The federal government has been slow to act on climate change. So Michigan cities are taking charge. | Michigan Radio
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The federal government has been slow to act on climate change. So Michigan cities are taking charge.

Aug 16, 2019

When President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the United States would pull out of the Paris Agreement, cities across the country declared that they would uphold the goals of the accord on their own.

Two years later, a handful of Michigan cities have plans in place to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but many more are just in the process of putting a plan together. Which is good, says Jenna Jorns, because cities are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Jorns is the program manager for the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center.

“The most at-risk communities to climate change are cities, rural communities, coastal communities, and tribes. Depending on the climate impact, the vulnerability of these groups is often compounded by existing stressors,” says Jorns. “So in a city for example, these stressors can include economic downturn, deteriorating infrastructure and shrinking populations. And the impacts we see from climate change interplay with those existing problems.”

The plans cities make are often called climate action plans.

Elan Strait is the director of U.S. Climate Campaigns at World Wildlife Fund. He says a good climate action plan has a few key aspects: It’s responsive to science, comprehensive, and recognizes a city’s limits.

“Cities can’t control everything that happens in a city. Sometimes that’s up to the county, sometimes that’s up to the state, sometimes it’s up to the federal government. So what you need is a climate plan that also includes a form of advocacy to those other forms of government,” he says.

But in Michigan, the state hasn’t adopted any climate policies beyond the Renewable Energy Standard, which requires electric providers to increase their renewable energy sales from 10% in 2015 to 15% by 2021.

That means Michigan cities are taking charge.

Some cities have ambitious climate action plans

The Michigan Climate Action Network lists 14 Michigan cities that have some kind of plan or goal in place to tackle climate change. But wanting to reduce emissions and having a detailed strategy to do that are different things.

We dug into each city’s plans or goals, and talked to a lot of city officials. We found that although a lot of cities have goals, only a handful of cities currently have robust climate action plans in place to achieve those goals.

One of those cities is Ann Arbor, which implemented a plan in 2012. The city’s plan has 43 action items, including a goal to reduce total carbon emissions by 90% by 2050.

Missy Stults is Ann Arbor’s sustainability and innovations manager. She says the city is ambitious when it comes to fighting climate change.

“This isn’t a time for small plans, but for disruptive, revolutionary thinking,” she says. “We are already feeling the impacts of climate change and these impacts will become more acute if we don’t take drastic and immediate efforts to reduce our emissions and abate the climate crisis.”

Ann Arbor created its carbon reduction plan in 2012, giving it certain advantages over other cities that are just now establishing plans. It has an established sustainability department within the city, something many cities lack.

"This isn't a time for small plans, but for disruptive, revolutionary thinking."

Traverse City has also been at this for a while.

“Traverse City did a complete energy audit back in 2008 to find out energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and where we stand,” says Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers. “That sort of promoted our 2011 climate action plan, which set aside some goals for us to work towards.”

The city then adjusted those goals in 2016. Right now, he says, Traverse City is on track to have 100% renewable city operations by 2020, and for the community to be 100% renewable by 2040.

That early starting point allowed Traverse City to be on the front lines when it comes to renewable energy use in the city. Carruthers says a lot of that is due to the community.

“Traverse City has a lot of green-minded and environmentally-friendly organizations and people. We attract people who believe in keeping up north clean,” he says.

Carruthers also emphasizes that the area has a lot at stake. Traverse City’s economy depends on tourists and farmers, and both industries will feel the impacts of climate change.

Cities and villages in Michigan with goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions community-wide.
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Petoskey is another city in the region with ambitious goals, and with good reason. The northwest Lower Peninsula is predicted to warm at a faster pace than the rest of the state.

The city just passed a resolution in June to reduce carbon emissions by 100% by 2035 — the most ambitious goal in the state.

“We’re not just looking at city property and city buildings … we feel we can do it through the entire city,” says Petoskey Mayor John Murphy.

Advancements in renewable energy have made it possible for the city to invest in solar technology, something Murphy believes is as good for the city’s economy as it is for the environment.

“We’re just initiating conservation as well as purchase of energy for what we feel will be beneficial to the people of Petoskey as well as the earth for future generations,” says Murphy.

But actually fighting climate change will require more than just a handful of cities, says Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers.

“We all have to be players in this game, and we all have to show our support if we’re going to reduce and conserve and protect this environment,” says Carruthers.

Other cities are still making plans

A lot of Michigan cities are thinking about climate change, but are still in the process of getting carbon reduction goals in place.

For example, Grand Rapids began assessing climate resiliency in 2013. But it wasn’t until April of this year that the city commission adopted a strategic plan that highlights the need to create city-wide carbon reduction goals.

Alison Waske Sutter is the sustainability and performance management officer for Grand Rapids. She says her staff is currently researching and evaluating options for a city-wide carbon reduction plan. But Sutter doesn’t want the process to be kept secret from the public.

“We would like to work in partnership with a broad sector of community stakeholders across the entire city to start thinking about what should these carbon reduction goals be for the entire community,” says Sutter. “We really want to be collaborative. We don’t want to come to the community and say, ‘We think this plan is great, please adopt it.’”

In the meantime, Grand Rapids has a goal from its previous sustainability plan to operate city buildings with 100% renewable electricity by 2025.

Some Michigan cities are starting carbon reduction by concentrating on something they can easily control: city operations.
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Kalamazoo is also in the process of creating a community-wide carbon reduction plan. Jamie McCarthy is the city’s development project coordinator for community planning & economic development. She also says community input is crucial to the creation process.

