Photo, clockwise from top-left: Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm, climate czar Gina McCarthy, Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg, Environmental Protection Agency Secretary nominee Michael Regan, special climate envoy John Kerry.
We asked Skip Pruss, FLOW’s former board chair and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth under former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm how incoming President Joe Biden and his cabinet of environmental all stars will combat the climate crisis and what the federal government’s effort could mean for Michigan and the Great Lakes.
FLOW: Many of President-Elect Biden’s cabinet nominations appear intent on combating climate change. This doesn’t seem like an “Obama third term”. What’s different now? What has changed since 2016, with respect to the environment and the need for action?
Pruss: It is, now, all hands on deck. For the first time we will have climate-focused leadership across all the federal agencies. The administration appears to fully apprehend the magnitude and impact of the climate crisis and recognizes that there needs to be a multi-sector coordinated response both domestically and internationally.
FLOW: Can you offer a little inside knowledge about former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who is Biden’s pick for Energy Secretary? Why is she well suited for this job?
Pruss: Granholm is a policy wonk who understands that the only way to avoid the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis is to accelerate the transition to clean energy and decarbonize the economy. She has long been focused on both the challenges and opportunities presented by the energy transition, has boundless energy and enthusiasm for the tasks, and is really good at coordination and collaborations — which will be essential under the Biden administration.
FLOW: What do you expect that Granholm and other cabinet officials (Deb Haaland nominated for Interior Secretary), Michael Regan (nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency), Pete Buttigieg (Department of Transportation nominee), John Kerry (special climate envoy), and others will do that their predecessors—even before the Trump administration—have not?
Pruss: First of all, one has to appreciate the scope and breathe of the team President Biden is putting in place. Every federal agency is being tasked with implementing policy and programs directed at accelerating the energy transition and mitigating and adapting to climate change. Every federal agency will have staff charged with identifying the most effective ways to speed clean energy implementations and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across domestic and international markets. Gina McCarthy, Biden’s “climate czar” and her staff, will have the responsibility of coordinating these efforts across all agencies, commissions, and councils.
Second, energy technologies and energy markets are rapidly evolving. Clean energy technologies are continually improving and are already the cheapest energy solutions. They also avoid the costly, detrimental environmental impacts as well as the morbidity and mortality associated with our fossil fuel legacy energy sources. The direction of market forces is clear with corporations and consumers having clear and distinct clean energy preferences.
So the wind is with us and the sun is shining on clean energy — pun intended.
FLOW: With respect to the climate crisis, what will the role of the federal, state, and local governments be? How will the United States influence international global climate change goals and implementation plans? Can we become leaders again?
Pruss: Three separate questions. For the last four years, state and local governments have continued to drive progress on clean energy and climate issues despite the efforts of the Trump administration to thwart progress in these areas. We need only to look to the headway Traverse City and organizations like Leelanau Energy have made to appreciate the effectiveness of local grassroots action.
President Biden has sent a strong, unequivocal signal to the international community that the United States will endeavor to establish a leadership position in decarbonizing the global economy. Considering the loss of credibility the U.S. has endured, it is understandable that there may be skepticism and a loss of faith in the United States’ resolve.
FLOW: What do you expect the Biden administration can reasonably hope to accomplish on climate in the next four years—particularly since he’ll also have to rescue the economy, just like President Obama did when he took office in 2009?
Pruss: Retooling energy infrastructure will be a strong catalyst for economic recovery. We have to be realistic considering the political constraints the Biden administration will experience even with Democratic majorities in Congress — yet I’m very optimistic. Clean energy technologies comprised more than 90 percent of the new power capacity added to grids worldwide in 2020. According to the Energy Information Administration, 91 percent of new electric generation resources brought online in 2021 will be zero-carbon technologies. All of the global auto manufacturers are committed to transitioning quickly to electric vehicles. New low-cost solutions for clean building heating and cooling and energy-intensive industrial processes are on the horizon. Meanwhile, the financial structures that historically supported fossil fuel investment — banks, investment funds, insurance providers — are jumping ship.
FLOW: Are rescuing/growing the economy and environmental protection competing goals? That’s the popular narrative we often hear, at least.
Pruss: I think we are well beyond that meme. What science tells us, definitively, is that good stewardship of the environment is essential to advance public health and economic justice. The environment and the hydrosphere are a public trust of inestimable value that we must safeguard to benefit future generations.
FLOW: What impacts do you hope that President Biden’s environmental policy have on the Leelanau Peninsula, and Michigan in general, in the years ahead?
Pruss: Well, among other things, I would like to see some federal prodding and perhaps, incentives, that would lead to the adoption of a state-wide septic code. Michigan remains the only state without a state-wide code, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners has not passed one either, yet we are surrounded by the most extraordinary and valuable fresh surface water system in the world. That is profoundly irrational.
FLOW: Have you spoken with Granholm since her nomination? Have you offered her any advice or policy guidance that you can share?
Pruss: I have briefly and have had some contact with the transition team. I have mentioned to her that our 17 national laboratories — which are all under her domain — should be considered our “crown jewels” of science and technology.
FLOW: How will you spend Wednesday, January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration?
Pruss: Very pleased and grateful.