Dem Rep. Gary Peters, who is running for Senate in Michigan, is calling on GOP foe Terri Lynn Land to take a stand on whether she believes human activity is responsible for global warming. It may seem far fetched, but climate change could actually be an issue in this one Senate race, because of two factors: The centrality of the Great Lakes to the Michigan economy; and the huge expenditures on behalf of Land by the political group founded by Charles and David Koch.
Land’s spokesperson, in a statement to me, would say only that she disagrees with Peters on the “extent” to which humans have caused climate change, while adding that there “should be a healthy and educated debate on the impact of human activity on our environment.”
In an interview with me on Friday, Peters said (this will strike some as implausible, and others as refreshing) that he intends to talk about climate change as a key issue in this race, with a focus on the Great Lakes and on the role of a Koch Industries affiliate in a major local story involving piles of petroleum coke along the Detroit River.
“Michigan is on the front lines of climate change with our Great Lakes and economic system. The Great Lakes are incredibly important for Michigan,” Peters said. He noted the possibility that climate change could cause “dropping lake levels,” which could have a “big economic impact,” due to harbors on the Great Lakes and the shipping that goes on there. As a result, Peters said, it’s incumbent on Land to take a stand on climate change and what she would do about it.
“This is something elected officials should be talking about — we have to be concerned about it,” Peters said. “Certainly the voters would like to know where she is. It’s a major issue. I think the science shows overwhelmingly that human activities have contributed a great deal towards climate change.”
Asked whether Land believe this, her spokesperson, Heather Swift, emailed me this:
“Terri believes that there should be a healthy and educated debate on the impact of human activity on our environment, but she does not agree with radical liberals like Tom Steyer and Congressman Peters on the extent of the effect of human behavior on our climate. While Terri continues to focus on jobs, the economy and protecting the Great Lakes, Congressman Peters has instead focused his energy on selling out Michigan workers and adopting the radical agenda of California billionaire Tom Steyer.”
That stops short of climate denialism, though it appears to dabble in skepticism about the extensive role scientists believe human activity has played in climate change.
The Michigan Senate race may be unique in the sense that there really is an opening for climate change to be an issue, for several reasons. First, there’s the extensive role that the Great Lakes play in the Michigan economy, and the scientific finding that their water level may be highly sensitive to climate changes.
Then there are the Koch brothers. The Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity has spent millions on ads attacking Peters on Land’s behalf. According to Forbes, Koch Industries has “contributed millions to organizations that have studied human-induced global warming with skepticism.” This has raised questions about whether the Kochs’ political activities are “blatantly self-interested,” Forbes noted, because Koch Industries is “a major carbon emitter, vulnerable to tighter emissions controls.”
Finally, there is a local angle. Environmentalists and Detroit politicians have been up in arms over large piles of “petcoke” that had built up along the Detroit River — material that is reportedly owned by Koch Carbon, a Koch Industries affiliate. Peters has raised questions about the proper storage of petcoke and the impact it could have on public health and the Great Lakes.
Peters — who supported cap and trade and voted against Keystone last year — is seizing on this confluence of factors to pressure Land to take a clearer stand on climate change and green energy.
“I can’t imagine the Koch brothers would be supporting her to the tune that they are unless she agrees with their agenda,” Peters told me. “A big part of their agenda is dismantling environmental regulations. Until she says otherwise, it’s same to assume she subscribes to it.”
Environmentalists will be thrilled to hear that Peters hopes to make climate a major issue in the race. “There’s a very clear contrast here,” Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, tells me. “It will be a victory if these issues become important in a top-tier Senate race.”
The larger context here is that environmentalists have long struggled to figure out how to make climate skepticism a political liability for GOP lawmakers — and beyond that, how to make climate change a voting issue that lawmakers must pay attention to. If Peters makes good on his vow to push this to the forefront, we could see this put to the test.