How is Washtenaw County responding to the climate crisis?

Last year brought two climate strikes to Ann Arbor, joining a worldwide movement that served as the wake-up call for many that the climate crisis is here and will continue to exponentially worsen in the absence of concrete action.


University of Michigan (U-M) student and Washtenaw County Climate Strike participant Kristen Hayden says the strikes were important to shed light on environmental justice and share residents' demands for climate action at county institutions.


"We hope to move forward the discourse on environment, race and injustice, and the fact that these things have been going on for hundreds of years," Hayden says.


So what is Washtenaw County doing in response to these cries for change?


In September, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency and called upon the region to mobilize quickly and eliminate greenhouse gases by 2035. Shortly after this resolution, Washtenaw County allocated $30,000 to speed up the development of its climate action plan.


Following the county's announcement, Ann Arbor declared a climate emergency and set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030, and Ypsilanti set its own carbon neutrality goal for 2035. This means decreased use of fossil fuels, using more clean energy resources, and offsetting carbon emissions to have a zero carbon footprint through proactive efforts.


While it may seem unlikely for Washtenaw County to make much of a difference in the overall fight against climate change, research has shown that successful local and state governments can reduce emissions by 37%. However, no concrete plans for these environmental goals have been shared yet. Both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have said action plans will be finalized and shared by Earth Day on April 22 this year.


Following its climate crisis declaration, Ann Arbor founded the A2Zero initiative to promote public engagement and partner with local organizations while drafting the city's action plan. Since November, A2Zero has surveyed the community for feedback on policies or priorities the city should take into consideration.


Missy Stults, sustainability and innovations manager for the city of Ann Arbor, leads the charge for A2Zero and notes that significant momentum for environmental policy is now driving these goals into action.


"You can set an ambitious goal and figure out how you're going to achieve it," Stults says. "That's the approach we're taking."


Meanwhile, U-M is taking a more methodical approach to the climate crisis. In late 2018, U-M President Mark Schlissel called for a commission to investigate lowering U-M's carbon emissions and create scalable recommendations for other organizations and municipalities to model in the future.


Since the President's Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) was founded, the team has conducted interviews and consulted experts to review the university's practices. Throughout 2020, the commission will continue to consult with industry experts, share insights, and gather feedback from the public before presenting the recommendations to President Schlissel in December 2020.


PCCN co-chair Jennifer Haverkamp says community engagement has been an important part of the commission's process. PCCN has held town halls and discussion events for the public to learn about PCCN's work and the options for U-M to become a carbon-free university.


Part of the community engagement piece included the Zell Lurie Institute's business pitch competition, where students were asked to address carbon neutrality in terms of dining, transportation, and energy consumption. Haverkamp says these ideas from students are helpful as the commission considers options that would be beneficial to the environment and the U-M community.


"We're going to find a whole large suite of ideas and figure out the tradeoffs among them," Haverkamp says. "We have to do all of this while still being true to the U-M's mission and be inclusive of students, faculty, and staff."


Stults represents the city of Ann Arbor as a PCCN commissioner. She says the commission is vital to Washtenaw County achieving its carbon-neutral goals, estimating that the university accounts for 30% of Ann Arbor's carbon emissions. Stults also recognizes the need for other local organizations in Washtenaw County to support this change and help identify solutions.


"They advocate and do things the city cannot do," Stults says. "They can be the extension of the message into the city and generators of new ideas."


One of many dedicated local organizations is the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), a participant in many local environmental partnerships, including A2Zero and the A2 Climate Partnership. HRWC has also researched and warned others of the impacts of climate change in Washtenaw County for years.


Some of HRWC's work includes vulnerability assessments of urban areas, where potential weather-related issues are identified so the city can prepare for the worst-case scenario. These assessments are used in city planning and budgeting, and can help cities reduce vulnerabilities to the impacts of high heat, extreme rainfall events, and other anticipated climate change impacts.


Rebecca Esselman, executive director of HRWC, says other research shows Washtenaw County will continue to see wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons. Since 1950, Ann Arbor has measured over a 40% increase in precipitation, and national research shows Midwest precipitation rates will increase up to 30% by the end of this century.


Esselman serves on the technical advisory committee on adaptation and resilience for A2Zero, and says it's crucial to focus on adaptation in the community so people aren't caught off guard with the myriad of changes needed to reach carbon neutrality.


Esselman says another important consideration for environmental policy is equity, so policies don't adversely affect certain groups.


"Cross-sector planning is really important," Esselman says. "We need to not think in isolation because some solutions may have cascading impacts we haven't thought of. The city of Ann Arbor has considered that important part of the project."


Looking ahead to the next step for Ann Arbor and the rest of Washtenaw County, Haverkamp says the most important role for the public to play in this environmental crisis is to hold government officials, whether local or federal, accountable.


"It's a problem that the federal government has stepped back from the role it was more actively playing (in addressing carbon emissions)," Haverkamp says. "The contributions from states and local governments are increasingly important for the U.S. to meet the Paris agreement. People should be holding elected officials to be better."


Esselman agrees that government accountability is important in this fight. She says actions taken by the city and county in the last five years have not been enough to address the crisis. However, she says the recent action prompted by stronger public support has been encouraging.


"We've seen huge ground covered in the last year," Esselman says. "The question of what is enough is a tricky one – it's hard to know what's enough these days. We're at a point in this crisis where the goals need to seem so ambitious they seem impossible, and then they need to be possible."


Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at


Photos by Doug Coombe.