Opinion | Carbon-neutral goal offers Michigan a cleaner, healthier future

Ambitious goals matter — like the one Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set last week for Michigan to be carbon neutral by 2050 through the MI Healthy Climate Plan. 

The governor’s bold action is a flag planted for a prosperous, resilient future. It is a powerful signal that Michigan intends to seize new opportunities for our economy, communities and families, particularly underserved communities of color, in the path toward a healthier climate. 

Liesl Clark is director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. She was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The governor’s actions on climate change send a powerful message to the markets.  

While supporting Michigan companies already curbing carbon through their business practices and purchasing power, her announcement last Wednesday let entrepreneurs and other employers know that Michigan is a welcoming, committed partner with a workforce that’s ready and able to spur sustainable enterprises.      

As the state that put the world on wheels, Michigan can enjoy a second century of global automotive leadership by driving the connected, shared, autonomous, electric future of mobility. With the transportation sector now the planet’s biggest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses, that redeployment of our industrial heritage will make a pivotal contribution to the world’s climate change response while reviving our economy and creating quality jobs for Michigan workers.  

The Whitmer administration is also making it clear to Michigan cities, towns and villages that the state supports their transition to thriving carbon-neutral communities.   

Recognizing that some of the most forward-looking and effective climate solutions are bubbling up from places like Grand Rapids, Northport, Detroit and Marquette, EGLE has announced the Catalyst Communities program. It will provide training and technical assistance to local leaders who will chart climate resilient paths forward. 

That’s just one of several initiatives already underway at the state level to address the climate crisis. Utilities are being required to use climate modeling in their planning processes; our Treasury Department is preparing to help communities transition smoothly away from carbon-based fuels to cleaner, healthier options; and our Department of Natural Resources is piloting a carbon credit market plan and launching innovative clean energy systems at fish hatcheries and other facilities.

Our recent wet weather and extraordinarily high-water levels have given communities a sobering taste of the challenges we face in an age of climate-linked extreme weather. Our state recently lived through its wettest one-year, three-year, and five-year periods in recorded history. Driven by more frequent intense storms, all that water has put lives at risk, caused major property damage and left local governments with massive repair bills. 

We must find creative and innovative ways to gird our infrastructure against extreme weather. Investments in water and sewer systems, roads and bridges can enhance public safety and environmental quality — if sized right and smartly designed to capitalize on economies of scale and cutting-edge technologies. This will require an effective collaboration across all levels of government. The Whitmer administration has pledged to play its part.   

Finally — and most importantly — last week’s climate announcement is a resolute statement to the 10 million residents of Michigan that state leaders will protect their health, well-being and quality of life from the most significant threat of our lifetimes.  

Changes to our climate are projected to result in higher rates of respiratory diseases, heat illness, water- and vector-borne diseases, and algal blooms and related threats to drinking water and outdoor recreation.  

Many climate-related health ailments parallel those that left communities of color disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly in areas with poor air quality and other inequitable pollution burdens. Underserved communities also are challenged by limited access to health care and medical resources.  

Wise climate solutions — strategically deployed with support from the neighborhood level up — can advance equity and environmental justice across Michigan communities while improving air and water quality for residents in every corner of the state.   

We must also look at the economic and community development advantages of an ambitious climate change response through that equity lens, so those whose lives are most disrupted by our changing climate receive a boost in-kind from public and private investment.   

Starting with the ambitious goal set by Gov. Whitmer, Michigan’s march to decarbonize over the next three decades can make the Great Lakes State a better state. Our children and grandchildren deserve the same or better quality of life as we enjoy. We can become a more prosperous, just and healthy place. With the governor’s blueprint guiding the way, let’s build that Michigan together.   

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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