Flint Water Crisis: Microcosm of Climate Denial and the Coming CYA

February 1, 2016


Mike Thompson in the Detroit Free Press

As climate change accelerates, and as long-ignored infrastructure in the US continues to decay, there will be more Flints. Marshall Shepherd is feeling the outrage.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society,
Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks

Marshall Shepherd in Forbes:

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is sickening to me. In recent weeks, it has come to light that researchers were sounding the alarm about high levels of lead in the drinking water supply and the blood of children.  One unbelievable aspect of this story is captured in this article by the Detroit Free Press,

In January of 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint’s State Office Building so employees wouldn’t have to drink from the taps, according to state government e-mails released.

Just as Flint’s water supply is making people sick, this revelation literally makes me sick.  Flint’s crisis is a full blown environmental crisis with potent questions swirling about the water delivery infrastructure, environmental justice, and public health. However, as I watch this event play, some key lessons are emerging for the public about weather and climate.

One of the first lessons is that when it comes to environmental or natural hazards issues, the public and policymakers exhibit “crisis mode” behavior. Officials are resigning. Organizations and celebrities are scrambling to send clean water to Flint. The public is asking how this can happen. In reality, there were likely warning signs of this looming crisis all along. We see this often in weather and climate. For example, it took Hurricane Sandy to drive dramatic budget increases for the computing power boosts that meteorologists long knew that it needed to improve weather prediction capabilities in the United States. And as Jeffrey Kluger wrote in Time magazine,

GOES-East (weather satellite) was now winking out — in the final month of a hurricane season (note: 2012,the one that gave us Sandy)

Over the past few years, there has been concern about whether new replacement polar and geosynchronous weather satellites would make it to orbit before older systems failed. Crises like the one Kluger describes amplify the urgency. For now, it seems that things have stabilized on this front after the Government Accountability Office placed this issue in its “high risk” report in 2015.

Here, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco describes the challenges of budgeting for vital weather/climate observation satellites with a science challenged congress.  Go to 2:17 for the incredible punch line if you’re rushed..

Marshall Shepherd continues:

We see this so often in meteorology. My colleague Tim Marshall, a forensic meteorologist and engineer, recently discovered unbelievably poor construction and design in homes and schools damaged by tornadoes in Texas during late 2015 tornado outbreaks. He told the Dallas Morning News,

We saw problems at [Donald T.] Shields Elementary school that were horrific in my view as an engineer………..Walls not attached properly, and they’re just falling down like a house of cards.”

Of course, what was the response from officials, “we’ll fix it.” How do we move our society from a “crisis response” mode to a more prepared and resilient society?

I recently interviewed Dr. Therese McAllister of the National Institute of Standards and Technology for a forthcoming episode of The Weather Channel’s WxGeeks Sunday talk show. She is the Group Leader of the Community Resilience Group in the Materials and Structural Systems Research Division of the Engineering Laboratory (EL). In our conversation we discussed NIST’s new Community Resilience Guide and how we move policymakers and stakeholders into a planning framework that is pre-emptive not crisis responsive. It is a challenge but a fascinating discussion. FEMA’s Ready.gov is also an excellent example of pre-emptive information related to weather hazards.


Climate change lessons also come to mind. Many “fingerprints” of climate change are evident in agricultural productivity, sea level rise, geographic disease regimes, national security assessments, and corporate decision making. However, like the “lead” in those pipes in Flint, Michigan, it is not obvious to people in their day-to-day lives. And because of this, many are dismissive. I go back to an article in the New York Times by Beth Gardiner. She cites Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Gifford is an expert in behavioral barriers to combating climate change. Gifford told Gardiner that people,

have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.

Gee, doesn’t this sound a lot like the Flint water crisis and weather crisis mode thinking?


In a 2016 MLK day editorial, Environmental Health News pointed out that Flint is a city with a very vulnerable population, demographically and economically.  If you think back to Hurricane Katrina and those images from the Superdome, a sea of economically or disadvantaged citizens stared at the cameras. All people are vulnerable to these events, but as studies by environmental justice scholars have noted, certain groups have less ability to recover. Going forward, the lesson is that we have to think about economic and weather-climate-environmental gaps.


11 Responses to “Flint Water Crisis: Microcosm of Climate Denial and the Coming CYA”

  1. We could start by acknowledging environmental crimes. Send the Michigan governor to jail for a start.

  2. toddinnorway Says:

    Had no one in Flint seen the classic film “Erin Brockovich”?!?

    • andrewfez Says:

      Brockovich is on my Facebook – she’s on that stuff pretty hard. Her last update said something along the lines of: the personal filters they’re giving out don’t do anything.

  3. lorne50 Says:

    That is a very very very big stretch saying a 90 year old cast-iron pipe is proof of cAGW 😦

  4. vpski Says:

    How long before those who put economic theory before scientific reality are exposed? While the direct connection may not be obvious, the underlying symptom is the same. The saddest part is that there will need to be more Katrina, Sandy, and Flint tragedies before the deniers are driven out and sober analysis and action can take place.

    The Flint tragedy is not the first time this has happened, although it the consequences are much worse than Tucson’s case with Central Arizona Project (CAP) water:

    “The CAP project brought river water to Tucson successfully, but the initial implementation was a “debacle.”[6] The river water had a different mineral mixture and flow pattern from the aquifer water, stirring up and dislodging rust in city water mains and house pipes.[7] By the end of 1993, the city of Tucson paid about $145,000 to install filters in 925 homes, lost about $200,000 in revenues by adjusting water bills, and paid about $450,000 in damages claimed by homeowners for ruined pipes, water heaters, and other appliances.[8] The city returned some houses to ground water, but problems remained. Zinc orthophosphate was added to coat the pipes and prevent the rust from dislodging, but the return to groundwater removed the zinc orthophosphate.[9] The solution was an EPA-funded[10] ‘blended’ water system, including automatically monitoring water quality throughout the city, and a website[11] to report the water quality to the public without intervention by the City Water Department.”


  5. It is the usual problem of noone getting credit for *preventing* a problem, only for *fixing* the consequences.

    Vital infrastructure is allowed to run down too far and needs complete replacement rather than gradual upkeep. Who cares if people get obese because we think it’s great that they can be “fixed” with operations and intensive (and expensive) work by other agencies. Who even remembers what the preventable diseases that vaccination protects children from are were even like? Get some anti-biotics after they are admitted to hospital – fixed!

    Too many live only for the moment, or for today, and the future is someone elses problem. This applies equally to roads, pipes, industries, personal health, and global warming.

  6. Kiwiiano Says:

    It’s the old fence at the top of the cliff v’s the ambulance at the bottom problem. We can see when & where to send the ambulance but we can only guess how many fences may be needed, how high and where they should be. They often appear to be more expensive than an ambulance because we rarely take into account the total ongoing cost of the accidents.

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