Michigan weather is famously fickle, but this winter’s abrupt temperature shifts have been bizarre even for here. Rapid swings of nearly 100º F have left Michiganders needing both short sleeves and a parka in the same week. The first months of Gretchen Whitmer’s term as Governor have been equally tempestuous, with abrupt highs and lows in her rapid efforts to help Michigan mitigate and adapt for our new climate future and to move environmental policy forward in the state.
The need for urgent action is clear. During the recent, bitter cold of the polar vortex, the state received a sobering reminder of the risk inherent in primary reliance on fossil fuels for energy when a fire at a Consumer’s Energy natural gas compression plant catapulted the state into worry about having enough heat. A recent climate mapping tool from University of Michigan researchers has helped highlight just how much we’ll also need to worry about cooling in the future, as well. In thirty years, lower Southeast Michigan's climate will warm to match what parts of Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia look like today. And, according to the Fourth National Climate assessment, we’ll need to brace year-round for extreme highs and lows as dramatic weather swings become increasingly common.
In a series of executive orders and directives over the last few weeks, Governor Whitmer has sought to reorient the work of her administration towards protecting our natural resources and long-term sustainability. E.O. NO.2019-2 & E.O. NO.2019-3 abolish several “rubber stamp” commissions and boards within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), reorganize the department, create new offices and positions focused on climate change and sustainability, and rename the department itself as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (MDEGLE).
The executive orders also introduce major concepts like environmental justice and climate change to official state governing documents for the first time. The Office of the Clean Water Advocate, and the Office of Environmental Justice Advocate, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, along with the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team are among the highlights. Executive Directive 2019-12 also added Michigan to the US Climate Alliance, a consortium of states working together to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Governor Whitmer’s State of the State address also brought public attention the importance of the environment. Throughout her speech, she worked to link infrastructure, health, and the environment as interconnected landscapes requiring coordinated action. She prioritized this infrastructure-health-environment nexus as one of the greatest risks to Michiganders and a limiting factor in its economic growth. She also became the first Michigan Governor to acknowledge climate change in an official address.
Republicans in both houses however, moved to block Whitmer’s wave of new orders, saying they usurped the legislature. Rep. James Lower introduced resolution HCR1 to officially disapprove E.O. NO.2019-2, which reorganized the DEQ into EGLE. With a 58-51 vote along partisan lines, it passed in the Senate this Valentine's day in what state Senator Curtis Hertel Jr called “...a love letter from Republicans to corporate polluters and a Dear John letter to the people of Michigan”. This partisan action represents the first revocation by the legislature of an executive order in Michigan since 1977.
Republicans’ main complaints about the order centered around eliminating a handful of industry-dominated rubber stamp oversight panels, so Governor Whitmer countered with a revised order (E.O.NO.2019-6) last Friday. It retains select sticking-point panels but otherwise closely resembles the initial order. This new EO is expected to move forward without Republican opposition.
Governor Whitmer remains committed to her goals of preserving Michigan’s environment and resources, preparing the state for climate change, and protecting Michiganders from harm with equity and justice. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have shown particular interest in Michigan’s water security; the Flint water crisis and the statewide PFAS problem have been impossible to ignore, and none deny the high value of the Great Lakes. Water may provide a fulcrum for the success of future environmental legislative action in Michigan.
The climate is changing, and perhaps, in some limited capacity, the winds of response may start to shift in Lansing, as well.