Tackling climate change in Michigan

Originally published: 
December, 2018


On radio station WEMU’s "Issues of the Environment” segment, host David Fair interviewed SEAS Dean Jonathan Overpeck about the connection between wildfires and climate change, and why the future holds increased risk for Michigan—and what we can do about it.


Here are a few excerpts from Dean Overpeck’s comments:

“Michigan is in pretty good shape with respect to wildfires right now, and I think a lot of credit goes to those who manage our forests. At the same time, with the climate changing the way it is, it’s very clearly becoming warmer. This warming is going to increase the demand for moisture by the atmosphere, and that warmer atmosphere will take more moisture out of forests and soil. That's what's drying things out in the west, and leading to the catastrophic fires. That will no doubt lead to an uptick in wildfire risk in Michigan, particularly up north and in the UP.

“I think we're getting our handle on adaptation. That's a big focus of our efforts here at the University of Michigan and elsewhere around the state. But adaptation will only get you so far. What we really want is a strong, resilient, and sustainable economy for this state.

“Michigan is a place where we don't have that problem [high taxes/high cost of living] yet. So now is the time to plan our new 21st century economy, where we can have a good quality of life and an affordable quality of life, lots of jobs, and we don't allow climate change to sink our dreams—which would happen if we let climate change go unchecked.

“I think that pathway is through renewable energy. We can have our cake and eat it too, whereas down in the southwestern United States, it's getting grim with water supplies threatened by climate change. And then you move across to Florida, the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic Coast, where those big hurricanes and sea level rise are real trouble, as well as the really hot temperatures. Michigan should become a go-to place, but we can't allow this wonderful place to fall into the climate change trap, which includes a whole bunch of impacts that would make it a much less desirable place to live and work.

“That's why we need to have this discussion of renewable energy—about ditching gas and coal, and investing in wind and solar. We need to have that conversation now and move as fast as we can to make our state the jewel of the country in the future.”

Listen to the podcast on WEMU.


READ THE FULL CONVERSATION:

Issues of the Environment: Wildfire Risk Increasing in Michigan Due to Climate Change
WEMU 89.1
Dec. 5, 2018

David Fair: This is 89.1 WEMU, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair and I'm sure, like me, you've been following the aftermath of the horrendous wildfires in California. The Camp Fire in Northern California scorched more than 150,000 acres, destroying nearly 4,500 homes. More than 80 lives were lost. And there's still nearly a dozen more unaccounted for in Southern California. The Woolsey Fire in Malibu. It burned another 97,000 acres, claiming nearly 700 structures and three lives. The losses are in the multibillions of dollars in property alone, and it's going to take years longer to determine the full environmental and ecological damage. Could it happen here in Michigan? Will climate change make us more susceptible? Well, my guest on Issues of the Environment today is Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, and Dr. Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environmental Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for the time.

Jonathan Overpeck: I'm glad to join you, David.

Fair: In viewing the California fires through our faraway lens, how much can we attribute to forest management and how much can we attribute to changing climate?

Overpeck: Like so many things, the answer isn't just a simple 'it's one thing'. And in the case of the wildfires, it's climate drying out these forests—and the fuels in these forests—much more rapidly and much more completely than it was able to do in the past. These are the rising temperatures. So climate change is going to make wildfire worse and worse as we go into the future. At the same time, we do have ways to manage forests that could reduce their vulnerability to this warming, but it will be very hard just using management practices alone to stem the ever-increasing risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Fair: Let's start to bring the focus a little bit closer to home. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reports there are 10,000 to 12,000 wildfires annually. Certainly some of those are of size, but nothing like in California. Based on current climates and forest management practices here, how much at risk are we in this state right now for something dramatically destructive?

