Detroit's Unique Climate Challenges

As climate change intensifies, Detroit could see more devastating floods and deadlier heat waves.

January 27, 2021, 6:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Detroit Motor City

Detroit's history of inequality could exacerbate the uneven impacts of climate change on urban populations. | rlassman / Shutterstock

Although it isn't a hotspot for cataclysmic natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires, the Midwest isn't immune from the damaging effects of climate change, writes Aaron Mondry, and Detroit has unique challenges complicated by "the city’s high levels of racialized poverty." When the Detroit River flooded the city's east side in July 2020, residents saw firsthand the devastating potential of extreme weather events.

"An increase in the number and intensity of severe storms may further expose Detroit’s existing vulnerabilities in stormwater management and water quality," a 2014 report from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments warned. One issue is the city's combined sewer system. When the system becomes overwhelmed with sewage and rainwater, "the excess water gets released into the Detroit and Rouge rivers instead of the water treatment plant, polluting waterways and increasing the risk of waterborne disease," writes Mondry. Detroit is addressing this problem as part of a $500 million initiative to upgrade its sewer system, mitigate the effects of higher precipitation, and improve stormwater retention.

"Climate change isn’t just about the health of buildings and infrastructure," Mondry points out. Detroit will need more greenery and open spaces to combat the heat island effect and prevent deaths from causes like heat stroke, and residents will be forced to spend more on cooling and electricity or retrofitting their homes, compounding the disproportionate impacts on low-income communities. "Historically, low-income residents have lived closest to the biggest contributors to climate change and paid the costs of their legacy pollution," according to Mondry.

The city has released a Sustainability Action Agenda to address the immediate needs of residents and "create a more sustainable city where all Detroiters thrive and prosper in an equitable, green city; have access to affordable, quality homes; live in clean, connected neighborhoods; and work together to steward resources." Justin Onwenu, a community organizer for the Sierra Club, is quoted in the article advocating for equitable access to basic needs as an important aspect of resilience. Preparing for climate change in Detroit might be "less about building solar farms or electric-vehicle stations," Onwenu told Planet Detroit. "Resiliency should be thought of as access to good food, good jobs, and good health."

Thursday, January 14, 2021 in Planet Detroit

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