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Action needed now to combat climate change

Despite efforts by Michigan's GOP-lead legislature to reverse the first meaningful action taken by the state in more than a decade to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is reason to be hopeful that much needed reforms are underway.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday, February 4, issued an executive order intended to address water quality and climate change in the state by restructuring the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Included in the reorganization is the creation of the Office of Climate and Energy, which would coordinate climate response activities of state departments and agencies. The new office also would provide recommendations to the state and local governments on how to mitigate climate impact and adapt to climate changes, and guide and assist efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate adaptation.

In addition, the order abolishes the Environmental Rules Review Committee and Environmental Permit Review Commission, which were created last year along partisan lines to put the DEQ's rule making and permitting authority in check. The boards, which are stacked with industry representatives, create several conflicts of interest and may negate the ability of the DEQ to enforce federal environmental laws, according to a letter to the state department from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

House Republicans seeking to overturn the executive order passed a resolution disapproving the action just two days later. The Senate followed suit and also voted to overturn the order. Meanwhile, the governor has asked the state attorney general to assess whether the boards are even legal.

While Republican lawmakers are doing their best to stymie the governor's first shot at environmental reform, some have indicated they would allow a mulligan on the DEQ restructure – provided the oversight boards were left intact. How the issue will play out is uncertain; still, there's reason enough to believe that new players are changing the game of climate change policy.

In addition to the executive order regarding the DEQ, the same day Whitmer issued an executive directive entering Michigan into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors from 19 other states that have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The actions are the first real effort by the state's administration to address climate change since the Michigan Climate Change Action Council was formed in 2007 and drafted a Climate Action Plan in 2009. We are encouraged by the push to have a revamped DEQ act as the coordinating agency for the state on climate change – a long-absent and much needed role to steer efforts to address and combat climate change.

Likewise, we recognize and applaud efforts at the federal level to push the discussion on climate change forward with the potential for meaningful reform.

In early February, freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) joined forces with longtime environmental advocate Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) to introduce a Green New Deal, a plan to address climate change and economic challenges. While the rising star flubbed the introduction by apparently releasing an incomplete plan, the effort gives us hope that the issue won't be swept under the rug in light of what can be viewed as an anti-environmental administration.

Likewise, we applaud Markey's joint effort with Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) on February 13 to introduce legislation to create the Climate Change Education Act. The concurrent legislation would create a grant program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to assist state and local education agencies, institutions and professional associations to improve climate literacy. The legislation not only addresses the need to clarify fact from fiction on climate change, but is a fitting nod to Dingell's late husband, John Dingell, who was considered a champion of environmental issues during his legendary 59-year career.

The combined efforts at the state and federal level are encouraging at a time when GOP leaders have pulled back on efforts to address climate change, both at the state and federal level. With at least two more years of deregulation expected at the federal level, it's clear that states are now on their own to address climate change. Considering Michigan is already playing below par, it's time for obstructionists to pick up the ball and let efforts play through.

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