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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Elections and the existential threat to the environment

Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak (left) and former Ann Arbor state Senator Lana Pollack.
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak (left) and former Ann Arbor state Senator Lana Pollack.


Lana Pollack
International Joint Commission
Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack, appointed by President Obama, served nine years as Chair of the U.S. Section, International Joint Commission. This bi-national commission is charged with advising Canada and the United States governments on matters primarily relating to their shared waters.

Throughout a diverse career, Ms. Pollack has demonstrated leadership on a range of public policy issues. She served 12 years as president of the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of organizations determined to protect the Great Lakes and Michigan’s environment. In three terms as a state senator, Ms. Pollack became a leading advocate for women, children and the environment. In this capacity she earned praise as the architect of Michigan’s landmark 1990 polluter pay law, which saved taxpayers $100 million in just five years by requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of toxic waste.

In addition, Ms. Pollack was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, taught at the University of Michigan and was elected to the Ann Arbor Board of Education. Other experiences included co-founding a successful magazine, Michigan Monthly, and co-directing an elementary school in Lusaka, Zambia.

She served on a number of educational, non-profit and corporate boards, including the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, which annually directed $35-50 million in public funds to protect, purchase and enhance Michigan’s parkland and open space. Ms. Pollack, who grew up on the shore of Lake Michigan in Ludington, earned two degrees from the University of Michigan, a BA in political science and an MA in Education. She is married to Henry Nathan Pollack, with whom she raised two children.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Lana Pollack

Ann Arbor Community Climate Action proposal


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to the pre-election November edition of WEMU's monthly conversation series. It's called First Friday Focus on the Environment. Now, if you believe there is an existential threat to our democratic manner of governance, you are not alone. And if our manner of governing is under threat, then our ability to steward the health of our Great Lakes and environment is also at stake. Our guest today has a long-term perspective on such matters. But, first, let's say hello to my co-host. Lisa Wozniak is the executive director of the Michigan of Conservation Voters and joins us on the first Friday of each month. And glad to have you back.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, it's good to be here, Dave. And you're right. Our guest has decades of perspective from which to consider the challenges of today. Environmental advocacy has been a hallmark of Lana Pollack's career. More than three decades ago, Lana authored Michigan's polluter pay laws while serving as state Senator from Ann Arbor. And before they were dismantled during the Engler administration, they were among the nation's strongest. Lana served as president of the Michigan Environmental Council and was appointed by President Obama to the International Joint Commission, where she served as U.S. section chair, helping oversee and protect the waters that border the U.S. and Canada. With Election Day right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time for some reflection and a look ahead in an era filled with water challenges, a climate crisis, extremism, and dramatic polarization. Thank you so much for your time today, Lana.

Lana Pollack: Thank you for asking me, and thank you for addressing these important issues.

David Fair: You know, we are most certainly glad to have you and your perspective here today. In your decades of public service, Lana, you certainly experienced your fair share of partisan divide. How different does that divide feel in the year 2022?

Lana Pollack: It feels as different as facing a creek that you could almost leap over and facing the Grand Canyon. That seems very daunting. It's substantially different.

Lisa Wozniak: When it comes to our elections, Lana, the changing nature of this landscape appears to be changing the nature of how political campaigns are organized and put before the public. You have a particularly important perspective on this, having been a candidate yourself. What big changes have you seen?

Lana Pollack: Well, some of the changes are a matter of degree. Some of them are something much greater. The matter of degree is the role of money. We really need to have reform. Money has always been important and, sometimes, a barrier now, since a certain Supreme Court ruling some few years ago.

David Fair: The Citizens United decision.

Lana Pollack: Yes. The money is just burying a lot of other matters that should be attended to. So, that's one thing. And then, the other thing is that there is now a question of candidates saying, "I'm not going to take the outcome of the election. I'll only accept the outcome of the election if I win or if my team wins or if my party wins," if you're Republicans. Because that is the post-Trump posture of the Republican Party now, mostly, unfortunately. So, that's a fundamental. There could be nothing more fundamental in terms of a shift. And I think we have to all of us address that shift.

David Fair: Have we actually made the Constitution and our way of life here in the United States of America more fragile? Or have we just exposed how fragile that already was?

