Climate Matters in Michigan
Pressing Realities for a State and a Region
Trish Koman, Zachary Rowe, Pamela Pugh, Shannon Brines, Paige Fischer
Nearly fifty years after the 1970 Teach-In on the Environment, which began with a rally in Crisler Center, we invited five colleagues to discuss what climate change will mean for the state of Michigan’s environment and its people. Gathered in Crisler’s Hall of Honor, they shared insights from their work and research in the region and their hopes and concerns for communities across the state.
Fischer. I’m Paige Fischer, assistant professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability. My teaching and research focuses on human behavior, especially around environmental change, climate-driven change, how people experience those changes, and how they can respond in ways that reduce adverse impacts and increase their well-being over time in the face of climate change. Most of my research focuses in rural areas, in the context of forests, on how individuals and families who rely on forests can adapt to and cope with climate change. A lot of the things I'm learning are applicable more broadly to questions of adaptation, vulnerability, and reception of climate change. I've been in academia for five years, but I came from the Forest Service, where we had a much more applied mission in serving the people who depended on the nation’s forests and grasslands.
Brines. I’m Shannon Brines, an applied geographer at the School for Environment and Sustainability. I have a research support role primarily working with folks to integrate spatial questions and spatial analyses into whatever they're thinking about. I'm interested in sustainability and climate change and climate adaptation. Many of the projects I’ve worked on have been direct collaborations with the School of Public Health—how the built environment affects people’s health, for example, which included vulnerability indices and analyses and people’s access to places to recreate, exercise, and so on. I actively farm, so I do have the practitioner’s perspective. I’m interested in sustainable agriculture, especially ways to integrate perennial components into farming practices, which will be important for food production in Michigan in the years ahead.
Pugh. I’m Pamela Pugh, and I currently serve as the Chief Public Health Advisor for the City of Flint, which means that I advise the mayor and the administration on how the decisions they make impact the health of the residents of Flint. We work closely with state and federal government to translate and interpret science, to ensure we are accessing the most relevant and current science, and to help everyone understand—no matter what role they play in the community—how science impacts the health of residents. Coming out of the water crisis, we know the decisions a financial person makes impact the health and well-being of every resident. Beyond that we are looking at water affordability, at how we can rebuild more sustainably, and at how other energy choices will impact residents. We’re partnering with the NAACP to make sure everyone has opportunities to benefit as we rebuild our energy infrastructure and to make sure our most vulnerable populations—primarily urban communities of color—are thriving, that they understand the coming impacts of climate change, and that they understand how they can be a part of this new energy infrastructure.
Rowe. I’m Zachary Rowe, executive director for Friends of Parkside, a community-based organization in Detroit. I'm also a founding member of the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center—the Detroit URC. I’ve been involved with several URC research projects over the years. Most recently was the Heatwaves, Housing, and Health partnership, a project looking at heat impacts in several communities on the East Side as well as the South Eastside. We’re now working on a project called DCREW—Detroit Communities Reducing Energy and Water (use) project, evaluating ways we can reduce energy burdens on residents.
Koman. I am Trish Koman, a research investigator in Environmental Health Sciences at the School Public Health. And I split my time with the College of Engineering as a multidisciplinary program manager. My research focus has been on vulnerable populations and looking at air quality and water issues. I'm very interested in wildfire and how that might affect vulnerable populations.
I wanted to ask you each what you see as the most pressing climate realities for Michigan and for the Midwest as it relates to human health. In my mind, the most important question right now is how to we mobilize for a health issue like climate change, and what are the roles for public health professionals in primary prevention? We bring a lot of different perspectives to this.
For me I think about the World Health Organization’s approach of viewing our climate system as our life support. We know there is a scientific consensus that climate is changing due to human-produced greenhouse gases, mainly fossil fuel combustion related to many of our energy sources for utilities, transportation, and other needs and that a changing climate has major implications for our health, many of which we know are already happening.
We also know that our public health system is not well prepared for this. Recently, the American Public Health Association’s president—Georges Benchman—was talking to Congress about the importance of being prepared. We know from surveys in the state of Michigan that our local public health departments are not ready for this. They don't believe the state has adequate resources. They don't think the national system is ready either. But we know that public health is already playing a key role in adaptation. Public health works toward risk prevention, for detection of disease, and for management of the systems that do these things. Climate change will impact our physical environment in ways that will cascade into human-health-related issues. Air quality, which I study, will change. We will see increases in heat-related illness. Vector-borne diseases will change as mosquitoes and ticks bring to our state diseases we haven't seen before. Flooding is already a problem in Detroit. We’re seeing drought in other areas, challenges to food security, changes to coastal communities—all of which will create new issues for Michigan. We know our public health community is strong and vibrant and can engage these issues on multiple levels. Climate change and its health impacts should be something everyone is talking about—to our boards of health, with our communities—bringing solutions and focus to the issues and working in a variety of sectors to help everyone get ready, help them bring forward solutions they think can make a big difference.
We also know we need to make broad systemic change. We’re working now with the 1.5 Degree Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which details the effects and potential responses of humans to the globe warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We know from this report and much other scientific work that we need to be making major changes to our energy systems and that it has to happen rapidly.
