Epilogue from the Climate Leadership Conference: We Cannot Stop Asking The Tough Questions
HARD HATS ON AND YELLOW-VESTS VELCROED, we traipse along the crushed gravel driveway, past rows of sleek, photovoltaic panels. Stiff, beige stalks of dead fescues, native grasses, and invasive species poke up from the ground at jagged, competing angles. A bitter wind chills the crowd in the damp March air.
We’re touring the O’Shea Solar Park on the west side of Detroit. A modest array, it delivers enough power to supply 450 homes. When the 10-acre park, walled off from the playground and park of the same name, opened in 2019, Mayor Mike Duggan touted it as a great example of the generosity of our local public utility.
The tour is taking place at the tail end of the Climate Leadership Conference in Detroit, which I covered. It is perhaps a rare PR opportunity for the public utility, whose Integrated Resource Plan was recently thrown out by a judge because it was just that bad. From Utility Dive:
The [judge] is one of many critics in the IRP process of the utility’s plan, which witnesses say uses incorrect, higher prices for renewable energy, underselling clean energy resource opportunities to keep coal units active for longer.
But Anthony Morabito, PE, Senior Strategist for Renewable Energy – Solar Operations, was all too keen to talk up the virtues of the project, which features two beehives. Bees in the D‘s Brian Roest-Peterson and Melissa Price accompanied. The site was planted with pollinator-friendly species, the ecologist told us, but was all mowed at some point last year. We’re not sure why it was mowed– something about service accessibility. (I can tell you with certainty that they aren’t doing any prescribed burns on this land). There are also several feet of buffer between the crushed gravel driveways and the tall chain link fences– so it’s unclear why these would need to be mowed as well.
Senior Communications Strategist Eric Younan, with whom I had previously corresponded about the
development of a massive parking lot built at taxpayer expense complete with a land swap that transferred millions in public money to a billionaire speculator Conner’s Creek Power Plant demolition and accompanying economic development project, also accompanied, as did staff biologist Kristen LeForce.
In the words of a colleague at the conference, who is working with them on a program and can’t seem to get the right sort of support, let alone straightforward communication: “Hey, uh… what’s up with these guys?”
…one wonders why DTE feels the need to talk up the virtues of solar while on the other hand it spends a great deal of effort lobbying against it.
To be clear, the O’Shea Solar Park is not a bad thing. It’s a fine thing. Photovoltaics are good! They reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. I would also love to see a lot more pollinator-friendly native species and wildflowers. I have a bunch in my back yard. And one day, the tradescantia ohiensis and the andropogon gerardii and the schizachyrium scoparium may be joined by some, uh, photovoltaica sinensis. But one wonders why DTE feels the need to talk up the virtues of solar while on the other hand it spends a great deal of effort lobbying against it.
My role as a journalist is to ask questions like this, no matter how much it drives the corporate media relations officers of the world nuts. As a planner, it is my job to understand how to build better systems for human mobility, energy, and economy. How else are we going to solve this thing if not by demanding accountability?
HOW TO MOVE BEYOND GESTURALISM?
The recurring theme at CLC was for corporations to get up on a panel, talk about the great things they are doing, and fail to ask– or answer- questions about systemic change. This “lather, rinse, repeat” is common in CSR. Corporations pat themselves on the back on the “planet” and “profit” portions of the triple bottom line, while in the meanwhiles, wealth disparity becomes ever wider and corporate profits and poverty both grow at alarming rates.
No one wants to talk about this.
In DTE’s case, the utility’s billion-plus dollars per year in profits, on which it pays no federal taxes, are equivalent to– napkin math here- an installed solar capacity of 1,300 megawatts (N.B.: slightly more than 1.21 jiggawatts). This is the equivalent of building 650 O’Shea Parks per year— or powering more than a third of the city of Detroit with solar power.
