Sustainable Business Forum tackles climate resiliency and preparedness

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Nick Occhipinti, Policy Director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council, standing at far left, moderated an informative panel consisting of, left to right, Amy Deel from Local First; Rick VanDellen, Sustainability Program Manager, Amway; Alison Sutter, Senior Sustainability Consultant, Key Green Solutions; Mark LaCroix of The Carbon Neutral Company; Haris Alibasic, Director, City of Grand Rapids Office of Sustainability; and Aaron Ferguson, MPA, Project Manager and Health Educator, Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Program (Michigan Department of Community Health).

 LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Human adaptation to a world in which the climate is rapidly changing entails more than just learning how to live with higher temperatures.

So broadly does the climate affect everything we do that it may mean going beyond how we relate with the natural environment to rethinking our interactions with each other.

As Daniel Schoonmaker, Executive Director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), points out, there may be vast differences in the kinds of agreements and contracts people make in the world of the built environment, in what may constitute liability, and in terms of insurability. “Businesses and municipalities that don't take preparedness steps are subject to lawsuits. That is part of a national trend,” Schoonmaker observes.

Though a recent lawsuit resulting from the April 2013 floods in Grand Rapids was dismissed, that type of action may increase as weather-related disasters and even unbearable heat become more frequent and intense.

At the recent WMSBF Climate Resiliency Conference, Aaron Ferguson, who is director of the state’s Climate and Health Adaptation Program, said, “The social perspective of climate change is not as heavily understood, but especially in terms of public health, we need to keep that in mind.”

Ferguson spoke on a panel with a broad range of speakers urging businesses and organizations to think deeply and seriously about how to reduce the negative impacts of climate change over the next decades.

There are many aspects to climate change response. Avoiding climate change seems not to be an option, since its effects are already being felt in such factors as melting ice cover. There is certainly still much work underway to keep climate change from getting worse. Such attempts are often referred to as climate change mitigation, defined as “actions to limit the magnitude and/or rate of long-term climate change.”

Climate change adaptation means trying to figure out how to change what we do in order to counteract the negative repercussions of changing climate — such actions as emergency preparedness, disease prevention and considerations about epidemiology, and ensuring a safe water supply. As a couple of the panelists pointed out, many of the most negative impacts will have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations.

The complexity of each of these separate considerations ups the ante on the ability to make predictions. Reaching toward sustainability already entails a great deal of data collection and careful planning based on ground-level realities.

The panelists spent a lot of time considering the relationship between climate resiliency and sustainability, with some noting that although resiliency seems to be reactive and sustainability proactive, both should be recognized as opportunities.

“If you look at the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, the topics they cover include energy and water and all those aspects of sustainability that without being properly addressed you’re not going to survive,” said Harks Alibasic, the City of Grand Rapids Director of Sustainability.

There was discussion about how to move companies and organizations such as hospitals toward taking notice. Alison Sutter, formerly an environmental attorney, now a sustainability consultant with Key Green Solutions, said she finds real-life, personalized stories most effective. “There was a situation right here in West Michigan where a health care facility had a generator, but it was in the basement so it got flooded, and 20 babies had to be transferred under dangerous circumstances. So I bring it to that level: I say, you’re in health care because you care about people, so you want to avoid situations like that. And that resonates with them.”

Most everyone agreed, however, that many businesses are leading the way in climate change preparation and planning. Mark LaCroix, Executive Vice President of The Carbon Neutral Company (a “leading provider of carbon reductions solutions” with a global scope), commented, “There may be questions about how well the market works, but I say with the kind of sustainability challenges we’re facing, in general markets are the only kind of mechanism we have with the capacity to deliver large-scale solutions.”

Ferguson added, “Businesses are taking sustainability seriously because they understand that there are a lot of monetary costs to avoidance of thinking about energy and climate change impacts. Extreme events cause a lot of these financial and health and human costs.”

The panelists also discussed how to reflect “externalities,” costs that do not stem directly from the process or product of a company.

But as most of the panelists and speakers acknowledged, most critical in addressing the problem of climate change is to get a handle on exactly what is taking place right now, and to bring the best scientific and analytical tools to bear on determining what that will mean in the future.

Michigan research leaders have come together to do just that,  and WMSBF is taking a lead role in the Climate Resiliency Framework Initiative. Part of the Oct. 6 conference was a dialogue with those present, to start “developing a framework for a West Michigan response to climate change,” facilitated by Michael O’Rourke and Kyle Whyte, both professors of philosophy at Michigan State University, along with Schoonmaker.

Based on a  set of questions on energy, emergency preparedness, sustainability and government, participants discussed structures and issues for consideration in developing a preliminary plan.

WMSBF has also issued a series of preliminary reports on “industry impacts” which can be found at www.wmsbf.org.

One of the day’s final speakers, Jim Patchett of Conservation Design Forum, talked in detail about climate mitigation practices, in particular focusing on the function of sequestering carbon that a healthy ecosystem provides. “There is a profound disconnection in our understanding of the basic processes of the earth,” he said. “We’ve fallen in love with technology and forgotten what we used to know. If the Grand River started to rise 200 years ago, we would have known the signs and been able to figure out what to do. But now, our long-term survival absolutely mandates a reconnection with these basics, urban, suburban, oe rural — we’ve got to restore vitality to all of it.”