What Detroit’s climate change battle will lo...

What Detroit’s climate change battle will look like

While it may not see hurricanes or wildfires, climate change will present Detroiters with challenges. The solution? Building resilience with the basics.

belle isle flooding

Flooding on Detroit’s Belle Isle. Credit: Amy Sacka

This past summer, Americans got a preview of the devastating effects of climate change. Wildfires burned through California, destroying 9,200 structures and over 4 million acres of forest. Yet another hurricane ripped across Louisiana. And sea levels continue to rise perilously high in Miami. 

But away from the coasts and dry climates, Detroit would seem well-insulated from the worst impacts of climate change. After all, the Midwestern city is fairly far north, buffered by freshwater seas, and receives a fair bit of precipitation.

But our fair city is hardly immune. In a crisis that will leave no corner of the globe untouched, Detroit will have its own unique challenges to deal with. And the city’s high levels of racialized poverty will complicate those challenges.

“People think Michigan is a safe haven,” Justin Onwenu, a community organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club, told Planet Detroit. “But we’re regularly seeing extreme events very much tied to climate risk.”

Flooding and sewage overflows

Probably the starkest demonstration of climate change’s impact on Detroit came in July 2020. Water from the Detroit River overwhelmed barricades and spilled into the streets in Jefferson-Chalmers on the east side. In 2020, substantial portions of Belle Isle were underwater for days at a time. 

“Some of these dramatic storms have hugely detrimental impacts,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said. “Our infrastructure, especially in Detroit, just can’t handle these extreme weather events.”

Rising water levels are commonly associated with oceans as rising temperatures melt polar ice caps. But extreme weather patterns also contribute to increased precipitation, leading to flooding along inland bodies of water as well. 

A report on climate change in Detroit by the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments from 2014 predicted the city would struggle with flooding as climate change intensifies. “An increase in the number and intensity of severe storms may further expose Detroit’s existing vulnerabilities in stormwater management and water quality,” the report said.

Detroit’s combined sewer system, which collects water from both sewage and rainfall, is vulnerable to flooding and can easily get overwhelmed when there’s too much precipitation. 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. This event is termed a combined sewer overflow (CSO), and is among the worst threats to local waterways in the region.

Detroit’s city government has recognized this danger. As part of a $500 million initiative to upgrade its sewer system, the city allocated $8.6 million towards green stormwater management that prevents precipitation from entering the sewer system at all, or slows its delivery to the system. The goal is to reduce the frequency and volume of CSOs

In 2018, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began collecting a “drainage fee,” which charges property owners based on the amount of impermeable surface on their parcel, to pay for this new type of infrastructure.  On Detroit’s northwest side, a new median with improved stormwater retention was unveiled this October. In March last year, the city and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers spent $2 million to install temporary dams along the Detroit River. 

Whether these efforts will be enough to mitigate the expected increases in precipitation brought on by climate change remains to be seen, and will likely depend on adequate funding to install green infrastructure, as well as to maintain it.

Heat waves and utility burdens

Climate change isn’t just about the health of buildings and infrastructure. People’s health will be directly affected by volatile weather patterns, especially increased temperatures. While the heat in Detroit won’t be as extreme as what is currently afflicting cities like Phoenix, which had 50 days above 110 degrees during the summer of 2020, it will nonetheless pose challenges. 

Like other big cities, Detroit is vulnerable to the heat island effect. Through a combination of limited greenery like trees and open spaces, and non-natural surfaces that absorb and reflect heat, city temperatures are higher than in outlying areas. Every year, numerous infants and seniors suffer from heat stroke â€” numbers which will get worse as temperatures rise. 

To offset extreme weather, people will be forced to spend more on electricity by running their heaters and air conditioners more frequently. Many low-income Detroiters can’t afford it. They’ll also feel DWSD’s drainage fee most acutely.

“Climate change will only exacerbate existing inequalities in health and income that have existed for a very long time,” Onwenu said. 

Bioswale. Courtesy photo by Adam Pruett.

Historically, low-income residents have lived closest to the biggest contributors to climate change and paid the costs of their legacy pollution. There is also a correlation between high heat and asthma

“It is unconscionable that polluting industries are disproportionately in communities of color, while also not adequately dealing with their cumulative impact on people’s lives,” Wozniak said.

Homeowners could opt to update their house with things like better insulation to improve temperature control and install air filters to reduce the amount of impurities they breathe. But those aren’t financially viable options for many Detroit homeowners. 

“The combination of old housing stock built at less efficient building codes, plus a high unemployment and higher percentage of households over 65, leads to a lot of deferred maintenance,” Tony Reames, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, told Planet Detroit. “You just can’t operate a house as efficiently as possible under those circumstances.”

Through his research, Reames discovered a racial disparity in energy use intensity (the amount of energy used per square foot), but not in energy consumption. In other words, due to home inefficiencies, Black Detroiters are spending more on energy despite not consuming it more. 

Building local resiliency infrastructure

But while the causes of climate change are global, a lot can be done locally to build “resilience,” or the ability of local systems to withstand the worst effects of climate change. In Detroit, that may be less about building solar farms or electric-vehicle stations, and more about shoring up equitable access to the basics. 

“Resiliency should be thought of as access to good food, good jobs, and good health,” Onwenu said. He cites essentials like cooling centers and grocery stores as examples of resiliency infrastructure. 

The city has taken a similar approach. Last year, Detroit’s Office of Sustainability released its Sustainability Action Agenda, which outlined 43 items, many of which look to address Detroiters’ immediate needs. Reames is part of a coalition with the city’s Sustainability Office, EcoWorks, and other partners to create the Detroit Climate Strategy, which has a heavy focus on reducing utility bills. 

Detroit’s problems and solutions may not be as dramatic as other parts of the country, but because of its entrenched poverty and legacy of pollution, their effects will be felt all the same. 

“We need to take this seriously in Detroit,” Onwenu said. “People here are already vulnerable, whether from an economic or health standpoint. And now we’re adding climate on top of that.”

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.