Many of the public health organizations and medical organizations have banded together to declare a climate emergency around this urgent issue. We are all working on this right now in our different capacities, and I think that we can have a good conversation about how we might be doing that in various ways. So I want to open the floor to see if you would like to talk about health in some of our cities and how we are mobilizing around climate change.
Pugh. In Flint we’ve been focused, obviously, on the water crisis for the past five years. However, we are receiving funding for infrastructure. We’re also looking at water affordability. Whether you look at water treatment or sewage treatment, one of the greatest costs is energy—about 40 percent of a household’s energy. As we look at our older infrastructure and older housing, we look at efficiency and helping residents with efficiency, because we have to replace appliances and homes that have been damaged by corrosive water. We’re trying to catch everyone up while looking at rebuilding in more sustainable ways. Mayor Weaver is supportive of this planning and development and actually created the Chief Public Health Advisor role coming out of the water crisis to ensure all public departments in Flint work together more efficiently, help residents be more efficient, and make sure the systems we’re building are more efficient. As we know, systems that reduce energy use and costs also help us begin to move away from older energy sources that we don’t want to use. So we’re looking at how to help residents, businesses, faith-based communities become part of the fastest growing job market—solar and wind energy. We’re addressing the water crisis in our city, in part, by moving toward renewable energy systems, which will provide everyone in the community with new opportunities. The city’s master plan entails social equity and sustainable planning in all goals and calls for an increase in rain gardens, storm-water management, and solar development.
Rowe. The city of Detroit has taken big steps in putting together a plan for Detroit, including creating an Office of Sustainability, among other things being done citywide. City government has taken a strong and effective leadership position on climate change. The thing about strong leadership is that you need followers. From my vantage point, it seems folks are unsure how to follow the lead in relation to climate change. Climate change is huge, and we don’t always know how to get our arms around it. When I talk to folks in my community trying to provide for their families and pay their bills about this thing looming on the horizon called climate change—it is so easy to push this thing out to the future. We don’t really understand how our daily lives and actions will make a difference, will actually contribute to fixing this huge problem. With that context in mind, one of the things we do at Friends of Parkside, in partnership with the city, is translate how we make these large issues relevant to people’s daily lives. In the heatwave study we worked on two years ago with the URC, we looked at the impact of heat in homes, in multi-family housing structures—my office is located in the Village of Parkside, a housing development—and on single-family homes.
People know they’re getting hot more often, they sense it. But they don’t always have the context to see and understand how their experience is connected to things happening in other cities, other parts of Michigan, other parts of the world. But being involved in the heatwaves study, where you are not only a participant but have, in many ways, immediate access to the science itself, gives us that context. And the science tells us that we’re right. Those days you thought were not only extremely hot but unusually hot, especially so many of them in a row—that is part of what’s happening with global warming. Those insights are important in helping people change behavior. It’s actually easier to get entire communities moving toward new behaviors, new ideas about policy, when they know they’re part of something bigger and that they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing.
We need to do more of these research projects where you involve Detroiters. We need more people, more community leaders around the table helping us shape the research and shape how we communicate the science to the people of Detroit. This will give us a more informed, educated community around climate change. Right now, we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible in Detroit with getting everyone on board. We’re doing our little bit on the Eastside to make climate change a real issue for folks, and we need more of these partnerships with researchers and policymakers so we can really move Detroit toward new, positive ideas that help us reduce climate change.
Koman. Part of helping people understand climate science has to do with geospatial data. Shannon, your lab brings climate modeling into the research and helps show communities across Michigan—including our rural areas—what those impacts might be. How might the changes we see in Michigan affect soil conditions and weather patterns and how might that impact agriculture and food systems?
Brines. Many of the things we’ve discussed generally and in urban areas are also affecting rural landscapes, and that includes the people living on those landscapes. The ultimate reality of climate change for the rural areas producing much of the food in our food systems, and the stresses on food security in the state of Michigan, is that climate change is already happening. Growing seasons are already in flux. The summer of 2012, for example, saw a significant heatwave in early March that led to most of our fruit production—at least in terms of tree-based fruit—blooming and then getting frozen out by a cold snap. Apples, cherries, peaches, and pears, all important economic factors in Michigan in addition to being part of the food supply, were affected significantly. Farmers are used to seasonality and annual variation but are beginning to see extremes that many of us have not seen. That same year, however, was a good year for strawberries, blueberries, and grapes. This illustrates that our food systems need diversity and our farmers, for pure economic reasons, need diversity in their operations as a central part of their strategy for enduring and surviving these variations and continuing to produce the food we depend on.
This year we had lots of rain early in the season. For farmers using an industrial commodity model—rotating through cash crops like soy and corn—this was particularly hard, because it delayed or even prevented planting. This was even harder on farmers in the upper Mississippi, where flooding was extreme and large operations planted very late if at all. We have programs to mitigate financial risk so farms can survive. But I want to challenge folks to rethink the models we use. Incorporating more diverse crops and planting methods is part of a larger movement toward farming in the way of nature—mimicking natural processes by integrating a variety of components into agricultural practice. Even corn- and soy-rotation farmers could begin immediately with some incremental methods. One of the major steps all farmers can take is to bring in more perennial-based systems into whatever they're working on.
Koman. Can you define perennial?
Brines. Perennial is anything with roots that produces each year without replanting. Most of the fields we see in early spring and late fall—when trees and lawns are starting to green up—are still brown and barren. These are usually the corn and soy rotation areas. A small percentage of them use cover crops, but generally, we’re not utilizing that sun and rain at the ends of the season that’s hitting those fields. Perennials can be integrated in a variety of ways in farming systems, including just leaving them in fields for years to produce food. A group in Minnesota is working on something called continual living cover. The Savanna Institute helps farmers implement agroforestry into food production and into their land management generally, helping the landscape with buffers along riparian areas, building wood lots in areas where they can’t farm, and so on. With the urgency we’re discussing, we definitely need to think more about farming in nature’s way—asking what actually fits the ecosystems in which we’re farming, including use of perennials.
Policy components that scientists and policymakers could think about—whatever we can do to incentivize or mitigate risks that a farm might see and transitioning to those models but also moving toward measuring outcomes on a farm. Is this farm creating ecological services? We often focus on activities and production, but we need to look closely at the ways a farm is stewarding its landscape and the ecological systems around it.
Fischer. I’ll just add that perennial growing and forest management can also help with controlling greenhouse gases themselves. Forestry-based carbon sequestration is the process of storing carbon from CO2 in woody material rather than leaving it in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Trees, which in most cases are long-lived organisms, can store carbon for long periods of time, and solid wood products, depending on how they are made, can store carbon for very long time periods. Keeping our landscapes forested with trees and managing our forests—so trees can survive stress events like droughts, storms, and wildfires and so they don’t easily succumb to forest insects and diseases—can prevent carbon being lost into the atmosphere. We can also cultivate climate-adapted species, for example, planting trees here that are originally from more southern zones and might now do well under future climate conditions.
Koman. I’m going to ask Paige to start the next question. Before we do, I want to bring in another concept that we might also discuss today, the difference between climate and weather. When we think about farming cycles, climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. Climate is often thought of in terms of decades or a 30-year cycle. Weather is the next few days and so on. People around the state are noticing patterns with changes in their weather—spring comes earlier, planting dates are moving up, we get more frequent storms earlier in the season, and rains come harder. All of these things are not just a one-year change but a pattern. Likewise with heat, these record-setting years are not a one off, they’re part of pattern. So, Paige, I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about some of these topics.
Fischer. Thinking about climate change impacts on food production in Michigan, and thinking about links back to public health, I can imagine that climate change impacts on food production can result in food scarcity that adversely affects health. Another important thing is just the stress that uncertainty and loss cause to people whose lives depend on certain types of land-use production. I teach a class on social vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. Every few years we take the class up to the Leelanau Peninsula in northwest Michigan, where fruit producers have experienced two once-in-a-lifetime devastating crop losses within 12 years of each other. There are huge economic damages associated with that and some public health consequences to food availability. But one of the things I notice is the psychological damage it can cause when your economy, your social fabric, your livelihoods are bound up in being able to produce a crop reliably every year or close to every year, and then that changes. Complete losses like this can really undermine an entire community and cause tremendous stress. In our last class, our public health students really focused us on this on the field trip, asking questions about mental health. It became a salient theme, how people are dealing with the stress of uncertainty and loss as a result of climate change and what this does to mental health.
Koman. This is a really important point. Our global economy, our supply chain for all of our food, is broader than just Michigan. Many of the goods and services we have come from all over the world and transportation supply chains can be vulnerable to climate change. The stress of understanding that is felt by many people. The large storms we’re experiencing and the displacement of people, the fires out west, and so on.
Pugh. Consumers in vulnerable communities—including black-brown, low-income communities—are on the other side of food systems and food insecurity. The lead crisis led us to focus on providing children with more nutritious food, educating parents about healthier food choices. But on the policy side, access to nutritious food is lacking. When changing weather patterns make it that much more difficult to produce healthy food, vulnerable communities will need policy support to adjust to an already inequitable situation.
Koman. That’s a great segue to turn now to heat-vulnerability, especially in urban areas, and how we communicate with policymakers and vulnerable residents.
Pugh. In March of 2017, we held our first environmental justice summit in Flint, looking at how climate impacts our community. We know that, when we look at the vulnerable communities—black, brown, and low-income—they are disproportionately exposed to the effects of climate change. Particulate matter affects asthma rates in these communities. We also talk about jobs—communities of color spend $41 billion a year (according to a 2009 NAACP report) on energy costs while only 1 percent of energy-sector jobs benefit these communities and these communities receive only .01 percent of profits from these coal-emitting plants. We talk about health impacts and dollar impacts. And we talk about the opportunity to move forward toward greater sustainability—operating more efficiently as individual households and as a city—to address climate change by investing in ourselves and in renewable energy sources.
When we look at policy aspects of this, we can't tell residents behavior is the answer. We can't tell people to eat better, to spend money better. We have to give them tools and help them understand how this will move us toward more just systems. We were in Saginaw recently with NAACP representatives from around the country looking at a church putting solar panels on its roof. Solar will help this faith-based facility operate with fewer expenditures, help them provide more services to their community, and educate members of the church so they can help others in the community better understand climate change and the need for renewable energy.
These are tangible opportunities right in front of us that bring together climate science and real investment opportunities. We talk about weather patterns and the climate—things we see and feel around us. But we have to understand how those things are linked to climate, how we can make the best policies, and how citizens can advocate for more sustainable development. We look at things holistically, and with every dollar we have in Flint, we think about how we can improve our systems not only today but for generations to come using the most sound, relevant, and current science to do that.
