Joyce Penner and David Skole: Taking action on climate now is key for Michigan's future

Joyce Penner and David Skole discuss climate change in Michigan.


8/12/2013 - Last summer seemed like a climate change prediction come true. We experienced our warmest March on record, late April and early May frosts, and a June through August drought. The unseasonably warm spring and lack of summer rain destroyed our cherry and apple crops, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses. It didn’t take 100 years of historic data and complex general circulation models to demonstrate that something was out of the ordinary.

Unlike last year, this year’s spring got off to a cooler, soggier start. April was the wettest on record, and March through May was our coldest since 2008. Fortunately, our billion-dollar agricultural sector is faring rather well, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting that our top soil moisture levels and various field, fruit and vegetable crops are all looking good.

To some, the contrast between this year and last year might seem proof that climate change is not real, but years of vigorously tested climate-related data suggest otherwise. Michigan is, in fact, changing.

Using a combination of field, atmospheric and historic data, we know that annual temperatures are increasing nationwide. We are 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer today than we were at the turn of last century. We’ve seen both an increase in our regional precipitation and shifts in the timing of when the rain falls. We’ve seen a longer frost-free season that decreases groundwater recharge and threatens our lake and river levels. We’ve seen a significant increase in extreme weather. Our record high temperatures now outnumber our record lows by 2 to 1, and floods and droughts are becoming much more commonplace. There is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that these changes are exacerbated by human actions, and without proper and immediate intervention, the negative impacts of climate change will continue to grow in the future.

While there is little we can do to change the natural variations within the earth’s climate cycles, there are steps we can take to limit the human contribution to climate change. We can clean our air and reduce heat-trapping gases by asking for state and federal carbon standards for existing power sources. We can create jobs and reduce our dependence on out-of-state-sourced coal by increasing our use of in-state renewable energy and supporting robust energy-efficiency efforts. We can allow our 19 million acres of public and private forest lands to act as efficient carbon sinks by calling for improved management of these majestic resources. We can, as empowered citizens, understand that taking measures to mitigate climate change today means a healthier environment for us and our children, financial savings and economic growth for our families and our state, and a rebirth of Michigan as a technological and industrial leader.

Whether we live in a major city or spend our days tending orchards, climate change is real and impacts us all. If we remain silent and fail to act on one of the most pressing issues of our time, climate predictions indicate that Michigan stands to lose much more than cherries.

Joyce Penner is the associate chairwoman for atmospheric science and Ralph J. Cicerone distinguished university professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan. David Skole is a professor of forestry at Michigan State University.

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