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As Climate Worsens, Can Oakland County Build Back Greener?

Congress Has Sent a Climate Lifeline. But, Will Oakland County Embrace It?

By Andrew Sarpolis | June 04, 2021

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Oakland County to ramp up its sustainability efforts is arriving in the form of unprecedented federal funding. The only question: “Will County Executive Dave Coulter and the Oakland County Commission seize the opportunity?”

A few weeks ago, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter mentioned two important objectives in his State of the County address. He highlighted the county’s unprecedented investment of $750,000 towards sustainability which created a chief sustainability officer and energy audit. Yesterday, County Commission Chair Dave Woodward penned an op-ed in the Oakland Press which dedicated a significant amount of space to talking about climate change. "As Oakland County Commissioners, we have a responsibility to put our communities on a pathway to a more sustainable future," he said.

These efforts are phenomenal and demonstrate we have good elected leadership that is addressing our environment situation with the seriousness it deserves. Thanks to the support of County Executive Dave Coulter, the County Commission, and others, Oakland County has come to the forefront as a leader.

However, the path ahead is long, and much greater levels of action will be needed to avoid catastrophic levels of warming. Executive Coulter talked about the $243 million from the American Rescue Plan that will be coming to Oakland County from the U.S. Treasury, but it is not yet clear how federal funding will connect, if at all, to the county’s sustainability plans.

While some of these funds must address the impacts of the coronavirus, if Oakland County is truly sincere about its declaration that we’re in a climate emergency, it seems only fitting the remaining funds should go toward our other looming crisis: climate change.

For the last three decades, one of the biggest challenges in unlocking the potential of the ‘green’ economy has been finding the initial funding to help put us on the path to a sustainable, prosperous future. A Morgan Stanley report estimates it will cost the world $50 trillion to fight climate change.

However, as a report in the journal Nature points out, we stand to suffer an economic impact from climate change of “at least $150 trillion to as much as $792 trillion by the end of the century.” However, public investment has lagged behind what is needed for decades. And now, we’re running out of time.

Now, there is a huge influx of cash entering our local communities. The American Rescue Plan has authorized over $1.9 trillion dollars in relief, with a significant chunk going to local governments. There is an infrastructure bill is in Congress with the potential to invest over $2.7 trillion in infrastructure. This influx of cash entering our local communities is an opportunity we can’t afford to squander. The simple return on investment from solving the problem is quite large, not to mention the environmental justice, health, and ecosystem benefits.

Oakland County is expected to receive $243 million in direct payment. For context, the county’s 2021 budget was planned to be about $908 million. While some of the funds must and should be used for dealing with the effects of the coronavirus, some of it can be spent on upgrading particular types of infrastructure that can improve the County’s sustainability. The proposed American Jobs Plan, likewise, includes funds for investments in everything from walkability to public transportation. Oakland County’s annual budget over the summer process provides another opportunity to appropriately fund climate investments.

Our county desperately needs water infrastructure upgrades, including resource-saving green infrastructure. We need deliciated bus lanes with timed signals to improve public transportation. There must be a robust investment in walkability and restoring our natural ecology. Our county needs to be more active in advocating for its sustainability interests at the state level, including in upcoming Public Service Commission cases. There are many things we could be doing, including funding the priorities in our 2021 Oakland County Climate, Jobs, and Justice Platform.

However, environmentalists have not yet heard much about the environment in federal budget negotiations at the county. In the meantime, communities across the country are experiencing what used to be once-in-a-lifetime severe weather episodes on an almost annual basis. Last year, wildfires turned the skies red over California, coastlines experienced the most active hurricane season in history, and closer to home, a “500-year-flood” event with seven inches of rapid rainfall collapsed Midland’s Edenville Dam, draining a 2,000 acre lake in an hour. What’s coming is worse, much worse. Our communities need to be ready for the unthinkable and a significant amount of funding now is needed. Hopefully, Oakland County will seize the opportunity to secure the future for us—and our grandchildren.

**The Oakland County Climate Campaign is a coalition which encourages views from a variety of sources for its blog. The thoughts reflected in these posts do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the particular member organizations of the Oakland County Climate, its affiliates, or other participating groups.**

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