Lana Pollack: Wonderful phrasing of an important question, David. I'm going to say both. I hope that doesn't sound like a political answer, but it's true. And democracy is always dependent on an assumption that the rules of the game will be followed, that everybody is playing with the same rulebook. And now that we have one of the two major parties essentially tearing up the rulebook--some exceptions, of course, for individuals within the party--we have something that has never been experienced in the history of the United States. The only other time that one could think back to is, of course, a shooting war, the Civil War. Thankfully, we're not anywhere looking at that now.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment and our pre-election conversation with Lana Pollock continues. Let's talk a little bit about the politics of the environment, Lana. The climate crisis is the existential threat to the planet. It's a huge threat to the Great Lakes and to our public health. In just looking at some of the political ads put forth by the GOP in this election cycle, they're calling into question the possibility of moving to electrification of cars, renewable energies as a way to reduce dependance on polluting fossil fuels, something scientists say is critical to avoid hitting the tipping point and point of no return. How do you seek and find compromise in an environment when the science itself is called into question or outright rejected?

Lana Pollack: Well, all of this is actually good news. Not the calling of science into question, but there is so many elements of our society who understand and who accept the science and who are experiencing the consequences of horrific flooding, the deaths that come from that, the fires, the droughts. So, it's as if politics is going to have to catch up with what society as a whole. And that is certainly the business, the investors, the insurance companies who have to pay the bills if indeed they are willing to even ensure interests in these days. So, there's much that is pushing us towards the right answers, the investments and the protections, and, albeit on almost a straight party line, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was really a Climate Change Reduction Act, has passed. And it's a massive investment and massive recognition and commitment to protecting ourselves and, frankly, your grandchildren and mine. So, there's lots of good news out there. It's as if politics is getting in the way rather than providing the platform for doing what the public is largely ready to do and embrace.

David Fair: And, Lisa, you have found some areas of compromise and bipartisan support for some environmental initiatives here in our Great Lakes state of Michigan. How can that be built upon right here?

Lisa Wozniak: Yes, there have been some examples right here in Michigan. And I think they're deeply connected to people's values and their concerns. So, a few that I would note are Michigan has some of the toughest PFAS standards in the country, adopted through a rulemaking process that included Republicans and industry. Governor Whitmer, just this summer, passed into law--signed into law--the largest investment in water infrastructure and protections in our state's history--$4.7 billion. And although it hasn't passed the finish line yet, there is bipartisan introduction in both the state House and the state Senate of what is called "filter first legislation," which would ensure that our children--our kids--have safe water to drink through a comprehensive program to install filters on things like drinking water fountains and cooking sources in schools and child care centers. So, these are just a few examples. But, again, it goes back to what people are voicing their concerns of being and people--elected officials--having to listen.

David Fair: Once again, you are listening to WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair. I'm alongside my co-host Lisa Wozniak. And we were talking with former Ann Arbor State Senator Lana Pollack as we head toward the midterm elections. Lana, Ann Arbor voters next week will decide the city's Community Climate Action proposal, which would levy a one-mill 20-year tax. But, even in a city like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti for that matter, where all elected officials are Democrats, there is divide. There is rancor. There is dissonance--less on the need for such a measure, but on the ramifications and the issues that it may not sufficiently address. How damaging to environmental policy and advancement is the divide within the Democratic Party?

Lana Pollack: Well, it's the price that we pay for living in a free society. It's what we fight for. It's what we stand for. It's what we're proud of. That is to say a society that allows debate and dissent and sometimes pretty rigorous dissent and debate. I welcome the kind of back and forth, even though some of it is kind of rough within the Democratic Party and would welcome and actually see as essential that kind of debate and dissension within the Republican Party. What's problematic and dangerous to democracy is when people follow a leader as in a cult or as if that leader is speaks from on high. That's not what we need. So, let's accept the rough edges of democracy, the kind of dissension that we're hearing within the Democratic Party, the progressives, the moderates, both locally, state, and nationally, and hope that the Republicans will do likewise, as they have done in the past, which is to, you know, fight it out but with language rather than hammers and threats. Democracy is...well, it's messy, but it's as Churchill said, "It's way better than what's in second place," or however Churchill said it much better than I.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Lana, you've noted very clearly your deep concern about election deniers, the increasing violent political rhetoric, and, in some cases, actual violence. Given what many see as this hostile takeover of the Republican Party by the far right, many consider that a fully GOP-controlled federal legislative branch an existential threat to our democracy. Would you also consider this an existential threat to the Great Lakes and to the environmental health of our nation?

Lana Pollack: Yes. Autocracy and dictatorship invariably is associated with the worst of environmental policies. So, what we need is a rigorously-debated, open, societal focus on government and on the environment because they go hand-in-hand.

David Fair: Lana Pollack, thank you so much for your time today and sharing your perspective.

Lana Pollack: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is former state senator from Ann Arbor Lana Pollack, providing perspective on our environmental past, present, and future as we head toward the midterm election. My partner and co-host for this monthly conversation is Lisa Wozniak, who is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And, Lisa, thank you, and I will look forward to our next visit.

Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to that, David. Thank you so much. And thank you, Lana.

David Fair: For more information on today's First Friday Focus on the Environment topic and conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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