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Michigan policymakers work on climate change – even as some avoid the term

Has global warming cooled off as an issue in Michigan?

Just looking at how it is, or is not, dealt with by state leaders, one could guess it is in a deep freeze.

It is not discussed daily among lawmakers and policymakers, at least not publicly. The closest the Legislature has to any legislation dealing with the issue is HB 4499, introduced by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, that would put new limits on diesel emissions. The bill has not had any hearings.

But the House did approve HR 105, sponsored by Rep. Matt Lori (R-Constantine), that declared April 27 as Save the Frogs Day in Michigan, and said climate change is among the numerous issues threatening frog and toad species here and around the world.

Rarely do the terms climate change or global warming come up in the state. But it is an issue, and it is being acted on. Just don’t call it climate change.

Action is more indirect than direct, officials say, through issues such as public health and energy efficiency.

But there is even some work being done on proposals first raised in 2009 with the state’s Climate Action Plan, developed under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. (Although supporters of that plan are quick to say not enough is being done. “The Legislature needs to dust that off and get to work on it,” aid Mike Garfield, with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.)

There is a growing acknowledgement that climate change is occurring, though some are still hesitant to suggest it is due to human activity.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, one of the staunchest legislative critics of environmentalists, said in an interview that he “did not dispute that the climate has warmed,” but still wasn’t convinced of the idea that human activity is the cause. “I’m not sure we’ve got the whole story” on the reasons for global warming, he said.

As a whole, the public is more accepting of climate change, but that has been hard to translate into action.

That seems to be helped by reported research on the weather trends. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy recently released a study that warned ongoing global warming could affect power generation in the future, possibly leading to rolling blackouts.

Public belief has also been pushed by extreme weather events.

Hugh McDiarmid of the Michigan Environmental Council said it was hard to “characterize what people think.” Attitudes shift, sometimes based on immediate climatic issues, such as hurricanes.  Nonetheless, McDiarmid said, “inexorably the public is shifting” toward greater concern about climate change.

And he wished the public would talk about it more.

Garfield blamed some of the lack of public discussion on the failure of federal action on the issue.

Even then, he said, the issue is prominent in areas where the public has made it so, such as Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Grand Rapids. For example, three Ann Arbor legislators, all Democrats – Sen. Rebekah Warren, Rep. Jeff Irwin and Rep. Adam Zemke – joined in a statement last February when a major conference was taking place in Ann Arbor, saying that because greenhouse gas emissions tend to be higher per capita in the Midwest, action was needed at both the state and federal levels to promote cleaner energy.

Irwin is the only co-sponsor of Tlaib’s bill.

While direct action on climate change is quiet, McDiarmid said related issues such as health and energy, including renewable energy and energy efficiency, are taking place, and having a positive effect.

For example, late in 2012 the Public Service Commission issued a report showing the cost of renewable energy dropping, helping spur interest in its use. And McDiarmid said community input helped change plans by the Lansing-area Board of Water and Light to build a new coal-fired power plant and instead plan one running on natural gas.

A number of activists also praised Gov. Rick Snyder for saying the state needs to do more with renewable energy.

And some elements of the 2009 Climate Action Plan are underway. Both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are involved in replacing current electric meters with so-called smart meters that will help encourage energy efficiency.

Also, the utilities are looking at power plant changes to reduce the use of coal. Consumers is proposing a new natural gas plant that will take some coal-fired plants offline.

McDiarmid said creation of the Detroit-area Regional Transit Authority will help reduce the number of emissions released as mass transit in the metro area improves.

Casperson, however, suggested different action should be taken. He cited an ongoing controversy on extending Co. Rd. 595 in Marquette County to a new mine. The proposal would go over wetlands, which the mining company and county road commission have proposed mitigating, but it would also reduce the total travel distance trucks going to and from the mine run by some 88-miles roundtrip.

Shorter trips would reduce emissions, and that is the kind of regulatory outlook that is needed, Casperson said.

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