Event Review, WMSBF News

Mayor Heartwell and WMEAC Talk Climate Resiliency at March Meeting

With the impact of global climate change becoming a reality, participants at WMSBF’s March Monthly Luncheon Meeting explored the idea of climate resiliency in depth with Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and other speakers at Cheney Place on March 10.

Heartwell, whose administration commissioned the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report, was joined by Aaron Ferguson, one of the head authors of the report and WMEAC Policy Director Nicholas Occhipinti in discussing the report and the impact of climate change on Grand Rapids and on businesses in the area.

Also featured were Joshua Lester and Kevin Van Dyke of meeting co-sponsor Feyen Zylstra, Rick Van Dellen, sustainability program manager at Amway, and Cheri Holman of Hurst Mechanical speaking for USGBC’s West Michigan chapter.

In his presentation, Heartwell brought forward Grand Rapids’ history with climate change adaptation, beginning with his work with Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering. In the early 90’s, Keller pulled together a group of local leaders, philanthropists, and industry experts to discuss applying the business principles of total quality management to solving social problems.

From this experience, Heartwell’s administration revamped the city planning process early in his first term from a traditional strategic planning process to a triple bottom line, sustainability-minded system, and also signed onto the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. After eight years of implementation, Grand Rapids received the Siemens award for the Nation’s Most Sustainable mid-sized city in 2012. “We have traveled quite a distance over that 8-year period,” said Heartwell. “It has been, and it remains, an incredible journey and I am so proud to be on it with you, in this room, who have been the leaders, and sometimes the tuggers and pullers, and sometimes the pushers, to make sure that we become and remain the most sustainable region in the nation.”

While noting WMSBF members’ continued support of sustainability efforts in the city, Heartwell described how he came to support the idea of climate resiliency after researching the recent consequences of climate change. “I came to understand exactly what that science means to us in West Michigan. It means sudden heatwaves like the one we had in the summer of 2012 that put people’s lives at risk, an increase in rain events and the consequent flooding such as we had last year—such as I pray we don’t have again this year,” he said. “Straight line winds, public health concerns that we never had to address in the past, agricultural disruptions. And of course, now I know about polar vortexes.”

With support from the  International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and a grant from the Wal-Mart foundation, Heartwell’s administration commissioned the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report from WMEAC, which identified specific points for resiliency in 22 different municipal issues. “It was a ground-breaking project,” said Heartwell, who noted that the report was far more comprehensive than others done in the past by other communities.

Occhipinti and Ferguson presented the development of the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report, focused on the economic impact of climate change and resiliency. Ferguson noted that the idea of sustainability must change if it is to stay relevant to today’s businesses. “We can’t continue to plan for sustainability in the status quo,” he said. “We have to realize that what is sustainable now may not be sustainable in the future, and start planning that way with climate change in mind.”

To make the report relevant to the local community, Occhipinti and Ferguson along with the WMEAC team not only pulled together research from secondary sources and climate experts at Grand Valley University, but also interviewed dozens of local experts in various fields to discover how climate change would affect their field of work.

Advanced climate modeling provided hyperlocal data on precipitation and temperature change for coming years, framed around 2022 and 2042—dates which align with the Grand Rapids master planning process time frame. “As much as possible, we wanted to make this data useful for decision-making,” said Occhipinti.

According to Occhipinti and Ferguson, the results show an overall 4 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature by 2042, and an 8.5 percent precipitation increase. Seasonal shifts will cause more precipitation to fall during the winter, and more heat waves during the summer.

Occhipinti and Ferguson went on to connect the impact of the predicted climate change to various aspects of local business, highlighting the negative impact increased precipitation and extreme weather will have on municipal transportation and stormwater infrastructure, as well as different ways that local private industry infrastructure could be affected. As an example of how the current general business sector is taking climate resiliency into account, Occhipinti also said that several major international insurance firms are already taking climate change models and the potential consequences, like the one used for the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report, into account when creating policies for clients: additional risks due to climate change consequences can result in higher premiums.

However, there may be some benefit to certain sectors in the future, as well. Occhipinti and Ferguson both noted that the agricultural, alternative energy and green building sectors will grow thanks to an increased focus on sustainable technology, and thanks to certain elements of the changing climate.

Occhipinti closed the presentation by inviting business leaders to consider climate resiliency and describing his hopes for further discussion and programs circled around climate resiliency, viewed from a local instead of a global perspective.

The entire Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report is available online, here.

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