HOUGHTON -- More than 160 scientists from colleges and universities across Michigan have sent a letter urging Michigan’s congressional delegation to oppose further attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority, calling the EPA essential to protecting public health. Among speakers at a telephone press conference Wednesday morning, March 9, was Sarah Green, chair of chemistry at Michigan Technological University.
"I am proud to stand with my fellow scientists in sending this message to Congress: Let science, not politics, determine how we set standards on greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. "As Congress begins the debate on the Clean Air Act, it is vital that they hear from scientists -- and more than 160 of us in Michigan are ready to make our voices heard."
Green, whose research centers on Great Lakes chemistry and ecology and who is a member of the Green Chemistry Roundtable, noted also that this issue of greenhouse gas emissions affects people in all areas of Michigan, including the Upper Peninsula.
"Our natural resources, and especially our Great Lakes, really define the life here in the Upper Peninsula," Green said. "As scientists I believe we have a duty to speak up in defense of natural resources and public health -- and of course to support the Michigan economy."
Green recalled that the Supreme Court has ruled the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to protect public health. Over the last 40 years, EPA scientists have implemented science-based policies to keep our air and water healthy; for example, EPA scientists track bacteria, mercury, pesticides and other toxic substances in the Great Lakes and impose rules to stop this pollution, she explained.
"As a result Michigan's beautiful beaches are now more swimable, our fish are becoming healthier, polluted waterfronts around the state have been remediated, and we're all the better for it. Their work has really been outstanding," Green said.
Green pointed out, however, that climate change is an enormous threat to the lakes. It has increased the summer temperature of Lake Superior by five degrees since the 1980s.
"The winter ice cover is decreasing. People who used to put up their ice shacks and fish now can no longer do so in many places in the winter," Green noted. "Increasing temperatures are likely to bring more invasive species, harmful algal blooms and decreasing lake levels -- all of which have enormous economic and health impacts (on) Michigan's Upper Peninsula."
The scientists' letter states: "We strongly urge you to reject any measure that would block or delay the US Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the people of Michigan from air pollution and human-caused climate change, both of which put our health, agriculture, environment and economy at risk."
Knute Nadelhoffer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, who testified before Congress on Tuesday, March 8, about the importance of allowing the EPA to set greenhouse gas emission standards under the Clean Air Act, also spoke at the telephone press conference today, saying the EPA should be allowed to continue doing its job of protecting public health.
"Scientists across Michigan stand united with scientists at the EPA and across the nation," Nadelhoffer said. "Science, not politics, must drive our fight against dangerous pollution."
To a question on whether it is clear that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity, referring to skepticism raised by those opposed to supporting the EPA, Nadelhoffer said the evidence has been getting stronger every year for the past 25 or 30 years that the climate is changing and that the major changes are driven by a measured increase in greenhouse gases.
"No one (not even the small minority of skeptical scientists) disputes the fact that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane are increasing and are at higher levels than they've been for the past 400,000 years -- at least with respect to Co2. Those gases are increasing and they're known to have radiative, reflective properties -- in other words, they reflect heat back to the earth," Nadelhoffer explained. "The science is clear. There's really no question at this point."
David Karowe, professor of biological sciences at Western Michigan University agreed with Nadelhoffer that the evidence of human responsibility for climate change is incontrovertible and that Michigan scientists should urge Congress to defend citizens, not polluters.
"By taking away or weakening the EPA’s authority to fight greenhouse gas pollution, Congress is endangering the public health by increasing the likelihood of deadly heat waves, floods, and droughts," Karowe said.
Another speaker on the panel of scientists, Steve Bertman, Western Michigan University chemistry professor and an expert on atmospheric chemistry, said greenhouse gas pollution endangers important industries from agriculture to tourism.
"The science is clear: Greenhouse gas pollution harms our air, land and water," Bertman said. "Ultimately, it will be the growing industries of alternative energy that will bring innovation and jobs back to Michigan. We should be doing everything we can to support these jobs of the future rather than upholding outdated technologies of the past."
Stephen Hamilton, professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at W.K. Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University, whose research is connected to agriculture and ecosystems, noted climate change will be extremely costly to Michigan’s economy if immediate action isn't taken, within the scope of the Clean Air Act, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He pointed out the EPA's past successes in improving air quality.
"The urgency of this issue cannot be understated," Hamilton said. "Every year, every decade that we delay taking action to stabilize the climate is committing not only us, but also our childen, our grandchildren and beyond to inheriting bigger and bigger problems."
Hamilton also answered a question on impacts of climate change on agriculture. He stressed that, while warmer air might produce higher yield, water availability under hot conditions will be more limited and will impose stress on areas where irrigation is important, such as west and southwest Michigan.
Karowe added climate change will decrease the nutritional quality of plant tissue, even if yields increase with warmer temperatures.
Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and an adjunct environmental law professor at the University of Michigan, said he expected signatures to the letter from scientists may total more than 200 by the end of the week.
"The EPA does important life-saving work to protect public health," Learner said. "Congress should work to reduce pollution, not open the floodgates to more toxic pollution that puts Michigan’s future and our health at risk."
Among the facts the Michigan scientists highlighted in their letter are these:
- The Clean Air Act requires that EPA work to reduce smog and soot pollution, air toxins and global warming pollution that together cost the people of Michigan and America billions of dollars in health care and other costs.
- Clean air rules can create more than 62,300 construction, installation and professional jobs in Michigan in the next five years.
- Michigan’s Big Three automakers have already publicly supported EPA rules to reduce emissions in new vehicles.
- Clean air regulations save consumers millions of dollars in gas costs, reduce oil consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 960 million metric tons.
The scientists are continuing to circulate the letter to more researchers and scientists across the state, hoping to build momentum and influence Congressional decision-making.
A recent statewide poll showed Michigan voters overwhelmingly support the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial sources. According to the poll of 500 Michigan voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 68 percent of voters support the EPA’s authority.
Last week, the EPA released a report showing that the Clean Air Act will have saved $2 trillion by 2020 and prevented at least 230,000 deaths annually. By 2020, complying with the amendments would prevent 200,000 heart attacks, 17 million lost work days and 2.4 million asthma attacks, according to the report.
Click here to read the letter and see many of the signatures.
Photo: Sarah Green, Michigan Tech Department of Chemistry chair, shows a documentary film on climate change, Weather Report, and leads a discussion as part of the Green Film Series on Feb. 17, 2011, in Michigan Tech's Hesterberg Hall. See our Feb. 27, 2011, article by Katie Alvord, "Weather Report" attracts crowd to Green Film Festival. (Keweenaw Now file photo)