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Rick Snyder, the climate change governors' bashful partner

• Jun 22, 2017 at 5:00 PM

Think globally, act locally — and say as little about it as possible, lest the Flat Earth wing of your splintered party figures out what you’re up to and makes a kerfuffle you don’t need as you enter the final stretch of your gubernatorial tenure.

That sums up Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s cautious but clandestinely conscientious support for responsible energy policy in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to bail out of the fight against global warming.

Some of Snyder’s most prominent fellow governors have responded to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement by establishing something called the U.S. Climate Alliance. While the group has yet to issue a detailed manifesto, its members share a commitment to keep reducing their states’ greenhouse gas emissions at a pace that meets or exceeds the targets Trump has renounced.

The U.S. Climate Alliance's de facto leader is California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown’s state has been conducting its own energy policy for half a century, and since Trump’s election it has been acting something like a sovereign nation, at least in the realm of environmental affairs. Most recently it negotiated greenhouse gas-reducing agreements with Canada and Mexico, America’s erstwhile partners in the Paris climate agreement.

California also has its own cap-and-trade program, which limits the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the state’s companies can produce and allows them to buy and sell pollution tax credits. Sacramento has established a joint cap-and-trade market with the Canadian Province of Quebec, and Ontario will join the consortium later this year.

Brown is also determined to defend his state’s fuel economy standards, which are tougher than the federal standards the Trump White House wants to scale back. A dozen states have already adopted California’s more-stringent auto emissions rules, and they hope their collective market power will discourage the White House from pursuing the legal challenge some GOP policy-makers favor.

Seeking Michigan mojo

The nascent U.S. Climate Alliance included eight Democratic governors and two New England Republicans. Adding a Republican from a Midwestern industrial state like Michigan would be coup, and at first blush Snyder’s energy policy seems broadly consistent with the objectives articulated by the Climate Alliance governors.

Snyder was instrumental in brokering the passage of a bipartisan energy bill late last year that establishes respectable targets for Michigan’s use of renewable energy and gives the Department of Environmental Quality a formal role in setting state energy policy. More recently, the state’s biggest energy company recently announced plans to phase out coal-fired generating plants by 2050.

Both developments will presumably help the U.S. meet the emissions goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accords, whether or not the Trump administration regards the agreement as binding.

But the rationale Snyder used to sell his forward-looking energy bill is very different from the sales pitch Brown and his Democratic colleagues have made to promote the reduction of carbon pollution and increased use of renewable energy in their own states.

Snyder and the GOP legislative leaders who collaborated in the passage of December’s bipartisan energy bill marched under the banner of “clean energy,” an idea considerably more popular among their Republican constituents than “climate change” or “global warming.”

The legislation they midwifed may well end up reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but its key metrics focus on curbing particulate matter and mercury contamination, not carbon. You needn’t worship at the Al Gore Church of Inconvenient Truths to support a law that will make your air easier to breathe and your fish safer to eat.

Keeping his head down

So why would Snyder risk bipartisan support for reasonable energy policies by embracing the climate change argument favored by Brown & Co., which Snyder knows many Republicans view with skepticism or downright contempt?

You could argue that it has never been more important for responsible leaders in both parties to push back against the climate skeptics, or the myth that environmentally responsible energy policy is inconsistent with economic growth. (California, New York and Washington, whose governors co-founded the U.S. Climate Alliance, all boast higher per capita incomes than Michigan.)

December’s energy bill is in the statute books, and the term-limited Snyder is nearing the end of his eight-year lease on gubernatorial office. Why not ignore the troglodytes in his own party and cast his legacy with the global scientific consensus?

But that’s a little like asking why Trump doesn’t stop tweeting insults and invite Rosie O’Donnell over for dinner. Sometimes a man’s character takes certain options off the table.

Snyder has now navigated more than a year of Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party without a public confrontation. The governor’s spokeswoman, Anna Heaton, said (earlier this month) that Snyder hasn’t decided whether to join the Climate Alliance. But there’s little reason to believe he’ll risk a head-on collision with the White House now just to give Brown & Co. a symbolic victory.

It’s not that Snyder doesn’t believe in climate change, you understand. He just thinks a man’s religion should remain a private matter — even if political pragmatism is the only god he really worships.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press (TNS) at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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