Koman. Some of my own research is geospatial mapping in a cumulative environmental risk framework. And Shannon your lab has supported public health students gathering and analyzing data to create vulnerability mapping. And our research shows there are disparities in Michigan. People of color and lower-income communities are experiencing more of the factors we know from science contribute to negative health effects. Much of that has to do with settlement patterns and legal policies from the past. But we need to think about how to address this as we move into the future and our systems change. We’ve discussed the idea of looking at things holistically and we can consider equity as we try to change our systems.
Rowe. Everyone says Detroit is experiencing a comeback. And this is true. You definitely have developments going on downtown. You have larger projects like the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, the Fiat-Chrysler plant. There is a push among communities to tie environmental impacts to those kinds of projects. We don’t always understand what the health impact of those projects will be. Policymakers calculate economic impacts quickly, because that translates to jobs and to the tax base. To some extent we do environmental impact studies, but they often leave something to be desired. As we move forward, we have to talk not just about economic and environmental impact but also health impacts. I’m a novice with many of the terms we use in research, one of them being the “built environment” and the role it plays with the natural environment. The City of Detroit is now moving toward a stormwater management system, trying to keep rainwater out of sewers, rivers, and lakes. But I never understood the connection between asphalt and increases in temperature, how pavement increases extreme heat. And when you look at low-income communities in Detroit, you see a lot more asphalt and a lot less grass and trees. Moving forward, we can use past studies to advocate for more grass, trees, flowers, and green spaces rather than more asphalt. In talking about policy, we need more community input on how the built environment is experienced.
Koman. You bring up a very important consideration. Not only can water not flow through concrete and asphalt surfaces, but they create a significant heat component. The roofs of buildings also have this effect. It all relates to heat-stress vulnerability in a very tangible way and relates to people’s perception of their community. The more that people love the place they live, the more they will take care of it and think about its future and contribute toward solutions. Many people think the world around us is a given. We think it has always been and always will be like this. But development can change things quickly. And climate change will do the same.
Decisions we make now for our state have long-term implications. Working in air pollution versus climate change, I find it fascinating how temporary particulate matter is, even though emissions occur on a daily basis, and just how long CO2 emissions do stay in the atmosphere. We emit CO2 when we drive our cars or turn on the lights if the electricity comes from a power plant. That CO2 stays in the concentrated atmosphere for a long time. The half-life is quite extensive for CO2 concentrations. This means the choices we make now will be with us for a long time—50 to 1,000 years. It is a different type of decision that we are making when we produce CO2.
When I was working in Flint with some of the community groups on education around water quality, we talked about the pipes that had been put in place a long time ago—people couldn’t always remember when they were put in, it had been that long—and were suddenly a problem now. This led to the realization that they would be making changes to upgrade their built environment—the water delivery system and beyond—that would affect people years from now. Someone in Flint in 50 years will either bless them or curse them for the way they made these changes. We talked about how this responsibility gave them an opportunity to ask what community they wanted, how to shape that community, how densely to recreate the built environment, and so on. Michigan is at this point now with climate change. We are making choices now that have extensive impact, and it is important to have conversations about that.
Pugh. I want to observe that you said “someone.” So often it does boil down to someone making the decisions now that will impact us for generations. That is why our electoral process is huge as we talk about this. Typically, a municipality receives, say, $110 million that must be spent in a certain amount of time. Economic factors then come into play, and we want to move quickly. In those moments we need people keen, knowledgeable, and courageous enough to say, “Wait, let’s pause on this because it will impact us for generations to come.” The policymakers we elect have to take these things into consideration. They must be bold and wise enough to think about the long term. Too often these decisions are made in haste without nearly enough thought of tomorrow.
Fischer. I had a follow-up question for Zachary about the built environment and green infrastructure. In thinking about planting grass and trees instead of laying asphalt, what are your thoughts on the trade-offs. It’s my understanding that as good as green spaces are, somebody has to take care of the green infrastructure. Can these spaces in some ways be burdensome for residents to care for?
Rowe. It’s an important point. The City of Detroit certainly takes the lead on some things. Community organizations also do a lot. The Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) came out with strategies and recommendations for green spaces that included lists of vegetation that are low maintenance but high impact, slow-growing grasses, perennials, and the like. But how do you move toward green infrastructure that is sustainable so you don’t have that negative trade-off in increased costs. And even if you have some increases in cost, can you set it up so that the benefit outweighs the costs
Koman. I would challenge that in a way. In the cost-benefit assessments I did for the Clean Air Act, we were able to characterize only the health benefits of a few things. It is much easier to characterize costs, especially immediate costs that are concentrated, and much more difficult to measure diffuse benefits that might arrive in the future.
This is a challenge for public health, to make the case for future benefits and to make the case for health in all policies—that health should be a value at the center of all public decisions. We don’t yet have good methods for measuring climate-related health effects on a project-by-project basis. The public health community has resources to develop those methods through health impact assessments and other techniques. It is a growing area for our field.
