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Global Warming Melting Michigan’s Snow Economy

Business leaders reluctant to press for government action

April 21, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The operator of one northern Michigan ski resort says that the snow season has shortened by at least one week over the past 20 years.

As the effects of global climate change increase throughout Michigan, particularly in the northern Lower Peninsula’s snow sports industry, the Bush administration and Congressional leaders from both major parties continue to resist taking steps to reduce the air pollution that scientists overwhelmingly agree is causing the problem. But in interviews with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, business people across the region said that while they see global warming as a genuine problem, they do not hold the Bush administration responsible for not acting.

Ski resort operators in northern Michigan report that the average length of the winter season has shrunk about a week in recent years, from 127 days in the 1980s to 115 to 120 days in this decade. “When I first came here in 1985 we had more natural snow earlier in the season,” said Jim MacInnes, the general manager and chief executive officer of Crystal Mountain, which attracts thousands of skiers each year to its slopes in Benzie County. “It got cold earlier in the season. Normally we’d be open in the first week of December. Now it’s usually a week or two later.”

The effects of climate change go well beyond fewer skiing days. Snowmobile retailers say that sales in Michigan have fallen, a fact confirmed by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, which reports that 14,353 new sleds were sold in Michigan this year, down by almost 50 percent from 27,000 in 1995. Owners of motels, restaurants, and other services in northern Michigan resort towns confirmed in interviews that their snow sports business is declining. In some cities the change is dramatic: The number of winter visitors to Cadillac, for instance, fell to 23,000 this year from more than 50,000 in the 1980s, according to the Cadillac Area Chamber of Commerce.

Local Effects of a Worldwide Problem
Global warming, according to a well-established international scientific consensus, results from increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases that are absorbing more of the sun’s warmth and radiating it back to the earth’s surface. Because the effect is analogous to how glass prevents heat from leaving a greenhouse, those pollutants are frequently called “greenhouse gases.”

A report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted that by the end of this century, winter temperatures in Michigan would rise six to 10 degrees and summer temperatures would climb seven to 13 degrees. Michigan summers would be drier, winters would be wetter, agriculture might benefit from longer growing seasons, and snow sport industries would be “hard-hit,” said the report.

Scientists say that increased fossil fuel use by industry, transportation, and electric generation plants is slowly raising greenhouse gas concentrations around the world. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2000 the United States generated ten times more electricity than it did in 1950 and most of the increase came from burning more coal — a very high emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Business executives and scientists agree that the effects of global warming are now unmistakable in northern Michigan. Records kept by county road commissions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirm that average snowfalls are steadily diminishing. Last year, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, a unit of NOAA that monitors ice conditions in Grand Traverse Bay, said that for “the first time in at least 150 years…the bay had five consecutive winters without freeze-up.” NOAA added that higher winter temperatures and less snow are also contributing to lower Great Lakes water levels.

Few Business Leaders Push for Action
In interviews, northern Michigan executives said that global warming was making it harder to do business during the winter and urged the federal government to take action. “Global warming is a real problem and we think there needs to be movement on it,” said Mr. MacInnes. His resort, Benzie County’s largest private employer, counts on winter sports to attract 200,000 visitors, who generate more than half of Crystal Mountain’s annual revenue.

Almost alone among its peers in Michigan's snow sports industry, Crystal Mountain joined 65 other ski resorts in 18 states in March in signing a letter supporting the Climate Stewardship Act, a Congressional proposal to begin limiting greenhouse gases. A version of the proposal, sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, gained more support than observers expected but was still defeated last year, 55 to 43.

Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow supported the bill; but the state’s senior senator, Democrat Carl Levin, opposed it, saying that the law would cause “the loss of more manufacturing jobs.”

That split highlights the difficult political terrain that any government action to curb global warming must cross. It also helps to explain why the Bush administration’s approach to global warming — which emphasizes more research and studiously avoids mandatory emission controls — has attracted relatively little criticism, except from some scientists and the environmental community.

