A warming climate will have profound negative effects on both the planet and human society, or at least that’s what we’re told. As media outlets publish increasingly hysterical warnings of the threats of a changing climate, it’s becoming almost impossible to discern between real and embellished risks.
That’s a problem for the average Midwesterner. The Great Lakes are the source of over 1.3 million jobs and $82 billion in yearly wages, according to Elizabeth Striano of the University of Michigan’s cooperative program Michigan Sea Grant. Striano also explains that coastal counties along the lakes are responsible for generating 5.8% of U.S. GDP. Michigan’s department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy notes that 5.9 million people rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, so extreme droughts or flooding could be disastrous.
Media, government, and environmental groups are warning that both are possible. Before deciding which extreme you should worry about, it’s important to understand that neither is inevitable, or even likely.
“By geographical scale and duration, the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s remains the benchmark drought and extreme heat event in the historical record (very high confidence),” the Fourth National Climate Assessment(NCA4) reports. “While by some measures drought has decreased over much of the continental United States in association with long-term increases in precipitation, neither the precipitation increases nor inferred drought decreases have been confidently attributed to anthropogenic forcing.”
The Great Lakes hold approximately “21% of the world’s supply of surface freshwater,” the Environmental Protection Agency notes. The Great Lakes Commission expands on this information, pointing out that the lakes hold “an estimated six quadrillion gallons of water” — 15 zeros. EPA also explains that total outflows, which include human withdrawals and natural outflows like the St. Lawrence River, make up less than 1% of the total volume of the lakes.
Despite that wealth of fresh water resources, media and special interests claim industrial uses of water within the Great Lakes Basin are a “harmful water withdrawal.” For example, in 2018, Nestlé was given approval by state regulators to increase water extraction from its White Pine Springs well near Evart, Michigan from 250 gallons per minute to 400 for its bottled water operations. Green groups lashed out, demanding boycotts of the company. Headlines claimed that “Nestle Wins and Our Great Lakes Lose.”
But as demand for bottled water has surpassed the demand for soda, this permit was actually a win for Michigan residents who had one more way to access a clean and reliable source of drinking water. But the extreme response to the plan prompted the company, now rebranded as Blue Triton, to surrender the approved permit in October last year, promising to limit pumping to 414,720 gallons per day. The annual cap of withdrawals is 20,059,039 gallons, state regulators noted.
Even if the company had expanded water withdrawals, the Midwest was unlikely to transform into desert. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The American Water Works Association reported that the “average overall loss in drinking water systems has been estimated at 16%,” as a result of slow, steady leaks rather than “catastrophic, visible” breaks in water mains. With proper updates and audits for efficiency, as much as 75% of this loss is recoverable. In Michigan, a 75% reduction in these leaks could lead to over 16 billion gallons of water saved each year — almost 800 times greater than Nestlé/Blue Triton’s approved annual use.
On the other extreme, people face doomsday warnings of extreme storms and floods. But flooding patterns indicate that the fluctuations in high versus low water levels follow normal, long-term trends. The Fourth National Climate Assessment looked at flood levels from stream flows across the country and found that there were no “detectable changes in flooding magnitude, duration, or frequency.” The assessment also recognized, “formal attribution approaches have not established a significant connection of increased riverine flooding to human-induced climate change.”
In 2019 and 2020, many reports warned that water levels in the Great Lakes were at record high levels. The Climate Assessment’s recognition that water levels in the lakes regularly fluctuate was abandoned in favor of frightening headlines. Yet other authorities also failed to support the dire claims. Hydrographs maintained by NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reveal that these high levels have happened before. While high water levels certainly impacted shorelines and properties, they were not unprecedented.
As if impending floods weren’t scary enough, global warming was also held up as the cause when water levels dropped substantially in 2013. And even when the water is neither too high nor too low but “just right,” the terror continues: Long-term, natural fluctuations have recently been rebranded as “seesawing.” Unsurprisingly, seesawing is also attributed to a changing climate.
Lomborg analyzed flood costs from 1903 to 2018 and revealed that the country faced an average of $3.5 billion in damages in 1903 and $12.9 billion in 2018. Costs increased because the number of homes increased from 68 million in 1970 to 137 million in 2017. The 2018 Great Lakes Report suggests that solutions to the rising cost of flood damage will be found through community-based responses like better “planning and coordination, shoreline stabilization and protection, land use and shoreline management policies; and education and outreach.”
It's reasonable to learn how a changing climate could impact the natural environment, our lives, and our property. But inordinate panic over unlikely doomsday events won’t promote a proper understanding of those potential impacts. We can understand and plan for potential increases in temperatures without spreading fear and misinformation.
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