Brines. We’re alluding to the rural-urban connection. The popular food author Michael Pollan made the case that, because we are all eaters, we all should be interested in what happens on rural landscapes and what happens to rural citizens. Furthermore, when we talk about industry in Michigan, agriculture is the second largest industry in the state. We have rather diverse landscapes here in Michigan. We are fortunate to have great soils that keep pests at bay—with climate change this could be changing. Our climate has kept water an abundant resource—many studies now show that parts of central Michigan might be drought stressed in the coming years by a series of mini-droughts. The way we have fashioned our commodity corn-soy rotation system moves an incredible amount of water off of our land, especially in the springtime.
It’s just part of the method—they need to bring heavy equipment onto the soil, so they drain large spaces of water. But if farmers move water off their landscapes in the spring so they can plant with heavy equipment and then need water later in the season, perhaps we should retain that water somehow. This practice is basically at odds with itself. Water management needs to be a big component of the crop diversity and perennial system I mentioned earlier. Specific policies for agricultural work could incentivize managing water better on these large spaces and providing farmers not only encouragement but examples and demonstrations of how they can make the change.
We need to spend a whole day discussing equity, but I briefly want to address the inequity in agricultural systems, from farm workers all the way to restaurant workers. Many of the farmers are themselves integrated into inequitable systems where farmers feel like they are on a treadmill with debt, land, and crop cycles. Policy actions to readjust that probably need to happen at the federal level, not just in Michigan. Meanwhile, we need to bring a whole new generation of farmers to the industry to continue producing food. Perhaps these things can work together and become an opportunity for recruiting farmers and treating them equitably.
Koman. As a geographer, I’m also interested in your thoughts on the scale at which we consider climate impacts. For example, many climate models do not include the Great Lakes because they are not at a big enough scale to impact modeling.
When I think about the impacts for the state of Michigan—looking only at Michigan or only at the upper Midwest—the model is not adequate because it would miss the fact that the Southwest and other areas of the US will be drought prone and will start looking at the Great Lakes as their water source because they are a national water source.
Brines. Right, we can expand on the idea of making water management a consideration in new models, in integrating perennial systems. Water management discussions are really a necessity right now. We will see larger political discussions. We are a water resource that others are looking at. The study I mentioned was looking only at watersheds in the center of Michigan. When you look at farming in Michigan, surrounded by these large lakes, it seems ironic that those areas could become stressed for water. But it reminds us that many things will be out of the control of individual farmers and individual citizens. Farmers need to think about how they can create self-sustaining systems on their own landscape, how they can survive and thrive with resources on their immediate landscape and not count on external sources, like an apparent abundance of water in Michigan.
Koman. A few years ago, the School of Public Health focused some work on harmful algal blooms. Increased storm runoff into the Great Lakes caused a harmful intake of algae into the City of Toledo’s water system. Toledo’s communications director spoke here, with many of our local public health practitioners present for that discussion. She described how she learned about the crisis—her cell phone went off in the middle of the night informing her and everyone about the fact that there wouldn’t be any water. Imagine your hospital system with no water supply. Bottled water was gone quickly. In such an emergency, if it were a fire, we know who would be in charge. We have a designated authority—the fire chief. With a water emergency, there was no plan. Fortunately for Toledo, the fire marshal did step up and took charge—taking on the responsibility and authority and setting up a command center. Many communities are not prepared for the types of things that are going to happen that will affect health in major ways, and we need to start having those conversations immediately.
At the School of Public Health, we bring in leaders who have experience with such situations. We had the mayor of Grand Rapids, a community that has made a commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy in Michigan. More communities need to be having these kinds of discussions. And public health needs to be at the table when they're having the discussions about which issues need to be discussed. Water will be a key variable, even with the apparent abundance of our Great Lakes.
Brines. That exact example is another urban-rural connection, because you can trace that algal bloom back to the drain systems that keep the farms around Lake Erie dry. They have tiled heavily, particularly in southern Michigan in the area that runs into Lake Erie. They’ve tiled all those fields to drain them quickly after these large storm events, which prevents soil degradation. But the result is this quick movement of water off those landscapes into the rivers, along with soil nutrients that encourage algal growth. We need to redesign these landscapes, potentially plug up some of these tiling systems, and likely rethink what some of those farms are growing.
Koman. Let’s discuss the work you’ve done, Zachary, at Friends of Parkside with researchers from the School of Public Health—on heat and heatwaves with Marie O’Neill and on asthma with Toby Lewis.
Rowe. We didn’t set out from the beginning to do this work on extreme heat. Our work with Dr. O’Neill is part of a larger partnership called Heatwaves, Housing, and Health, which consists of academic researchers and other community organizations like Equal Works and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. This project came to us through Dr. O’Neill as an already-funded, three-city project in Atlanta, Phoenix, and Detroit to look at the impact of heat in these cities, which are experiencing climate change in extreme ways. To her credit, Dr. O’Neill realized the challenges of being in Ann Arbor and enrolling 50 or more households in Detroit in a study like this. She attended one of the Detroit URC board meetings, explained it would be a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project, and asked for partners interested in working with her on it. Several of us agreed to work with her using these CBPR principles, which essentially means community partners are at the table as equal partners in the project. We community partners were excited about the opportunity to understand not so much what can residents do but how are residents experiencing heat and what are some possible interventions that could mitigate the heat. The seed study looked at how Detroiters experience heat in their home. Participants were asked to have an indoor home-monitoring device and to wear a device on their body so that when they left the house we were still tracking heat. Another device was positioned in their yard to track heat just outside their home but still on their property. It gave us a relatively full picture of what homeowners were experiencing. This particular project was exploratory and didn’t include an intervention, and we understood that. We’re now working on projects that include an intervention that helps residents cope with heat.