Increasing Heat On Bush
When he entered office in 2001, President George W. Bush embraced the prevailing view of the oil, utility, coal, and manufacturing industries that global warming, if it existed, was a natural phenomenon. Any effort to reduce human sources of greenhouse gases would mean reducing energy use, said the president, and that would diminish economic growth. A small cadre of “free market” scientists, some of them under contract to the coal or utility industries, support the president’s position and frequently call global warming a “hoax.”

Early in his administration Mr. Bush broke a campaign promise to begin limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He also opposed the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that requires nations to reduce their emissions of global warming gases. The protocol called for U.S. emissions to be 7 percent below their 1990 levels by 2010 and exempted developing nations from complying with the standards.

Douglas Roberts Jr., director of regulatory and environmental affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, noted in an interview that the president’s position was consistent with concerns that state legislatures, including Michigan’s, had with the protocol. In 1999, the Michigan House of Representatives approved a resolution, 67 to 32, urging the federal government to reject the mandatory reductions the treaty called for. “It is interesting to note that elected officials from both parties opposed Kyoto,” Mr. Roberts said.

But in 2002, President Bush amended his views in a Valentine’s Day speech and proposed a largely voluntary plan to offer tax breaks and set goals for utility companies, manufacturers, and other industries to coax them to curb greenhouse gases. “Addressing global climate change will require a sustained effort over many generations,” the president said.

Environmental leaders and Congressional critics said that the president’s proposal ignored the well-proven science of global climate change and would not significantly slow the rise in the earth’s temperature.

Russell Train, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the administrations of Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford, told reporters that he found the Bush administration’s increasing indifference to science disturbing: “How radically we have moved away from regulation based on independent findings and professional analysis of scientific, health and economic data by the responsible agency to regulation controlled by the White House and driven primarily by political considerations.”

But Peter H. Raven, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, managed to find some hope in Mr. Bush’s plan. "President Bush came in highly skeptical about the basis for global warming but has become convinced that it is a real problem for the world,” said Dr. Raven, a botanist and the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

Big Issue or One of Many?
Those who debate policy that would slow global warming often consider which economic sectors are hurt by doing nothing, and which are hurt by attacking it. Limiting global warming means using energy more efficiently and developing greenhouse gas-free ways of producing energy, both of which require significant investment. Senator Levin clearly ranks the investment costs needed to reduce emissions from the state’s manufacturing sector higher than the costs of global climate change to the state’s snow sports industry. According to Michigan State University, the snow sport sector accounts for roughly $1 billion in economic activity annually and employs tens of thousands of people across the northern half of the state.

But the senator’s political calculation, and that of the Bush administration, also considers the fact that snow sports businesses, with rare exceptions like Crystal Mountain, have avoided becoming active in global warming policy debates. Northern Michigan snow sport business owners repeatedly said in interviews that they do not hold the president responsible for taking action on greenhouse emissions.

One reason may be that most of the snow sports business owners are Republicans who strongly support the president and live in rural counties, where Republicans dominate local, state, and national politics. Don Corbett, owner of the Pine Chata Resort in Cadillac, is a registered Republican. He supports the president and chairs the winter promotions committee of the Cadillac Chamber of Commerce, which manages Cadillac’s annual winter festival. Attendance is dwindling: This winter the 20th festival attracted just 8,000 visitors, 50 percent less than it did in the 1990s.

“There’s been a steady decline for 20 years,” said Mr. Corbett. “In most years we would do a quarter of our business between Christmas and New Years. We lost that three years in a row now. No snow. Nothing but green grass. In the last 22 years there has been dramatic changes. We would normally get snowfall in mid-November and it would last to the middle of March. Today, we’re getting it after New Year’s.”

When asked about the cause for the decline, Mr. Corbett immediately responded: “Global warming. No question about it.” When asked what should be done to curb global temperatures, Mr. Corbett said: “I’ll support anyone who’s for stopping global warming, anyone who’s for doing anything to give us relief. It shouldn’t matter. It affects everybody that breathes and walks.”

But when asked whether Mr. Bush’s reluctance to take stronger steps to cut global warming pollution might diminish his support for the president, Mr. Corbett demurred. “Well,” he said, echoing sentiments expressed by other conservative business leaders interviewed this month in northern Michigan, “it’s one issue.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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