Situated far from ocean coastlines, deserts, and forests, Michiganders are lucky to be able to avoid the worst of the climate crisis – like devastating wildfires or hurricanes. But as our planet continues to heat, Detroiters are navigating our own set of climate challenges.
In Detroit, where many communities contend with heavy air pollution, flooding, lack of shade, clean water, fresh food, safe housing, and transportation, climate-related weather conditions like heavy rainfall and heat waves are making things worse.
Our most vulnerable residents – seniors, youth, disabled citizens, and those living on low incomes and in poverty – are hit hardest.
It can be overwhelming to know how to respond—as individuals and within communities. But it’s possible, and already happening, through climate resilience.
“We know global climate change is happening, and the impacts are felt more in low-income communities and communities of color because these are also communities that are impacted by structural racism, as well as environmental racism,” said Donna Givens Davidson, president, and CEO of Eastside Community Network. The nonprofit is a community leader in building climate resilience.
“Everybody needs resilience, not just poor people,” she added. “Everybody needs the ability to respond to crises, adapt to whatever kind of conditions they’re in, and organize their resources and services in response to whatever is happening.”
So here’s your guide to understanding climate resilience on a local level and what you can do at home, at work, and in your community to address the climate crisis and prepare for its effects:
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), climate resilience is “the ability to prepare for, recover from and adapt to” the impacts of climate change. Though the climate crisis is broad, resilience efforts must be hyper-local to be effective, C2ES says, and it will take governments, institutions, businesses, nonprofits, and citizens working together on a new level to address climate risks.
The main climate resilience strategies are adapting to the consequences of climate change that are already here and mitigating or lessening the impact of what’s to come. As Givens Davidson points out, climate justice is the third component – the recognition that climate change disproportionately affects poor people and people of color – those least responsible for this crisis, often with the fewest resources to cope with its impacts.
In 2021, the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability produced a report on best practices for implementing resilience hubs in Detroit. In frontline communities (those who experience the “first and worst” impacts of climate change because of where they live), it says, “neighborhood and municipal level resilience initiatives offer a pathway to prepare for future risks, as well as a way of confronting past injustices.”
Resilience adaptation may focus on providing people’s basic health and well-being needs, such as better housing and water infrastructure, planting trees to cool neighborhoods or installing air conditioning in senior apartments and schools.
On the mitigation side, “climate justice means ensuring that climate solutions, like clean energy projects, bring help, not harm, to vulnerable communities,” explains the Union of Concerned Scientists. That may mean decommissioning polluting coal-powered plants in low-income communities or ensuring such communities have access to clean energy.
In 2014, a report on climate change in Detroit by the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments predicted the region would experience more frequent and longer heat waves, heavy rains, flooding, infrastructure damage due to severe weather and increasing demands for services.
More days with temperatures over 90 degrees will increase the risk for heat-related illness and death, GLISA notes, and worsen air pollution leading to asthma attacks in children and more heart attacks and hospitalizations.”
Asthma rates in Detroit residents were 46% higher than those for Michigan residents overall between 2017 and 2019 – up from 29% higher between 2012-2014.
Detroit includes many sources of fossil fuel emissions. Southwest Detroit, where Marathon’s refinery sits, has more than two dozen “pollutant-producing facilities” in and around its neighborhood on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) watch list. The U of M report notes high levels of pollution has led to “some of the highest asthma and cancer rates in Michigan.”
Ground-level ozone forms when fossil fuel pollutants react with sunlight. It's worst on hot days. Since 2010, Detroit has experienced six of its 10 hottest summers on record, with summer 2021 bringing 13 days with temperatures over 90 degrees.
The report notes that the city has also experienced multiple “500-year” floods in the last ten years, along with major shifts in precipitation, increasing the risk of sewage overflow, water contamination, and stress to infrastructure. The Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood experienced major flooding events in 2014, 2016, and 2021, and 96% of properties are “at an extreme risk of flooding in the future.”
Detroit's combined sewer system collects and transports stormwater drainage from rainfall alongside waste from businesses, industries, and homes. “Our system is not built to collect the large amount of water that caused us to have those floods last summer,” said Elayne Elliott, a community organizer for Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter. “We need more work done to our gray infrastructure to help meet our current capacity and the climate changes we're seeing now compared to when our systems were built.”
When severe rains hit and streets flood, the system gets overwhelmed, and the combined sewage is “partially treated and screened,” Elliott said, before flowing directly into the Detroit River. This gray infrastructure failure contaminates waterways and increases the risk of waterborne disease.