A central CBPR principle is that you share research findings with the project participants. We actually had a town hall meeting set up as a feedback session. A prevailing insight was that we took too long to get the results back to them. We did the research one summer and took a year to return the information, so not as timely as folks had expected.
Importantly, we were able to share with people how hot they were during heatwaves compared to other communities. People assume the heat they’re experiencing is normal across the whole city or region, but when they could see not only that “yes, that day that you thought you were really hot, you were right”—so a simple validation of what they were feeling. It also showed them citywide data, what it looked like in other homes, at least on average, when their home might have been registering as high as 80 or even 90 inside.
Just for some context, the Village of Parkside is a housing development with about 250 units from one-to-five bedrooms. Ninety-five percent of the residents are low-income. It was constructed in 1945 as part of a Department of Public Works initiative and was the first public housing complex built in Detroit. In 1999, we received a Hope VI grant from HUD to renovate existing units and add new units that would have central air, dishwashers, cable television. I grew up in the old Parkside, and many of the kids today say they’re growing up in the projects. And I tell them, “No, you guys, these are not the projects—look at all the amenities you have.”
For us at Parkside, one thing that really interested us in this project was its connection to central air—and there’s a story here. A few years ago, central air units started disappearing from our units and from units in other developments. These are expensive to replace, and our management office’s policy was not to replace stolen AC units unless a resident had a doctor’s note that central air was vital to your health to avoid heat impacts. The data this research project was helping us document was the exact heat and health effects being experienced by residents of Parkside living in units built to have central air that suddenly didn’t have it. We wanted to use this information to advocate for policy change in the development and thought it could and should be tied to our health.
So the project helped us compare our experiences on a large scale to folks across the city and to residents of Phoenix and Atlanta. It helped us advocate for ourselves for a policy change that would directly impact our lives. And it gave us an occasion to spend time really talking to people in the study, because that is where an issue like heat becomes real. People don’t talk about extreme-heat events as part of something larger, they just talk about it as the weather—nothing you can do about it. Having folks involved in this study opened their eyes to how something bigger is going on, that they should be concerned about the larger climate change discussion, and that they might want to engage in different ways.
Koman. We know children and the elderly are susceptible to the heat. But until you see the data and realize what it means to have susceptibility factors, you might not have certain contexts to make different decisions. Is my next-door neighbor, who is elderly and heat vulnerable, having issues with this particular heatwave? Maybe we should check on them?
Rowe. And what do we do about it as a community? The cooling center the city provides is one response. I’m just not sure how many people actually use them. You have to leave your home to get to a cooling center, so it presents financial, safety, and convenience issues.
Fischer. And you might get really hot on your way to the cooling center. They can be practical in some cases and not make sense in others.
Rowe. That’s right. So is it the best use of resources, especially if people aren’t using the cooling centers?
Koman. That’s one of the central values of community-based participatory research—people and communities can immediately share feedback about their on-the-ground realities. That process brings up the idea of resilience and how we build more resilient communities. Pamela, how do you talk about resilience?
Pugh. When the water crisis first came on the scene, the Flint planning and development team had already been working on something called the Imagine Flint plan. They quickly had to adapt that focus almost exclusively for the water crisis. Now we are able to move back into those broader plans and work with residents in thinking forward toward growth even as we continue to address the water crisis. To their credit, I think, my colleagues regularly ask me how we take into consideration public health, because they see it as a priority in their own decision-making. My office works closely with planning and development, and currently we are working toward creating an Office of Sustainability. I’m doing some things as Chief Public Health Advisor, and we have a Chief Recovery Officer focused on the water crisis. But a Director of Sustainability will look more broadly at neighborhood stabilization. Recently, we were recipients of a very competitive grant—a 30 million grant from HUD—to look at housing along the Flint River floodplain. The groundbreaking for the first complex is coming up, and we continue to look at ways we can we build more sustainably across the city.
We continue to learn—from Katrina all the way to the Flint Water Crisis—how to more appropriately communicate with residents, how to build effective emergency systems. The city is working on systems that will help us disseminate information much more quickly to the entire population in the case of emergencies like flooding or water supply issues.
We created a work group focused on communications around public health crises and emergency risk. We have a technical advisory council overseeing this work with representatives from medicine, research, planning and development, our recovery office, and also our county health department. With a recent change to bylaws, I actually sit on the county health board now. It is all about improving communication between leadership units and looking at how we better communicate with residents. It is a lot of work, and it moves far more slowly than it should. But we continue to work toward those goals daily.
Just knowing that—at least in Flint—a public health person will be at the table means we can really focus on communicating with those outside of City Hall who are vital members of our community and whose feedback is crucial to making good decisions.
Rowe. We’ve all heard a lot about the Flint Water Crisis. Pamela, I’m amazed at what the city has done with that word crisis. I know from some of our community partners in Flint that you have changed the narrative from water crisis to water opportunity. You’ve stepped away from thinking of being victims and you’re looking at every dollar that comes into the city as a dollar that can have long-term impact. The city’s leadership isn’t looking just one or five years down the road but 20, 30, 40 years down the road and thinking hard at what it means to shape Flint for the future. For a time, the word crisis was appropriate. Now folks across the community are looking around the city for every opportunity to begin getting some things done for today and for generations to come. I’ve been amazed.
