SEAS faculty participate in Michigan Climate and Clean Energy Summit
The 2022 Michigan Climate & Clean Energy Summit took place on June 9 with over 500 attendees joining online or in-person in Traverse City. With an eye on Michigan’s promise to be carbon neutral by 2050, the summit’s organizers aimed to bring together an engaged group to work toward a clean energy future. This included U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Dean and Professor Jonathan Overpeck, who delivered a keynote, and SEAS Professor Kyle Whyte, who participated in a panel discussion on recent federal and state climate action and policy developments.
In his keynote, Dean Overpeck discussed how climate change is affecting the planet and emphasized the importance of tackling the solutions urgently. He mentioned the fires in the Southwest, the drying up of Great Salt Lake in Utah, and increased hurricane activity to help illustrate the severity of problems that are fueled by warming and have been worsening at a rapid pace. He encouraged attendees to continue to fight against climate change and fossil fuel companies while staying positive. “Let’s cut gloom and doom and talk about what we can do. There are a lot of reasons for hope. Hope comes from action. We know the problem, we know the solutions, all we have to do is implement the cure, and the cure, renewable energy, is getting cheaper and cheaper. In fact, wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels. I have hope because of these things,” said Overpeck.
He then turned his focus to Michigan, stating that while the state does face some climate challenges, such as more rain, flooding, heat waves, and toxic algal blooms, the state is relatively better off than many other parts of the U.S. and has a promising climate action plan. “What makes Michigan’s climate action plan good is not the fact that we’ll be carbon neutral by 2050, that’s essential. But this decade is the one that matters—if we don’t solve it in this decade, we can forget about 2050. Our plan that our governor signed off on has a good set of goals by 2030, with a goal of 60% renewable energy by then, coal plants gone, more than 2 million electric vehicles on the road, and a huge increase in public transportation powered by clean energy and in building efficiency,” said Overpeck. He continued, “Everyone has to be able to afford energy, the clean-tech industry, which is being led by the auto industry. We want to be an industrial leader in clean energy - fueling with tech instead of fossil fuels. We will be doing our share to meet the Paris Agreement if we do that.”
While emphasizing the importance of discontinuing the use of fossil fuels for a clean future, Overpeck voiced his concerns regarding the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline tunnel. The pipeline, which has suffered spills multiple times, moves petroleum from western to eastern Canada via the Great Lakes states and is notable for passing under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. The proposed tunnel would be completed in 2028 at the earliest. “It (the tunnel) won’t even be done until we need to be done with fossil fuels. So they want us to invest in a stranded asset. We don’t need this. From a climate point of view, even if you think we need fossil fuels, we have to stop this. That’s me talking as a climate scientist,” said Overpeck.
The keynote ended with Overpeck saying that we don’t do anything alone, but for and with each other, our children, and the Earth. He explained that accelerating climate action would mean leaving fossil fuels behind, focusing on environmental justice, and taking advantage of the opportunity to make Michigan an engine for the globe by developing a more robust, sustainable economy which will bring with it a good quality of life.
Following a second keynote, given by Marnese Jackson, co-director of the Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition, Prof. Kyle Whyte participated in a panel discussion centered around what’s happening at the federal and state levels and what action is being taken to elevate climate issues in the upcoming elections. The panel was moderated by Conan Smith of the Michigan Environmental Council and included four other panelists.
Smith asked Whyte to explain why climate change is not just a technical issue, but a moral one. Whyte said that, as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, he’s finding that so many of the activities happening at the federal level seem far away from the action that’s needed on the ground. He encouraged everyone to read Executive Order 14008, which tackles climate change. “The Biden administration is ramping up efforts to make sure many materials for renewable energy can be made here. So one side of it is the resources being made available. If you start with places you care about most, the goal is you should be able to find the resources being made available. The second part is the process by which those resources hit the ground. Communities who’ve been left out of infrastructure investment in the past run the risk of being left off this one, too, as we mitigate climate change. Communities should be able to use federal policy to emerge as leaders and primary beneficiaries of the transition to a just energy system,” said Whyte.
The discussion continued about how to close the gap between federal resources and what happens in our communities, the importance of meaningful engagement, and some alternatives to Enbridge Line 5. Whyte explained that the interest, motivation, and funding that’s being discussed to end injustice doesn’t change the way things work in the U.S. “Hard work will need to take place to create pathways so these communities can practice their own sovereignty to take ownership of their own ideas and aspirations,” said Whyte. “The way things look is kind of like an hourglass. At the top, you’ve got resources that need to get to the bottom. The part in the middle is too thin to get to where they need to be in time for whatever changes would roll back those gains in elections. How do you expand the narrow part of the hourglass? We need to make the case that we know what it means to harness these policies.”
Whyte reiterated that, for orientation, it would be helpful to look into some actions taken by the federal government, which, in addition to Executive Order 14008, include the Justice 40 and 30-30 Initiatives, to see how communities can express their self-determination and aspirations.