Michigan’s top climate stories of 2021

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Wildlife woes: Conditions are changing for fish, deer, and other animals in Michigan due to the climate crisis. A report from Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center, and Michigan Out-of-Doors TV finds that moose are having trouble adapting to warmer summers and will move north and climate-related diseases such as West Nile Virus pose a risk for upland birds like pheasants. Warming water in Michigan rivers also threatens trout populations, and intense rainstorms disrupt habitat and send pollution into streams and rivers, imperiling several species. Threats to habitat have led MUCC to advocate protecting public lands from renewable energy development. Instead, they’re pushing for distributed generation through community solar. (Bridge, Great Lakes Now, Michigan Climate News)

Smoke and fire: Of all the climate misfortunes that hit Michigan this year, the arrival of smoke from wildfires in the West was especially uncanny. But while headline writers presented this as an issue of “vibrant” sunsets, air quality took a hit from the smoke. And smoke traveling cross country may become a more common occurrence as the Western fire season grows longer and “megablazes” of 100,000 acres or more become the norm. But it wasn’t just smoke in the Midwest; fires also broke out in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and on Michigan’s Isle Royale, a problem that could increase because of the climate crisis. (Bridge, Guardian, MLive, Discover)

Hot water: This year, the Great Lakes had their warmest November ever, a result of climate change, but also the “La Niña” climate pattern that tends to create warmer winters in the region. These warmer lake levels could lead to more algae blooms, higher levels of bacteria, and, somewhat paradoxically, more lake effect snow as bursts of cold air move over warm lakes, picking up moisture and creating intense precipitation. Lake Superior may be warming incredibly quickly, which could create problems for the lake’s whitefish, foster algal blooms, and allow invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels to become more common. Deep lakes like Michigan and Superior may also be most likely to see a loss of winter ice, leading to more evaporation and warmer summer temperatures. (MI Radio, Bridge, Bridge, Conversation)

Flooded again: In the early morning of Saturday, June 26, more than 6 inches of rain hit metro Detroit, backing up sewer lines and filling basements with water as well as flooding area expressways and damaging hundreds of vehicles. The initial round of flooding resulted in a federal disaster declaration, but this event was followed by more, albeit less severe, flooding in July and August. The climate crisis means that Detroit will invariably see more flooding, with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing increasing precipitation in the eastern U.S. while the West dries out. In Michigan, flooding is coming up against years of disinvestment in infrastructure and creating impossible choices, like on I-94, where pumping water out of the expressway could mean overwhelming sewers and inundating surrounding neighborhoods. (Planet Detroit, NY Times, Detroit News, Bridge)

Michigan’s grid meets climate change: Michigan’s largest utilities struggled to keep the lights on this year as strong storms felled trees and took down power lines. In August, nearly 600,000 customers lost power, some of them for a week. “I just can’t believe we were out of power for seven days. I don’t know how that happens in 2021,” said Layla Elabed. In Detroit, large storms knocking out power during a summer heatwave might pose a particular risk; researchers say such an event could produce more fatalities than Hurricane Katrina. Ann Arbor may offer a response to some of these issues. The city is currently considering commissioning a feasibility study for a public utility, which advocates hope could reduce outages and help the city meet its goal of using only renewable energy by 2030. (MLive, Planet Detroit)

Climate refuge? As the climate crisis continues to scare the crap out of at least some people, Michigan is once again being pitched as a climate refuge. “As we scanned the world for geographies that offer abundant freshwater, progressive governance, and could attract talent to innovative industries, we decided on … Michigan,” said Parag Khanna, author of the book “Move: The Forces Uprooting US” and one of The New Republic’s “overrated thinkers” of 2011. But while abundant freshwater is a definite advantage for Michigan, both it and progressive governance probably shouldn’t be taken for granted. And Joel Brammeier, CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says the region has work to do to adapt to the climate crisis by taking action on issues like flooding and the algal blooms that have threatened drinking water. (MLive, New Republic, Atlantic, Bloomberg)

Considering emissions: Environmentalists notched a victory this year when the Michigan Public Service (MPSC) ruled that they needed to consider greenhouse gas emissions when reviewing Enbridge’s proposal to move their Line 5 pipeline into a tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac. “It makes clear that our understanding of what counts as pollution changes over time, and our agencies and courts need to change with that,” Margrethe Kearney, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said of the ruling. By making the ruling, the MPSC concluded that greenhouse gas emissions are pollutants under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and that these can’t be uncoupled from the other impacts of pipeline construction. (Bridge)

Compromises: In November, the COP26 international climate talks delivered a serious setback to climate action when attendees produced an agreement to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal power, which scientists say could imperil the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 C. "It's meek, it's weak, and the 1.5C goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters," Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said. And in December, U.S. Democrats’ hope for climate action hit a wall when Sen. Joe Manchin announced he didn’t support the Build Back Better (BBB) bill with its $555 billion for climate spending. An analysis shows that the bill could put the country on course to reach President Biden’s goal of cutting the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Writing in the Washington Post, Rep. Pramila Jayapal urged the president to focus on executive actions to move forward on BBB’s goals, adding that the “progressive caucus will continue to work toward legislation for Build Back Better, focused on keeping it as close to the agreed-upon framework as possible.” (MI Radio, NY Times, WaPo)


What questions do you have about the environment and climate change in Michigan? Please let us know by reaching out to me at nina@planetdetroit.org. NOTE: Please don't reply to this email, it will go into a digital netherworld.


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