December 9, 2018

Michigan: A Land of Opportunity in the Uncertain Times Ahead

Guest Column
By Gary Howe | Dec. 1, 2018

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the White House released the National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial report mandated by Congress to be prepared by 13 government agencies on climate science. This report details the coming risks, costs, and interconnected impacts that will cascade through our natural, built and social systems. The 13-agency report is clear that those impacts will be destructive, expensive, and many of them are already here. Its apocalyptic effect is similar to the October IPCC Special Report on Global Warming that said we have roughly 12 years to alter the way we live on the planet, or the impacts of climate change will be irreversible.
 
On Thanksgiving, the day before, few of us counted among our blessings the destructive, expensive, and horrifying impacts of climate change in the news. The West Coast is on fire. Atlantic hurricanes are stronger. Tornadoes are more frequent in the middle of the country. Rainstorms are heavier, and extreme flooding more common. Spring is earlier, summer is hotter, and as a result, disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes are swarming. Good grief!
 
There is some good news, though. If you live in Michigan, you are well positioned to be a leader in this climatically challenged world. Our water-rich state will not be without its challenges because climate change will stress our infrastructure, wreak havoc on our farms, cause unnecessary heat strokes, and stress our social structures — OK, maybe not your standard goodnews.

But watch Popular Science’s cheeky 2017 video “Where to Live in America 2100,” and you’ll see that apparently, everyone and their beagle is moving to Michigan in the next 80 years. You might say, Michigan will have a comparative advantage. Are we ready? 
 
Certainly not. But Michigan has an opportunity to be a welcoming port in the storm. We still have time to adapt in ways that help reduce the causes of climate change, help us cope with the inevitable negatives, and decrease fragility in our economic and social systems. There are no maps for these waters; they will evolve as progress is made. But we know improvement includes reduction of carbon emissions, and that carbon reduction is the byproduct of more important, tangible societal shifts in behavior and technology.
 
•  Michigan can build greener, more efficient water and sewer systems. Most of our cities are already at the end of the life cycle of the current ones, so there is an opportunity to build systems that reduce negative impacts and promise a more resilient future. This will certainly include more robust urban forests.

•  Our transportation system will increasingly focus on quality of place, with more access options than the usual “one person, one car” (electric or autonomous). The current model of mobility is energy hungry and consumes too much valuable land that will be needed for a more efficient tax base, a stronger agricultural economy, and protected green areas. We also have more choices on how to get from city to city. Passenger rail will return. 

•  Places that have been quiet, like Sault Ste. Marie, will increasingly become destinations. Our social systems, including land-use policies, will need to welcome newcomers from the hot, dry south and seek their participation. Interestingly, that will mark a return to the ambitious dreams of the Sault’s founding families who envisioned a grand city on par with the great cities of the world. Perhaps, even the campaign for Sault Ste. Marie to host the United Nations will be reintroduced.
 
Of course, none of these changes are a given, and the pains of coming climate change will be real and felt hardest among the most vulnerable among us. That is no joking matter. Nor is the political will, leadership, and willingness of Michiganders to embrace the investments of time, energy, and capital needed to mitigate and adaptto coming events. As the White House report shows, climate change is going to be expensive.
 
The path forward will require an all-parties, all-solutions approach. We don’t have time for dour pessimism and empty optimism, and we certainly don’t have time for climatechange deniers, anti-science crusaders, and entrenched tribalism. Those forces will be replaced by a new generation of leaders committed to long-term planning for a world that will be increasingly unpredictable. It isn’t going to be easy, but neither is it easy to cheer for the Lions. 
 
We Michiganders are hale and hearty stock, with a unique entrepreneurial spirit, a history of change, and a land of wealth — all of which is something to be grateful for, because whether or not we wished for it, there are interesting times ahead.
 
Gary L. Howe is a photographer, planner, and teacher. He encourages readers to follow the work of Michigan Climate Action Network and other organizations dedicated to providing solutions for the coming challenges.
 

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