It’s also a model how you worked with the University of Michigan, particularly with the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research. You talked frankly with the university about how they respond to these kinds of crises and how academia can include more capacity for emergency response. Sadly, there will be another situation like the water crisis, and it will be important for the university to work together with communities around Michigan to address whatever arises.
Koman. That is a great segue to how we empower and motivate communities to respond to environmental change—in ways that can mitigate climate change while also considering public health.
Fischer. Empowerment is extremely important, and it happens on many levels. Most importantly for climate change and for population health, empowerment develops on large scales. Empowerment is influenced by large structural sources like markets and economies, laws and policies, political processes, and so on. I think mostly about how we motivate or at least plant the seeds of empowerment in communities, so that we can all respond to climate change effectively.
Some of you already brought up how difficult it is to know if we’re actually experiencing climate change, to decide which of the changes we’re experiencing are attributable to climate change versus other factors. As individuals going about our daily lives, we experience all sorts of changes, and understanding which are climate-driven is not easy.
As individuals, we relate to our environment, we perceive and respond to changes, often on small, local scales. The climate-driven changes occurring are at large scales and usually over long periods of time. Average temperature changes, even in local communities, happen slowly. The frequency and severity of notable weather events is increasing slowly and with a lot of variability. It is hard for an individual going about their daily life to know what’s normal and what’s not.
I’m describing the concept of psychological distance—the difficulty for people to feel knowledgeable, motivated, and empowered to take action about something happening in a distant place or a distant period of time or that’s happening in our community but in ways we can’t perceive or to people we don’t know or relate to. It’s a lot to expect individuals to take it upon themselves to act to mitigate climate change or respond to policies.
The solution is creating processes—like participatory research or participatory community planning—where people affected by climate change are at the table with people who have access to information and resources and who have influence over decision-making. Together, we can discuss the changes we are experiencing, which are bringing positive and negative outcomes, which are climate related and which have other solutions, and what we can do about these issues. Building social networks and governance networks, where people have opportunities to reflect on their lived experience and figure out what to do about them, is an important way to motivate communities to create the beginnings of empowerment to respond to climate change.
In the context of public health, anything we do to mitigate climate change—lessen weather severity, reduce negative impacts—will be beneficial to public health. I can’t think of examples where mitigation and population health are not mutually reinforced by mitigation tactics.
In my own work around wildfires, we know they are driven by dry, hot conditions. Dry, hot conditions alone, and then especially if they result in wildfires, cause a lot of smoke—airborne particulate matter that causes human health effects. Wildfires also cause stress for people at risk of losing life and property. Slowing climate change, reducing the severity of wildfires, will have public health benefits. Same thing with food systems in Michigan. Reducing stress and uncertainty around economic damages that climate change causes for people who rely on food for their livelihood. Reducing climate-effects on those economies will be mutually beneficial to the public’s health. And now is the time to empower people to act.
Koman. Air pollution is a good example of how we’ve solved a major problem. I think about my grandfather, who lived in Niagara Falls, New York, and worked as a millwright in a plant. The sulfur emissions near the paper mills were so overwhelming that your eyes would water and you’d get a headache. My grandfather told me, “That’s the smell of money,” because for him, it was a job.
Today, with the Clean Air Act, no one in the US has to live in a community like that. We’ve made incredible progress in air quality and shown again and again—from removing lead in gasoline to regulating products to protect the ozone layer—we can make big changes to deal with emissions problems. It might be through technology, through behavior, broad scale changes—we’ve done all those things successfully. Climate change is a similar arena. It is bigger than air quality, but we know we are capable of making significant shifts when we need to. And that gives me a lot of hope. In many communities, people are already working on a variety of solutions. We need to revolutionize our energy systems and transportation systems. In Michigan, our auto industry is already meeting tougher standards. Industry leaders, including Ford, are promising to continue meeting them whatever the current federal policies are.
We are taking steps to mitigate climate change on broad levels and in our individual communities. And as we’ve discussed, this presents many economic opportunities as the energy sector evolves. In 2001, researchers projected that solar power would grow at one gigawatt per year, and we’ve exceeded that by 75 times. These are opportunities for communities to engage with jobs, with production facilities. Michigan has expertise in these industries and processes, which also have public health benefits. Public health should continue to be at the table as our communities weigh their options and as we make these choices.
Much can be done with technologies to mitigate climate change and also to develop adaptive interventions that reduce climate changes effects on the environment and human health. One promising area is emerging technologies like solar and other renewables.
Pugh. The NAACP held its national convention in Detroit in July, and several leaders from the group, including their director of environmental and climate justice, visited Flint as well. We sat with faith-based and community-based organizations to discuss the installation of solar around Flint, which we refer to as just energy (again, remembering that 41 billion dollars were spent in 2009 alone by communities of color while benefitting from only 1 percent of energy-related jobs). These communities want to move into what are some of the fastest growing job markets in the US—solar and wind energy—for both the economic benefits and to get the health benefits of bringing these renewable energy sources to our region. And we understand how these changes help address climate change in a positive way. We are working directly with a faith-based organization in Flint and doing trainings in Saginaw to pilot the processes that will help us bring renewables to the Flint area. We also want to make sure residents are aware of more efficient appliances and energy-efficient building options to help them make long-term decisions that benefit their health, their wealth, and the environment. We want people to understand the impact they can make through daily things like their home utility decisions and how those decisions can also lead to the whole region demanding more solar and wind energy.
