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President Joe Biden released his plan to address climate change in the forthcoming years on Apr. 22. The plan includes the administration’s goals to invest in infrastructure and technology to help target carbon emissions, cut pollution and provide communities with access to clean water sources. The plan also aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2050 and reduce global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Kyle Whyte, professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan whose work surrounds indigenous culture and climate change, currently serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Whyte said this plan outlined numerous actions for the Biden-Harris administration, including creating councils with climate experts, prioritizing environmental policies and ensuring economic security.

“If you look at the people who are on the council, it’s mostly people that have been working for many, many decades on environmental justice work,” Whyte said. “So the Biden administration wants perspectives of people who have been working directly in policy and community organizing in community-based science on how environmental issues interact with social justice issues … so this is definitely different.”

Mechanical engineering professor Margaret Wooldridge said it was critical for the Biden administration to embed people with climate policy making backgrounds in his plan. 

“If you want to achieve rapid reduction in carbon emissions, you have to do a lot of things and not all of them are (developing) technology … a lot of them are behavioral and they should be across different sectors,” Wooldridge said. “The people that (Biden’s) appointed to head those agencies are very mindful of climate change.”

Alexa White, ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D student and director of the U-M Climate Blue organization, said the legislation is beneficial from an economic standpoint but will face political obstacles such as gaining support from a majority of Democrats. White stated that now since the U.S. rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, the climate plan should focus on a global perspective because the U.S. is a significant contributor to climate change and has failed to make significant efforts to reduce the effects of these contributions over recent years. 

“Now we’re back (in the Paris Climate Agreement) and we’re more ambitious, but we are still not as ambitious as the European Union,” White said. “We’re still not hitting the marks that they are hitting, which I think is problematic, considering that we have produced the most (carbon emissions).”

Intersections in Climate Change

Biden’s focus on climate action is a big step compared to previous administrations, Whyte said. He described earlier environmental justice policies such as the 1994 Executive Order 12898, which Bill Clinton’s administration used to address the relationship between different environmental factors and minority and low-income health inequities. 

Whyte emphasized that climate issues such as air pollution have disproportionately affected communities of color and further perpetuated existing inequalities. He explained why environmental justice is an essential piece of the discourse on climate change policymaking.

“I’ve been an author on the National Climate Assessment and other reports [that] document the fact that in the U.S. context, Indigenous people are facing major climate change threats more so than others,” Whyte said. “So, that aspect of climate change, as it relates to justice and equity, is huge in the Biden approach.” 

Wooldridge additionally said the information released by the White House was a good step in the reduction of carbon emissions. She also discussed the role of technological breakthroughs in addressing climate change, noting the challenges that come with increasing reliance on technology such as solar panels, electric vehicles and water-conserving faucets. These serve as alternatives to non-renewable energy consumption but require intense amounts of labor regarding purchases, distribution and sourcing.

“When you set a policy, you can have these unintended consequences associated with them,” Wooldridge said. “I think that we are smarter and better now that we really introduce a new technology (and) have an exit strategy for (addressing climate change).”

Whyte’s work is more centered around the ethical implications of new sustainable technologies.  He noted there are many ethical concerns that need to be addressed in climate change policymaking, specifically towards Indigenous communities across the nation, whose vulnerability to climate change stems from the lack of proper infrastructure and resources provided on reservations.

“I’m a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma,” Whyte said. “Many of our communities were excluded from infrastructure development historically in the U.S. Many of our communities weren’t fully connected to the electric grids. We didn’t get the best materials for housing. We were dispossessed of huge areas of land and forced to live in much smaller lands. So the reason why we’re vulnerable to climate change is … the bad quality of infrastructure that we have. And then we’re also dependent on others for energy and pay a lot of money for energy because we don’t control where energy comes from.”

Whyte said the most significant action the Biden administration can take is to allow Indigenous communities to create their own infrastructure. According to Whyte, this would allow them to create their own utilities and plan how infrastructure design could be carried out. Typically, the investments flow out of these communities to contractors, creating further situations of dependency and a lack of ownership.

“They want their own plans that reflect their culture, their knowledge, they want those plans to be recognized in how the spending on infrastructure for their resettlement is implemented,” Whyte said. “Community wealth, community ownership (and) community control over infrastructure investments are areas where if the Biden-Harris administration were to work on (them), that would be a major advancement.”

Considering that parts of the plan will be expensive and difficult to achieve, White said she is interested in how Biden will lead the charge for his infrastructure portion of the climate plan White also said she is concerned about the legislation impacting already existing energy disparities. 

“I’m worried that inefficiency will lead to Black and Brown communities not receiving energy or there being some sort of disparity between who will get energy and who will not,” White said. “It requires more thought and to be designed properly in order for it to be of any use to us. And so, if it were to work in a good way, there’s a benefit-cost ratio of three to one.” 

At the University

LSA senior Elliot Smith, co-president of the U-M chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), discussed how universities could align with Biden’s plan towards climate spending, describing the efforts made by the CCL towards federal climate legislation such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. He also stated that CCL plans to continue gaining endorsements around the University and lobbying to Michigan legislators to help put forth climate strategy plans.

“I think what we do as student organizations is applaud (Biden’s climate plan and) support it,” Smith said. “But also … seeing if we can get our administration here at the University (to push for) more ambition (in climate spending).”

Matt Sehrsweeney, Environment and Sustainability and Public Policy alum, said the Climate Action Movement (CAM) organization has pushed the University to take bolder action on climate change, such as advocating to the administration on the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) and pushing the University to disinvest the endowment from fossil fuels.

“In March, our latter campaign was successful, and the University announced divestment,” Sehrsweeney said. “With regard to the PCCN, though the recommendations they produced were in many ways disappointing, we were successful in pushing for the inclusion of a number of important measures, like the expansion of affordable, sustainable housing for students and staff.” 

Sehrsweeney said universities have a critical role to play in nationwide climate action. He described the University’s role as that of a research institution who could use their wealth of resources to research and implement approaches addressing the climate crisis. 

“Universities should be leading by example,” Sehrsweeney said. “With their immense resources and power, they should be setting forth the most aggressive climate mitigation goals in the U.S., and also providing resources for their local communities (to enhance their) resilience to climate impacts. In the coming year, this is what CAM will be focused on: holding (the University’s) feet to the fire to ensure that they implement their carbon neutrality plan as rapidly as possible, and pushing the University to act more broadly on climate justice issues.”

Daily Staff Reporter Nirali Patel can be reached at nirpat@umich.edu.