The heat is on

Like all good scientists, Scudder Mackey was skeptical 15 years ago when he began hearing predictions that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would lead to global warming.

"You want to have an open mind, but you also need to question things," explains the University of Windsor geologist and physical scientist.

But as the years passed, and the computer modeling used to predict climate change became more sophisticated, and changes in the climate became more pronounced, that skepticism crumbled under the weight of accumulated evidence at some point in the last five years.

"Just look around at what's happening," says Mackey. "The rise in sea level, the loss of glaciers, the thawing of permafrost in arctic regions."

Here in Michigan, the changes might not be quite as spectacular, but things are changing. Winters are milder. Lakes aren't freezing over the way they once did. Spring-like weather is arriving earlier. And because nothing in nature is isolated, those changes beget more change.

For Mackey, the conclusion eventually became inescapable: There's something more going on than just normal cyclic changes. The Earth is warming, and human activity, primarily the creation of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels, is almost certainly a key part of that change.

In that regard, Mackey, who has been studying Lake St. Clair for more than three years, reflects the evolving beliefs of the mainstream scientific community.

At this point in the global warming debate, some things are simply beyond debate. Even the deniers are now being forced to admit that the planet has warmed up. It's a verifiable fact that can't be ignored: Eleven of the last 12 years (1995-2006) were the hottest worldwide since records started being kept in the mid-1800s.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea levels," the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported earlier this year.

What's more, if the predictions being generated by computer models are correct, the changes are only going to grow more intense in coming decades. Michigan will become a place different than it is now.

Not all the changes will necessarily be negative. But they will be disruptive, and we will have to adjust. What can't be determined with certainty is how much things will change. Part of the reason for that is the difficulty in making long-range forecasts, looking into the future 30 or 50 or 100 years. But there's also a wild card in the equation — us. If the scientists are right, we can take actions that will reduce the degree of change. In fact, we will be forced to take such action. It is just a matter of how much we will do, and how soon — two things the computer models, no matter how sophisticated, cannot predict.

Politics is an inexact science.

But so is the study of climate change. For instance, Lake Superior is at its lowest level since 1926. But the experts interviewed for this story were unwilling to say with any certainty that the decrease is due to global warming. Scientists are reluctant to say specific events — whether the force of a Hurricane Katrina or Michigan's cherry trees blooming early or lower lake levels — are the result of an overload of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That's not the way scientists work.

What they will do is talk in broad parameters about what's being observed, the trends they are witnessing, the data being analyzed, and the probabilities relating to cause and effect.

Which is why, when the IPCC issued its first report on climate change in 1990, the scientists waffled as they tried to explain why the planet's temperature had risen over the past century. While raising concerns about the amount of greenhouse gases being added to the atmosphere and their potential effect on global warming, the report pointed out the possibility that temperature increases observed to that point could largely be due to "natural variability." There was the possibility that natural cycles could be behind the changes.

Seventeen years later, the IPCC, displaying what the National Environmental Trust described as a "trajectory of certainty," concluded there is virtually no doubt that human activity is the primary reason the Earth is growing warmer; the probability that man bore responsibility for turning up the heat was put at 90 percent or higher.

When you consider that the 2007 report had 420 lead authors and 2,500 scientific reviewers from 130 countries, there's little chance views from the margins of mainstream opinion can hold much sway. As one environmental group said, it is an "inherently conservative" estimate.

But not nearly conservative enough for critics at free-market think tanks receiving hefty checks from industries that continue to profit from the burning of fossil fuels.

Reacting to the IPCC report in a commentary that appeared in The Washington Times, the Heritage Foundation's Helle Dale wrote that, while it may be true the Earth has warmed slightly over the past century, it "is not clear, though, that human activity caused it, nor that steps proposed to reverse it will have any effect."

According to the group, the Heritage Foundation received $585,000 from oil giant ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2006.

Here in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — another free market think tank — weighed in on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is required to regulate auto emissions of carbon dioxide to mitigate global warming.

"Contrary to the court's conclusion, a 'strong consensus' does not exist about a causal link between carbon dioxide and climate change; predictions of future warming; or, what effects may result from climate change," wrote Diane S. Katz, the Mackinac Center's director of science, environment and technology policy.

That think tank received $30,000 from ExxonMobil from 2000 to 2002, reports.

But critics like those are becoming more and more isolated. One of the bleakest assessments of the potential consequences of global warming is a report recently produced by a group that bears little resemblance to the environmental "wackos" that the free-market types so loathe: a dozen retired admirals and generals who were asked to evaluate the potential risks global warming posed to America's security.

What they determined is this: "The predicted effects of climate change over the coming decades include extreme weather events, drought, flooding, sea level rise, retreating glaciers, habitat shifts and the increased spread of life-threatening diseases. These conditions have the potential to disrupt our way of life and to force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure."

Among the brass asked to study the issue was retired Vice Admiral Richard H. Truly, a former space shuttle commander and NASA administrator.

