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Change for the worse? Global warming could further damage Michigan's economy

By Elizabeth Shaw 810.766.6311The Flint Journal, Sunday, April 22, 2007

CLAYTON TWP. - Jim Koan sees global warming in every damaged bud on his apple trees at Almar Orchards this spring.

More frequent and erratic weather extremes - hallmarks of climate change - are already happening here, Koan said.

"We haven't had any normal years in the last few years, with some of the worst extremes in weather closer together than I can ever remember," said Koan, 58. "It won't take too many catastrophes to wipe us out."

Much may be at stake for the rest of us, too.

Climate change could hit Michigan square in the economic gut - and not in the far-off future, but during the lifetimes of many of us.

From the anglers and shippers who ply the Great Lakes to a snowmobile dealer in Mt. Morris Township, changing weather could impact nearly every aspect of our lives and local environment: farming, hunting, fishing, wildlife, water quality and supply, tourism, recreation, air quality, fish and bird species, forests, wetlands, lakes and human health.

"Agriculture, tourism and the automotive industry are the top three in Michigan's economy, and two of those are heavily dependent on water," said Abby Rubley of Environment Michigan. "We're already feeling the loss in the automotive sector. We can't afford to see it in our other two major industries, too."

That already declining automotive sector accounted for nearly 10 percent of nonfarm jobs in Genesee County in 2005 - about 15,000 jobs in all, according to the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth. And global warming's impact on the industry could affect those jobs.

Transportation sources make up about a third of greenhouse gases, with cars, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks accounting for almost 22 percent, according to the National Environmental Trust.

That's led to intense political pressure to raise corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated it would cost $100 million for the auto industry to meet proposed CAFE increases over the next 10 years. About 80 percent of that would be borne by domestic automakers, said General Motors' Washington spokesman Greg Martin.

"Transportation may be one-third of the problem, but the auto industry is being asked to bear 100 percent of the solution," said Martin.

Changes could cost consumers $3,000-$5,000 per vehicle, depending on the model, he said.

"When you look at any CAFE increase that doesn't match up with what's technically achievable, it's going to have a devastating economic effect on the automakers and the communities in which they operate."

Others, however, say a CAFE increase is just what the industry needs to drive innovation toward fuel efficiency, hybrids and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

GM is also working to shrink the so-called carbon footprint of vehicle-making itself, said local GM spokeswoman Sharon Morton. In the Flint area, GM has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 9.6 percent in the past five years by using less energy.

In the orchard business, meanwhile, this spring could be the worst yet, Koan said.

"This year, we had the warmest December and January on record, so the trees didn't harden down and go to sleep like they normally would."

Then another warm spell hit after a brief winter - just in time for budding plants to be ravaged by freak April blizzards.

"We haven't ever seen this much cold with the buds as far along as they were and with hard winds driving that cold," said Koan. "We're still waiting to see how much damage there is."

How much change is ahead, and how soon?

By the time a baby born today gets out of college around 2030, local summers may feel noticeably warmer, more like those in current-day Ohio, according to a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent scientific research and analysis group.

By the time that newborn is a great-grandparent in 2095, a Michigan summer may feel like one in northern Arkansas today, with our winters milder and with little snow, like those now in Ohio.

By then, Michigan's average summer temperatures could be 5-10 degrees warmer in winter and 7-13 degrees hotter in summer, said the UCS report.

The Great Lakes might moderate some of the effects of global warming for Michigan, said Marty Kaufman, University of Michigan-Flint professor of earth and resource science.

The bad news: The Great Lakes themselves are at risk as shrinking winter ice results in more evaporation and lower lake levels.

"Michigan's primary feature is the Great Lakes, and that's where we'll feel our largest economic impact," said Kaufman. "It may affect shipping, recreation and tourism just for starters. And that's huge."

Local winter sports businesses are already feeling the heat.

Snowmobilers are driving farther north each year to find usable trails, said Michael Nord, owner of Nord-Ride Motorsports Inc. in Mt. Morris Township.

"The true snowmobiler is always going to find snow no matter what. But it seems every year less and less people are snowmobiling and are switching to other alternatives like quad runners," said Nord. "We've shifted our business dramatically through the last 10 years because of the weather."

Michigan's greenhouse gas emissions are rising, even as industry in the state declines.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Michigan's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels grew 4 percent between 1990 and 2004. Michigan ranked 10th nationwide for the most carbon dioxide emissions in 2004, the most recent year for which state-by-state data is available.

Much of that can be linked to Michigan's natural gas-fired power plants, where carbon dioxide emissions more than doubled in that same time period.

"Given the risks from global warming, it's incredibly irresponsible for Michigan's global warming pollution to increase," said Environment Michigan field director Abby Rubley. "It's like the doctor telling you that you need to go on a serious diet, but instead you go straight for the McDonald's."

Wind power, ethanol and fast-train technology are just some of the strategies that could help turn it all around, said UM-Flint's Kaufman.

"We're not shooting blanks here in Michigan. We've got the means in terms of engineering expertise, research groups, labor force and tangible resources," he said. "We just lack the motivation."

Sidebar: State of change Among climatic changes already noted by the Michigan Environmental Council:

  • Lakes and rivers are freezing six days later and thawing six days earlier than long-term averages.
  • Lilacs and honeysuckle are blooming six days earlier.
  • Cherry trees in the Grand Traverse region are blooming a week early.
  • Northern cardinals are singing 22 days early.
  • Canada geese, robins and whippoorwills are arriving earlier.
  • Columbine, forest phlox, butterfly weed and shooting star are blooming earlier.
  • Tree swallows are laying their eggs nine days early.
  • Frogs are starting their mating season 12 days early.
  • Plankton blooms are arriving early and disrupting the marine food chain.

©2007 Flint Journal

© 2007 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.


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