Mich., Wis. flip to Biden amid worsening climate impacts

Source: By Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2020

For climate-focused voters, the 2020 presidential election won’t turn on the saltwater states of Florida and Texas, or even North Carolina.

It will advance in the Great Lakes region, where climate concerns are rising as fast as the lakes themselves, threatening 26 million people, five major U.S. cities and some of the nation’s most important agricultural areas.

Wisconsin, which fronts two Great Lakes — Michigan and Superior — went to former Vice President Joe Biden by less than 1 percentage point. In neighboring Michigan, Biden won by a small but slightly larger margin, according to official vote tallies.

The outcome of the White House contest still was unclear as of 8 p.m. yesterday. But the Biden camp was in a much better position — buoyed by the wins in Wisconsin and Michigan, two states President Trump carried four years ago.

Yet it remains unknown to what degree those two states’ 11.4 million registered voters, not to mention Pennsylvania’s 9.1 million voters, carried climate change concerns to the polls.

One thing is for sure, however. Climate change is affecting the physical, financial and emotional well-being of the entire region, experts said.

Since 2016, Lake Michigan has soared to near record levels, putting the Port of Milwaukee under 3 feet of icy water in January. Officials called it an “unprecedented event” (Climatewire, Oct. 22).

Wisconsin also endured nearly three weeks of pounding rain in 2018, shattering single-event precipitation records in virtually every region of the state (Climatewire, Sept. 7, 2018).

Ninety miles south in Chicago, monster waves from Lake Michigan storms have flooded high-rise buildings, chewed away the city’s popular Lakefront Trail and parks, and swallowed Northside beaches (Climatewire, Nov. 26, 2019).

Chicago also experienced some of its most severe floods, blizzards and heat waves over the past 10 years as climate-juiced frontal boundaries stall over the 9.5 million-person metro area, worsening summer heat, winter snow and flash floods year-round.

Acknowledged or not, climate change is taking a multibillion-dollar toll on the economies and ecosystems of the Great Lakes swing states, even if some politicians and voters deny the science behind it.

“A lot of the denial we’ve seen, especially in the agriculture community, has largely gone away,” said Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois and lead author of a recent comprehensive report on climate change impacts in the Great Lakes basin.

“Whether that’s influencing voters or not, I just don’t know,” added Wuebbles, who also co-led the Fourth National Climate Assessment. “There’s still some reluctance out there, but they’re mostly getting it now.”

Barry Rabe, professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan as well as a professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the university, said “the evidence is somewhat mixed” about how climate change is influencing voter choice in Midwest swing states, especially as climate concerns vie for attention at both kitchen tables and in statehouses.

But Rabe highlighted one unusual and highly compelling ad by the Biden-Harris ticket that placed climate change front and center for rural Michiganders. It came in a nearly four-minute documentary-style film shot at a cherry farm in Central Lake, Mich., where the family owners of King Orchards explained how climate change threatens their way of life.

“If people think that global warming just means that you can grow farther north, they’ll be mistaken when they find out that with global warming comes extreme winter temperatures that freeze them off,” says owner John King. “It’s going to be more complicated than just moving to a better location. We’re already in the best location.”

“It just stopped me in my tracks,” Rabe said. “I have long argued that when we have a more localized response to climate policy, it becomes that much more immediate to people.

“For Michigan, the auto is the ultimate icon, but cherries in Upper Michigan get pretty high,” he said. “It’s right up there.”

Ryan Billingham of Wisconsin Conservation Voters said voter interest in climate change policy “is something that’s been building for a long time,” but the effects of climate change are very real, especially in rural Wisconsin where farming remains the primary economic engine for small towns.

“What we find is you just have to scrape the surface a little bit to see what climate change is doing to Wisconsin,” Billingham said. “Voters, especially in rural areas, may not call it climate change. But they are affected by it every day, and they see it.”