Rick Haglund: Tackling climate change is the smart move for local governments, businesses

By: - September 26, 2020 6:20 am

Flooding closed a road and trails in Meridian Township, May 20, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Brandy Brown faced skepticism about climate change from the day she accepted her job as the head of the Michigan Office of Climate and Energy.

“Brandy, that climate change stuff isn’t real,” Brown said a longtime friend told her when she was appointed to lead the office last year.

Her friend’s denial of climate change echoes that of President Donald Trump, who insists rising global temperatures had nothing to do with the recent devastating California wildfires. The president’s view has long been shared by most Republican lawmakers. 

But Brown, an expert energy strategist with a doctorate degree in interdisciplinary evaluation, is undeterred. 

The science showing a warming planet is overwhelmingly on her side. Michigan already is seeing the effects of extreme weather events on agriculture, tourism and the broader economy, Brown said.

And despite her friend’s view, a statewide poll last year by the Glengariff Group for the Detroit Regional Chamber found Michigan voters by a two-to-one margin believe climate change is a threat to the state’s economy.

“The impact of climate change is real,” said Liesl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). “We’re seeing it in our pink skies from West Coast wildfires and in mosquito-borne diseases, as well as severe weather that is made worse by high lake levels.”

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Brown’s office, which is part of EGLE, recently established the Catalyst Communities program to help local officials plan for climate change impacts on public health and emergency preparedness.

“Everyone needs to have a plan in place to deal with the extreme weather events we’re seeing and thrive in the future,” she said.

Many communities are experiencing more roads washed out from heavy rains, which are also threatening sewage treatment plants and other infrastructure. Farming communities are suffering financially from crop losses caused by increasingly severe rainstorms and higher temperatures.

Most of the state has warmed by two to three degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And heavy rainstorms are becoming more frequent in Michigan and the rest of the Midwest.

The EPA attributes a warming planet to human activity that has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40% since the late 1700s.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday issued an executive order creating the MI Healthy Climate Plan with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28% below 1990 levels by 2025. The plan also pledges to make Michigan carbon-neutral by 2050.

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The centerpiece of the Catalyst Communities program is an online “climate academy” that will initially offer free training, planning and technical resources to local officials preparing for climate impacts on emergency response and public health.

Nearly 70 local officials have signed up for the academy. Brown said she’s expecting about 100 participants when it starts in November.

City leaders are cautiously optimistic about the program, said John LaMacchia II, assistant director of state and federal affairs at the Michigan Municipal League.

“It gives me some hope that this isn’t just a strategy to highlight that there are some issues out there,” LaMacchia told me. 

City leaders are hoping the program will eventually include funding to aid communities in dealing with climate-related disasters, such as crop loss and public parks being destroyed by more frequent storms.

“I think this program they’re setting up piggybanks nicely on our issues, LaMacchia said. “It could be really, really important.”

Communities need climate plans, in part, because insurance companies and the financial markets are beginning to require them, Brown said.

Homeowners’ insurance costs could climb, for example, in communities that lack public health and emergency preparedness plans related to climate.

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“Climate implications are being baked into financial instruments,” Brown said. “If you have a climate plan, your costs can come down.”

One potential implication of a warming planet is that Michigan and other northern states could gain millions of new residents — “climate refugees” fleeing California’s wildfires and rising sea levels along coastal states.

One study found that there could be as many as 13 million American climate refugees by the end of the century.

The good news for Michigan is climate refugees could provide badly needed workers in Michigan, one of the fastest-aging states in the country. The bad news is that there might not be enough jobs if too many people were to come here, Brown said.

But a potential climate-driven population boom for Michigan is likely many years away, according to veteran demographer Kurt Metzger.

He and others say people in coastal states will likely first move inland in those states to continue living in the warmer climate they prefer.

“I agree that Michigan, and by extension, Detroit, will benefit from climate migration,” Metzger said. But it will likely take even more catastrophic climate-related threats to prompt people to relocate to Michigan and other cold-weather states.

Planning for that eventuality, though, by the state and local governments in efforts such as Catalyst Communities is a smart move.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.