Michigan Governor Whitmer’s Big Step Forward on Climate Leadership

September 24, 2020 | 4:54 pm
Flickr/Josh G.
James Gignac
Midwest Senior Policy Manager

Yesterday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a broad set of actions called the MI Healthy Climate Plan to help move the state toward a healthier and more prosperous future.

The headline grabber is a bold and ambitious goal for Michigan to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, established through Executive Directive 2020-10. That is the kind of strong leadership we need to confront the climate crisis and reinforces the U.S. Climate Alliance commitments made by the governors of twenty-five states and Puerto Rico to advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Governor Whitmer’s plan centers science and economic fairness in setting forth the initial steps that the state will take towards reaching its goals and protecting communities. As Michigan moves into implementing the MI Healthy Climate Plan, however, the Governor and state agencies must strive to place equity and the needs of impacted communities at the forefront.

Protecting the health and safety of Michigan communities

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

The science is overwhelming that climate change is dangerous, and the effects are playing out before our eyes. From ongoing wildfires in the Western U.S. to catastrophic flooding in Michigan earlier this year to extreme fluctuations in Great Lakes water levels, the alarms bells are ringing. We must rapidly reduce emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as limiting the increase in extreme heat events, and we must work to prepare our communities for what is happening.

Science is also advancing our understanding of the devastating effects air pollution has on public health and how it may worsen COVID-19 symptoms and contribute to increased mortality. Burning fossil fuels in our vehicles and power plants is not only the biggest driver in exacerbating climate change, it’s also a huge source of particulate matter and other harmful emissions that disproportionately affect lower-income communities and communities of color.

Coupled with Governor Whitmer’s earlier actions on mobility, her announcements yesterday represent a big step in the right direction to protect public health, safeguard Michigan communities, and stimulate job growth and economic recovery.

In addition to setting ambitious goals, Governor Whitmer’s plan includes concrete steps that state agencies and other entities are taking, and will take, to move Michigan forward to a safer and more prosperous future.

Examples from the electricity sector

Since 2018, Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) reviews of integrated resource plans (IRPs) from utilities such as Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have played a major role in shaping the outlook for Michigan’s electricity system. Two significant pieces emerging from Governor Whitmer’s climate action plan have the potential to further improve the process.

First, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) is being directed to expand its environmental justice analyses of utilities’ proposed plans in the IRP process. This will provide important additional information for the MPSC, stakeholders, and the public to evaluate in deciding whether utility proposals serve the interests of all communities. My colleague Joe Daniel and other experts identified this need to assess environmental impacts in testimony last year to the MPSC as part of DTE’s IRP process.

Second, the MPSC is seeking to update Michigan’s IRP requirements to require electric utilities to include the statewide carbon reduction goals in their modeling that the utilities conduct as part of developing their plans. The future scenarios that utilities use in their computer models are crucial elements in crafting the best long-term plans for how to fulfill customers’ needs.

Supporting all workers and all communities

Governor Whitmer and Michigan state agencies are also taking action to assist communities and workers undergoing energy-related transitions such as coal plant closures and developing emergency preparedness and climate resiliency efforts. These include a new initiative from the Michigan Department of Treasury to create an Energy Transition Impact Project, in addition to EGLE’s new Catalyst Communities Program.

Another key factor is the need to help the state’s clean energy workforce bounce back from effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in at least 30,000 lost jobs, most of which in the energy efficiency sector. Implementation of the Governor’s MI Healthy Climate Plan must include a call to action and pathways to revitalize this important job growth sector.

One critical area in which Governor Whitmer and Michigan must do more is addressing long-term systems of injustice present in the energy sector that are manifested through communities of color and lower-income communities receiving fewer benefits and being overexposed to pollution and other burdens. The new requirement for environmental justice analyses in IRPs, referenced above, is a positive step—but resources, funding, and dedicated programs are needed to produce meaningful change and create an anti-racist approach to the energy system.

We at the Union of Concerned Scientists look forward to continuing to work with Governor Whitmer and the hard-working people serving in Michigan state agencies to achieve the state’s goals for a healthier, safer, and economically brighter future.