We are in uncharted territory

Tone Lanzillo

On Sunday, Sept. 3, Duluth hit 97 or 98 degrees. Our city hadn't seen that high of a temperature since 2006 and it broke the former record of 89 degrees for Sept. 3 in 1960.   

That afternoon, around 2 pm, I decided to go outside and take a walk to downtown Duluth. Within 30 minutes, I had a headache and an upset stomach. Felt like the heat index was definitely over 100. That experience reminded me that I was one of the vulnerable populations listed in the 2018 climate vulnerability assessment report for Duluth.   

After the recent Canadian wildfires, numerous air quality alerts and reports that Duluth is still in a drought, here was another sign that the world as we know it has changed.    Three days later, the Associated Press reported that the "Earth has sweltered through its hottest North Hemisphere summer ever measured."

According to the World Meteorological Organization and the European climate service Copernicus, it was not only the hottest August ever recorded but also the second hottest month after July 2023. And the world's oceans - which cover more than 70% of the Earth's surface - were now the hottest ever recorded.  

In his book The Heat Will Kill You First, Jeff Goodell cited a number of recent heat related climate events, including the 70-degree jump in temperature during a 2021 heatwave in Antarctica, 122 degrees in Portland during the summer of 2022, and the 15,000 people who died in France as a result of a heatwave in less than two weeks in 2003.   

Goodell talked about the challenges that many cities face in this unpredictable climate-change world; primarily because they were built by people who believed that the Earth's climate was stable. Well, that is clearly no longer true.   

Goodell proposed that cities need to be denser and cars have to be replaced with bikes and public transportation. Also, there needs to be more green space, more trees, more water, more shade and more "thermally intelligent urban design."    

For those of us who live and work in Duluth, do we realize that things have dramatically changed? Do we understand the ramifications or consequences of rising C02 levels, higher temperatures and severe droughts? Do we see the inevitable increase in the arrival of climate migrants from other parts of the country and the future fights over water rights between companies and cities?   How does our city navigate and move forward when it's difficult to identify or determine the climate reality of our collective future? How does Duluth prepare itself for climate change that will become even more challenging and extensive in the coming years?   

We have been warned that there are many climate multipliers and positive feedback systems that could trigger a number of extreme climate events with little warning and major impacts. And it's often very difficult to predict with a high level of accuracy or confidence when and where they will hit.    We have to be willing to ask some very difficult and uncomfortable questions. 

We have to maintain an open mindset and, at the same time, open our eyes to exploring how to responsibly adapt to and transform our approaches to everything from housing and transportation to public health and social services.   

Edward O. Wilson stated that local climates will "turn variable" as these heat waves become more frequent and intense. In his book Consilience: The Unity Of Knowledge, Wilson argues that we have the information but we lack the wisdom. He proposes that we need synthesizers: people who can "put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it and make important choices wisely."   

Duluth, like every other town and city, is in uncharted and new territory. We don't have a clear grasp on the emerging climate disruption that is taking place around the planet. And sadly, many of us are trying to undertake policies, plans and programs that are based on an understanding or assumptions we have from the climate reality of the 1960's, 1980's or 2000's.  

Here in Duluth, who are the synthesizers? Where are they? And is our city willing and able to listen to their collective insight and wisdom about how we engage this climate emergency and hopefully move forward?   The synthesizers are the faculty at St. Scholastica and UMD, artists and poets, nurses and physicians, architects, mental health professionals, entrepreneurs as well as the climate activists and educators. We need to enlist and engage all the best and brightest that our city has to offer.   

Yesterday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a news release reporting that drought conditions continue to expand throughout the state. The U.S. Drought Monitor classified more than half of Minnesota in severe, extensive or exceptional drought. And over the past seven weeks, the DNR suspended 107 surface water appropriation permits for nondomestic use across the state.   Duluth, we are in uncharted territory.