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Ben Jealous
Ben Jealous
Published: 11 December 2023

(TriceEdneyWire.com) - If you live in Detroit or another part of Michigan where there’s a looming threat of bodily harm from fossil fuel pollution, it just got a little easier to breathe a sigh of relief … and to maintain your ability to breathe in general.

The historic Clean Energy Future Package and Clean Energy and Jobs Act, just recently signed into law by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, will greatly accelerate the state’s transition to the exclusive use of clean power sources like wind and solar.

That’s a victory for Michiganders and for the country’s goals of slashing the pollution that fuels climate change and harms our health. It’s also a major win for environmental justice, hard-hit communities in a state, and workers.

Michigan’s codified commitment to fighting the pollution driving climate change is inherently good news for the communities of color that bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of the crisis, and the benefits go even further. New incentives in the bills to make buildings energy efficient will have an outsized positive impact for these communities, where a higher number of the homes are old, drafty, and not energy efficient.

Finally, air pollution from many of the power and industrial plants, which are also disproportionately located in these communities, will be reduced by the state’s mandates for clean energy. This is huge for all Michiganders, and especially for those communities where public health is suffering from pollution.

The Detroit tri-cities area – encompassing Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse – and other parts of Michigan experiencing the worst air pollution are predominantly Black or Black and Latino. The Harvard Medical School Primary Care Review has pointed out that within the two zip codes that make up Southwest Detroit alone, “there are more than 150 facilities that emit toxic fumes, gasses, chemicals, and particulate matter.”

Black residents make up 80 percent of one of those zip codes, 48217, a statistic noted at an October gathering of activists, near the Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s refinery in Southwest Detroit, by Ember McCoy, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, in discussing the disproportionate impact of air pollution on the city’s residents.

According to 2019 figures from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, adult residents of Detroit were 46% more likely to have asthma than the statewide average. And within Detroit, Black residents were hospitalized for asthma three times as often as white residents. And that’s just asthma.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says this type of pollution is also known to increase rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological and immune disorders, and other health concerns. And, as McCoy also noted at that Detroit panel discussion, “certain pollutants, when combined, as they are in the air, are worse together than they are alone individually … but we still measure them and regulate them as if they’re acting separately.”

So, yes, a lot still needs to be done. Especially in terms of how these chemical and particulate pollutants are regulated at the federal level. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the positive action that states like Michigan are taking right now and the example it sets for other states.

There’s a lot to be hopeful about in the clean energy bills’ impact on public health. The bills also set a powerful example for how to help ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels with strong protections for labor. Part of the clean energy package is the creation of the Community and Worker Economic Transition Office.

The office will develop a plan and coordinate efforts to address the impact on workers in the shift from fossil fuels to renewables, helping to ensure that no worker is left behind. By delivering historic federal action in the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration has already given states a powerful way to capitalize on massive federal investments in their economies and a green future for us all.

That’s exactly what Michigan is doing, and doing it right. In addition to the billions that Michigan has already secured in federal investment dollars, a recent report by the Michigan-based 5 Lakes Energy shows that passing the 100% clean energy legislation could mean over 160,000 additional quality jobs over the next decade and $7.8 billion more in investments by 2050, which is more than twice what Michigan would expect to receive without enacting these policies.

Thanks to the IRA, states now have an unprecedented opportunity to address the harm done by climate change while also jumpstarting economic development, creating jobs, moving towards energy independence, improving the health and lives of their residents, and leading on environmental justice.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.”

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