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Pulitzer Center Update March 24, 2021

We Can Rebuild the Great Lakes Ecosystem While Helping All Parties Involved, Panelists Say

Erie Marina Basin and Buffalo skyline, Buffalo, NY. Image by Richard Cavalleri / Shutterstock. United States, undated.

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Climate change is impacting the Great Lakes in different ways, but effects can be mitigated, panelists said during a webinar on March 9, 2021. The webinar, titled “Climate Change on the Great Lakes,” was hosted by the Pulitzer Center. 

Panelists started by pointing out the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes.
“[Because of climate change], each of them [the lakes] are changing in different ways because they are also unique,” said Tony Briscoe, a Pulitzer Center grantee. “You see these harmful algal blooms, these really big bacteria outbreaks that generate certain toxins in Lake Erie, 6 feet of lake level rise from 2013 to 2020 in Lakes Huron and Michigan; extreme levels of ice cover and ice loss on Lake Superior and many of the other lakes, so while they are all responding to these big forces, they are all being exposed to climate change.”
Apart from Briscoe, two other Pulitzer Center grantees, Kari Lydersen and Sandra Svoboda, were panelists. Kimberly Hill Knott, an environmental justice advocate, and Duke Peltier, ogimaa, or chief, of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, also joined the discussion. Pulitzer Center Outreach Coordinator Holly Piepenburg moderated the conversation.
“The impacts of industry and building our economy in the Rust Belt did a lot to hurt and destroy parts of the Great Lakes ecosystem,” Lydersen said.
Peltier spoke about the damages he has seen in local communities.
“When we talk about our community sustenance [in Manitoulin Island], much of the changes in the climate had a devastating impact on the availability of the fish species that our community relied on, mainly the whitefish that existed here in Lake Huron,” Peltier said. “We have been monitoring the fish stocks, and the whitefish levels have severely dropped over the last few years.”
However, panelists were also quick to point out that effective changes can be made to mitigate the damages, while benefiting all parties involved.

“Rebuilding that [Great Lakes] ecosystem can be done in ways that benefit the economy and local industries,” Lydersen said. “Just for an example, trying to curb the nutrient blooms and the harmful algae in Lake Erie and other great lakes, the way you can do that ... with buffers and reforming agricultural practices can also have all kinds of other economic and farming and wildlife benefits.”
“Same with revamping infrastructures to survive the impacts of climate change and to rebuild after damage from high water levels. That can be done in ways that create resiliency for the future and create jobs,” she added.
Panelists also said that journalism is crucial to make people aware about the extent of the impact of climate change on the environment, which can eventually initiate changes.
“I think that people understand the importance but you really have to put a face on it, and so that’s what we really were given the opportunity to do, with the Pulitzer grant,” Briscoe said. “[It] was to go to these communities and talk to the third-generation ice fisherman, who was unsure if his children would be able to do the same thing in the next generation, or folks along Lake Huron who had seen such crazy fluctuations in lake levels, which was disrupting.” 
Additionally, panelists answered audience questions about the kind of carbon-neutral changes that are currently in place in communities to potentially reduce further impact of climate change.
“In places like Chicago, there’s really vibrant and detailed community-led efforts to plan for what should replace fossil fuel-related old industries and structures,” Lydersen said. “There’s very detailed plans that have been put out by community collaborations for those sites, including a community kitchen where people who have vending trucks can make their food; so, a very local economic development strategy with a low impact and carbon footprint.”

Further, Svoboda spoke about the importance of the Great Lakes in initiating conversations about climate change not just locally, but to a greater extent.

“Great Lakes are a really good mechanism, if you will, to bring more people into conversations about climate change and about the complexity of the system but also our connectedness across the region,” Svoboda said. “Whether they are coming in from a deep-seated tradition and way of life and economy or they are tourists, we have the opportunity to bring them into Great Lakes now through the name alone. Let's show them the lakes … without being too simplistic or alarmist.”
Knott spoke about her experiences of leading through policy change.
“One of the things that I did was lead a policy group and we led the passage of the city of Detroit greenhouse gas ordinance and that ordinance passed with no opposition, which indeed is a miracle,” Knott said. “As a result of that, it will allow the city of Detroit to conduct regular greenhouse gas inventories and so … the city of Detroit is really at the beginning of addressing climate change but are really moving aggressively towards that particular step.”
Finally, panelists said that even individuals can help toward making some positive changes within their community to help fight climate change by engaging in conversations about issues important to them and trying to solve them locally. Panelists agreed that journalists have an even bigger role.
“I appreciate when reporters are coming forward and looking for stories and they take an active interest in those types of things that will allow our universe to continue as it is and hopefully repair some of the things that are detrimental to our sustenance and survival,” Peltier said.

Markie Miller at her home in Toledo, Ohio on Sept. 24, 2019. The activist for Toledoans for Safe Water, has lived near Lake Erie her entire life. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune. United States, 2019.

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