Instead, 64.19% of the utility’s power continues to come from coal. Beautiful, clean coal, as Donald Trump might say. Remember that piece on the Red-Blooded, Gas-Fired Future of Clean Energy? Even facing a global climate crisis, DTE is still gung-ho on fossil fuels, even when it is, uh, perhaps at odds with legality. Critics have also focused on how little the company invests in energy efficiency that might well reduce a staggering number of shutoffs that disproportionately affect low-income ratepayers.
This conflicted attitude was most salient when I attended the IRP meeting at WCCCD. A burly DTE engineer from Port Huron ranted to me about how climate change is a liberal fantasy, so we need natural gas. But given that someone decided that the company needed a biologist, it’s also highlighting the issue that the RMI’s Carla Frisch raised in our interview— that there is a tectonic shift underway in the corporate world toward one that involves young people caring about things that are actually important.
Like, you know, saving the planet from certain doom.
In one conversation, one DTE employee remarked at the number of young employees who lived downtown and walked to work in the headquarters. That’s great news. But we need follow-through from the top down. The climate is changing faster than these companies are relieving the ancién regime of orthodox management in favor of younger, more progressive leadership.
THE ROLE OF LEADERSHIP
That leadership is going to have to ask– and answer- the tough questions that the most powerful stakeholders thus far have declined to answer. These include questions about equity, social impact, wealth disparity, and, indeed, the very ethos of consumption and growth.
The ‘triple bottom line’ isn’t even a double bottom line if it’s just billionaires living in LEED Platinum homes while The Poors [sic] suffer and have to burn trash for heat. Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, points out that the biggest structural driver of climate change is the free-for-all scramble toward growth against all odds and ever-growing consumption.
We’re always asking, ‘how is this transferrable and scalable?’ How can we use our wealth to break down barriers, or maybe change policy for the entire state for everyone’s benefit?
But especially in the CSR realm, very few people want to talk about systemic solutions, let alone ones that want to challenge fundamental assumptions about western capitalism. Those who do usually want to talk about it in terms of marginal adjustments to the rudders of finance. Or, at the polar opposite end, want to throw their bodies upon the gears of the machine. AOC and them are somewhere in the middle, emphasizing both policy-driven and market-driven approaches, but nonetheless radical transformation. I can empathize with both sides here. Carbon pricing can and will be a partial solution to the climate crisis. Market transformation can happen with good policy. And activism can only go so far.
I’ll give credit where credit is due. I gave credit to GM and Ford for their efforts in talking about ways we can build a better power grid while working toward decarbonizing transportation. I’ll give DTE credit for making an effort. But I’d love to see them do so much better. Put a wee bit of those billion dollars in profits to good use building the post-carbon cities of to-morrow. (Heck, I’d love to work with them to do it– though I’ve given up on that after about seventeen job applications).
WHAT WE CAN ALL DO
The first step we can take is the step of doing what I try to do every day a a journalist, and that’s using information to hold people accountable. And practically? Hold our public utilities accountable. Buy renewable energy if you can afford it. Get involved. Let policymakers know that you want them to do more about climate change. Let them know you want better transit infrastructure investment.
Referring back to Day 1’s adaptation panel, Missy Stults, referring to Ann Arbor’s push toward equitable sustainability, said that it is “fairly easy for [wealthy communities] to do this stuff on our own island, but [it is not] the way we are doing our work. We’re always asking, ‘how is this transferrable and scalable?’ How can we use our wealth to break down barriers, or maybe change policy for the entire state for everyone’s benefit?”
If you’re wealthy or have substantial influence, ask these questions.
If you’re not, ask the tough questions of how we can get there.
If it wasn’t readily apparent, I’m thoroughly ambivalent about this idea that “capitalism can actually save us from the mess that capitalism got us into,” evidenced by my Marxist commentaries while I pursue an MBA and vigilantly follow financial markets.
Hey, what can I say? Discourse is complicated. So is the climate. Let’s work toward better discourse– and toward better solutions.
And let’s never stop asking the tough questions.
(This article is the last in a series on the Climate Leadership Conference, which took place in Detroit March 4-6, 2020. Read the introduction, my interview with Carla Frisch from the Rocky Mountain Institute, and my piece on decarbonizing transportation).