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The Green Room: Local Efforts-Can They Solve The Global Climate Crisis?

The U.S. is out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Despite lack of support from the current administration, many are heartened by the growing interest in finding solutions emanating from other levels of government. In this installment of WEMU’s "The Green Room," Barbara Lucas explores a fundamental question:  at what level will it be most effective to concentrate our efforts? 



David Fair (DF):  On June 1st President Trump announced U.S. pullout of the Paris Climate Accord.  The very next day, on June 2nd, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor pledged to pursue the Paris goals on a local level, by signing the Climate Mayors Network Pledge.  In this installment of WEMU’s Green Room, Barbara Lucas asks, can local-level efforts get us where we need to go, fast enough?

Barbara Lucas (BL):  That’s Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor at the annual Mayor’s Green Fair.  Ann Arbor has set a goal to reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050.  To achieve that huge reduction, the city created a Climate Action Plan, with over 80 action steps.  But in the five years since developing the plan, only a few of the action steps have been completed. Some would like to step on the gas, so to speak.  City councilmember Jason Frenzel is hopeful about Mayor Taylor’s pledge to pursue the Paris Agreement on a local level.

Jason Frenzel:  I hope that we can accomplish enough fast enough because it's a huge problem that we can't predict, right?

BL:  Frenzel is the council liaison on the city’s Energy Commission. 

BL: At its July 11th meeting, the commission discussed joining Mayor Taylor’s pledge to go 100% renewable by 2035. Commissioner Charles Hookham was wary.

Charles Hookham:  Cause I worked on the Climate Action Plan.  And it was a great plan.   But it didn’t have any meat to it. 

BL:  He says Ann Arbor’s Climate Action Plan created a lot of great stretch goals.

Hookham:  But we didn’t have a methodology to get there.  I’m an engineer.  I like to see the finish line and figure out a way to get there.  I don’t like to just throw goals over the fence and say “Hey, guess what?  We are 100% renewable by 2035!” and we just set the goal.

BL: Mark Clevey is vice-chair of the Energy Commission.  We chatted before the meeting about progress on the Climate Action Plan, which calls for going 20% solar.   He says he looked into what it would take to achieve the short and long-term goals of that pledge.

Mark Clevey: And when we ran the numbers we found out it was 24 megawatts in ten years.

BL:  How much is that?

Clevey: The array out on M-14 and US 23, that Detroit Edison put up, is roughly 1 megawatts.

BL:  One megawatt is about 4,000 plus panels.

Clevey:  So we need two and a half of those a year every year for the next ten years, and then another three to four of those a year every year for the next thirty.  That’s how much we’re talking about.

BL: He says progress towards that huge amount thus far has been minimal. 

Clevey: And how can this be? This is this is Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor!

BL:  City resident Mary Garton is similarly confused. 

Mary Garton: My husband and I are really frustrated that we are trying to get solar panels for the roof. And when we did the calculation we realized we realized that Ann Arbor is going to assess a tax on our solar panels that is incredibly steep and takes away all of the benefit of having solar panels at all. It's a completely nonsensical tax. And it seems like Ann Arbor, of all places, shouldn't be discouraging people and making it prohibitively expensive to put solar panels on the roof.

BL:  Checking on this, I’m told state law requires the city to tax solar.  City Administrator Howard Lazarus says we need a state program to allow us to exempt residential solar as a real property improvement.

BL:  Do you know when that might happen?

Howard Lazarus:  I don’t know.  I've spoken to or our representatives and to Senator Warren and I think we'll continue to work with them see when they can get up before the legislature.   I don’t have a time certain right now.

BL:  Jason Frenzel says current state politics are thwarting other goals set by Ann Arbor’s Climate Action Plan, as well.

Frenzel:  For the last handful of years, it's been excessively frustrating as an environmentalist to watch—and in some ways just as a humanist—to watch what's happening at the state level.

BL: For instance, single-use grocery bags waste fossil fuels.  So to encourage alternatives, in 2016 the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a county-wide fee on them.  But within months, the Michigan legislature had passed a law preventing localities from limiting single-use bags. 

