On a visit to campus last Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris joined Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Kyle Whyte, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, to discuss climate change and the role young people can play in solving the climate crisis.
Rather than focus on young people’s role in organizing and activism as a means to solve the climate crisis, however, the event had a broader focus on infrastructure. “Just about anything that the students here are studying will relate to and lift up this new movement and this new economy,” Harris said.
The decision to host an event in Ann Arbor was politically savvy given the city’s blue slant within a reliably purple state. But Harris’s decision to speak specifically on climate infrastructure investments reflects a growing realization that climate change may be an opportunity for economic growth in Michigan. With its temperate climate, manufacturing roots and availability of jobs, Michigan has the potential to emerge as a national leader amid the climate crisis.
Already, American workers are beginning to move as a result of climate change. Thirty percent of Americans say climate change is a motivator to move, and many climate-vulnerable states such as California are beginning to see their populations decline. Though some southern states have been growing in population recently, this isn’t predicted to last. “Cities like Detroit … will see a renaissance, with their excess capacity in infrastructure, water supplies and highways once again put to good use,” predicted one New York Times article. A separate study corroborated that claim, predicting that the Great Lakes region’s low exposure to natural disasters, as well as low social vulnerability, will lead to population growth as climate change persists.
As more Americans move north, Michigan has an opportunity to attract displaced, highly skilled workers and convince them to settle in the Great Lakes State. Tourism efforts have already been successful in stimulating economic activity in Michigan, but to convince visitors to make a permanent move, new jobs need to be created.
Those jobs can be created by new green industries. Ahead of her conversation with Harris, Granholm, a former Michigan governor, focused largely on the role technology and infrastructure investments passed by Democrats last year will play in strengthening green-energy solutions in Michigan.
Thanks to its climate-progressive state government, Michigan has already risen to dominate green-energy industries. One of the most prominent was a $7 billion investment in electric vehicle manufacturing in Michigan, expected to create 4,000 new jobs. Other investments have been made to strengthen electric vehicle battery manufacturing and renewable energy production. As demand for these green technologies continues to increase, these investments will become more and more valuable for the state.
Harris was quick to point out that it isn’t just manufacturing jobs that these investments are creating. “We are building a clean energy economy,” Harris said, “It’s new. It’s new jobs … We’re going to need HR specialists because these are new industries. We’re going to need comms folks who know how to communicate the importance of this work.”
Climate change is also bringing renewed focus toward improving infrastructure in the U.S. Better transportation infrastructure results in more efficient travel, ultimately leading to a decrease in emissions. As pressure builds for more environmentally-friendly infrastructure improvements, federal and state governments will be under more pressure to make investments.
Michigan’s transportation infrastructure currently ranks in the bottom half of the nation, and destructive natural disasters will compound the need for improvements. Though the state’s poor roads and bridges may seem to be a hindrance to fighting the climate crisis, they may actually be an opportunity. Already, investments are being made across the state. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to “rebuild Michigan” is bringing a $3.5 billion investment that will put 90% of the state’s roads back to “good or fair” condition by 2024. A more significant federal plan is bringing $7.3 billion in road improvements, as well as $535 million in bridge investments.
These investments aren’t just significant in the amount of money they are injecting into Michigan’s economy. Many of these investments are being made with climate change in mind. In addition to improving roads, the federal plan outlined above includes a $66 billion investment in public transportation, as well as $7.5 billion to set up a network of electric vehicle charging stations across the state.
Harris identified a simple example where infrastructure investments could make an impact on the climate front: electric school buses. “Twenty-five million children a day in America go to school on these diesel-fueled buses, and they are inhaling toxic fumes,” Harris said.
Michigan’s infrastructure needs improvements, but that also presents a major opportunity for these improvements to be made in a way that emphasizes climate change, all while producing more jobs and bolstering the state’s economy.
Climate change will have disastrous effects across the country. Though Michigan will face its own challenges in dealing with the climate crisis, it’s uniquely situated to benefit from it as well. Michigan’s geographic location means it’ll be spared the worst of the effects of climate change, likely resulting in an influx of workers from more vulnerable states. Government programs designed to jumpstart the green energy economy are also bringing white- and blue-collar jobs alike back to the state, invigorating the local economy. Finally, infrastructure investments implemented with climate resilience in mind will not only help Michigan endure the worst of climate change, but will lower emissions and make green solutions more affordable. Climate change will be a challenge, but if those challenges are met, we can, in the words of the vice president, “seize this opportunity.”
Jack Kapcar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.