Faculty and staff petition urges administration to accelerate carbon neutrality efforts

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 8:08pm

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Design by Aya Salim

At the Board of Regents meeting in February, Adam Simon, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of earth and environmental sciences, presented a faculty and staff petition urging the University of Michigan administration to take specific actions on campus to mitigate the climate crisis. 

Simon criticized the delay in working to reduce emissions, stating net emissions have increased since University President Mark Schlissel appointed the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. He argued the administration can and should take action even before the commission delivers its report of recommendations to Schlissel.

“Leadership and broad institutional commitment are essential now,” Simon said. “The cultural shift required cannot come without strong leadership from President Schlissel. We must act now. There must be a moratorium on new construction … It is an embarrassment that the newly renovated Michigan Union has a natural gas fireplace as the centerpiece of its main floor.” 

Simon’s comments at the meeting and the petition represent a growing number of voices in the University community asking the administration to take steps to reduce emissions immediately. While student activist organizations on campus have long sought to push the University administration to take aggressive action towards carbon neutrality, faculty members have also begun to voice their concerns about the school’s approach to the climate crisis. 

The petition presented at the meeting in February asks signatories and those in roles of leadership on campus to commit to working towards carbon neutrality within their respective departments. As of March 3, the petition has 1,423 signatories, including 303 staff members and 794 faculty. Among the petition’s recommendations are the implementation of higher energy standards for new construction, working toward carbon neutrality by 2030 and the appointment of a new leadership role to report to the Schlissel after the PCCN completes its work. 

The petition was organized in the fall of 2019 by Voices for Carbon Neutrality , a group primarily composed of University staff, faculty and alumni to encourage greater climate action from the University. VCN has had more than 50 members, including Simon, speak at board meetings. 

John Williams, Professor Emeritus of molecular and integrative physiology, said VCN intends to provide administrators with the faculty perspective on carbon neutrality. 

“There’s been a fairly long history at the University of Michigan of talking about climate neutrality but not acting decisively,” Williams said. “We saw our role as helping the administration and the Board of Regents understand the critical importance of climate change. We are not trying to be opposed to anyone, but just help by bringing a different set of eyes or voices to the table.” 

The VCN members stated they have received no official response from University administrators on the petition thus far. In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said the University supports VCN’s goal to promote action on the climate crisis. 

“The University of Michigan shares Voices for Carbon Neutrality’s commitment to urgent and necessary action on one of the defining societal problems of our time — climate change,” Broekhuizen said. “U-M is focused foremost on developing recommendations and a timeframe that allows for eventual changes to be meaningful and achievable. The President has been consistent in his support for a bold, but rigorous and actionable process.”

Jane Vogel, University alum and member of VCN, said VCN intends to follow the lead of student movements and leverage the expertise of faculty to further encourage the University.

“It’s very clear to me that our strength is that we are faculty-led,” Vogel said. “I think we’re meant to be working in parallel and in support of the climate action movement that is student-led and in no way want to try and duplicate or shift focus from that. The students are so strong within that climate action movement. This is the faculty movement to support that and add the additional voice to the sense of urgency.”

In an interview with The Daily, Simon pointed out faculty voices also serve to lend a credible voice and evidence to arguments. 

“One of the common things that we have heard from administrators on campus … is that renewable energy is too expensive, so if the University of Michigan were to commit to more renewable energy, that would necessitate tuition increases, and the University is dedicated to reducing or minimizing tuition increases,” Simon said. “What we’ve tried to do is in a positive way provide them with data and also provide them with, for example, the petition to demonstrate that there is significant interest among faculty, staff and students on campus for the University to accelerate its move towards renewable energy.”

Williams said VCN members circulated the petition within their departments to demonstrate support for climate action. He argued some units on campus — such as Michigan Medicine — have been less involved in issues of climate, so faculty outreach from VCN has helped bring many more voices to the cause. Of the signatories on the petition, 512 came from Michigan Medicine.

Larry Junck, director of Neuro-Oncology at Michigan Medicine’s Neurology Department, said VCN still likely missed out on contacting many faculty members, including faculty from the Flint and Dearborn campuses. Beyond reaching out to faculty in his department, Junck also contacted faculty in leadership positions on campus and found many of them supported the petition but were unwilling to sign or share the petition in their departments. 

“I contacted a number of department heads and unit leaders,” Junck said. “And I think those unit leaders, whether they be heads of schools, colleges or departments, who got back to me, the most common response I heard was, ‘We strongly support what you’re doing, but it would not be right for me to send this message out to my group.’”

Junck elaborated on his response to these comments in an email to The Daily.

“Some U-M faculty and other university persons have trepidation about speaking out about the climate crisis,” Junck wrote. “I understand this, but I regard it as an honor and a privilege to speak out on this important issue … Outspoken advocacy on this issue has the potential, not only to move U-M toward carbon neutrality, but to move U-M toward a position of leadership on this enormously important issue.”

LSA senior Taylor Lind, member of Students for Clean Energy, emphasized how important it is for faculty and students to work together in fighting for carbon neutrality. 

“I feel like students and faculty banding together presents a clearer and stronger message to University (administration),” Lind said. “Faculty also play another important role in influencing the behavior of students they interact with. So I think if they are serious about banding together as a group to support students and carbon neutrality, they can also start making a difference right away … in their own classes.”

Broekhuizen said despite the outbreak of the coronavirus, the timetable has largely remained the same for the PCCN’s recommendations for carbon neutrality.

“The commission, like most U-M units, is adjusting to new realities presented by the COVID-19 outbreak,” Broekhuizen said. “But, aside from a two-week extension that the commission gave to internal analysis teams set to deliver preliminary recommendations, its process is not slowing down. The commission is holding scheduled meetings virtually and still expects to complete its second interim report later this spring. Its final recommendations for the president remain due during the fall 2020 semester.”

As the spread of COVID-19 is forcing the university community to adjust its operations with remote learning and communication, Junck said the outbreak will help the community better understand how to mitigate climate change.

“As we all struggle together with the COVID-19 pandemic … we are learning as individuals in some ways to simplify our lives, and the correlate of simplifying our lives can mean learning (to use) less carbon,” Junck said. “We are all learning as a people to work together to solve a very serious problem or to cope with a very serious problem. And I think these things that we are learning through the COVID-19 epidemic will help us together to cope with climate change.”

Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled LSA senior Taylor Lind's last name.