Each roundabout saves an average of 272 tanker trucks of fuel per year. Cities can find many ways to reduce negative impacts to the environment. Regardless of one’s politics, there is a universal need and desire for clean water and clean air.”

Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, chief scientist and executive director of Discovery Park at Purdue, said, “The climate is changing, and it’s important that we respond. With this assessment, the Purdue Climate Change Research Center is helping Indiana prepare for the future.” 

During the feedback sessions Widhalm and her colleagues at the center - director Jeff Dukes and managing director Rose Filley - determined that a major priority for the project would be to increase dialogue about climate change throughout the state.

“We found that even though people were interested in climate change, they weren’t really talking about it,” Widhalm said. “There was a perceived lack of useful information and few opportunities to have these types of discussions.”

Many of the people interviewed during the feedback sessions have since volunteered to contribute to the assessment as researchers, writers or reviewers. So far, more than 100 experts representing about 25 organizations, are serving on the technical working groups that are producing the reports.

Participating organizations include the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana State Department of Health and Indiana Water Resources Association, as well as Purdue Extension, Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame.

“The response has been tremendous,” Widhalm said. “A lot of very busy people are volunteering their time and expertise in service to the state.”

Planning for the assessment has been underway for several years, with the center’s team studying climate change responses of other states to learn what approach would be most effective.

“What we found was that in many places, climate change efforts were the result of legislative action,” Widhalm said. “Our approach is different, to build consensus from the bottom up and get stakeholders involved from the beginning.”

Throughout the process, she said, project organizers continually asked themselves, “How do we translate climate change into something that is meaningful to the average citizen? Because climate change represents a shift in weather patterns over a number of years, different groups experience it in different ways.”

The first report is expected to be released in late 2017 with a new report to follow about every month, Widhalm said. Each technical report will be accompanied by a plain-language version. Both versions will be available to the public. These assessment reports will provide baseline historical data and future predictions for key climate and water variables. This information will allow communities, business sectors and the state to determine vulnerabilities, and it will help people develop action plans for the future.

“This assessment is a service that the climate change research center is planning to provide the state for years to come. We want this to be a continuing effort,” Widhalm said. “We are building a network of experts and stakeholders to support knowledge sharing so our state can be a leader in responding to the challenges and opportunities of climate change.”

Purdue scientists involved in the project plan to use the data from the impacts assessment to help communities throughout Indiana and the Midwest find solutions that will increase their resilience to changing weather patterns. 

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