Michigan Senate candidate Gary Peters wants voters — and elected officials — to know one thing: you can’t talk about climate change without talking about jobs.
“I think from an economic development standpoint it actually presents some great opportunities for us in Michigan with job creation, and moving toward sustainable energy and renewable energy,” Peters said. “So when I talk about climate change in Michigan, it’s intertwined with my economic message and my job creation message.”
Peters, a Democrat who currently serves as the U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 14th district, has made climate change a central part of his campaign, speaking openly about it in news articles and during a speech this summer to the progressive conference Netroots Nation. Peters said that while the people he’s talked to in Michigan are interested in climate change, the most pressing issue on their minds tends to be jobs.
So, Peters links the two issues. Michigan has long been known for its manufacturing, he notes, making the state an ideal candidate for a renewable energy manufacturing hub. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, almost 21,000 jobs in renewable energy manufacturing could be supported in Michigan by 2020.
“My way of dealing with it is from an economic standpoint,” Peters said. “This is great for our economy, and by the way, this is also great for the environment.”
Peters Vs. Land
In May, Peters, who has an 89 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and who voted in 2009 for a bill that proposed a cap-and-trade system, called on his GOP opponent Terri Lynn Land to address whether or not she believes man-made climate change is real. Land, who previously served as Michigan’s Secretary of State, responded via Twitter, saying that she believes climate change is “absolutely real” but that Michigan can’t afford “job-killing regulations” — singling out the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule designed to curb power plant emissions.
Land’s spokesperson told the Washington Post that she thinks there “should be a healthy and educated debate on the impact of human activity on our environment,” but the candidate hasn’t been vocal on the issue since her tweets, and so far hasn’t accepted debates with Peters — forums where she could be given a chance to expand on her views on climate change.
Peters says he classifies Land as a climate denier. Americans for Prosperity, the political action group that was funded by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, has run ads against Peters during the campaign, TV spots that have led to attacks on Land for her connection to the brothers. Koch connections are particularly pertinent in Michigan, with Detroit serving as a holding ground for huge piles of petroleum coke, a byproduct of tar sands production, owned by Koch Minerals LLC.
Heather Swift, spokesperson for Land’s campaign, told ThinkProgress in an email that regardless of what Peters thinks, Land isn’t a climate denier.
“Terri Lynn Land believes there is no denying that the climate is changing and we must take measures to protect the environment,” she said. “In fact, utility companies in Michigan are already making strides to cut their emissions without government intervention. Right now Terri’s top priority is Michigan jobs. We are struggling in the Peters-Obama economy and putting people back to work has to be priority number on.”
Swift also pointed to Peters’ investments in French energy firm Total SA, which owns a refinery that produces petcoke in Port Arthur, Texas. The Land campaign has highlighted these investments in the past, saying that they shows Peters’ hypocrisy on the issue. Peters’ campaign said in August that the investments total about $19,000 and make up less than 1 percent of his total investments.
“This is a desperate political attack by the Land campaign to try and distort Gary’s record of taking on the Koch brothers,” the campaign said.
Peters supports the EPA’s new proposed rule on emissions from power plants, but has said he has some concerns that the rule “imposes a more stringent standard on Michigan than surrounding Midwestern states.” But, as Politico notes, Peters’ stated concerns about the new rule haven’t kept some environmental groups from supporting him. The League of Conservation Voters released an ad in August that singled out Land’s Koch connections, warning voters that Koch front groups were “trying to buy a Senate seat for Terri Lynn Land, who opposes efforts to clamp down on industrial carbon pollution.”
But though he’s hesitant to fully get behind the EPA rules as written, Peters is clear with regard to his position on climate change.
“Even if you don’t believe that we are significant contributors to climate change, please believe in the fact that sustainable and renewable energy is actually good for our economy and it creates energy independence,” he said. “Keep the dollars in America and keep the jobs in America, and if we focus on that there are great economic benefits and opportunities.”