Brines. Technology is also important in the agricultural sphere. I work with and teach tech to Michigan students, so people are sometimes surprised to hear that I can be a tech skeptic. Many tech innovations in the agricultural sector come out with much fanfare. One concern is new tech that is designed or created to fit within existing farming systems, which I’ve already noted need significant modifications. That said, tech is also very promising for farming. In the traditional breeding sense, the Land Institute in Kansas has received a lot of press with their patented Kernza, a perennial wheat crop they’re developing. They are conducting trials around the globe, and a SEAS faculty member who works with the Land Institute has done some Kernza plantings in the Ann Arbor area. The campus farm here at the university is hoping to do some trial Kernza plantings. This is an exciting development.
People growing fruits and vegetables have always done some breeding for hardiness and resistance to various climate realities. So that area of agriculture is now looking to develop those fruit and vegetable varieties that seem particularly resilient to various climate-change realities. Resilient plants require fewer inputs—less spray management and so on—which reduces the overall carbon footprint of the entire production process. Any growing system designed to have fewer inputs is a win, and usually those are ones that mimic nature.
Beyond the agricultural sector, technologies we all use can be quite valuable to farmers. The internet helps land stewards connect and learn from each other. Many agricultural methods are still quite old, but we need new ways of teaching them as we retrain farmers switching to more sustainable practices and as we train new people to steward our lands. Communications technology helps us organize and connect with each other to learn and problem solve. I recently read an article about a 91-year-old who runs a famous orchard up north, and he’s made the decision to sell the orchard—understandable that he’s decided he can no longer run an orchard! I just think about all the knowledge a person who’s run an orchard for decades has and how we might preserve and disseminate that knowledge, especially in the local region where much of it is most applicable. Again, the internet is a great way to make some of those connections, and when you spend time in rural areas, you realize not everyone has the same level of access to that powerful infrastructure.
The geospatial technologies we teach here in SEAS have an important role to play, particularly in a communications and planning. People designing landscapes need to be able to visualize what those landscapes might look like and be able to communicate with others who can help them. Even seasoned farmers might have a hard time picturing their corn or soy fields with some integration of alley cropping or another similar technique.
Drones and high-tech development might not help as much as some people think, but they are definitely worthy areas of exploration. Similar to our heat-vulnerability discussions, new tech should at least be a discussion point with everyone at the table. Any project that gets a group of stakeholders looking at a problem together is certainly better than ignoring potential interventions that might hold great promise.
Koman. There are so many positive things related to more sustainable approaches. What are some hopeful changes you want to see or are seeing?
Pugh. As we talk about jobs and economic opportunities here in Flint, we have to keep economic justice at the center of that discussion. Earning power in vulnerable communities is also a huge health benefit. Having access to a job impacts health. In moving toward cleaner, healthier, more renewable sources of energy that also improve our climate, we must also address health issues. We see high rates of asthma hospitalization in communities that don’t have access to health insurance. So in addressing climate change in an urgent way, we can also take the opportunity to address other urgent issues that are intertwined with climate and environment. The ability to introduce urgency to multiple justice issues at once actually gives me hope that we can implement change.
Rowe. It makes me hopeful that we’re having a discussion around climate change. Young people in our community and everywhere I look are concerned about and talking about climate. I can see just how carefully they are learning and listening, and that gives me hope. These ideas will take root, and new generations will come up with solutions, amazing solutions to some of the problems we are facing. Climate change was not a part of my vocabulary a few years ago, but now it is, and together we will find our way.
Brines. Participatory projects give me hope—when university groups work with and really learn from local communities. It gets us reengaged and offering an extension-type model, which is valuable to farmers and academics alike. The Land Institute in Kansas, Green Lands Blue Waters in Minnesota, the Savanna Institute—these are on-the-ground groups combining research and practice in creative ways to help farmers integrate perennials into their systems and convert away from a corn-soy rotation. Farmers want to feel good about what they do, what they grow.
Fischer. My point is similar to Zachary’s. More people now recognize that what we’re experiencing is climate change, that it is more just than just weather. People from across the political spectrum and from all walks of life are talking about extreme events and stressful climate conditions. I’m conducting a study of rural forestland owners—historically a conservative group—who refer to their climate-change experiences without any prompting from us. They bring it up on their own. It gives me hope that people are starting climate-change discussions on their own, that the topic of climate change is becoming more mainstream, that people are able to talk about it more comfortably.
Koman. The fact that there is scientific consensus that climate change is real, that it is happening now, that we’re causing it, and that we can prevent it gives me hope. I know that public health professionals are excellent in this space, where there is a big challenge, scientific evidence, something difficult that has to be talked about, and solutions are widespread. We all play a role in climate change, and together we can prevent this. That is the perspective from public health that gives me hope. We can stop this, and the question now is, will we? I think the answer to that is, absolutely. So let’s get busy!