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U.N. Climate Conference: Michigan’s role at the U.N.’s COP26 and in the U.S.’s climate future

U.N. Climate Conference: Michigan’s role at the U.N.’s COP26 and in the U.S.’s climate future
October 15, 2021 Natasha Blakely

Even when the topic is cars and climate change, in Michigan it still comes back to the Great Lakes.

“To me, really, the take home is always, always, always water,” said Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. She appeared at an event in Detroit that previewed COP26.

“It’s always our beautiful Great Lakes, and what that says to me here is first of all its protection, and that’s why we care about these things is because of how it protects our lakes,” Clark said.

For more than 20 years, the United Nations has brought together representatives from nearly  every country for global climate summits, called Conference of the Parties, or COPs. This year marks the 26th such conference, happening in Glasgow for 12 days starting Oct. 31. That’s where the moniker “COP26” comes from.

In the run-up to the main event, there have been a number of smaller events held around the world as politicians, stakeholders and citizens speculate about the potential impact of COP26.

One such event was held in Detroit on Wednesday, organized jointly by the British Consulate General Chicago and the Consulate of Italy. The event, “Road to COP26: Celebrating Michigan’s Climate Leadership,” is one of two Midwestern pre-COP26 events. The other will take place in Chicago in November.

Wednesday’s event was held in an otherwise-empty Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, with guests listening to a panel speak on transport innovation and Michigan business and government.

A panel talks at the pre-COP26 event “Road to COP26: Celebrating Michigan’s Climate Leadership” at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. (Photo Credit: Natasha Blakely)

British Consul General Alan Gogbashian moderated for EGLE Director Clark; Charles Griffith, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Ecology Center; Michael Maten, a senior strategist at General Motors; Fabrizio Mina, Commercial VP North America at Comau LLC; and Mike Ableson, CEO Automotive of Arrival.

“We’re at a turning point for our planet as we recover from COVID-19,” Gogbashian opened by saying. “It’s critical that we build back better, greener and more resilient. We’re pushing ourselves and our partners around the world and government, business and civil society to be as ambitious as possible. And that’s what we’re here to focus on today – ambition.”

When COP26 was postponed in 2020, the U.N. instead held the Climate Ambition Summit virtually. Among the many world leaders from various countries that spoke, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was also featured in the program.

Whether Michigan or any other states or provinces in the region will be represented at COP26 remains to be seen. When asked, Clark indicated she did not know at the time if that was the case.

“States like Michigan have shown what it means to take climate change seriously,” Whitmer said in her recorded message. “Michiganders are already unlocking the benefits of clean growth, by transforming and electrifying the U.S. auto industry, which has long called Michigan home.”

Those sentiments were reflected in Wednesday’s event as the majority of the discussion focused on electric vehicles, renewable energy, infrastructure and the strides to be made in the transportation sector.

Speakers also brought up the potential change in quality of life in urban centers with an increase in electric vehicles, including transit buses and other mass transportation.

When asked about what COP26 could mean for the region, Clark pointed out that it’s important to make it relatable.

“When we talk about it as leaders, we need to communicate about the benefits to average Michiganders which are, you know, it’s clean air, it’s public health, it’s jobs. It’s about things that really motivate people, and so I think we have to communicate that,” Clark told Great Lakes Now.

After the panel, attendees from both public and private entities were invited to make onstage declarations about internal efforts to help combat climate change.

Among the attendees that went up to speak were Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps; Jennifer Haverkamp, the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan; Joel Howrani Heeres, the director of sustainability for the city of Detroit; and representatives from several private companies.

Great Lakes Now asked Clark if she was worried that Michigan might end up forgotten at COP26 with how often a focus is put on the East and West Coast areas of the U.S.

“The way that I see it is you can’t do it anywhere in the states until you can do it in the Midwest,” Clark said.


Check out more on Great Lakes Now:

Biden appoints Debra Shore to lead EPA Midwestern office

HBO Audience: John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” features the impact of PFAS on Michigan residents


Featured image: Attendees at the pre-COP26 event “Road to COP26: Celebrating Michigan’s Climate Leadership” mingle at a reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. (Photo Credit: Natasha Blakely)

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