"When I looked at what energy we had used over the past couple of centuries and what was in the atmosphere today, I knew there had to be a connection [to climate change]," Truly reported. "I wasn't convinced by a person or any interest group — it was the data that got me. As I looked at it on my own, I couldn't come to any other conclusion. Once I got past that point, I was utterly convinced of this connection between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change. And I was convinced that if we didn't do something about this, we would be in deep trouble."

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan had this advice for those who contend there has to be absolute certainty before taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

"We seem to be standing by and, frankly, asking for perfectness in science. People are saying they want to be convinced, perfectly. They want to know the climate science projections with 100 percent certainty. Well, we know a great deal, and even with that, there is still uncertainty. But the trend line is very clear."

"We never have 100 percent certainty," he added. "We never have it. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield. That's something we know. You have to act with incomplete information. You have to act based on the trend line."

Cherry blossom time

Here in Michigan, Jim Nugent, a soft-spoken horticulturist who works at Michigan State University's Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Traverse City, charted one of those trend lines. Unlike the generals and admirals who see political upheaval and armed conflict as the coming consequence of global warming if action isn't taken, Nugent is concerned about lake ice and Michigan's multimillion-dollar cherry industry.

Nugent's research perfectly illustrates how everything in nature is like a line of dominos — tip one over and the rest start to tumble.

The horticulturist analyzed records maintained by the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, which, since 1851, has tracked whether the west arm of Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay has frozen over each winter, and if it did, when it froze and when it thawed.

Grouping the data in 10-year periods, Nugent found that, from 1851 to 1980, the bay froze at some point during 85 percent of the winters. There was no decade where the bay froze over fewer than seven times, and in some decades it froze every year. But those numbers began to drop in the 1980s. During the 1981-90 decade, the bay froze over only six years. From 1991-2000, that number fell by half, with the freeze occurring in only three of the 10 winters. So far this decade, it has frozen only once.

So why is a horticulturist concerned whether a bay freezes? Because the ice affects the temperature of wind blowing in off the lake. And that wind affects the region's cherry trees. The longer into spring the ice lasts, the longer chill winds keep the trees from blooming. Without the ice, trees are blooming earlier — seven to eight days earlier than they were 30 years ago, says Nugent. And that's a vital factor, because if an early frost hits early-blooming trees, the crop can be decimated.

And that's exactly what happened in 2002, says Nugent. An average tart cherry crop yields about 146 million tons; in a really good year, that yield can climb as high as 180 million tons. But in 2002, the combination of early bloom followed by a deep freeze resulted in a crop of just a million tons.

"There's so much interconnectedness with agriculture," says Nugent. "You change one thing and it changes another thing you didn't expect. Nature is very resilient, but you also have to treat it with a lot of respect."

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, though, respecting nature is the last thing we're doing.

Research analyzing Antarctic ice cores suggest carbon dioxide levels are higher than they've been for the past 800,000 years. Throughout that history, carbon dioxide levels have ranged from 180 parts per million to 300 ppm during the warmest periods. Since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, levels have risen from 280 ppm to the current level of more than 380 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels have risen 30 ppm in the past 17 years alone — an increase that used to take 1,000 years, according to published reports.

Computer models predict that — without action to reduce emissions — by 2100, atmospheric CO2 will to rise to 540-970 ppm; global temperature will increase 1.1 degrees F by 2010, 2.1 degrees F by 2038, and up to 11.5 degrees F by 2100.

If those predictions come true, Michigan will be a much different place, with our summers probably feeling much like an Arkansas summer does now, according to a report produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America.

Urban areas will be particularly hard hit, with stagnant air causing buildups of pollutants that exacerbate asthma. Heat-related deaths will rise. Away from the cities, a hotter, drier climate could lead to more wildfires.

Because of reduced lake ice, there will be more evaporation in winter, possibly leading to reduced water levels — perhaps as much as 5 feet, according to some predictions. That could have a devastating effect on shipping. Reduced water levels could also increase concentrations of pollutants such as mercury.

As for Lake St. Clair, the University of Windsor's Scudder Mackey says that, because it has an average depth of only 15 feet, it will be particularly affected by drops in the water level. In some places, he says, water could recede from the current shoreline by a mile or more, and the lake's surface area could be reduced by 20 percent.

And even though there's a likelihood of more rain — especially in the form of torrential downpours that cause flooding, that increase could be offset by higher evaporation rates, causing problems for agriculture, the Union of Concerned Scientists' report predicts. Cold water fish such as trout would decline, as would walleye and northern pike, while warm-water species such as smallmouth bass and bluegill would expand northward.

But not all the consequences would be negative. Increased levels of carbon dioxide might spur plant growth. Growing seasons would be longer — there might even be two. Winters would be much milder, which is good for those who dislike the cold but is bad news for those who enjoy winter sports and the industries that serve them.

And then there's what Henry Pollack, a professor of geophysics at U-M, calls "climate surprises." Because we could be entering uncharted territory, he expects some unknown consequences to crop up. Especially during periods of rapid change, predicting the future could become especially tricky, he says.