Overpeck: Michigan is in pretty good shape with respect to wildfire right now, and I think a lot of credit goes to those who manage our forests. At the same time, with the climate changing the way it is, becoming warmer and very clearly becoming warmer, we know that that's going to continue as long as we keep burning fossil fuels. With great confidence, we know that. This warming is going to increase the demand for moisture by the atmosphere. And one of the places that atmosphere, that warmer atmosphere, will have more moisture is out of forests and soil. So that's what's drying things out in the west and leading the catastrophic fires, and that will no doubt lead to an uptick in wildfire risk in Michigan, particularly up north and in the UP.

Fair: One of the things we did learn while the fires were raging in California is that much of the forest land there was on federal land and it was the federal government's management practices that may have contributed to the rapid and destructive spread of the fires. Do we have any kind of handle on state and federal divides here in Michigan?

Overpeck: We do have federal land (national forests) and we have private land as well, and state land. All of those jurisdictions are important to keep an eye on, and all of them will be affected by climate change and the threat of increasing big wildfires.

Fair: As we look further into the climate aspect of it, as you've mentioned, we're going to see a changing climate in Michigan—a warmer and wetter state with diminishing snowfall, increased rainfall, and severe weather events. Is that your assessment, as well?

Overpeck: It's a mixed bag—for sure warmer, no doubt about that. The other thing that's really clear is happening is that, as the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture so when it rains, it rains more intensely, and that's certainly happening. Our rain is coming in bigger downburst and more rain per unit time, meaning it's just it's really raining harder. And that means more runoff. That means more nutrients, say, from our farmlands and our other lands into our lakes, and that's transporting the nutrients that caused the harmful algal blooms that we so despise in Lake Erie. Those are starting to spread to some of the other Great Lakes and the situation will become a lot more acute, in part because of the more intense precipitation, the rainfall. But also because these algal blooms do better in warmer conditions.

Fair: I think you just pointed out something that we need to make a clear distinction on. Often I hear people talking about climate change is something we need to deal with for the future. It's here. It's happening.

Overpeck: Absolutely, it's happening. And that's thing. You know, when I started my career 30 years ago, it was things we thought would happen in the future. We thought we already saw the warming. But now it's crystal clear that we're getting these changes. And another one that is going to be a real problem for southern Michigan is that increasing temperatures are going to make our ozone alerts much more frequent and deadly. So, it's a combination of pollution and warmer temperatures that will affect our health. The spread of ticks northward, that's another one. The effect on our agricultural production will be dramatic. We're blessed with a very nice climate for all sorts of agriculture in Michigan—second only to California and maybe Washington State—and we don't want to lose that. But with climate change, if we don't rein it in soon, Michigan goes from a state where people go on and move here. You know, it's a nice place relative to the other places in the country that are being affected by climate change. We've got lots of water. But if we let it go unchecked, it could get pretty bad here too. And I mean algal blooms in all our Great Lakes, and these really warm temperatures and the health impacts, the effects on our forests, and water supplies, even.

Fair: While we struggle with how best to deal with these greenhouse gas issues before we get beyond the tipping point, if we aren't already, are we being proactive enough when it comes to plans—climate adaptation for humans and our environment?

Overpeck: I think we're getting our handle on adaptation. That's a big focus of our efforts here at the University of Michigan and elsewhere around the state. But adaptation will only get you so far. What we really want is a strong, resilient, and sustainable economy for this state. And that will be threatened if we don't rein in climate change. And we have to rein it in soon because it only gets harder and harder as we go into the future. That means going to renewable energy, and of course we've all seen our windmills around our state. That's bringing wealth into rural communities. It's also bringing clean energy to all of us, and won't be long before that energy is also cheaper than the fossil fuel energy. So, we have a number of reasons to go in that direction. Less pollution, as well.

Fair: It takes a dedicated will of the people and of the political realm in our country in order to make the investments necessary to get to the place you're talking about. From my vantage point, it doesn't seem like we're anywhere close to making those kinds of necessary investments.

