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Detroit vs. Climate Change: How the City Can Prepare for the Future

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Two environmental organizers discuss the likelihood of climate migration in Michigan, and what we can do to fight climate change in Detroit right now.

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Detroit has historically been a titan of industry, but with more instances of environmental disasters due to climate change in the city, it may be time to reassess our response to sustainability and climate action. It’s also possible that Michigan could become desirable to climate migrants, or people moving from places heavily impacted by global warming, because of its access to freshwater.

Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals Beth Gibbons and environmental justice organizer Justin Onwenu talk about how Detroit can improve its infrastructure to adapt to the future of climate change. 

The next wars will be water wars … Is this a resource that can be shared? … We can’t think about it at the moment of crisis. This is about long-term planning.” —Beth Gibbons, American Society of Adaptation Professionals 


Listen: Can Detroit adapt to climate change? 


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Michigan's freshwater is a resource that will be crucial in the future if we can protect it, says Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.Pat Batcheller
Pat Batcheller

Michigan’s freshwater is a resource that will be crucial in the future if we can protect it, says Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.

Beth Gibbons is executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. She says the consequences of climate change are happening every day, impacting us in ways we might not realize. “Locally, we’re seeing [climate change] in the increase of storms… in the increase in heat events… [Heat events] are devastating for people’s health.” Michigan’s freshwater is a resource that will be crucial in the future, Gibbons says, if we can protect it. “The next wars will be water wars … Is this a resource that can be shared? … We can’t think about it at the moment of crisis. This is about long-term planning.”

On the idea of climate migration and the potential for people coming Michigan in search of a more temperate climate, Gibbons says it’s important we act fast to take care of the people already here before that eventuality. “There is this tantalizing idea that the Great Lakes would be an attractive place for people … We imagine people moving here. But we’ve really tried to get at that question of, can we model it? Can we predict it?” Michigan being a climate haven depends on our ability to protect our most valuable natural resources. Gibbons says, “The [Great Lakes] could become unusably polluted.” 

Given our industrial history, the history of our workers and creating the middle class, we do have an opportunity … to invest in replacing lead service lines, in clean energy.”  —Justin Onwenu, environmental justice organizer

Justin Onwenu is an environmental justice organizer and serves on Gov. Whitmer’s Black Leadership Advisory Council. He says Detroit has a unique role in fighting climate change. “Given our industrial history, the history of our workers and creating the middle class, we do have an opportunity … to invest in replacing lead service lines, in clean energy.” Onwenu says Detroit’s response to climate change should protect those most disproportionately affected by environmental inequality. “Climate change is not just about our environment, it’s about whether our neighborhoods, our communities are healthy,” he says. 

Even with the precious resource of the Great Lakes, Onwenu says Michigan’s temperate conditions do not make it immune to environmental disasters. “This idea that we are a climate-free island in Michigan is false.” Onwenu says if Michigan does attract climate migrants, then we need to ensure our environment can continue supporting the population. “We do have to make sure we’re doubling down on protecting the things that already make Michigan great.”

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Nora Rhein works with the production team on “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson” on 101.9 WDET. She’s very proud to be a public radio nerd.


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