Liquid asset

In many ways, though, Michigan is far better off than much of the world. Critical shortages of water are expected to be widespread, including in southwestern and western regions of the United States. And, even if lake levels decline, we'll still be sitting on the world's largest supply of fresh water — which in the years ahead could become the new oil, a dwindling commodity with ever-increasing value.

And because of rising ocean levels, people living in coastal areas are at risk. If ocean levels rise by as much as 3 feet — a definite possibility according to the computer models — 100 million people worldwide could be displaced, says Pollack, a contributor to the IPCC report.

"It's just mind-boggling, and we're not prepared for it," he says.

But the consensus among scientists seems to be that the most dire of these scenarios can be avoided if sufficient action is taken. No one city, state or even country can do it alone; all must do their part if massive societal upheaval is to be prevented.

The good news is that Michigan is particularly well-positioned to both play a role in providing solutions and to benefit economically from the changes that need to be made.

"We have a skilled labor force, manufacturing capacity, rail and shipping lines, a central location with access to large markets in the Midwest, top-tier universities," says Mike Shriberg, state director of the nonprofit group Environment Michigan.

What we've largely been lacking is the political will — and the willingness to take on powerful special interests.

Shriberg finds himself in an unusual position these days. He's accustomed to trying to convince lawmakers and corporate powers that some things are worth doing, even if they might be costly in the short term. Cutting mercury emissions from power plants, for example. It's not cheap — but how do you put a price on ensuring a child's mental development isn't impeded because of mercury in the fish he eats? But that sort of argument can be an awfully tough sell when dealing with an industry that has as its first priority the corporate bottom line, and protects that bottom line by doling out campaign contributions to grateful politicians.

But the situation regarding global warming is different, he says. "With this, I feel more like an economic booster."

A priority right now for Shriberg and his organization is getting the Legislature to set what are called renewable portfolio standards, which set benchmarks for the amount of electricity utilities have to produce from alternative sources such as solar, biomass and wind power, which produce no greenhouse gases.

In 2004, Michigan sent $18 billion to other states to pay for coal, oil, natural gas and uranium to meet our energy needs. Investing in renewables will prevent more of our money from flooding out. And, as the cost of burning fossil fuels is almost certainly going to increase as the imperative to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions becomes unavoidable — as experts predict will happen within the next several years — the price of some renewable energy such as wind power could be less expensive than electricity coming from new coal-powered plants.

Another advantage to mandating the use of renewables — Environment Michigan is lobbying for a measure that would require utilities to generate 20 percent of the state's power from alternative sources by the year 2020 — is that it should entice companies involved in the alternative energy business to locate here. As an example, Shriberg says that at a hearing on the issue two weeks ago in Lansing, Noble Environmental — a company that builds and operates wind farms — told legislators that it was prepared to invest $2 billion in Michigan if the state established renewable portfolio standards. Twenty-three other states have already done so.

A new report by the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems estimates that if this state were to follow the lead of others and mandate standards along the lines of those advocated by Shriberg, the state could add more than $64 million annually to its economy and create more than 880 jobs.

The problem, says Shriberg, is the power of the "fossil fuel" lobby and the state Chamber of Commerce in resisting that effort.

According to the U-M Crossroads report, another $54 million could be contributed to the state's economy annually and 644 jobs created if higher insulation standards were mandated for new single-family homes. At the same time electric and natural gas bills are reduced, greenhouse gas emissions are cut significantly, says Gregory Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems. In this case, it's the homebuilders' lobby that is blocking progress.

In all, the state could add $380 million a year and generate 3,400 jobs by 2025 — while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions — if those reforms and others, such as increasing energy efficiency standards for appliances, were instituted.

Along with the power of special interests, the problem has been the lack of strong leadership on the part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, critics say. They point to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example of a politician who's willing to make bold moves in the right direction. Last year, under Schwarzenegger's leadership, California became the first state in the nation to place a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, refineries and factories. Schwarzenegger has said setting such goals can create a new gold rush by spurring companies to create new technologies developed to protect the environment.

On the other side of the country, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is being lauded for his call to cut his city's greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2030. He too sees the effort as an economic stimulus.

Meanwhile, Michigan's congressional representatives — serving as tools of the U.S. auto industry — have been battling attempts in Congress to improve fuel efficiency standards.

"We need leadership in government," says Keoleian. "We need leaders who will be looking at promoting the long-term health of our economy instead of protecting some special interest."

Too much is at stake not to. There are a lot of industries in this state — tourism, shipping, commercial fishing, agriculture and more — whose fates hang in the balance. But that's only part of it.

"We all need to make a contribution to bring down these emissions dramatically to avoid catastrophic consequences," says Keoleian, "because the life support system of the planet is being threatened."

No one thinks it will be easy.

"We've got our work cut out for us," says U-M geophysics professor Pollack. "The first step for remediation is to recognize there is a problem. But I think the American people have reached the tipping point, and are moving out of a state of denial.

"The next step is to get the politicians and policymakers to do the same thing."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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