Column: Meijer and Upton did the right thing. Now they must do it again.
In the last days of June, Congress quietly took perhaps its most consequential climate vote in history. A bipartisan majority voted to reverse a Trump-era rule weakening methane emissions and put back in place the more stringent guidelines established under former President Obama.
Only 12 House Republicans voted for the measure. U.S. Reps. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) were among them. For this, they deserve our thanks and praise.
Now they need to do much, much more.
Don’t get us wrong — the methane vote was an important step. It’s estimated that at least 25% of the warming being experienced around the world is driven by methane released through human activity. Each year, fossil fuel pollution like methane is blamed for more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States. It is linked to low-birth weight and premature births in pregnant women, and higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments in young kids. Curtailing it is a major step toward a healthier, safer, more just future. Yet it is not nearly enough to address the threats to Michiganders’ health and livelihoods posed by pollution and climate change.
Michigan is no stranger to the worsening impacts of our changing climate. Farmers are seeing their planting and harvesting seasons disrupted by more torrential rains, a trend experts believe will accelerate in the state in the coming decades. The catastrophic flooding Detroiters lived through last month and the summer prior could become an annual feature of summer as reliable as Tigers baseball and blueberry pie. The Midland dam failures last year had many causes, including negligence and deferred maintenance, yet the strain put on it by six years worth of heavy rainfall since 2017 surely contributed.
The main culprit of this chaos is greenhouse gas emissions released through the harvesting and burning of fossil fuels. When this carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are released from oil, gas, and coal infrastructure, they enter our air alongside countless other harmful chemicals and byproducts. This potent cocktail of benzene, volatile organic compounds, and soot wreak their own havoc on Michiganders’ bodies. Consistently, the populations most at risk from exposure to fossil fuel-related air pollution are the most vulnerable: young kids, pregnant women, the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, and Black and Brown communities.
According to the 2020 US News and World Report Best States report, Michigan ranks 34th and 35th for “pollution” and “air & water quality,” respectively. Which means our kids and other vulnerable neighbors are more endangered by pollution than the majority of the rest of America.
This is a moral outrage. As Christians, we are called to comfort the sick, release the captive, and preach the good news of God’s nearness to all creation. That requires us, together with our communities, to call our civic leaders to action when our communities are being harmed. The policies of our state and our nation are sickening our neighbors, tarnishing the beautiful places we call home, and are risking the health of the people we love. Jesus came to give abundant life. Our fossil fuel economy does the opposite.
There is, of course, no cure-all to the myriad threats posed to Michiganders by pollution and a changing climate. Yet there are solutions to many of the worst of them at the ready and, critically, we are in a moment in which we might be able to enact them. As the House returns early from its August recess to take up the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the Senate last month, Meijer and Upton must advocate for a final bill that defends the health and prosperity of their constituents with popular, commonsense climate and clean energy provisions.
For the sake of our children’s health and the health of our other vulnerable neighbors, a final bill must make bold investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and charging station networks. An American Lung Association report finds that a nationwide transition to electric vehicles by 2050 would reduce soot pollution by 62% and greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, saving 6,300 lives in the process. What’s more, Michigan automakers know how to make EVS, and jumpstarting American EV manufacturing will create good, family-sustaining jobs right here in Michigan.
Most observers agree that China is winning the clean energy race, and that the global 21st century economy will belong to the country that owns the best clean energy technology. Congress can counter China’s ascendence with its own bold investments in clean energy research, development, and deployment. Our own utilities are leading the way. Consumers Energy announced in June that it plans to purge coal from its portfolio by 2025, becoming one of the first in the country to do so. But government investment is needed to make this kind of transition the norm rather than the exception.
Meijer and Upton did the right thing when they voted to rein in methane. In doing so, they displayed the kind of independence and willingness to buck their party in the name of principle that earns them respect in their purple districts. Now they must keep doing the right thing by advocating for a final infrastructure bill that safeguards God’s creation, defends vulnerable Michiganders, generates the clean energy jobs of the future, and keeps America competitive in the 21st century economy.
Like with their methane votes, justice will demand much more from them in order to meet the challenge of climate change at the speed and scale that’s required. But it will be another welcome step in the right direction.
This column was co-written with Rev. Kate Kooyman, who lives in Grand Rapids with her husband and kids; Dr. Debra Rienstra, a professor of English at Calvin University who writes frequently about Michigan’s beauties, the climate crisis and spirituality; and Laura Veenema, who lives in Grand Rapids, juggling her roles as wife, mom to four small kids, reading specialist, modern quilter and juvenile diabetes manager.
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Annie Mas Smith