In recent weeks, there has been a surge in student activism surrounding the University of Michigan’s policies and commitments on climate action and carbon neutrality. In October, University President Mark Schlissel announced the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, with a directive to create a plan for the University to go carbon neutral. However, the move has been met with frustration from students on campus who feel the commission lacks the strength, transparency and experience to enact effective change. These frustrations culminated in a seven-hour sit-in at the Fleming Administration Building following the March 15 Global Strike for Climate, after which, at the sit-in, 10 students were arrested for trespassing. Student organizations on campus, such as Climate Action Movement, Students for Clean Energy and others, have continued to pressure the administration and Schlissel to commit to more aggressive goals for carbon neutrality as well as to increase engagement with the student body.
We applaud the climate activism taking place on campus, especially as the institutional processes Schlissel implements furthers our mistrust of the University administration. There is historical precedent for our apprehension of University climate action. In 2015, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee released a report detailing how the University can meet its sustainability goals, but most recommendations have been ignored by the University’s Board of Regents. Both the 2015 commission and the current commission are toothless simply because they are merely recommendations. The only way to ensure action is a binding commitment.
But our skepticism is not just based on the past. The current administration and commission have not earned our trust. We are suspicious of the commission because it does not have appropriate representation. Corporate executives from DTE and Consumers Energy each have the power to put forth recommendations on the commission — the same number of votes as the entire student body. For us, this represents a serious conflict of interest because, as our primary energy provider, DTE stands to profit from the University’s continued dependence on fossil fuels. We understand DTE and Consumers Energy need to be a part of the conversation because they have expertise in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, but they do not need to be members of the commission. It would be more reasonable for them to serve in an advisory role instead.We are also suspicious of the commission because Schlissel is not harnessing the advice of experts to make the right decisions about the University’s carbon footprint. The primary way Schlissel has done this is by stopping the commission from discussing two of the essential components of carbon neutrality: the expansion of the Central Power Plant and the University endowment investment in fossil fuels. Though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that the world needs to cut global carbon emissions in half by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic effects of greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, the University has ignored this urgent report, opting instead to start construction on an $80 million expansion of the Central Power Plant. The University claims that expanding our natural gas profile will reduce emissions via energy efficiency, but in reality this decision will bind us to fossil fuels for years to come. The expansion ignores the latest science that questions that reasoning, as methane leaks are a significant externality of natural gas production. Methane has a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, making it unclear if the CPP expansion will help the University get to carbon neutrality. The commission should be allowed to recommend that the University halt the CPP expansion.
Furthermore, the commission should also be empowered to recommend that the University divest from fossil fuels. Though the University does not advertise how much of its endowment is invested in natural resources such as fossil fuels, numbers from the 2017 Report of Investments put the total investment in natural resources at $925 million. The University should consider its investments in fossil fuels as part of its carbon footprint. Consequently, Schlissel should empower the commission to talk about the endowment’s role in the climate crisis. In fact, recent trends show investment in renewables can yield high returns as the renewable sector is outpacing traditional fossil fuels.
The University has shown reluctance toward acting in the best interest for the community at large. For example, in 2000, when the University divested from tobacco companies, the final vote from the Board of Regents was four in favor, two abstentions and one against, despite tobacco representing less than .25 percent of the endowment’s investments. The only other example of the University divesting was in 1988 due to apartheid in South Africa. Other than those examples, the University has largely avoided engaging in dialogue surrounding divestment, including the climate fight.
In order to create more effective change, the University should include more than just two students on the commission and in the planning and development of a more environmentally-conscious campus. The University has consistently denied requests for a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, even though student support has been rapidly increasing. One way to integrate the student body into its decision-making process would be to give students more a powerful voice on a committee that has a central role in working alongside the University to combat carbon emissions. The student group would need to be diverse and have a deep understanding of environmental justice, since marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The University needs to serve its students, and the only way to do that is for the student body to be at the forefront of this fight.
Students have repeatedly asked the University to take real climate action, and the University should listen and act accordingly. The threat of climate change is dire and the University’s actions do not reflect its urgency and severity. In expanding the CPP, failing to commit to carbon neutrality and expanding our investments in fossil fuels, the University is failing to be a leader on clean energy. The University has branded itself as an institution dedicated to solving global problems; students flock here to learn the skills necessary to change the world. When the administration works against the values and goals of the students, when the Board of Regents ignores the University’s own research on climate change and when students peacefully protesting are arrested rather than heard, prospective applicants notice. The University can still be one of the leaders in the climate movement. By taking steps to prevent further harm to the environment, the University can rebrand itself as an institution committed to sustainability.
We recognize that transitioning to true carbon neutrality by 2030 will be a challenge, but in our eyes, the University has a moral imperative to lead. The University can and should be a leader. Considering we are one of Michigan’s largest employers, we have a significant carbon footprint. However, this also means we have the greatest potential to reduce such residual impacts. Moreover, those who have felt and will feel the impacts of climate change first — marginalized communities around the world — are less able to address the crisis than we are. We have the power to lead because our endowment, at nearly $12 billion, is one of the biggest in the nation, and just added a record $5 billion. If the University, a public research institution accountable to its stakeholders, cannot meet the objectives set out by the IPCC, no one can.
We want to express our feelings of mistrust toward Schlissel as it pertains to his and the administration’s handling of climate policies based on historical evidence of mishandling, avoiding and lagging behind on climate issues. Despite his attractive, promising rhetoric surrounding climate change and the commission, little has been done or is known about how the University plans to take the lead and enact a just transition to true carbon neutrality. Not only are we behind other schools in committing to carbon neutrality, we are lagging on one of the most serious global issues of our time and the future. We demand the University become more transparent in their plans by giving students more power in the internal committee or more access to open, unfiltered conversations. We must be proactive in creating true, effective changes that will not only brand the University as a progressive and bold campus, but as one that acts with a moral interest in mind rather than profit. Furthermore, we call on student activists to sustain the energy that they’ve exhibited recently via protesting, organizing and demanding serious action. If we continue with this movement, and if the University decides to invest in its students' future, we can actually make a difference for generations to come.
Corrections: The article has been updated to reflect that there there are two students on the advisory commission, one undergraduate and one graduate. The previous version also misstated that DTE would have voting power on the commission. Currently, there is not voting power for members of the commission. The members of the commission work in an advisory capacity. The previous version also misstated that there were no faculty members representing environmental justice on the commission. There is currently one University faculty member with environmental justice expertise on the commission.