New Governors Target Climate Change from Day One in Vulnerable Great Lakes Region

Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer is challenging pipeline plans. Illinois's J.B. Pritzker became the 18th governor to join the U.S. Climate Alliance. And there's more.

Algae blooms have become a growing problem as temperatures warm, particularly on Lake Erie, where rivers also feed them with nutrients from farm runoff. Credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon/NASA

Climate change is increasingly evident in the extreme weather, heat waves and algae blooms that can hurt agriculture, drinking water and tourism in the region, as the 2018 National Climate Assessment describes. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, ORBIMAGE

Climate change poses risks to the economy and identity of a Great Lakes landscape, much of it defined by bountiful farms, pine forests and clear waters. But political leaders haven't always treated it that way.

That's starting to change as a wave of new governors and attorneys general take office across the region with promises—and actions—to address climate change.

The regional changes may signal a new dynamic for national debates, as climate policy advocates broaden their base of support to include some of the country's hubs of manufacturing and farming. It also is happening at a time of growing urgency for concerted state-level efforts on climate change in response to the federal government's push to roll back greenhouse gas emissions rules.

"It's really crucial in this time when there are so many environmental policies going the wrong way to have more hands on deck," said Kim Smaczniak, a staff attorney for Earthjustice.

This year, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin each switched from a Republican governor to a Democrat. In both Michigan and Illinois, the governors have made moves on climate change issues in their first 10 days.

Michigan and Wisconsin also have new Democratic attorneys general replacing Republicans. The upshot from the 2018 election is that Democrats now hold both the governor's and attorney general's office in six of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

Map: Governors of the Great Lakes States

Democratic electoral waves have hit the Great Lakes region before and given hope to environmental advocates, only to be undone by later political cycles. In 2007, a group of states and a Canadian province aimed to start a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions. But their Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord ceased to function by about 2010 as newly elected officials dropped their states' support for the plan.

Today, climate change is increasingly evident in the extreme weather, heat waves and algae blooms that hurt agriculture, drinking water and tourism, as the Midwest chapter of the 2018 National Climate Assessment describes.

Falling prices for renewable power are also shifting the energy landscape. While most utilities in the region still depend heavily on coal, many are now exploring expanding their use of clean energy and retiring coal-fired power plants early. There is potential for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes and advancements in onshore wind, solar and energy storage. And the new governors are bringing different views on the construction of fossil fuel pipelines.

"We want it to be bipartisan. We want it to be pragmatic," said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a clean energy advocacy group. "We want it to be everyone understanding the benefits so this transition can continue unimpeded."

Michigan: Challenging a Pipeline – and Trump

The new dynamic was on display on Jan. 2, when newly elected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer started a legal fight against Enbridge Line 5, an aging fossil fuel pipeline that passes under the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac.

She sent a letter to state Attorney General Dana Nessel seeking a legal opinion that could help to undo a plan to replace the pipeline. Nessel is also brand new to the job, and, like Whitmer, very different from her Republican predecessor.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held her first Cabinet meeting in January 2019.  Credit: Governor's Office

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shown here at her first Cabinet meeting, took the oath of office on Jan. 1. The next day, she launched a fight against plans for a new fossil fuel pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Credit: Governor's Office

Whitmer opposes a law that former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed in the final months of his term that set up a new governing authority to build a tunnel for Line 5 in the environmentally sensitive area. Opponents of the project would like to see the line removed and not replaced because of the risk of catastrophic oil spills. Snyder's plan calls for a replacement that would keep oil flowing for decades.

"I pledged to take action on the Line 5 pipeline on day one as governor, and I am holding true to that campaign promise," Whitmer said in a statement.

Nessel also announced this week that the state is dropping its past opposition to several federal climate and environment policies. She filed motions for the state to withdraw from multi-state lawsuits that are challenging the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce emissions from power plants and which the Trump administration is trying scrap and replace with a much weaker version; rules governing methane emissions from oil and gas operations; and rules restricting mercury and toxic substances from power plants.