An Environment-Based Economy
Michigan’s economy depends in part on the health of the Great Lakes. A 2011 report found that about 23 percent of Michigan’s payroll is related to Great Lakes jobs, and that these jobs make up 15 percent of the total jobs in Michigan. But the lakes are faced with a variety of environmental threats, including pollution, algal blooms and invasive species like the Asian carp. Peters said the health of the Great Lakes was an environmental issue he wanted to focus on if he is elected Senator, particularly cleaning up toxic sites near the lakes.
He’s also concerned about the 60-year-old tar sands pipeline under the Straights of Mackinac, a waterway connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. A study by the University of Michigan in July modeled different scenarios for what happened if the pipeline ruptured, finding that, no matter how the pipeline broke, an “immense amount of area” could be impacted by the spilled oil. In July, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant ordered Enbridge, which owns the pipeline, to reinforce it so that the pipeline can meet requirements for support anchors.
Peters said he was concerned about the pipeline issue and was watching it closely. He said he’s learned from the huge 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that pipeline safety isn’t something to be taken lightly.
“Everybody in Michigan, all Michiganders, understand that the Great Lakes are our greatest natural resource,” he said.
Concentrating on the Great Lakes is a good tactic for Peters, Democratic strategist Jill Alper told Politico, because in Michigan, Great Lakes health is a bipartisan issue.
“I think in a lot of states, this would be good politics and a good leadership issue,” she said.
Labor Gets On Board
Peters’ stated commitment to climate change and Michigan jobs has won him the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a public services employees union. Earlier this month, AFSCME teamed up with the League of Conservation Voters in supporting Peters for Senate, a partnership that will spend $2.1 million on mailers aimed at getting residents who voted in the 2012 election but not in the 2010 midterms out to the polls.
Jeff Gohringer, National Press Secretary for the LCV, said the group chose to target the Michigan Senate race because of how much Land and Peters differ in their environmental views.
“There’s just a clear contrast in this race between Gary Peters and Terri Lynn Land, and there’s a whole lot at stake in November with preserving the pro-environmental firewall in the Senate,” he said. “We’re very excited and proud to join with AFSCME to let Michigan voters know that Peters is the candidate that’s for protecting public health and creating jobs.”
Seth Johnson, assistant director of the political department at AFSCME, told ThinkProgress that the union decided to back Peters partly because the union is happy with the support Peters has given the labor movement during his time in Congress, and partly because they’re wary of Land’s Koch connections.
“We took this particular race on because I think Terry Lynn Land represents sort of the other side of the coin,” he said. “There are people like Gary Peters who are in public service because they want government to work … and then there are people like Terri Lynn Land that are really carrying the water of the Koch brothers.”
Johnson said the partnership with LCV made sense in part because many of the union’s members care about the environment and climate change. He said that, as a labor union, AFSCME is part of the broader “progressive coalition” that’s fighting against the “corporate agenda” and Peters’ message about creating clean energy jobs as a way of dealing with climate change fits in with the organization’s worker-focused ideals.
“Our members, like everyone, have been struggling with the tough economy, and we think innovative ways to get the economy moving again and create jobs is preferable to policies that are just going to make it easier for corporations to pay less in taxes and continue to pollute the environment,” Johnson said.
Peters has also been endorsed by United Auto Workers, whose Region 1D Director Gerald Kariem said in June that the Congressman is “someone who has aligned his values and principles with working families.”
An August poll, completed by EPIC-MRA, showed Peters leading Land 45 percent to 39 percent. He’s taking a “gamble,” as Politico put it, by being vocal on climate change during the campaign, but he’s hoping that risk will pay off.
“I’m a strong believer that there is no trade-off. People say you can be good for the economy and good for the environment but not both,” he said. “I categorically reject that notion. To me you can do what’s right for the environment and what’s right for the economy at the same time and truly create a win-win.”