Lawmakers, activists and community members call for climate action at forum

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Lawmakers, climate leaders, labor representatives and community members Wednesday evening called for legislation to combat climate change while creating more clean-energy jobs in Michigan. 

Nearing the end of a summer marked by severe flooding and large-scale power outages after storms pummeled the state, panelists at the Dearborn stop of the Climate Action Now: Great American Build Tour addressed the need to invest in a clean-energy economy to curb global warming and tie the effort to job creation. 

Panelists spoke in sessions at the Utility Workers Union Hall in a gathering designed to build  support for President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" plan, which supporters hope will expand Michigan's clean-energy industry. 

"We have had five once-in-a-lifetime storms in six weeks," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D- Dearborn, discussing the effects of "dirty air, dirty water and dirty ground" on the communities she represents in Michigan, including respiratory conditions like asthma, access to clean drinking water and power outages that affected over 850,000 residents this past week. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, join the forum Wednesday on addressing climate change and clean energy investments.

State Sens. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, spoke alongside state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, to highlight the climate legislation they and other Democrats are attempting to pass on state and federal levels. 

"We've got people who are still dealing with the ramifications of having sewage in their basement from flooding in late June and early July," said Chang. "And we know from the recent UN report that it is only going to continue to get worse."

Last week, Chang and her fellow lawmakers proposed what they called a $5 billion "Climate Resilience" infrastructure bill for Michigan that includes money for immediate flood relief, storm and wastewater infrastructure, upgrading drinking water infrastructure, shoreline protection and restoration, wetland mitigation and dam safety projects.

The measures face an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled House and Senate. GOP leaders still are negotiating major portions of next year's state budget with the Democratic administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

A representative for the Michigan Republican Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers' or Biden's plans. 

In May, House Republicans joined with some House Democrats to unveil legislation dedicating about $500 million in new funding toward dam repairs and emergency response, a year after the Edenville Dam failed amid historic rainfall and years of neglect. The bills also would create an emergency response fund and a fund that would provide state match dollars for federal money to rehabilitate or remove dams. 

Senate Republicans also have introduced the Protect MI Water plan to invest in stormwater infrastructure, improve dams and protect drinking water.

Alongside infrastructure projects, panelists Wednesday said investing in the state’s clean-energy economy could create thousands of jobs.

The investments touted at the federal and state levels also would help address at local levels climate disparities in communities of color, panelists said.

"Forty percent of the overall federal benefits from investments in the clean energy and climate change activities will go to disadvantaged communities, to low-income communities,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council of Environmental Quality about President Biden’s Justice40 Executive Order.

The Justice40 order tackling climate change at home and globally are recommendations for how federal investments can be made toward a goal that 40% of the overall benefits flow to disadvantaged communities, according to the White House.  

Michigan's clean-energy industry employs around 113,400 people. Patrick Dillon, the national executive vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America said  the "burgeoning industry" of clean energy could help spur more high-paying union jobs.

 "The reality that we're seeing as organized labor is many of these jobs are not what we would consider good yet," Dillon said.

Theo Spencer, a journeyman and member of IBEW Local 58, called for investments in education and worker training so " ... as much money as possible, as many resources as possible, is devoted to education, so that people can be empowered to change the destiny that they thought they had no choice in.”

Underscoring the urgency of addressing climate change and its impact on communities, Jasmin Maciel-Gutierrez, who lives in southwest Detroit, described her family's experience with flooding in late June.

She said about 7 feet of water flooded her their basement, ruining their belongings.

"It's 15 years of hard work, money, memories, just gone. It hit us really bad when we knew that our cars were completely gone,” Maciel-Gutierrez said. “We need to have our representatives, who we elected, be there for us. Fund into climate change, funds in infrastructure. We need to have funding in these communities because we are vulnerable.

"And a lot of change will be done if they (elected officials) just listen to us. It's one thing to look at statistics, but it's another thing to hear personal stories. We need to act now.”

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.