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On October 7, the Biden administration released plans from 20 federal agencies detailing how they will “ensure their facilities and operations adapt to and are increasingly resilient to climate change impacts” — part of what the administration calls a “whole of government” approach to addressing the climate crisis and its impact.
In addition to outlining steps to secure their operations in a changing climate, many of the plans give a sense of the country’s risks from threats like forest fires, flooded freeways and days where it’s too hot for workers to be outside.
To get a better sense of what all this means for Michigan, Michigan Climate News spoke with Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist and dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.
Overpeck stressed that the federal plans are “aspirational” — any action would require funding from the budget and infrastructure bills that are currently stalled in Congress. Yet he was enthusiastic about the plans overall, saying, “For the first time, we have an administration in the White House that has its eyes squarely on the ball of climate change.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Michigan Climate News: Transportation is something that's at the front of many people’s minds because of the flooding on freeways this past summer and the way high water levels washed out roads last year. Is the way the government is thinking about these projects changing?
Overpeck: Absolutely. In the Trump administration, it was almost the rule to ignore climate explicitly. The Biden administration is changing that 180 degrees to give climate change the concern it needs. It's hammering Michigan and Detroit with respect to the flooding and with respect to energy as well. It doesn't help at all that you're having more power failures just when we need the electricity for pumps. The U.S. Department of Transportation is going to focus on that in a much bigger way. But it's important that the Biden administration is sending out clear signals that they understand adaptation is not enough. We've got to reduce the causes of climate change. That means going to renewable energy, but also going to electrified mobility, electrified vehicles. And that is a huge win for Michigan.
MCN: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan seems important because this is an area where Michigan could potentially do well in a changing climate, but there's still a lot of risks. We've recently had crop failures and wells running dry. What in this plan addresses some of those risks?
Overpeck: What's clear in these plans is there’s a focus on adaptation. The Department of Agriculture has a lot of programs that can be easily modified to aid in adapting to the changing climate through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). They can leverage existing programs to support farmers, both to understand and deal with the vulnerabilities created by climate change.
The USDA has programs that are designed to help with growing disturbances related to climate. A lot of the focus is on disturbances in Western systems. But some of those same problems that we see out west–wildfire and the death of trees–are going to start emerging pretty soon here in Michigan. We're going to learn from what's going on out west, and it's nice to see the Forest Service and the USDA focusing their attention on these emerging, climate-driven problems.
They're also focusing on drought in a big way. Drought is a huge problem out west, but it's an emerging problem in Michigan too. Paradoxically–even though everyone reads about flooding–people are kind of forgetting that because the atmosphere is getting warmer, the periods of dryness that we get in Michigan every summer are getting hotter and, therefore, drier.
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MCN: What about addressing problems in environmental justice communities? What do you think is going on here that could help places like Detroit deal with air pollution and ongoing issues with lead poisoning?
Overpeck: Much of the air pollution that kills a lot of people–particularly in communities like Detroit–is going to be most impacted when we switch out of fossil fuels. The biggest thing we can do to reduce pollution is to get out of fossil fuels as fast as possible. The Biden administration is trying to do that and should be applauded. They also–for the first time–put a huge emphasis on environmental justice, both in terms of cleaning up pollution, preventing new sources of pollution, and ensuring that everyone benefits from this transition. The administration has said they want to spend 40% of the newly allocated money on ensuring environmental justice. That is just a gigantic change in the federal government's thinking on climate change. And it will have huge benefits for communities like Flint and Detroit and other historically disadvantaged and polluted communities in the Midwest. (Note: Overpeck refers to the administration’s “Justice 40” plan, which looks to send 40 percent of climate and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.)
MCN: So much of this depends on politics and our crisis of democracy, but is there anything in this planning that you feel could help keep a sense of continuity going from administration to administration? What sort of accountability is there in this kind of process?
Overpeck: We saw so clearly what you get with a Trump administration who was solidly in bed with the fossil fuel industry, and they're trying to shut everything down with climate action. What happens going forward after the Biden administration is a big concern for everybody. Environmental justice has a lot of interesting and necessary components. But one of those components to me is that environmental justice is all about making this climate action beneficial to everyone. You want to make our policies as bipartisan as possible. Even if the Republicans aren't supporting these policies, the Democrats are trying very hard to make them beneficial to everyone. In doing so, they’re making them more durable as we go into the future–perhaps to future Republican administrations–because the voters will say, 'Hey, I like this. It's helping me; it's helping my community.' It's the same thing with renewable energy. Renewable energy brings money into communities. Drive out to Kansas, North Dakota or South Dakota; these are very red states with a lot of support for renewable energy. These communities want more renewable energy because they're doing good things for their communities, in addition to providing more resilient electricity.
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