In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided
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.
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.
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.
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.