Vice President Kamala Harris visited Rackham Auditorium Thursday afternoon for a conversation on the state of climate policy, student activism and environmental justice in Ann Arbor and nationwide. Over 500 students, faculty and community members gathered to hear from Harris and other local, state and federal elected officials.
LSA junior Lashaun Jackson, co-president of the Student Sustainability Coalition, began the event by speaking on the opportunities for U-M students to lead sustainability initiatives both within the University and the nation as a whole.
“Unlike those who will give speeches in a minute, we, as students, actually get to roll up our sleeves and do the work right here on campus,” Jackson said. “Literally sticking our hands in the ground of the Campus Farm, growing food for each other and distributing it at the Maize & Blue Cupboard, using our collective voice at Board of Regents meetings just for our sustainable leadership, connecting with our surrounding communities in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Detroit to help support their own sustainable paths.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor, said she and Harris made the trip to Ann Arbor due to Michigan’s influence in the automotive industry and the prevalence of climate activism on the University of Michigan’s campus.
“Michigan is the center of the transportation universe — people here have it as part of their DNA,” Granholm said. “We want to electrify the transportation system. If you’re going to reduce CO2, 30% of carbon pollution comes from transportation.”
In an interview with The Daily before the event, Music, Theatre & Dance junior Donovan Rogers said he has worked to combine art and activism in his time on campus and was excited to learn from Harris and other speakers to help inspire his work.
“I’m the founder and artistic director of the DR’s Laboratory, which is a Black arts organization that’s focused on creating liberatory Black spaces,” Rogers said. “I think that having the opportunity to see Vice President Kamala Harris is a part of that pursuit, as she is the first woman and first Black woman vice president … I’m really just here to be a sponge and to learn about these issues and witness this historical moment.”
Interim University Provost Laurie K. McCauley spoke on behalf of University President Santa Ono, who she said recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating with mild symptoms.
McCauley discussed the University’s Carbon Neutrality Plan, which includes a commitment to zero direct, on-campus emissions on all three campuses and Michigan Medicine by 2040 and achieving a net-zero endowment by 2050. She discussed the importance of students and the U-M administration working together to combat the effects of climate change.
“The climate crisis is the challenge of our time, and I’m convinced we can meet it together,” McCauley said. “We have the power to remake and restore a better world.”
After the event, Granholm told The Daily that the Department of Energy is largely aligned with the goals of public research institutions when it comes to climate change, including on hydrogen fuel and electric vehicle batteries.
“We have 17 national laboratories that are focused on these next-generation solutions, and we partner — the labs do, as well as the Office of Science within the Department of Energy — partners with research institutions like University of Michigan,” Granholm said. “So the research infrastructure of this country and the funding of it is incredibly important to be able to get to these next-generation technologies that we know will take us where we need to be.”
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor then took the stage to discuss Ann Arbor’s role in combating climate change, highlighting the city’s A2Zero plan and the recent passage of the community climate action millage with 71% of the vote in November. He said several federal initiatives spearheaded by the Biden-Harris administration have helped Ann Arbor fight climate change.
“Ann Arbor is so grateful for all that the Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan Acts have done already to help us fight climate change,” Taylor said. “With the support of these massive pieces of legislation, we have been able to invest over $11 million to install solar arrays that will power our municipal organization with 100% clean, renewable energy years ahead of schedule.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, also weighed in on the importance of student activism in fighting climate change, recalling the words of her late husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell. Debbie Dingell often engages with student activists on campus, from protesting on the Diag following the overturning of Roe v. Wade this past summer to rallying with students to support Ukraine after the Russian invasion last year.
“Not one of you is only a student,” Dingell said. “John Dingell used to say ‘20% of our population is our young people, and you are 100% of our future.’”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, then spoke on the climate issues facing the state of Michigan specifically.
“I tell people all the time, ‘the Great Lakes are warming faster than the oceans,’” Stabenow said. “Lake Superior is one of the five fastest-warming lakes in the world. So we’ve got to be at the front of this. And we have a lot of stake in this but we are also a huge part of the solution.”
Stabenow also discussed some of the recent progress Congress has made in regard to climate change, including the electric vehicle and battery production tax credits included in the Inflation Reduction Act last year, and the impact those policies had on the state of Michigan.
In her remarks, Granholm said the legislation the Biden-Harris administration has implemented in the past two years gave the government the tools and technologies necessary to tackle climate change.
“We have the tools to be able to take advantage of the economy that can be created around the cleanup, to build a just society, to undo the wrongs that have been perpetrated upon communities that have lived in the shadows of smokestacks that have been bifurcated by transportation decisions, communities that have been left behind,” Granholm said.
The event then shifted to a discussion between Harris, Granholm and Kyle Whyte, professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and faculty director for the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment. Harris began the conversation describing her upbringing as the daughter of civil rights activists, which she said impacted her understanding of social justice and activism. She encouraged attendees to consider the historical roots of the climate action movement and to act with urgency to address environmental threats.
“When I think about the the shoulders upon which we stand and where we have now arrived, I think we all should take note of the momentum that we have achieved and our responsibility now sitting in these chairs in this moment, to then continue with this moment and lead and not waste a minute, because we don’t have a minute to spare,” Harris said.
Whyte described how his lived experience as a member of the Anishinaabeg tribe has impacted his understanding of climate justice, emphasizing historical and current policies that have harmed Indigenous communities.
“I was drawn to the intersection of climate and justice because of who I am as a member of a tribal nation with deep roots in these lands, these waters right here, Anishinaabeg territory,” Whyte said. “Dangerous energy infrastructure, especially the proposal to continue the operation of the Line 5 pipeline, threatens to disrupt some of the most sacred places for Anishinaabeg people, threatening livelihoods, violating treaty rights and locking this state into a fossil fuel-intensive energy future.”
Harris said she feels climate activism must use an intersectional lens that takes into account how marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.
“We can look at, for example, the data that tells us that some of the regions in America with the poorest air quality are low-income communities and communities of Color,” Harris said. “When you look at rates of asthma, you see correlations. When you look at which communities are suffering most in terms of extreme weather and therefore need to evacuate, you can see a correlation.”
Whyte also asked Harris about the role of young people in fighting climate change. Harris said she believes younger generations are uniquely positioned to tackle environmental issues because they are interconnected on social media with apps such as BeReal, allowing young people to spread awareness.
“You can do it through your studies, through your activism, through talking to your friends and your relatives through social media,” Harris said. “And even if this crisis were not happening, which it is, it is about just a commitment that our nation and the world should always have to innovate and think about how we can be smarter.”
In an interview with The Daily after the event, LSA senior Noah Zimmerman, president of Central Student Government, said he felt encouraged by Harris’s focus on student climate activism.
“It was nice to know that the urgency is there for the administration,” Zimmerman said. “It was also great to hear about the enthusiasm that they have for students and the help that they want to give.”
Zimmerman said CSG was informed about the event last Friday. They then worked to compile a list of student leaders in sustainability to invite, with a focus on student organizations outside of the direct purview of the Office of Student Life.
Harris concluded the conversation by urging collaboration across communities and organizations to fight climate change amid partisan division.
“In the midst of a time in our country where there are so many so-called powerful people, so-called leaders who are trying to divide our country and spread and spew hate,” Harris said. “One of the most powerful things we can do is build a coalition to remind people they are not alone and that we are in this together.”
Daily News Editor Samantha Rich and Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org