Attacking the climate emergency
by Michael Betzold and John Hilton
From the March, 2020 issue
Missy Stults seems to be everywhere these days.
The person leading Ann Arbor's ambitious drive to attack the climate emergency head-on drops in on meetings of climate activist groups, often with her preschool daughter in tow; makes deeply researched proposals to city council and various commissions; hosts public forums; and even helped install solar panels on a city fire station--all while managing a growing staff tasked with figuring out how Ann Arbor can become carbon-neutral by 2030.
That's a daunting mission no other city in the world has yet set out to undertake. But no other city has Stults.
"She's a force of nature," says her boss, city administrator Howard Lazarus. If so, that's fortunate--since nudging nature back from the climate precipice is now her job description.
When city council in November declared a climate emergency, it directed Stults, the city's sustainability manager, to draw up a plan to achieve it. On March 30, she's scheduled to drop her "A2NetZero" draft proposal back on council. They'll get what they asked for--and maybe more than they'll be able to handle.
Stults can pinpoint the moment when climate change hit home for her: in an environmental ethics class at the University of New England. The professor "had been doing research in Alaska, and [global warming] became very visceral for him." When she realized that climate change would affect both her loved ones and the whales she'd gone there to study, "I knew I had to work in that space."
She grew up in northern Indiana, where her mother, a Purdue grad, ran a home day care. Her stepfather worked in a recreational vehicle factory and picked up extra hours on weekends at a liquor store--"I have very vivid memories of helping stock shelves and like, just, playing in the space," she says, and most of her friends were Mennonites. In hindsight, she thinks their environmental awareness helped inspire her own.
"I knew I didn't want to be a climate scientist in the
traditional sense," she says. "I was much more interested in what I call the 'So what?'"--how global warming would affect the economy, cultural institutions, and social interactions.
She graduated with the first class in Columbia University's new climate and society master's program then joined a nonprofit that worked with cities around the world on environmental issues, including Ann Arbor. When she came to the U-M for her PhD, she already knew environmental coordinator Matt Naud, and was quickly appointed to a city commission. She recalls that she was "really impressed by what I saw--and I saw great opportunity for improvement."
Stults finished her PhD in urban resilience in 2016 expecting to go to Washington with the Hillary Clinton administration. When that didn't happen, she accepted a job in Seattle. But when Ann Arbor posted the newly created sustainability position, she applied and was interviewed.
In what she calls her "Lifetime Movie" moment, she and her husband and daughter were waiting to board a flight to Seattle when the call came offering her the job here.
When the council declared a climate emergency in November, Stults was ready to hit the ground running. Her team of four, aided by interns and temps, quickly sent out a public survey soliciting ideas and then a second one evaluating them. There's been a series of community forums and town halls, the most recent at Pioneer Feb. 22.
She's assembled a team of technical advisers to help evaluate feasibility and effectiveness and has enlisted more than sixty partners in A2NetZero, including Ann Arbor Public Schools and the City of Ypsilanti. Her team's also reached out to everyone from the Democratic Socialists to the Ann Arbor Apartment Association. "They are doing great work in attempting to reach a diverse set of stakeholders across the city, not just traditional environmental groups," says Matthew Sehrsweeney, coordinator of the Climate Action Movement at U-M. He adds: "Missy has been a tremendous ally of climate organizing efforts; if there was ever someone to lead such an ambitious effort, it's her."
Naina Agrawal-Hardin, sixteen, who attends Washtenaw International High School and is involved in the climate-action Sunrise Movement, gives Stults credit for reaching out to younger grass-roots activists like herself, calling her "phenomenal."
Stults and her team are up to speed in the best methods of measuring emissions. The most scientifically respected is Project Drawdown, which attaches specific emissions numbers in evaluating potential savings from targeted reduction actions. Stults wants a version of Project Drawdown for Ann Arbor, a very ambitious undertaking.
Lazarus says the city's committed to using clean and renewable energy in powering its operations, buying more hybrid and electric vehicles, and putting more solar panels on more fire stations. It's also using flex scheduling for staff to reduce commutes. Both he and Stults mention work with DTE to put a vast solar array at the former city landfill.
Those are relatively easy fixes. Tougher challenges deal with matters that the city doesn't completely control. The city can mandate that new developments have renewable energy units. But it would need greater latitude from the state to revise building codes for existing housing. And while it can work to improve public transportation and curb commuting, there are limits to how the city can affect personal choices.
And activists acknowledge the need to consider other values. "All of the climate organizing community would love to see this plan include measures that would make the city much more affordable and accessible," says Sehrsweeney.
Stults is "interested in making the city and the community a receiving zone" to test new green technologies. A pilot project is combining solar panels with battery storage. But "we don't have the luxury of time anymore," she says. Scenarios once regarded as extreme are looking like lowball estimates. Instead of "a foot, maybe three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, we're talking six feet at this point."
As coastal areas are inundated, she expects a flood of climate refugees. "We are going to see a migration greater than the Great Migration, just based on sea-level rise," she predicts. For Ann Arbor, she says, new residents "could be a really great thing. I think it also could be a very bad thing if we don't plan for it." Stults's draft carbon neutrality plan will be submitted at the end of this month. She won't comment on possible political responses beforehand. But whatever happens, she says, she'll keep coming back until a serious blueprint for getting to net zero by 2030 is approved.
She smiles and admits: "I'm pretty tenacious."
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