Frenzel:  We're not allowed to charge a fee for using plastic bags. Where that comes from, where, you know, Home-Rule is the most important thing for a certain set of conservative values, but to not let progressive cities make those home rules? That seems distinctly hypocritical.

BL:  According to its Climate Action Plan, buildings make up 77% of Ann Arbor’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Many point to lax state building codes.  Dave Konkle is board chair of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association.  He says Ann Arbor tried to make its building code more energy efficient.

Dave Konkle: But there's a state law that was passed, I don't know a while ago, that says the local building codes can not be any different than state building codes. So despite the fact that Michigan claims to be a local rule kind of state, there are a number of laws out there that don't allow the local governments to locally rule!

BL: Mary Garton and her daughter Catharine aren’t familiar with the Ann Arbor Climate Action Plan.  But they feel sure the citizens, in theory, would support it.

Catharine Garton: And we have the potential to.  I mean we have a liberal enough base that if we had a plan of action I think that we could carry it out.

Mary Garton:  I think they would support it strongly.

BL:  But apparently, the vagaries of state politics present challenges.  So the Gartons advocate a national-scale approach:  a federally legislated fee on carbon.   They feel it will give the needed push to local initiatives.

C. Garton: One of the things that pricing carbon would do is send a clear market signal to shift us from using fossil fuel energy to using renewable energy.

BL:  Whether the money collected from fossil fuel companies is called a price on carbon, a fee or a tax, the Gartons favor having it be given back to the citizenry—in monthly, equal shares. They feel the resulting padding of household budgets, will allow efficiency upgrades and renewables to finally become realistic options. 

C. Garton: Right now it’s still really expensive to try to get the renewable energy that we want.  And that’s not how we want it to be.  We want everyone to be able to access renewable energy for all of their needs, because that's the way our future has to be.

BL: Although he questions it’s political chances, Dave Konkle says a federal price on carbon would level the playing field.  He says if local pledges caused energy to get expensive here, while it remained cheap elsewhere, businesses could flee.

Konkle:  We run into those issues, so if it could just be a national goal, where you don't feel like, you know, you just lost your competitive edge with Illinois or Wisconsin or whatever, it would be better. There's no doubt about it.

BL:  Mayor Taylor endorsed a federal carbon fee and dividend program two years ago.  Twice now, the Energy Commission has passed a resolution urging the city council to add Ann Arbor to the growing list.  Now over fifty cities endorse national carbon fee and dividend.  Here’s Mark Clevey, vice-chair. 

Mark Clevey: These things are there.  A carbon tax would make all this stuff rational—it’s not that we don't have the solutions. It's just that it's cheaper to continue doing the problems than it is to do the solutions.

BL:  The idea is, with a national price on carbon, the solutions will be cheaper—without relying on regulation, and with dividends going back to citizens. Clevey doesn’t have hope for its political viability on the federal level, currently.  But, in theory…

Clevey:  A carbon tax would be the least painful way to do this.  The least!

BL:  Not everyone on the Energy Commission is supportive of this national level climate solution. Here’s Energy Commissioner Charles Hookam.

Hookam:  Who manages the money, where does the money get audited from? I know this is aspirational, but I still have lots of those kinds of questions and would continue to have them, probably. 

Energy Commission Chair Wayne Appleyard:  I think it would all have to be done at the national level.

Hookam:  Which scares me to death.  

BL:  But the conversation is started.  The city council will consider endorsing a national carbon fee and dividend plan at their August or September meeting.

BL: In the “Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.  


City of Ann Arbor’s Climate Action Plan

2015 Ann Arbor Climate Action Plan Progress Report

Video of Energy Commission Meeting July 11, 2017

Sierra Club’s “Mayors for 100% Clean Energy” signed by Ann Arbor’s Mayor Taylor

Basics of Carbon Pricing—EcoWatch, May 21, 2017

Cities that have endorsed carbon fee and dividend


Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.