Overpeck: No, we're not yet. But there's certainly a lot more talk, and you've really seen that uptick occur this fall. And I think in Michigan we've all been through a big boom, obviously, that went into a big bust. We need to start rebuilding our economy with future stability and high quality of life in mind. And I think that pathway is through renewable energy. We can have our cake and eat it too, whereas down in the southern tier of the United States where I came from, Arizona (I've been coming to Michigan all my life, actually, but I lived in Arizona most recently), it's getting grim with water supplies threatened by climate change. And then you move across to Florida, the Gulf Coast on the Atlantic Coast, those big hurricanes and sea level rise are real trouble, as well as the really hot temperatures. Michigan should become a go-to place, but we can't allow this wonderful place to fall into the climate change trap, which includes a whole bunch of impacts that would make it a much less desirable place to live and work.

Fair: I'm glad you mentioned that you came from Arizona. You arrived at the University of Michigan in 2017. Beyond the job aspect of it, did future climate play a role in your decision to move to this state that you had visited throughout the years?

Overpeck: It sure did. You know, my wife is also a climate scientist, and when you're a professor—or just about anyone else—your house is your equity for your retirement. We were worried that our house in Arizona, the price on that would start to tank once the water crisis started to really hit. And those are going to hit maybe this year, maybe the next. But they're really not a long-term risk, they're a short-term risk —and it's all because of climate change.

Fair: The investment may be a good one, but are we here in the Midwest—as attractive as Michigan is going to become—going to see property taxes go up like New York and San Francisco? I'm sitting here imagining saying I can't afford to live in Detroit, I have to move L.A.

Overpeck: I think if you move most of those other places now, where there's really booming economy, say the Bay Area or New York or Boston, these areas all got high taxes. You're right about that. But they've also got very high prices for living. You know, the cost of buying a home or renting, buying your food. It's costly. Michigan, again, is a place where we don't have that problem yet. And so now is the time to plan on our new 21st century economy, where we can have a good quality of life and affordable quality of life, lots of jobs, and we don't allow climate change to sort of sink our dreams—which would happen if we let climate change go unchecked. And that's why we have to take this discussion of renewable energy—ditching gas and coal and getting into wind and solar—we have to have that conversation now and move as fast as we can to make our state really the jewel of the country in the future.

Fair: As we look to building that future, the federal government right now seems kind of deadlocked and stalemated when it comes to energy issues and climate change. Is there a country or area of the world that's leading the way—perhaps a model we can follow?

Overpeck: There are a lot of models we can follow. I think in the United States, you can't really look to the feds right now, but that'll come back I suspect. Like everything, we get these cycles, right? But you've got to look to California, look to Washington, look to New England. These regions are really making it happen, and they're moving to clean energy. Their economies are booming. If anyone hasn't noticed while they move to clean energy you couldn't do that. You can look to other countries in Europe in particular, but even China. What I worry about is China is moving whole hog into this clean energy/renewable energy world—electrification of our transportation systems, electric cars. We don't want to give up the lead in automobiles and other types of mobility. That's really important to Michigan and that's why we have to move to more electrification of our cars and other mobility here to allow our big auto industry, our transportation industry, to continue to be a world leader, and for the state to reap the benefits from that.

Fair: Dr. Overpeck, let me ask you one final question. As immersed as you are in all of these issues, do you find yourself optimistic for the future?

Overpeck: I'm always an optimistic person, David. But at the same time, I feel like what's going on in Washington with the denial of science in general and climate science in particular, what's going on with the outsized influence now of the fossil fuel industry forcing us to stay in these heavily polluting energy systems—I think we just have to fight harder. We have to really get out and all work together to make this happen. And if we do, the benefit will be as great in Michigan as any other parts of the country.

Fair: I can't think of a better statement and way to end the conversation. Thank you so much for the time today.

Overpeck: My pleasure.

Fair: That was Dr. Jonathan Overpeck. He is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environmental Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Issues of the Environment is a weekly presentation heard each Wednesday on WEMU. It's produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. I'm David Fair and this is 89.1 WEMU and WEMU HD1, Ypsilanti.