Shortly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in January 2019, statewide environmental groups issued an “environmental roadmap” for policy action on various conservation issues.
The roadmap through 2022 includes a focus on climate change mitigation and resiliency, calling for coordination among state agencies and local governments, supporting the “rapid retirement” of coal plants and setting “ambitious” clean energy goals.
Whitmer has achieved some of the goals in her first year, such as creating an Office of Climate and Energy and joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, which commits states to emissions-reduction goals laid out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Attorney General Dana Nessel has also joined federal lawsuits against the Trump administration’s efforts to rollback national emissions-reduction programs, as the groups hoped.
However, there’s more work to be done, said Kate Madigan, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network.
“Where we’d really like to see more action is leadership to move Michigan to be carbon neutral and run on 100 percent renewable energy for all sectors by 2050,” Madigan said.
Advocates hope for an ambitious carbon-reduction plan in 2020, mirroring executive orders from new Democratic governors in eight states in 2019, including Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We’re expecting (Whitmer) will follow through on that,” Madigan said. “There is support from the people in Michigan to lead on climate change.”
Madigan added that this “really needs to center around and prioritize a just and equitable transition,” particularly for communities where coal plants are closing and allowing marginalized communities to access affordable renewable energy.
Also at the top of climate advocates’ 2020 priorities: Shutting down the Line 5 pipeline.
“When we’re in the middle of a climate crisis, we know we need to move rapidly off of fossil fuels within the next decade,” Madigan said. “Building or authorizing new oil infrastructure through our state is absolutely the wrong direction.”
Climate change — driven by transportation and energy emissions — is poised to affect a broad section of Michigan’s economy, including via more frequent water level fluctuations, extreme weather and increased contamination from agricultural runoff, to name a few.
In February, Whitmer reorganized the former Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), which includes a climate change division.
The state’s Office of Climate and Energy is led by Dr. Brandy Brown, who was appointed in June. Brown was formerly a strategist with East Lansing-based CLEAResult, where she specialized in electrification and transportation.
Brown said 2019 was spent doing “internal work to lay the groundwork to accomplish future policies.”
This includes coordinating among state agencies on climate planning and finding “what we have the ability and power to change within the timeframe climatologists are giving us,” as well as inventorying potential statewide effects.
“That has been a very nuanced exercise, and it has many intricate working parts,” she said.
Brown said a top priority for 2020 is submitting finalized recommendations to Whitmer for climate action. She couldn’t say whether that would include more ambitious emissions-reduction goals, but added: “Targets are key. We’ll have to wait and see.”
While Brown’s office coordinates across state agencies, she is the only full-time staffer. Madigan hopes more funding is directed to the climate office.
Although setting strong climate targets may be a difficult task if taken to the Republican-held Legislature, Madigan maintains it’s a bipartisan issue that doesn’t pit the environment against the economy.
“If we put policy in place that encourages and invests in the clean energy economy, we’re going to see more jobs coming to our state,” Madigan said.