Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had a message for reporters when asked to respond to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal earlier this year to form a dedicated climate change office.
“I just find it fascinating that we can sit here in Michigan in the chamber of the House and think that we can control the climate,” he said.
Such is the political opposition advocates face if they hope for strong state legislation to confront the climate crisis. However, they have allies in the Whitmer administration, which has prioritized the issue in her first months in office.
Meanwhile, market forces are driving the state’s automakers and utilities to act. The declining costs of renewable energy — which is now cheaper than operating most coal plants — along with consumer demand are driving companies to invest in renewables and electric vehicles.
The clean energy activity in Michigan and elsewhere comes as researchers assess the ecological and economic effects of climate change in the Great Lakes.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) — a Chicago-based nonprofit that commissioned a recent study, “An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes” — recommends accelerating the development of renewable energy and electric vehicles to limit the negative effects in the region.
Energy and transportation account for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Midwest, noted ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner.
“The Midwest is the center of the nation’s climate change problems and we can be a fulcrum for the solution,” he said.
A team of 18 researchers from major universities throughout the Great Lakes published the assessment in March.
Led by Don Wuebbles, an atmospheric science professor from the University of Illinois who has studied climate change for three decades, the team found a variety of effects caused by more extreme weather and warming temperatures in the Great Lakes, whose levels will continue to fluctuate. The availability of some fish species is expected to change, while water contamination stemming from agricultural runoff is expected to increase.
Climate changes are expected to increase air temperatures overall and also the number of extreme temperature days, both hot and cold. As well, higher water temperatures and relatively fast-changing water levels “pose technical challenges” for power production, according to the report.
More than half of the 40 million gallons of water withdrawn from the Great Lakes in the U.S. is used for electric power production, specifically the “once-through” cooling of power plants, according to the report. Overall, Great Lakes states account for more than 25 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
“There is a concern about potential interruptions in thermoelectric power generation associated with decreased water levels, which may drop below water intake levels and increase energy required to pump water up to facilities,” according to the report. “Increased temperatures reduce heat-transfer efficiency for cooling, which can limit power production to the level necessary to avoid overheating. Power plants along tributary waterways and the Great Lakes themselves are vulnerable to these effects.”
Moreover, energy infrastructure was built based on historical water levels and temperatures.
“Changes in climate that decrease water availability or effectiveness for cooling are therefore likely to decrease regional energy production,” according to the report.
Wuebbles said the ability to cool power plants with water is of growing concern and is “something that hasn’t been dealt with adequately yet.”
Utilities may move from water-based to air-based cooling, but “that does require an infrastructure change, and there will be an expense to that.”
Beyond the report, ELPC makes a series of policy recommendations, including accelerating renewable energy and energy efficiency. Transitioning the power sector involves moving to a more decentralized, modular power system that doesn’t rely on large plants and transmission lines.
ELPC also says the transportation market is “distorted by federal and state policies that encourage auto-dependent communities and limit transportation choices,” such as matching greater percentages of funding for road projects compared to public transit.
Climate and politics
At a climate change town hall at Grand Valley State University on March 18, Democratic state lawmakers Sen. Winnie Brinks and Rep. Rachel Hood, both from Grand Rapids, noted the unlikely chances of passing bold, statewide climate legislation while Republicans hold the majority.
According to Brinks, “a lot of folks in our state don’t share the concern or urgency” about needing to address climate change. Policy solutions will require “a lot of work behind the scenes,” she added.
“Until we have enough votes to do it, it’s very difficult,” Brinks said.
Hood added: “In my opinion, we’ve had a lagging approach to clean energy and energy efficiency in Michigan, especially given the skill sets we have.”
In the near and mid term, Hood said she wants to see “aggressive incentives to transition to a clean energy economy, and help corporations invest in large-scale wind and solar.”
The ELPC’s Learner is optimistic that new governors elected last year in Great Lakes states — including Democrats in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois — will partner as a coalition for climate policy.
“There’s an audience for policy solutions by which our states and Canadian provinces can step up with climate change solutions while the federal government is unfortunately stepping back,” he said. “I used to say (protecting the Great Lakes) was a bipartisan issue. Now I say it’s a non-partisan issue.”
Amid the lack of statewide policy action generally among Great Lakes states, including Michigan, utilities and automakers have stepped in.
Ford Motor Co. and General Motors increasingly power their operations through renewable energy contracts and are expanding their lines of electric vehicles. Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utilities, have announced commitments to renewable energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions far beyond state and federal mandates.
But a nagging question remains: Can these actions fill a policy void?
“We’re not moving fast enough,” Wuebbles said. Keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius is “going to require the rapid movement away from fossil fuels over the next few decades.”
Learner added that private-sector actions are “important steps in the right direction but they’re not sufficient to wage a full war on carbon pollution.”
The efforts also will take collective action, as the Great Lakes region’s emissions are part of a complex global system. In 2018, U.S. and global carbon emissions increased 3.1 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively. The growth in global power-sector emissions largely was due to increased demand and coal use in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency.
Still, Learner believes the trends do not bolster Shirkey’s point.
“People and nations around the world look to the U.S. to step up and lead to help solve global problems,” he said. “Clean energy and transportation solutions developed in Michigan can in many cases be exported to solve problems around the world.”