June 16, 2024 6:03 am

Local News

Michigan leaders warn about the health impacts of climate change

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Jobs and environmental justice are also discussed at the MI Healthy Climate Conference

BY: KYLE DAVIDSON

As climate impacts become increasingly visible throughout Michigan, with heavy rainfall, extreme winter storms and the spread of smoke from Canadian wildfires impacting residents throughout the state, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has set its sights on protecting the environment and public health for future generations.

The department kicked off its second annual MI Healthy Climate Conference on Thursday, hosting about 900 individuals at the Lansing Center with the purpose of encouraging Michiganders to push forward on the goals outlined in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, released in April 2022. 

Whitmer is set to speak Friday afternoon.

In his opening address, EGLE Director Phil Roos stressed the importance of taking action that ensures the state is ready as climate impacts accelerate. 

 Phil Roos, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy at the 2024 Mi Healthy Climate Conference | Kyle Davidson

He also celebrated multiple climate accomplishments in the year since the previous conference including “game-changing” clean energy legislation, state investments into clean energy and advanced mobility, and the launch of the MI Healthy Climate Corps, aimed at supporting communities tackling climate change. 

Panelists discussed the various climate impacts we’ve seen within the state alongside the challenges of ensuring a just transition to clean energy. 

While some have pitched Michigan as a “climate haven,” expected to weather the worst effects of the climate crisis, Peter Sinclair, a science communicator who previously worked with Yale Climate Connections, challenged the notion, pointing to research from the University of Michigan that noted six of the most commonly cited climate havens, including Ann Arbor, were located in states with some of the highest projected rates of temperature increase. 

Michigan is also uniquely vulnerable, as its aging energy and water infrastructure is damaged by severe storms and flooding, Sinclair said. 

Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), pointed to the health impacts that come with climate change. 

While Michigan is not as prone to drought and water shortages, it still faces concerns with rising temperatures, heat-related illness, and air quality concerns from Canadian wildfire smoke. 

Extreme events like flooding can also lead to sewage in water, Bagdasarian said.

Increased temperatures and milder winters have also generated greater concerns about ticks and lyme disease, Bagdasarian said. 

As temperatures continue to rise, fungi are adapting to warmer conditions and will become better adapted to living at human body temperatures, creating increased risk for fungal infections, Bagdasarian said. 

She noted zoonoses, or diseases transmitted between animals and humans could also see a greater spread as interactions between humans and animals change.  Bagdasarian also emphasized the global impact of disease in the face of climate change.

“When we are talking about climate change, and especially the infectious disease impacts, we have to realize and recognize that we’re connected and we’re impacted by things that are happening far, far away,” she said. 

 Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at the 2024 MI Healthy Climate Conference. | Kyle Davidson

Lara Skinner, the executive director of the Climate Jobs Institute at Cornell university touched on the challenges of transitioning into a low-carbon, climate safe economy. 

“How do we minimize job loss and economic downturn and instead of that retain and grow high quality jobs and sustain our families and communities? How do we expand equitable access to these high quality jobs for frontline communities of color, and how do we build a more fair and equitable and vibrant economy than our current one? These are the questions that we’re looking at,” Skinner said. 

“Climate change is often perceived as purely an environmental issue — maybe a technical or scientific issue — but not a social, economic or jobs issue.” Skinner said. “And as you’ve heard from the previous speaker, there are major health implications of climate change. I will say that climate change is a public health crisis, and similarly climate change is likely the greatest social, economic and jobs issue of our time.”

A transition to a low-carbon clean energy economy is massive and requires massive disruptions to almost every sector of our economy, Skinner said.

Energy and electricity, auto manufacturing, building and construction, energy intensive manufacturing and industrial activities will all see changes, she said, noting that while a coal, gas or nuclear plant requires thousands of workers to build and hundreds to operate, solar or wind farms require far fewer workers. 

There are workers and industries who will be negatively impacted by the transition to clean energy. Skinner said it’s imperative to ensure these workers are well taken care of and have access to replacement wages, continued benefits, opportunities for retention and relocation, and have priority hiring in new industries. 

The new jobs that are created must also be high-quality, family and community sustaining jobs, Skinner said. 

“We need to use this transition as an opportunity to build out a more fair, just and prosperous economy,” Skinner said.

EGLE also invited community organizers and members of groups working to address environmental racism and injustice to discuss how the state can better confront the disproportionate impacts climate change has on communities of color and low-income communities.

Kareem Scales, board co-chair of Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4), said climate change and environmental justice are often separated as different issues. 

“In our world, we don’t see them as two different issues. Like, we can’t address one without the other and those same communities who are most disproportionately impacted by environmental justice are also the first and worst in terms of climate change,” Scales said.

Donna Givens-Davidson, president and CEO of the Detroit-based Eastside Community Network, said that environmental injustice is seen in city-planning decisions that run contrary to the science.

 Donna Givens-Davidson, Sylvia Orduño and Kareem Scales at the 2024 MI Healthy Climate Conference. | Kyle Davidson

“When we talk about environment, we talk about climate, we talk about protecting the air, the water, the soil, but we have to get about the business of protecting the people. And if the people in our communities are OK, I promise you the air will be okay,” Givens-Davidson said.

“People won’t be OK If the air is poisoned, if the water is poisoned, if the soil is poisoned. But as long as we’re going to keep on poisoning the people, because it makes economic sense for some people, then we’re going to continue to damage the climate,” Givens-Davidson said. 

Industry wants efficiency, even at the risk of human health, Givens-Davidson said. She also noted the universal nature of justice, going beyond Black and immigrant communities impacted by segregation. 

“We’re all being poisoned, really,” Givens-Davidson said. “There’s people in rural communities who don’t even understand environmental justice, don’t think it’s about them, whose well water is being poisoned right now.”

Although communities experience justice unequally, we will not get justice unless we fight together, Givens-Davidson said. 

While political advocacy and legislative change are at the forefront of addressing environmental injustice, they’re just one part of the solution, Scales said. Once that legislation is passed, there needs to be a plan for oversight and accountability, he said. 

Givens-Davidson also noted that policy goes beyond law.

“It’s the practice; it’s the enforcement; it is the interpretation,” she said. “It’s not just changing the law; it’s changing the mindsets and how we measure success.” 

This article is republished from the Michigan Advance under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.