The United Nations Security Council and the U.S. Department of Defense have deemed climate change a threat multiplier. This means the direct effects of climate change, like extreme heat, warming waters, and flooding, are responsible for intensifying other societal tensions.
As Detroit continues to experience extreme weather conditions, its residents, 33% of whom live in poverty, are also facing exacerbated health, energy, and safety issues associated with old housing stock, lack of transportation, frequent power outages, and high utility costs and water shut-offs. As our city looks to climate solutions, local environmental and climate justice advocates are working to keep these challenges burdening residents’ daily lives and well-being central to decision-making.
Climate change is a long-term challenge requiring sustained action and investment on multiple levels over many decades. Here's a guide to what our federal, state, and local governments and grassroots groups are doing to build climate resilience:
Federal government: The Inflation Reduction Act
In August, President Biden signed The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law, committing to spend $374 billion on clean energy and climate resilience over the next ten years. It is the most significant investment in climate made by the U.S. government.
The act offers tax credits and funding for renewable energy, electric vehicles, energy-efficient home improvements, and financial incentives for businesses to cut methane emissions, a large contributor to global warming. Spending is designed to lower energy costs, increase cleaner energy production, and reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030.
Outside of clean-energy incentives for industry, the IRA provides individuals up to $7,500 in tax credits when purchasing an electric vehicle and $9 billion in home energy rebate programs toward electrical appliances, heat pumps, and other energy-efficient upgrades.
The IRA also includes incentives for homeowners to take on solar projects or make energy storage installations on their property. Through the IRA, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which was in the process of phasing down, was restored to 30% for residential solar investments for the next ten years. It will decrease to 26% for systems installed in 2033 and to 22% for systems installed in 2034, and will expire in 2035 unless Congress renews it. To get answers to questions about going solar, check out this homeowners guide and this one for project qualifications and how to apply for the federal tax credit on solar projects.
The IRA has been met with celebration from many environmental agencies for its clean and renewable energy action. Still, advocates of the climate justice movement say the legislation won’t much help the average working family who can’t afford solar panel installations or an electric car, many who are struggling in poverty exacerbated by growing patterns of extreme weather conditions.
Advocates and others instead call for investments that grow community wealth and center on families, things advocated for in earlier versions of Biden’s $1.7 trillion dollar Build Back Better Plan — like community ownership of renewable energy, public transportation, or adequate and universal housing.
Out of the $374 billion the IRA will spend, experts at the Just Solutions Collective estimate $40 billion in direct benefits for communities with environmental justice concerns, compared to the $29 billion the Biden Administration allocated under the Justice40 Initiative created “to ensure that federal agencies deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean water and other investments to disadvantaged communities.”
Several organizations, including the Collective, have argued that the IRA’s environmental justice benefits are surpassed or “short-changed” by other provisions, especially those that may drive investment in coal, oil and gas, nuclear, hydrogen, and biofuels that may disproportionately impact frontline communities.
State of Michigan: The MI Healthy Climate Plan
In April 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released the final MI Healthy Climate Plan to make Michigan carbon neutral by 2050, proposing climate action that would create green jobs, stimulate economic development and innovation, protect clean air and water, increase public transit and improve public health.
Like the Justice40 Initiative, it commits that at least 40 percent of state funding for climate-related and water infrastructure initiatives will benefit Michigan’s disadvantaged communities.
Carbon neutrality means that any carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is balanced by an equal amount being removed. Additional goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 52% by 2030. The plan acknowledges that its policies do not go far enough to achieve all its goals.
A recent report by the Michigan Environmental Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council, 5 Lakes Energy, and RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute) presents additional recommendations to meet Michigan’s goals.
Some policies the report recommends that go beyond the MIHCP focus on ending construction of new gas-fired power plants, setting a building electrification standard to be met by 2035, setting standards that lead to 100% electric vehicle (EV) sales in Michigan by 2035, and introducing incentives to accelerate the transition of vehicles on Michigan’s roads to fully electric.
City of Detroit: Sustainability Action Agenda / Detroit Climate Strategy
In July, the Detroit Office of Sustainability released a two-year update on progress made on the city’s 2019 Sustainability Action Agenda. Accomplishments included rising recycling and commercial recycling, 48 fully electric vehicles in the municipal parking fleet, green stormwater practices in parks, and building the city’s first resilience hub recreation center.
