Hear the conversation 34:14 – 19.6 mb mp3
“Forty-seven years ago, on April 22, 1970, we celebrated the inaugural Earth Day, and the New York Times cover read: “Millions Join Earth Day Observances Across the Nation.” Closing in on five decades later, Earth Day is an international observance and global sustainability issues are constantly in the news,” Kirk Heinze says on Greening of the Great Lakes as he convenes his annual Earth Day panel discussion.
Joining Kirk to talk about the significance of Earth Day and several associated topics is a distinguished panel—three individuals who have devoted much of their lives to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of our planet.
Liesl Eichler Clark is principal and co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy, a policy consulting firm focused on clean energy and the environment, and president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council. Chris Kolb is president of the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of over 70 organizations across Michigan that concentrate on a number of key areas ranging from clean energy to environmental justice to wise land and water use. Saulius Mikalonis is a widely respected environmental attorney in the Bloomfield Hills office of Plunkett Cooney and a regular contributor to Crain’s Detroit Business as author of the “Environment and the Law” blog.
Mikalonis says Earth Day “is a reaffirmation of the commitment the country made back in the 1970’s. It’s been a long road, but every year we’re reminded where we started and where we’re going.”
“It’s a day to put a national and world focus on environmental issues, but, for many of us, Earth Day is every day,” adds Kolb.
While there is much still to do, Clark says it’s important to note that we have made a lot of progress on the environmental front.
Kolb says one of the most positive developments is the accelerating renewable energy production. “We’ve made huge improvements, and it’s not just for cleaner energy. It’s also a huge quality of life and economic driver in Michigan that we’re seeing improvements in every day.”
Mikalonis feels “the most significant sustainability development is probably the general acceptance of environmental protection, not only by people who want a clean environment, but also corporations. Virtually every major corporation in the world now has a sustainability policy. All of a sudden, the baseline is not whether we should protect the environment, but how we should protect the environment.”
Kolb says climate change is the biggest environmental threat facing us today.
“As climate change is happening, our ability to produce food, enjoy clean water, and really sustain life here on the planet is going to be stretched as we have more and more people on the globe. And if we ignore the causes of climate change, we ignore the abilities to find solutions to it.”
Clark adds that what “keeps me up at night” is “helping people understand change and to be ready for change. We have to anticipate the change that’s coming, and we have to be able to handle the change that’s in front of us.” She cites the new smart meters from our energy providers as an example.
Kolb adds that many of the actions of the new administration in Washington that seem to be undoing environmental protections “are downright scary at times, and they’re shortsighted.
“Don’t look at a politician’s rhetoric. If you want to see where their priorities are, look to their budget.” The Trump Administration’s proposed 31 percent reduction in the EPA budget and 25 percent reduction in its employees, would “have a dramatic impact on environmental regulations in this country.” And he especially laments the proposed cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“Yes, there will be pushback [on the budget recommendations] from Congress. But we know the money won’t be completely restored; so there’s going to be a reduction. And those decisions are really going to impact people here in Michigan and across the country.”
Clark adds that most companies interested in purchasing more renewable energy for their businesses have no plans to dial back their intentions to do so despite what may transpire in Washington.
“Market forces have changed so much that we’re going to see renewable energy deployment move forward.” She acknowledges that leadership in Washington can have an impact in this area; however, “it’s interesting to see how much the market has changed from an advanced energy perspective, and there is absolutely momentum there.”
Mikalonis agrees that companies have made long term investments in renewable energy, and “they’re not going to change in midstream.” The new administration “can do everything they can to try to stem that tide, I suppose, but it’s inevitable.”
Kolb warns, however, that the immediate impact of cuts in environmental protection “can be really detrimental, especially at the local level.” And he worries about states mimicking the federal government by cutting state funding for the environment.
These issues highlight an interesting yin yang, says Clark.
“There is so much that our corporations do because of the regulatory structure . . . if we’re in a world where some of that regulatory structure isn’t going to be there, what will they continue to do?”
The panel agrees unanimously that the Enbridge Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac should be decommissioned. In addition to the environmental threat, the pipeline issue is a microcosm of a much larger challenge—fixing Michigan’s infrastructure.
“The light that it shines is on infrastructure,” says Clark. “We have to invest in our infrastructure. It’s not sexy. It’s like insulating your house. No one wants to do it; everyone wants to put in granite countertops. But we’ve got to commit to ourselves as a state and put some dollars behind it. We have so much technology at our fingertips now. If we deploy it strategically and wisely, it can really help us with these infrastructure challenges out into the future.”
“When you don’t make that investment today, it costs you more down the road,” adds Kolb. “And making investments in infrastructure drives economic development. Every dollar invested in infrastructure produces at least three dollars of economic development. So we know that improving infrastructure is good for public health, the environment, and our economy. What better way to spend a dollar?”
Despite all these concerns the panel discusses, Mikalonis reminds us that “we have come a really long way from the time the Cuyahoga River was burning and Lake Erie was dying. And I encourage people that, if you don’t believe me, read up and figure out where we were, where we are now, and where we can go.”