By Todd Ambs
If you live in one of the eight Great Lakes states or two Great Lakes Canadian provinces you are in the water belt of North America.
Many challenges threaten these magnificent water bodies and, of course, the most significant by far is climate change.
I believe that recent conservation initiatives in our region show that we have the collective will to respond to this threat. To do so, we must embrace the words of former Wisconsin Governor, U.S. Senator and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson when he said: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment…”
More than perhaps anywhere else in North America we are reminded about the importance of using our natural capital currency. We spent it wisely when we passed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. At its most fundamental level, the compact is about how we sustainably manage the most significant freshwater resource on the planet.
We turned to our environment again to fuel our economy when hundreds of groups, businesses, tribes and governmental entities and nearly 2,000 individuals across the Basin helped to create the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration document – a blueprint for cleanup of these water bodies.
In 2009, President Obama followed through on his campaign pledge to fund the Collaboration Strategy by creating the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).
Since 2010, more than $2.2 billion dollars has been appropriated by Congress to the GLRI, funding more than 2,500 projects that have cleaned up toxic hot spots, restored wetlands and reduced runoff from cities and farms. These environmentally reclaimed areas have in turn fueled an economic revitalization in communities across the Great Lakes.
Still, there is a great deal of work to do and additional threats to the Lakes emerge almost daily.
Last year, I was asked to be part of a small gathering of thought leaders, scientists and policy experts from around the region at the Great Lakes Restoration and Climate Change Forum.
What we discussed was sobering.
Climate change has already affected the Great Lakes in a variety of ways. An air temperature increase of just 1° F since 1980 has driven summertime surface water temperatures 8° F higher, which means less ice cover later in the year and more solar energy to contribute to evaporation instead of melting.
Future lake level variability is projected to range from +5 feet to -10 feet. Furthermore, Milwaukee has experienced five 100-year or greater storm events since 1999, making climate change adaptation both much more difficult and even more essential.
This year is on track to be the warmest in recorded history. In fact, during the past 30 years, despite the polar vortex in our region, every month has been above the historical global temperature average. Since 1990, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have increased 44 percent globally.
Our report from the Great Lakes and Climate Change Forum suggests a number of actions to respond to these threats.
Those actions include building awareness of climate change impacts, developing comprehensive energy policies, maximizing pollution reductions, updating research that shows climate change impacts and firm and fair enforcement of existing law.
We must take these actions with Gaylord Nelson’s words in mind. The investments that we must make in the wake of this climate disruption will be significant and, yes, economically disruptive in some instances. We must make them if a healthy environment is our goal and recognize that a failure to act – a collective failure to realize the truth of Gaylord Nelson’s words – will result in a much greater economic cost in the long term.
Thankfully, the inclusive, open and transparent process that I described earlier that led to adoption of the Great Lakes Compact and the creation of the Great Lakes Collaboration document – that blueprint for action to restore the Great Lakes – demonstrates what we are capable of in the region.
And today both of those efforts continue to enjoy broad, bi-partisan, public-based support.
We have made great strides in the last decade as a region when we have involved the public in a meaningful way. If we continue to bring all of the interests to the table to find solutions that enable our lakes to thrive, I truly believe that we will be as well positioned as any region could be to confront the environmental threats of climate change.
Todd Ambs is the director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. From 2010 until becoming director of Healing Our Waters in July 2013, Ambs was president of the national conservation group River Network. Prior to that, he ran the Water Division for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 2003 to 2010. Ambs was the lead negotiator for the State of Wisconsin during the development of the Great Lakes Compact. He has served on a number of water-related boards and commissions, including the Great Lakes Commission, Great Lakes Protection Fund and the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association. He currently serves on Coordinating Committee for the Alliance for Water Stewardship, Regional Administrative Council for the North Central Region Water Network and Advisory Board for the Great Lakes Clean Communities Network.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected]