Expert panel reflects on sustained power and impact of Earth Day—as we celebrate Year 51

Apr 20, 2021

It was 51 years ago we celebrated the inaugural Earth Day. That was April 22, 1970. An estimated 20 million people participated back in 1970 and the observance has since become a global phenomenon. MSU Today is observing and celebrating Earth Day 2021 with a conversation with two highly regarded experts in environmental policy and environmental law.


James Clift is the deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. And before that, he served as policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. Saulius Mikalonis is a widely respected environmental attorney in the Bloomfield Hills office of Plunkett Cooney.

“The impact and insignificance of Earth Day is that it started the ball rolling,” Mikalonis tells host Kirk Heinze. “Shortly thereafter, the EPA was created, and the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were passed. There were environmental statutes that were in the books before that, but they were very mild and not very well enforced.

“Environmental issues were always things that people were concerned about, but it didn't become actionable until they had a critical mass of people to work on it and the legislation passed.”

“I like Earth Day in that it helps trigger people's memory,” adds Clift. “How long have we been at this? It’s been 50 years since the first one. It’s good for people to think about how much progress have we made over time or areas where maybe there's been a little bit of a lack of progress. But if you don't have an end date, a mark to kind of put in the sand, it's sometimes hard to conceptualize the time that is passing.”
 

L to R: Heinze, Mikalonis, Clift from 2018

“What are some of the key implications for the environment that you see in the early stages of the Biden administration?” asks Heinze.

“The infrastructure package is key, and I think it's really kind of interesting how it overlaps Earth Day in a way,” Clift says. “We really built today's water infrastructure in the '60s and the '70s through some of the grant programs that were developed at that time.

“Well, that infrastructure is now 50 years old and is in much need of help. And that old aging infrastructure is having public health impacts in communities across the state. It's really a great tribute to Earth Day in the country to say, ‘Okay, now it's time to, collectively, readdress this infrastructure question that we've been ignoring in large part and help get the economy rolling again in a way that's going to improve public health, especially in a lot of the cities across the nation.’"

The trio discusses the growth of renewable energy sources.

“It’s interesting,” says Mikalonis, “that private equity renewable energy investments in the United States in 2020 were $23.7 billion. This is private money; this is not federal money. This is not state money. These are private dollars going into renewable energy.

“It’s heartening to see industry realizing this is not only the right thing to do, but it's because it's profitable to do it, and that's probably the true sign of where we’re headed.

“The millennials and people following them, they're very in tune with this stuff. And those are our future employees and consumers. Companies want to make those people happy.”

“Switching from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles is going to be a significant transition for the auto industry and you have to plan for that,” Clift adds. “You have to be out ahead of that. What are those skills that are going to be needed in the future for auto workers? What's going to happen to the supply chain? How is that supply chain going to change? Where's that manufacturing going to happen? Who's going to make those batteries?

“If you're not thinking about all those things 15 years in advance, you're going to suffer some transition pains that could have been avoided if you planned it right. Think about it through that equity lens. Where is it going to impact certain communities within the state? Making sure that when we address something like climate, we're doing it in a way that's thinking about its impact on all of the residents of Michigan and making sure this is an inclusive process moving forward.”

Heinze, Clift, and Mikalonis talk about water, too, and the status of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

“The good is that Lake Michigan is 11 inches lower than it was last year,” says Clift. “We're just coming off of the five wettest years in our history, and it was clearly causing some challenges around the shores and with systems throughout the state. We were pretty happy with the mild winter and the drier spring up until now; it's making this much more manageable.

“But, long-term, we realize we've got to look at climate change and how it's impacting the lakes. Is our water infrastructure ready for more variability and larger storm events? Can we handle those storms? That's when we see a lot of the nutrient pollution runoff from farms. It is occurring during those larger storm events leading to the algae blooms that we're seeing in Lake Erie and in some of other bodies of water. From a getting-ready-for-resiliency standpoint, there are a lot of investments we need to make in that storm-water infrastructure system to make sure that we handle that variability in the future.”

“There are so many new contaminants, emerging contaminants, and contaminants people aren't even thinking about,” Mikalonis adds. “One example is the effect of all the people taking antidepressants because of being locked in their homes and the effect on the biology of the lakes. That stuff isn’t filtered when it goes through the treatment system. There's a lot of stuff that isn't filtered when it goes to the treatment system. You have a bunch of fish sucking down Xanax and who knows what else.

“And so that's another issue that's going to be coming up in the future. I don't know the answer or how to address it, but there's such a mix of chemicals and people just don't know how they interact and how they affect them and us.

“I would be shocked if we, in our blood system right now, don't have seven parts per trillion of PFAS in us, considering how ubiquitous this stuff is. It's in everything, and it has been around since the late '50s when 3M developed it. It's everywhere and I'm dealing with it with a number of clients on a regular basis. That is going to be a huge issue because it's not easily treatable. It moves through the water very quickly and I don't think we have a full grasp on what the negative effects of that stuff are.”

“What is plan B if Line 5 gets disrupted?” asks Clift. “Where would the energy come from? Where would the other petroleum products come from and how would it get to the various end users? The key is trying to make sure that these other systems that we might be required to rely on at some point are robust as possible to avoid any kind of disruption or any price spike that could occur, regardless of whether the disruption occurred due to a legal filing or if it was an unplanned disruption in the pipeline infrastructure.

“And something else here is really important. Let's address the underlying problem here, which is the addiction of fossil fuels that this country is on and try to reduce that need for fossil fuels and the climate impacts of those and make sure that we reduce our need for those sources long-term.”

How will the pandemic impact our sustainable future?

“There will be some temporary and short-term benefits due to fewer carbon emissions from so many people working from home,” says Mikalonis. “Long term, though, the trend of working from home is likely to continue.  And if you cut travel by half, what is that going to do to air emissions? If you're not driving 500 miles a week in your car, maybe the next car you buy will be an EV as opposed to something with a gas tank.

“I don't think we have any idea. I think maybe five years from now we'll be able to look back and say, ‘Oh, okay, this was because of this. This was because of this.’ I can't see the future. I do know that when things like this happen, there are permanent changes. And I think you only realize them when you look back in retrospect.”

“One of the things to think about is where science fits in to solving problems,” says Clift. “We have to make decisions based on best available information. And I think governors across the country have made some really tough choices based on the understanding at that time. The pandemic has highlighted our disinvestment in local public health in a significant way. And you build up that infrastructure to get you through times like this.

“The other part of the science that I think has been fascinating is we've been doing a fair amount of work in studying wastewater. By testing wastewater, we can we tell where the next COVID outbreak is going to be. And I think that's going to have a lot of applications in different areas over time where we can look at precursors to disease vectors happening and make sure that we're staying in front of them to the extent possible.

“Over time, we have built a deeper understanding and now we're dealing with environmental issues that are tougher, in a way. When you look at trying to address non-point pollution issues with the water, they tend to be a little harder to tackle.

“We're also looking at more dimensions of every single problem we're looking at. We're looking at what's the environmental justice impact? What's going to be the labor impact? What's going to be the just transition that's going to get us through this? I think that's a very positive thing. We're looking at problems much more holistically and hopefully that will lead to more holistic answers to them moving forward.

“And as Saulius mentioned, we’re seeing the private sector step up in this area. Many companies tend to think from quarter to quarter. But there are a lot of companies that have been around for a while that are thinking to themselves, ‘Hey, if we don't change our business practice, all of a sudden we're only going to be around for another decade or two and then we might be history.’ So they're joining in and trying to solve these problems. And I'm hoping that that will change the dynamic in a way that I think can provide people a little bit of hope that maybe we can address some of these very challenging problems that we have in front of us.”

“Probably the thing that I find most hopeful is the buy-in from corporate America,” says Mikalonis. “Everybody's heard the term greenwashing, right? Are you just saying this because that's what you think your customers and the people you want to work for want to hear? There's a generational change coming. The boomers are exiting, stage right. But the people who are coming up from behind are different. Obviously they're not all the same; there's no generation that moves in lockstep. But it is a different way of thinking for a lot of these people.

“And I think a lot of these companies, the ones that will last, realize that their future employees and their future customers have certain expectations that they had better meet. And if they don't, they may be the dinosaurs. They'll be exiting stage right with us boomers.”

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