Energy conservation, along with community development and sustainability, is a key focus for EcoWorks’ Briana DuBose. She’s helping to lead planning for Detroit’s long-term climate strategy, specifically looking at potential mitigation and resilience efforts for the city through an equity lens. (DuBose also sits on Planet Detroit’s advisory council.) As part of Detroit’s Green Taskforce, Dubose also co-leads the city’s Climate Equity Advisory Council of 13 individuals, residents from hard-hit climate neighborhoods, and representatives from organizations doing environmental justice work.
The plan uses language like air quality, tree cover, and flooding over technical climate terms like emissions and seeks to address climate impact affecting residents' social, economic, and healthy well-being, according to Briana DuBose, Director of Strategic Community Initiatives at EcoWorks and member of the city’s Green Task Force. (DuBose also sits on Planet Detroit’s advisory council.)
While budget constraints likely won’t allow for everything workgroups want to do, DuBose said the project aims “to inform hazard mitigation and city operational plans, develop a community resilience toolkit, and overall, create climate mitigation in overarching climate action strategies.”
“We're trying to make a concerted effort to make this a plan that is owned by the citizens of Detroit, people that are invested in climate, as well as people that are just learning about climate,” she says.
Other municipalities across Michigan
With its commitment to eliminate municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, (recently updated to 75% by 2034), Detroit is one of 17 Michigan communities planning for climate resilience (Royal Oak was added after the report), according to the state. Each has set goals to be carbon neutral or to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The University of Michigan committed to eliminating both direct emissions and emissions from purchased energy between 2025 and 2040, the report says, while Michigan State University committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 with incremental reduction goals. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians has a net-zero energy goal and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by four percent per year.
What policies and actions do advocacy groups want to see implemented at the state and local levels to help our communities to be more resilient to climate change?
When we asked nonprofit leaders and organizers this question, we heard answers addressing a range of topics. Some of these ideas have been introduced to legislation, but all need much more support to gain traction. Here are some of the key resilience policies we heard about:
In Detroit, climate advocates would like to see more investment made in the city’s
Office of Sustainability, fitting it with a robust staff and ambassadors who represent the specific needs of each district. They’d like to see the office empowered to guide all city policy practices and economic and neighborhood development activities, integrating climate resilience into all Detroit does.
In terms of protecting citizens from pollution, advocates want to see stronger zoning policies put in place around existing industries that don’t allow for expansions within a block of where people live without paying for resident relocation.
To help protect air quality, advocates say treeline buffers are needed along freeways, particularly I-94, to separate residents from heavy traffic pollution. Advocates and residents in Southwest Detroit are hoping for a trucking ordinance forbidding trucks of a certain size from cutting through residential neighborhoods, causing noise and air pollution.
In a city where auto insurance is high, and one-third of residents do not own a car, some said public transportation is a major issue that needs layers of investment. Along with bus route improvements and increased bike lanes, people would like to see the city give incentives for car sharing, e-bike purchases, opportunities for a free ride, and scooter and bike share programs like this one in Denver.
Advocates want to see a healthy tree canopy to cool neighborhoods and more investment is needed toward healthy green spaces and substantial gray and green infrastructure to combat flooding.
They'd like to see home repair dollars specifically oriented towards climate resilience; roofs capable of solar, electric water heaters and furnaces, and systems more resilient to flooding, and greater incentives and subsidies for small businesses to invest in green stormwater infrastructure.
The city has invested in recycling over the last two years, but residents also would like to see investment made in piloting residential composting programs, such as this one in Ferndale.
On a state level, climate resilience advocates want to see Michigan hold its industry accountable to citizens and the environment through a polluter’s fee to pay for chemical spills and pollution cleanup.
They also want stronger oversight on utilities to end the use of coal and other fossil fuels. Many advocates want to see communities empowered by energy micro-grids for communities and through legislation allowing community solar through locally produced renewable energy. Others would like to see a ban on plastic bags like those found in California, New York and Connecticut, although the Michigan Legislature passed a law prohibiting such a ban in 2016.
When it comes to water, leading advocates are calling for a permanent commitment from the state of Michigan to make water accessible, clean, and affordable for all. Ideas to help support this commitment include reworking the Great Lakes Water Authority agreement to be more equitable for Detroiters or beginning to localize wastewater treatment.
People in the energy-efficiency space want state and federal support for fuel switching in energy-efficiency assistance programs to allow for legacy systems to be updated with heat pumps, etc., that help decarbonize grids and homes. More flexible funding that addresses rising costs and labor shortages is also needed for offerings like the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program.
