In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided
DAVENPORT, Iowa — The Mississippi River, which gushed into downtown Davenport at record levels two weeks ago, has finally retreated toward its banks. Left behind: A truck-size hole in the temporary flood barrier, dead fish on mud-caked Pershing Avenue, and an urgent conversation about how to shield the city from the next flood.
As Mayor Frank Klipsch of Davenport starts that conversation — a wide-ranging discussion of upstream levee heights, riverfront development and whether the city should install permanent flood protection — there is one topic he sees little benefit in raising: human-caused climate change.
“We know there’s something going on, so how do we come together and deal with that?” said Mr. Klipsch, a two-term mayor who said taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.” “Let’s not try to label it. Let’s not try to politicize it. It’s just a matter of something is changing.”
Across the Midwest this spring, floods have submerged farms and stores, split open levees and, in some places, left people stranded for days or weeks. The disasters have renewed national attention on how climate change can exacerbate flooding and how cities can prepare for a future with more extreme weather. But in some of the hardest-hit areas, where bolstering flood protection and helping the displaced are popular bipartisan causes, there is little appetite for bringing climate change — and the political baggage it carries — into the discussion.
“I don’t see a purpose at this point to create a challenge, a straw man to argue about, when in reality we all know what the ultimate results are,” said Mr. Klipsch, who does not belong to a political party.
Mayor Frank Klipsch said that taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.”CreditDaniel Acker for The New York Times
For decades, Davenport, the third-biggest city in Iowa, has taken an idiosyncratic approach to staying dry. Instead of building massive flood walls and towering levees, which protect most large cities on the Mississippi but worsen the downstream flood risk, it has embraced its proximity to the river, earning praise from environmental groups. Miles of the city’s riverfront parkland are consumed when the Mississippi rises, and when it threatens downtown businesses, city crews erect temporary barriers. Ever since the flood of 1993, the plan had worked.
But in recent years, as downtown Davenport boomed — warehouse buildings with waterfront views became upscale condos, trendy shops and new restaurants — the river seemed to grow fiercer. The temporary flood barriers became a regular feature. And when the Mississippi rose yet again this spring, it lingered on the city’s doorstep for more than a month.
Finally, on April 30, a barrier split open, and the turbid water consumed several blocks of downtown with a force that several people described as tsunami-like. Nobody was hurt, but firefighters rescued dozens of people. Cars were swallowed by the river.
As the water has receded, and as business owners don muck boots to salvage what they can, some have begun to consider how Davenport moves forward. Mr. Klipsch has announced plans for a task force. The possibility of a permanent flood wall has been discussed, though few seem enthusiastic about the idea. Others have suggested a middle ground, with more robust protections but not a levee or wall that would block the river view.
“We have to think about what the next 20 years look like and be cognizant that this 100-year flood might be happening more than once every hundred years,” said Paul Rumler, the chief executive of the local chamber of commerce, who also did not want to wade into a climate change debate.
“I’m going to say this,” he continued, “and I’m going to be meaningful in the words: The weather pattern is changing, and we need to be cognizant of those changes.”
Floods have happened throughout history, and they have a complex cocktail of causes. In interviews with nine local officeholders in places where the Mississippi River crested recently, several politicians said they believed climate change was playing a role in the frequency of floods. Others were openly skeptical or declined to take a position.
Across those lines, officials said climate change was a politically risky topic that they generally avoided discussing — and that they considered less relevant to the flooding than levee heights, changes in river management and other factors.
But as the planet warms, scientists say the heavy rains in the Midwest that contributed to this year’s devastation will become more common.
Kenneth E. Kunkel, a climate researcher at North Carolina State University, said humans’ role in climate change could likely be seen in this year’s heavy precipitation from the amount of water vapor in the air, which can be attributed to warmer surface area temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Dr. Kunkel said the continued burning of fossil fuels was likely to increase the risk of such heavy rain in the future.
“When a weather system occurs that is capable of producing heavy precipitation,” Dr. Kunkel said, “it is virtually certain that in the future such systems will produce heavier precipitation.”
In places like Davenport, where floods are a troubling reality and not an abstract concept, debating water vapor levels can seem impertinent, even if most people accept the clear scientific consensus that climate change is happening.
A 2018 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that about two-thirds of adults in Davenport’s metro area thought climate change was real, and a smaller majority thought it was caused by humans. But along the river, the focus is on practical steps to curb the floods, which everyone can support, not discussing climate change, which can expose partisan friction.
“Too many people have to hem and haw around it because of their political affiliations and how they get elected,” said Phil Stang, the mayor of Kimmswick, Mo., who lives near the Mississippi. But climate change, he said, is “absolutely real.”
Though Mr. Stang is happy to discuss climate change when asked, he said he sees little need to bring it up in Kimmswick. He said he could not recall the topic being mentioned at a board of aldermen meeting, and does not often hear about it from constituents. Other riverfront mayors said much the same.
“It’s not sensitive so much as it just isn’t a part of the conversation,” said Mayor Jo Anne Smiley of Clarksville, Mo., where the Mississippi River now floods on a near-annual basis.
Ms. Smiley, a Republican, said she believes “climate change affects everything.” But the main topic in her small city, where filling sandbags is a grim ritual and the frequent floods have scared away some businesses, is getting money for a flood barrier, not debating climate change.
“In their own language, they’re talking about it,” Ms. Smiley said, referring to nearby farmers who have seen their growing cycles disrupted. “It’s just not the same language you would hear if you were in Paris at the meetings” attended by world leaders to discuss climate change.
Others take a more direct approach. In flood-prone Louisiana, Mo., Mayor Marvin Brown, a forester by profession, gave a presentation to the local Rotary Club about the scientific evidence for climate change. “Nobody seemed anxious to deny that it was happening,” he said.
Not talking about climate change in frank terms can carry risk, said Louis Gritzo, vice president for research at the insurance company FM Global, which advises clients, including large corporations, about the hazards that climate change will bring. Mr. Gritzo warned of an “uncertainty trap,” in which leaders avoid talking about climate change, do not take action and expose themselves to more dire consequences in the future.
“I can understand that reticence to jump into it,” Mr. Gritzo said. But “if you don’t at least give it consideration, or understand that it’s headed in that direction, it’s always going to be a responsive action.”
Larry Weber, a founder of the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa, often travels to parts of his state devastated by flooding. When people he is advising dispute climate change, he says he refuses “to go down that rabbit hole” and instead focuses on ways to help with their problems.
“Climate change is real, and I’m not going to argue about that with you,” Dr. Weber recalled saying at one recent meeting in a small Iowa town. “What we’re going to work on is solutions to this particular situation here.”
That approach appears to have resonance in Iowa, a politically mixed state where many cities have been overwhelmed by floods this spring, and where being protected from the next flood is a higher priority than discussing the cause of the last one.
Mr. Klipsch, the Davenport mayor, said he saw little value in debating the reasons for what he called “weather-related challenges.” But he said it was still possible to recognize the changes in the river, to understand that those changes may continue, and to take action to protect the city and the environment.
“No matter what you want to call it,” he said, “I need all hands on deck to respond.”