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Opinion | Michigan electricity outages should be a wake-up call on climate

Welcome to the non-winter of 2022/2023.

As someone who grew up as a child in the Mitten in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and lived here most of my life, I can truly say this has been completely unrecognizable as a historical Michigan winter season.

Almost no snow and several extended periods of temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s, broken up by a couple of record cold waves as the normal arctic airflow destabilizes.  Then, just to throw a curveball, more snow in March than most of the rest of the winter combined.

Martin Kushler
Dr. Martin Kushler, a utility policy and regulation expert, is a Senior Fellow with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and spent nearly a decade as supervisor of evaluation at the Michigan Public Service Commission.

But it hasn’t just been Michigan, and it hasn’t just been this year. For the past several years there have been record wildfires across the globe, everywhere from the western U.S. to Australia. And record hurricanes, typhoons, droughts and floods across the globe as well.  

Mother nature is not happy, and she is sending us some urgent messages. What is so surprising and disappointing is that we really don’t seem to be listening.

No doubt the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a very serious issue, and deserves a strong response. But as I watch the hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency military aid, the huge effort at an international economic response, and the literally daily extensive news coverage I have to wonder: Where is the proportionate response to the truly existential climate crisis?

The stable, moderate climate that modern humans have enjoyed for our entire existence is beginning to disintegrate before our eyes. Just this month we saw reports of record temperatures in Greenland 50 degrees above normal, while southern California saw record snow blizzards.  

Closer to home, the immediate weather-related pain this year has left Michigan experiencing a highly unusual series of ice storms that have caused electricity outages for hundreds of thousands of customers.

The president and CEO of DTE has responded: "We need to continue to invest in our system and harden our system, so we can deal with this new normal of the stronger weather patterns that continue to hit Michigan."   

But we should not be referring to this as simply “the new normal”. Much more importantly, this is “just the tip of the climate crisis iceberg” heading our way if we don’t transition to clean energy. 

The legislature will be holding hearings about the electric outages, and hearings on the importance of “hardening the grid” and compensating affected customers. And those are no doubt appropriate near-term reactions.  

But it is imperative that we as a society start to put these increasingly frequent and devastating weather events into full context. Our climate is essentially destabilizing and the climate scientists tell us we must take aggressive action to reduce the greenhouse gasses that are causing this before the consequences become truly catastrophic.  

Let’s hope that our legislators include in their response some important concrete steps to implement the energy efficiency and renewable energy goals encompassed in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s climate plan published last year. 

Michigan can and should take strong action now.

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