Much thought and expense go into planning a city, township, county or university sustainability and climate plan. Climate resilience advocates suggest that the state of Michigan help create climate action plans for municipalities that don’t have the finances or staffing capacity to explore these important steps.
To help put candidates who have sponsored pro-environmental bills in office this November, check out the Michigan Sierra Club’s endorsed 2022 list and those recommended by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
There are a lot of things you can do to build climate resilience. Here are a few to get you started.
Prepare: Build a plan for severe weather events like heat waves or floods. These resources at ready.gov can help you get started, And find out if your neighborhood has resources like a resilience hub – or work with community groups to start one. Learn more about local resilience hubs here and considerations for building resilience hubs.
Go solar: Detroit’s Office of Sustainability offers two climate resilience-building tools for you to use at home or at your workplace. The first is the Detroit Solar Toolkit, which helps residents make solar installations at their homes or businesses. This solar map shows the potential solar energy of a building or lot in the city. The toolkit explains how energy efficiency and solar work together, gives the basic guidelines for installation and how to get approval from the city for your project.
Go green: The Detroit Stormwater Hub is a tool for individuals and organizations to share green stormwater projects and track the city-wide progress and impact of green stormwater infrastructure. It offers resources and expertise from groups doing various GSIs and includes a map of 243 projects, from rain gardens to green roofs, spanning 740 acres. It also shows what projects qualify for drainage credits from the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), which manages the site. Also check out these rain garden resources from Friends of the Rouge.
Recycle: The City of Detroit offers free, curbside recycling to all single-family homes and buildings with 1-4 units. Play an online recycling game and request a cart. They’ve recently added a commercial recycling program for commercial and multifamily (5 units or more) buildings. If you live in a larger apartment building, you can bring your recyclables to Recycle Here!, the city’s recycling drop-off site. They do not take plastic bags, so just stop using them!
Reduce food waste: Make Food Not Waste is a city-based nonprofit using education, food upcycling, and advocacy to keep food out of landfills and slow climate change. Donate food, volunteer, and learn helpful tips to reduce food waste in your own home. Forgotten Harvest, Gleaners and Food Rescue US Detroit (web-based app) transfers excess fresh food from grocers, restaurants, and other sources to agencies that feed people in need. Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners.
Compost: Composting at home is an important step in cutting food waste. Local farm and garden organizations often offer classes during the growing season to learn how. If you want to be easy, Midtown Composting now services most of the metro Detroit area. They offer a weekly residential pickup service for $16 a month and a commercial one for $20 with a $5 sign-up fee. Once a year, participants may receive 15 Gallons of finished compost (3 buckets) for gardening or landscaping!
Grow your own: Speaking of gardening, Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program (GRP) is over 2000 gardens strong! Tending a garden contributes a huge amount of fruits and vegetables to your diet and helps build healthy eating habits for everyone in your home. Eating fresh and local is good for our climate and good for you. The GRP offers families seeds, transplants, and season-long growing support for $15, and communities and schools $30.
Support a food co-op or CSA: Want to be a part of building food sustainability and keeping grocery dollars in Detroiters' pockets? The Detroit People’s Food Co-op is a Black-led community-owned grocery cooperative going up in the city’s North End. It will be a full-service grocery store, open to the public, mainly serving an urban, low and moderate-income community. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network movement has secured over 1400 of its 2000 member goals.
Purchase together: Interested in finding strength in numbers when taking on resilience projects? The Polar Bear Cooperative works to provide centralized purchasing and financing services related to energy-efficient and sustainable products and services for its members. The cooperative is part of a larger network working on Grow Solar Highland-Park Detroit, public education, and a bulk purchasing program to make solar easier and more affordable.
When it comes to navigating energy costs, basement flooding, utility and water affordability, green infrastructure and solar projects, green job training and finding safe spaces when power outages and climate events hit, we all need a little direction. Here are some key resources:
- Wayne Metro Community Action Alliance provides a range of critical services around weatherization, energy efficiency, utility and water affordability, education, housing, lead abatement, etc. to low-income renters and homeowners. Specifically, the Weatherization Assistance Program funded by the Department of Energy(DOE) permanently reduces energy costs for low-income households by increasing the energy efficiency of homes.
- Growing Green Jobs Training Program at Wayne Metro is a 10-week, $15/hour PAID job training that includes job placement in weatherization or water conservation. Make a short-term commitment to qualify for much-needed green jobs!
- While we look to see large water infrastructure improvements from DWSD, the Basement Backup Protection Program is something Detroit homeowners and landlords in select neighborhoods can sign up for now. The program installs backwater valves and sump pumps for residents at the cost of $100, or no charge if enrolled in the DWSD Lifeline Plan. Phase 1 started with two neighborhoods in May. Seven more neighborhoods will be eligible for Phase 2, starting at the end of Summer 2022. Not in an eligible neighborhood but still dealing with flooding? You may find the basement backup and flooding handbook helpful.
- Stoudamire Wellness Hub: 4401 Conner St. Detroit. Eastside Community Network (ECN) is working to create a network of climate resiliency on the city’s east side. Its transformed headquarters offers residents recreation, resources, and healthcare, as well as safety and assistance during extreme weather. It will provide solar power and battery storage and other green features during power outages, and emergencies. It is part of the Resilient Eastside Initiative building a network of resilience hubs for residents at multiple locations. ECN also works to create and support climate leaders and ambassadors through its LEAP Sustainability Fellowship, Hamilton Rainscape Learning Lab, and Resident Climate Corps.
- Bailey Park NDC Community Resilience Hub: 2617 Joseph Campau Ave. An initiative of the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Hub is equipped to offer community members emergency and social support services, internet access, computer assistance, tutoring, health and wellness workshops, workforce development food supplies, etc. Residents can go there during and after an emergency for specialized help.
- Michigan Interfaith Power & Light is a coalition of over 80 congregations across Michigan who work to help the state’s many faith communities become leaders in the effort to address climate change and environmental crises. The organization makes energy upgrades at houses of worship that typically can’t afford them, to help lower their energy bills and reduce their climate pollution.
- We Want Green Too is working to create an inclusive, safe, sustainable, and energy-efficient community space for veterans and Detroit’s East Side. Their iCAN program seeks to equip veterans with environmental literacy, solar installation, energy efficiency retrofitting skills, and green job readiness while addressing community issues of air pollution, energy burden, and unemployment.
- Michigan’s Sierra Club and Friends of the Rouge partner on a Rain Gardens to the Rescue program. In free class demonstrations, they teach people how to build their rain gardens of native plants to help prevent floods and pollution while beautifying spaces. The partnership has installed over 100 gardens across Detroit’s seven districts. Their application for a free rain garden installation goes up each March, with preference given to residents in the demonstration district chosen that year.
- Want to see an incredible example of sustainable affordable housing in Detroit? The La Salle Eco-Demonstration Home, headquarters of Hope Village Revitalization and neighborhood center, has been renovated to �?the highest standards of energy efficiency and renewable energy, with a focus on sustainability. It features solar power, heat pumps, bamboo flooring, a radon collection and exhaust system, a rain garden, permeable and pervious pavement, and more. The project is on track to be certified as the first LEED platinum home rehab in Detroit.
- Want to make some of your healthy home improvements? EcoWorks provides services at the intersection of community development and sustainability. The first 500 families to participate in their Healthy Homes Kit program will receive a FREE customized kit of materials that will help them save money on their energy and water bills and help them improve the health of their homes.
There are many ways to get involved in this advocacy space, and many organizations doing meaningful work to address the harmful impacts of climate change. Here are just a few:
Learn how to work with a nonpartisan group of everyday folks to create impactful climate policy through the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Want to use your voice as a business owner to advocate for effective climate policy? Join the lobby’s group of Business Climate Leaders, representing nearly 20 business sectors to support market-based solutions.
The Detroit River Public Advisory Council: become a stakeholder in the Detroit River Area of Concern; help facilitate cleanup efforts to legacy contaminants and environmental issues.
Stand for water justice with We the People of Detroit by taking the water affordability pledge.
Join the Eastside Climate Advisory Group to work toward climate equity for Detroit’s residents.
Rainy day? Visit KGD online for quick online garden classes (seeds and transplants) or how-to demonstrations (how to build a rain barrel or pallet compost bin).
Help a young person aged 13-17 interested in environmental activism learn about the Clean Air Youth Council with Michigan Environmental Justice or Green Door Initiative’s Climate Organizers Leading Detroit (COLD).
Help Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV) with tasks like orchard and garden maintenance, neighborhood trash sweep, and rain garden renovation
Become a Net Zero Hero with EcoWorks by committing your small business, nonprofit, or school to take five bold steps, committing to zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
Become a citizen lobbyist with the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter and use your voice to demand change and communicate the message of conservation and environmental protection to Michigan’s legislators.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of ways to get involved in protecting people and communities against the impacts of climate change. We’re sure you’ll find others, and we’d love to hear your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation.