Michigan's New Governor Puts Climate Change at Heart of Government

Gretchen Whitmer created a new office of climate and energy and is the 20th governor to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, committing to the Paris climate principles.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Credit: Governor's Office

"We are going to do everything we can to mitigate human impacts that are warming the globe and changing our climate forever,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in announcing a series of new climate directives. Credit: Governor's Office

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan signed orders on Monday to revamp the state's environmental policy apparatus, becoming the latest newly elected Democratic leader in an industrial swing state to pick up the reins of action on climate change.

Whitmer is creating a new office of climate and energy that will coordinate efforts across state government to address climate change and will ensure that climate change is a consideration in the vetting of new policies.

She also signed an order to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors who commit to upholding the principles of the Paris climate agreement. Michigan is the 20th governor to join, following similar actions by others who came to power after running green campaigns and toppling Republican incumbents. In the past few weeks, the governors of Illinois and New Mexico have also joined.

 

Michigan stood out as a fulcrum of Donald Trump's narrow electoral victory. It's an economic monument to the internal combustion engine, but also a place where the urgency of confronting environmental challenges, including climate change, can't be ignored.

"We see this as part of a larger trend we're seeing across the country with new governors who ran on climate, who ran on transitions to 100 percent clean energy," said Sara Jordan, manager of the League of Conservation Voters' Clean Energy for All campaign. "I think you're seeing a lot of these governors not wanting to be left behind in this transition." 

Pam Kiely, director of state climate policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the flurry of activity at the state level is tied to widespread frustration with the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda.

"We are at a moment in time when state leadership is not going to wait for the climate crisis to be solved in Washington," she said.

A few other states have climate change offices, including California and New York.

New Offices, But No New Funding Yet

The full list of changes Whitmer announced is long, and most of the new functions and offices will be part of an expanded Department of Environmental Quality, which is now renamed the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

This includes three other new offices: Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team, and the Clean Water Public Advocate. Each of these touch on the fallout from the lingering lead poisoning crisis in Flint, and a desire to better address these kinds of problems.

For now, the new offices will need to ramp up with existing state employees, because this type of order does not come with additional funding. Both chambers of the legislature are dominated by Republicans.

Whitmer also is eliminating advisory panels that gave businesses a prominent voice in how state environmental rules and permits were handled. The panels were created by her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder, and criticized by environmental advocates.

'We Make Decisions Based on Science'

Whitmer said at a news conference that her actions communicate "that we take this very seriously, that we make decisions based on science and that we are going to do everything we can to mitigate human impacts that are warming the globe and changing our climate forever."

She said the urgency to act is underscored by the wild swings in weather the state has seen in the last week. The daytime high was more than 50 degrees in Lansing on Monday, well above normal for this time of year. "I know you all remember that just five days ago we had a wind chill of negative 52 in the Upper Peninsula," she said.

Erratic and extreme weather can be exacerbated by climate change and can threaten the state's economy, she said.

The National Climate Assessment describes several more risks that climate change poses to the Midwest region, including to the Great Lakes, forests, agriculture, infrastructure and human health.

While extreme cold was the experience last week, extreme heat is a larger concern, as outlined in a new report on Michigan's climate risks from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report also points to flooding and the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne infections, both of which can be exacerbated by climate change.

Most of the climate-related problems touching Michigan are also affecting other Great Lakes states. Whitmer is one of a new crop of governors in those states, most whom are pledging to make climate a high priority.

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