Whitmer has also said she will set up a state office to coordinate Michigan agencies' response to climate change.

Wisconsin: Changing the Tone After Walker

At a renewable energy conference last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers also spoke about the need to address climate change.

"We shouldn't have to choose between investing in new industries and protecting our natural resources like our land, rivers and waters," Evers said.

His predecessor, Republican Scott Walker, was criticized during his tenure for ignoring climate change and for downplaying humans' role in causing it.

Tony Evers met with President Trump along with other governors-elect in December 2019. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House

“We shouldn’t have to choose between investing in new industries and protecting our natural resources like our land, rivers and waters,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers says. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House

Evers, however, is limited in how much he can do. The Democrat faces a legislature controlled by Republicans and the added constraint of a widely derided bill Walker signed after losing reelection that reduces the power of the governor's office in several ways.

Illinois: Joining the U.S. Climate Alliance

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, also a Democrat, has replaced Republican Bruce Rauner, who talked little about climate change and downplayed its effects while also supporting expanding the oil and gas industry in the state.

"There was both the perception and the reality that (Walker and Rauner) were moving their states backwards when it came to core environmental policies and values that were broadly supported by people of the state," said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

In his inaugural address, Pritzker made a point to say: "I believe in science."

On Wednesday, Pritzker officially signed onto the U.S. Climate Alliance, becoming the18th governor to join the group and commit the state to the principles of the Paris climate agreement. His executive order also directed the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the Trump administration's environmental proposals and identify ways to protect Illinois residents from environmental harm.

"While the president is intent on taking us backwards, I will work hard every day to move our state forward," Pritzker said. "We know that climate change is real. We know it's a threat. And we know we must act."

New Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, shown here with Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, announced he would bring the state into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors committed to meeting the Paris climate goals. Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

In one of his first acts as governor, Illinois's J.B. Pritzker, shown here with Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, brought the state into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors committed to meeting the Paris climate goals. "I believe in science," he said. Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Evers and Whitmer also have said they will join the Climate Alliance, whose members are committed to implementing policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris targets.

Two other states got new governors but stayed with the same party: Tim Walz, a Democrat who supports aggressive reductions in greenhouse gases, in Minnesota; and Mike DeWine, a Republican who opposed the Clean Power Plan, in Ohio.

The region's other Democratic governors, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Andrew Cuomo of New York, have longer records. Wolf this month announced his state's first economywide greenhouse gas reduction targets, and Cuomo announced new support for renewable energy and set a goal of 100 percent clean power by 2040. 

New AGs Change Dynamics of Climate Litigation

Lawyers who work on environmental issues also hailed the election of Democrats as attorneys general in Michigan and Wisconsin. The shift is notable for the agendas of the new arrivals and the departure of officials who had tried to block pro-climate federal policies by suing.

"Given that the Trump administration is burying their head in the sand on climate change, local action and the role of AGs is more important than ever," said Samantha Williams, an attorney and director of the Midwest climate program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Attorneys general who participate in multi-state cases—including challenging the Trump administration's efforts—will bring the resources of their offices, expanding the scope of what actions can be taken, said Smaczniak of Earthjustice.

Michigan's Nessel showed some of the power of her office on climate issues by withdrawing legal challenges to federal environment and climate rules made by her Republican predecessor.

Wisconsin has a similar dynamic, but a key difference: The new law stripping power from the governor there also limits the power of the attorney general, including the power to withdraw from a federal lawsuit. Such a move now requires approval from a legislative panel.

Wisconsin's former attorney general, Republican Brad Schimel, signed on to oppose the Clean Power Plan. His successor, Democrat Josh Kaul, said during the campaign that Schimel's participation in the matter was harmful to the state's health.

In addition to actions on legal cases, the new officeholders are "also leading to a change in tone on the urgent need for climate action," Williams said.

They may also help retire a rusty old framework of climate policy debates, in which those who oppose vigorous action cast the issue as a battle between the coasts and Middle America.

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