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A look at the “unequivocal” impact of climate change on Michigan

A flood in the streets going up to the doorsteps of houses.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Intense rainfall in metro-Detroit led to catastrophic flooding in 2021. This photo shows flood waters completely covering the streets going up to the doorsteps of houses.

The global scientists behind the 4,000-page long Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report did not mince their words.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land,” the landmark report reads.

“I think the significance of the report is not in surprising new findings, but in the level of consensus,” says  climate change expert Jennifer Haverkamp, who directs the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.  

Drawing on more than 14,000 scientific studies with contributions from some 195 countries, the report has been labelled “the most comprehensive look ever at the state of climate science." The effects of a rising climate are being felt all over the world, and Michigan is certainly no exception. 

Haverkamp joined Stateside along with Michelle Martinez, acting executive director and founding member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, to break down the IPCC’s report. Find excerpts from their conversation below.

Watching climate-related issues unfold in real time

While Martinez is no stranger to scholarly studies on global climate change, she also knows its effects can be observed right in one’s community. Take, for example, the extensive flooding across Metro Detroit this summer. 

“Over the last eight weeks, our organization and many others have been literally digging human waste out of people's basements. The amount of flooding that has occurred in Detroit, due to really failing infrastructure, and meeting at the nexus of what some engineers are telling me is a 1,000-year rainfall in late June, [we] just cannot handle what's happening. So we don't need all of the scientific reports and the technological advancement to tell us what we're already experiencing.”

What are super pollutants?

Haverkamp said that reading all 4,000 pages of the IPCC report probably isn't necessary for the average person. Instead, she offered a particularly interesting tidbit she gleaned from the document.

“There's one thing that I think comes out of this report that is really worth mentioning, and that is the increased importance of addressing the super pollutants...like methane. Methane is, in the near term, something like 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And so if we really have a chance of avoiding some of the really adverse effects that this report predicts, it's incumbent on the world to really reduce emissions of methane in particular, but also nitrous oxide and coolants like hydrofluorocarbons in the next decade.”

Where the effects of climate change are being felt hardest

Infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with the climate change conversation. From utilizing solar energy to fixing up that old furnace, combatting a rising climate includes taking care of homes and buildings. And, Martinez said, investing in new infrastructure and energy solutions isn't just about climate--it's also about racial justice.

“Black and brown communities are bearing the brunt of heat waves, paying disproportionately higher costs on failing infrastructure. We are also dealing with the health ailments and survival challenges in Indigenous and Black, Latino communities from polar vortices or loss of frost. And the research has followed environmental justice activism and communities really paving the way to make some of these arguments about how we can and should be investing right now in rebuilding a more resilient infrastructure that is moving away from some of these postwar industrial, centralized generating facilities and heavily concentrated industrial polluting sites."

Salvaging what we can of the climate

Amidst reports of a seemingly doomed environment, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing to be done about the changing climate. But Haverkamp insisted that’s not the case, and she has the science to back it up.

“When the IPCC came out with a report in 2018 called the 1.5 degree report, what it was doing was comparing how bad the effects would be if warming was limited to 1.5 degrees versus going to two degrees. And you saw things like two or three times as much wildlife habitat was destroyed just in that half degree of warming. And so when I look at this report, what I take away from it is the more we can do to limit how much warming we have, the fewer people will die of flooding or heat, the fewer wildlife will go extinct. There's so much that we, I think, can make better or avoid making worse, but we have to act quickly.”

What should Michigan do to combat climate change?

“If Michigan is going to spend another $24 billion on carbon capture, underground storage pipelines, or fracked gas, that's going in the opposite direction of where we actually need to go. We need to be moving toward a renewable energy economy. Every home in Michigan needs to be renovated. We need to get our building codes up. We need to make sure that we have affordable housing. We need to make sure that solar and rooftop solar is available for our churches, our homes, our schools. All of these are job engines and we can do it, but we do need the political will to be able to do that,” Martinez said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lucas Polack.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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