Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and during the campaign said he would withdraw the U.S from the Paris climate agreement, dismantle the EPA, and revive the coal industry. On the day after the election, when the stock price of Peabody Coal, the world’s largest coal company, shot up nearly 50%, these statements suddenly felt very real.
When he takes office in January, Trump will be the only leader of a nation in the world who denies the science of climate change, according to a recent Sierra Club report that documents 195 world leaders calling for action to stem the warming of the planet.
As I reflect on the potential of rolling back decades of carbon reduction progress, I wonder what’s going through the mind of Bill McKibben, the writer and activist respected by millions of people around the world, myself included, as the leader of the climate action movement. He came to Traverse City eight years ago for a speech at a packed Lars Hockstad Auditorium. The next day I invited him to speak at a media event for our campaign opposing 13 new coal plants that were proposed in Michigan. In both statements, McKibben spoke with urgency and conviction and offered a restrained sense of hope that we can avert a true global crisis.
We’ve come a long way in those eight years. None of those coal plants have been built — the cost was just too high, people rose up against the toxic emissions, and the EPA issued new carbon restrictions. Coal is on the decline across the country, as renewable energy surges and prices for oil and natural gas drop. Here’s a powerful statistic that highlights the magnitude of this shift: Today, more people in the U.S are employed in the solar industry than in the coal industry.
More and more companies are choosing clean power as well, not because they are forced to but because it makes economic sense and reflects a growing movement toward corporate sustainability. General Motors, for example, has committed to generating 100% of its power for all of its 350 facilities worldwide from renewable sources by 2050. Apple already relies on 93% renewable energy for its operations and IKEA recently committed to 100% renewable energy by 2020.
It’s a trend that has states scrambling to increase their clean energy capacity to stay competitive. Last year, the Las Vegas–based Switch Communications Group announced they wanted to establish a $5 billion new data center with 1,000 jobs in a location where they could run on 100% renewable energy. Fortunately, Michigan was able to meet that demand and the company chose to set up shop in Gaines Township, near Grand Rapids. Interestingly, Grand Rapids helped to cultivate a local clean energy ethic a few years earlier when it committed to sourcing 100% of the city’s power from renewable sources by 2020.
This move toward clean energy is happening here in northwest Michigan too. In October George Heartwell, the former mayor of Grand Rapids, came to Traverse City to meet with local business leaders, city officials, and members of the public to explore setting a similar 100% goal. High profile businesses like Chateau Chantal and Short’s Brewing Company have installed solar arrays and more companies are following suit.
Cherryland Electric Cooperative, once an advocate for new coal plants, has made a sharp move toward renewable energy. In 2013 it launched the first community solar project in Michigan and later purchased 153 megawatts of wind power from Michigan’s thumb region which means next year renewable power will make up 30% of its portfolio.
Despite this progress, 2016 is still on course to be the hottest year on record. Farmers across Michigan are worried about the increased chance of losing their crops to extreme weather and ski resorts are hoping for enough of a winter to keep the slopes open.
President-elect Trump announced recently that he will have an “open mind” about the Paris climate agreement, which is certainly good news. Bill McKibben isn’t so optimistic. In an op-ed in the Washington Post he expressed “fear” for what lies ahead and 350.org, the group McKibben founded, said it is “doubling down” on climate battles across the country.
Me? I am going to focus my energy right here Traverse City and do whatever I can to advance climate solutions that are good for people, the economy, and the environment.
A version of this appeared in the Traverse City Business News.