Aspiring policymakers hit the road to learn about climate change adaptation



After graduating from the University of Michigan with masters’ degrees in environmental policy, Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein understood the plans and policies created in response to climate change.

What was missing, they said, was an interaction with what was actually being accomplished in towns, cities and states across the country.

“We wanted see adaption to climate change through the everyday decisions of people and communities,” Howard said. “And we wanted to get that perspective to inform our future policy work.”

So they decided to take on a new, more hands-on educational experience — their “Great American Adaptation Road Trip.”

Howard and Goldstein became roommates in August of 2011, when they both responded to an ad on Craigslist for a house in Ann Arbor. Two summers later they’re hitting the road, blogging and tweeting along the way and raising funds for their trip online.

For the next three months they’ll seek the  answer to this  question: what does climate change adaptation look like?

They plan to discuss climate change with city planners, natural resources managers, business owners, farmers, fisherman, foresters, insurance agents, and community leaders across the nation.

“We’ve made it through mid-June in our planning,” Howard said. “Next we’ll head east — Boston, Vermont, and Maine, and we might try to hit New York and New Jersey.

“Then we’ll head down to Baltimore, which is interesting because they’re one of only a few places that are incorporating climate change adaption into their hazard planning, or how they respond to natural disasters and emergencies,” she said. “Eventually we’ll make it out west, to states like Colorado and then eventually circle back to Michigan.”

College roommates Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein will put their policy education to work this summer learning about climate change adaption. Photo:

College roommates Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein will put their policy education to work this summer learning about climate change adaption. Photo:

They’ve already done most of their Michigan leg, exploring low lake levels in Pentwater and sustainability in Grand Rapids, Goldstein said.

“Lake levels in Pentwater are about 29 inches below the long-term annual average this year,” said Goldstein. “Pentwater Lake is connected to Lake Michigan through a channel, which has unprecedentedly low water levels.”

Large boats come through Pentwater’s channel in the summer to do business in town, and if they can’t make it through, the city’s economy suffers, Goldstein said.

The United States Army Corps. of Engineers has dredged the channel in the past, but Pentwater is no longer a Safe Harbor. Recreational harbors, Goldstein explained, don’t receive funding for dredging projects.

Last year Pentwater residents  raised enough money to dredge the harbor, allowing the passage of larger vessels.

“We essentially went to a coffee shop and met this amazing group of about two dozen people,” said Goldstein. “They meet at 10 every morning to discuss the lake levels and other issues.”

Read more about their experience in Pentwater on their website.

Later in the week, they  toured a wastewater treatment plant in Grand Rapids that has recently stopped using chemicals to treat liquids.

“They’re now only using natural, biological processes to remove waste and toxins from sewage,” Howard said. “They aren’t using chlorine or sulfide dioxide anymore. They’re chemical-free.”

Howard also described their efficient system to trap heat inform  one building of the plant to warm the other buildings.

“Grand Rapids is an incredibly sustainable city — sustainable ethics are built into every government position they’ve taken on,” Howard said.

Goldstein and Howard will be continually providing updates on their blog and on Twitter, and still welcome donations on their fundraising website.

So far they’ve raised $2, 265 of a $3,000 goal.

“It’s been so eye-opening so far,” Howard said. “We understand the policy, but now we’re able to see what’s going on the ground.”



3 thoughts on “Aspiring policymakers hit the road to learn about climate change adaptation

  1. Dave – to your point about adaptation – true adaptation incorporates all of those other effects as well and it also includes efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Adaptation is really about dealing with those effects that are completely unavoidable at this point, but doesn’t preclude us from taking action on future emissions – starting today.

    To that end, it would be great if they can use public transport and other low-carbon options as much as possible on this road trip!

  2. I’ve been adapting to climate changes all my life. Sometimes by putting on long-johns, at other times donning short pants. Thinsulate has replaced goose down which replaced wool. We didn’t worry about it, we just went outside with what was appropriate. Decades ago we had snow in June and spring temps in January. What we didn’t have was excuses other than Momma Nature has temper tantrums on occasions. Actually, when I was in college in the 70s our profs were postulating climate change and predicting another ice age. (We are due.)
    Now we have a whole set of profs and students who major in climate change at our liberal universities. I liked it better when you looked at the sky, the thermometer and then put on the appropriate attire.
    We can piss away the American lifestyle, economy, graduate liberal climatologists tell Hell freezes over (or starts to boil over) and Mama Nature is still going to throw temper tantrums.

  3. What these young ladies are doing is valuable, however it is equally important to recognize that climate-change adaptation is throwing in the towel – or surrender – to problems for which there may be real solutions. An emphasis on adapting to a problem rather than correcting the problem can be harmful in and of itself.

    For example, when talking about water levels in Lake Michigan and its negative affect on Pentwater’s harbor (and, of course every other harbor on Lakes Michigan and Huron), it should be recognized that climate change is only one issue that is impacting the problem – and the least-easy to address in the short term. Other human activities have had an even more-direct impact.

    Dredging and bottom mining at the St. Clair River outlet from Lake Huron has massively increased the water loss from these Great Lakes, as erosion far beyond intended depths has greatly exacerbated the situation. That is a direct impact, and one which could be addressed explicitly and relatively inexpensively at a single location.

    The bottom line is this: Adaptation, while important, should not be allowed to become a means by which society can avoid making meaningful changes to resolve underlying and correctable problems.

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