Biden energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's Liesl Clark on point for climate action
Baseball's spring training has begun, the time of year when all things are possible. Teams that floundered the previous year can be optimistic, even if there's no logical reason for the optimism.
The same may be true for the nascent administration of President Joe Biden, especially related to climate change. After four years of denial and reversal of programs by the previous administration, President Biden hit the ground running on climate hoping to make good on campaign promises. He quickly took executive action to return the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, the accord that requires countries to "make their best efforts" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and report on their progress.
And now his team is taking shape.
A key player on that Biden climate team is former Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who led the state from 2003-2011 and who has a reputation for being "ahead of the curve" on clean energy.
Granholm was confirmed by the senate earlier this week and was interviewed by NPR the next day.
Her demeanor was upbeat and resolute as she pitched the Biden plan with an emphasis on clean energy as a jobs creator. An unvarnished attempt to make it palatable to climate skeptics. She meandered around a question about convincing those skeptics, including at high levels of government, that the Biden clean energy plan is the way forward. "I think you just have to continue to educate people," she said. Unfortunately, they're the people who haven't and don't want to be educated by Biden, Granholm or anyone else on climate. And they represent a significant constituency.
I saw Granholm speak when she was Michigan's governor on Great Lakes issues and she was dynamic and passionate. The audience of advocates was predisposed to her message and she didn't disappoint.
But she's now on a bigger stage and will be dealing with some audiences who may be sitting with arms folded implying convince me, because so far I'm not buying what you're selling. The full NPR interview with Granholm is here and worth 10 minutes of your time.
Michigan, under its current high-profile governor Gretchen Whitmer has a climate plan too. Last year she announced her carbon neutral by 2050 goal in an executive order and as is her tendency, she'll have an advisory body to help guide her, the Council on Climate Solutions. The Council is led by Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark.
Clark has an energy background, worked in the Granholm administration and conducted the first Council meeting last week. Anyone could listen in and I did.
As a first meeting it was by necessity, I guess, bound by introductions where members presented mini-bios, talked about past accomplishments and their climate aspirations. The type of 1990's consultant-driven cheer leading process I'm all too familiar with after decades in a corporate culture.
But if you're a disciple of the process, Clark is impressive. She commanded the meeting without commanding it and she's one of those smartest people in the room types. Since there was nothing of substance happening I looked for intangibles and in my notes I found, "we can do this attitude."
Can Granholm and Clark drive a clean energy policy in the U.S. and Michigan respectively? It's barely out of the box so, who knows.
Granholm's track record in two terms as governor was mixed. She helped the auto industry but was hampered by a declining economy and a legislature that some saw as obstructionist, a situation that current Gov. Whitmer is facing. To be clear, Republicans see their role not as obstructing anything, but representing the interests of those who sent them to Lansing.
In Clark's two years running EGLE, she's best known for reorganizing the agency that was the Department of Environmental Quality, think Flint water crisis.
And Clark starts her climate change work in deficit territory. EGLE recently gave the green light to Enbridge Energy to build an oil pipeline in a tunnel to replace the aged Line 5. That's a significant hurdle out of the way for Enbridge and if implemented, locks the state into oil transport for decades and hardly aligns with a carbon reduction policy.
Granholm faces significant barriers on the road to clean energy. Perhaps the most important among them is that Democrats have razor slim majorities in congress and the toxic political environment shows no signs of abating. In other words, it's tough to get substantive things done in Washington.
Clark's path may not be easier. The rancor between Gov. Whitmer and the Republican controlled legislature has devolved to depths not imaginable when she took office. I don't see Republican leaders sending Whitmer any how can we help you messages on climate, barring an epiphany.
But these are early days for Granholm and Clark. Perhaps their work should be viewed as similar to spring training, where anything seems possible and hope springs eternal. At least for now.
Chicago-based environmental journalist