“How do we move forward with a plan that gives us community resiliency, that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and does that in a very fair and just way for everyone in the city?” says McCarthy.

McCarthy adds that although cities like Ann Arbor and Traverse City have been at this for a while, she thinks the timing of Kalamazoo’s plan is a benefit.

“At the local level, folks are getting organized. I think all of that action and advocacy is going to help bolster this plan,” says McCarthy. “I hope we’re at a point where that will cause us as a city, and also us as a community, to move quickly from this planning phase … into implementation,” says McCarthy.

Some cities have had carbon reduction goals in place, but have fallen short of meeting those goals. Officials in Dearborn, for example, wanted to slash carbon emissions by 10% by 2015 for city operations.

Sustainability Coordinator David Norwood says they didn’t meet that goal, though he estimates they got more than halfway there. Norwood says he’s hoping to set new goals in the city’s 2020 master land use plan.

He says cities face some big challenges.

“Funding and making changes in internal policy, I would say, are the two biggest things that stand in the way,” says Norwood.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor agrees it can be hard to get everyone on board.

Schor says he’s disappointed that the city council did not approve his plan for purchasing 100% renewable energy for the city, but he says he’s willing to keep trying.

“We need to balance the dollars available in our budget and what our residents can afford versus how we can be good environmental stewards,” says Schor.

He says he’d like to see Lansing become a leader in renewable energy, but he’s aware of the issues the city faces.

“I’m having conversations with people at the national level about what other communities are doing,” he says. “But we’re not Los Angeles, and we don’t have sun 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We can’t get to 100% renewable energy as fast as they can.”

Schor says the city is working with a consultant at Michigan State University to develop a climate action plan for the city.

Detroit has a plan that addresses climate change, although it doesn't include any community-wide carbon reduction goals. The city council approved the Sustainability Action Agenda on July 29, which has 43 action items. It also passed an ordinance that vows to reduce carbon emissions from city sources by 100% by 2050.

Guy O. Williams is president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, the organization that created a draft climate plan for the city and helped with the creation of the sustainability agenda.

“The city has stepped up its game; it has created a structure that allows accountable goal-setting and so forth to go on,” says Williams.

The agenda covers a variety of sustainability issues, including recycling and air quality. The city council also approved the creation of the Office of Sustainability.

Williams says that there are a lot of problems that Detroit needs to overcome, including a lot of red tape. But he says the progress that has been made is exciting.

“We’re hopeful, and there’s a lot more to be done.”

Big picture

How much of a difference can cities make without the U.S. being part of the Paris Agreement?

Some experts say: a lot. But there are limitations.

The first thing to know here is that cities matter.

“We know in the United States and around the world that cities are the ones taking the lead on climate change mitigation (and) adaptation, regardless of where the policy directive is coming from,” says Jenna Jorns. “The impacts are already here, and they’re going to continue to be deep and widespread.”

Jorns says we’re already seeing increased precipitation in our region because of climate change, especially an increasing number of heavy rain events, and warmer temperatures throughout all the seasons.

She says most city leaders know they need to address climate change regardless of the direction — or lack of direction — coming from the federal level.

Jorns says mayors, city managers and sustainability directors are worried about flooding, about increased extreme heat days, about the public health impacts of climate change.

"The impacts are already here, and they're going to continue to be deep and widespread."

“Climate change is a very local issue, and the impacts are very different depending on where you live,” says Jorns.

She says that means tackling climate change at the local and regional level is, in many ways, the most effective and efficient way to do it.

“But that said, we need strong and decisive leadership to get anywhere. If you have that from city leadership or state leadership, you can be really effective without tangible goals at the national level. But without that leadership at a higher level of city administration, it is difficult,” says Jorns.

Mayors also have a crucial role to play here, says Elan Strait. He says because so many of us live in cities, and the connection to people’s daily lives is so immediate, mayors have “maybe the most important messaging role in explaining to people what climate change means for their lives.”

“Because of that,” says Strait, “often city action is seen as less partisan and more popular than federal action.”

For some context, Elan Strait is one of the people who launched the We Are Still In campaign. He worked for the National Security Council under the Obama administration and for a few months under the Trump administration. He’s all for cities striving to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement in the wake of President Trump withdrawing the U.S. from that agreement.

But he says there are huge challenges ahead. To meet the goals of the Paris accord, he says, we need market shifts in the energy and transportation sectors.

Challenge #1: Politics

Strait says the world banding together on climate change in 2015 to create the Paris Agreement was “pretty enormous.”

“That signal from the world is incredibly important” for those market shifts, he says. “With the U.S. federal government retreating, there’s a confusion in the signal, and it’s not clear what direction the energy system is going to go in the United States.”

The truth, Strait says, is that the private sector really just wants predictability.

“What they want is policy predictability, and right now they’re getting the opposite,” he says. “They’re getting rollbacks in regulations, they’re getting delays in implementation, and that’s a struggle for any kind of action, particularly at the scale we need based on what the science is telling us.”

Challenge #2: Regulatory void

Strait points out that much of the regulation over emissions and air pollution is handled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“In the absence of EPA action,” he says, “it’s not the case necessarily that cities and states can actually start regulating air pollution; we actually need the federal government to do that.”

He says one of the most common complaints he hears from city officials is that they want to do more, but they need the federal government to step in.