‘U’ alum talks climate change negotiations on, off campus

Monday, July 1, 2019 - 9:44am

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Ann Arbor and Washtenaw Climate Reality host “Climate Change Negotiation and Policy at Home and Abroad” at the Ann Arbor District Library Sunday.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Ann Arbor and Washtenaw Climate Reality host “Climate Change Negotiation and Policy at Home and Abroad” at the Ann Arbor District Library Sunday. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

On Sunday night, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Ann Arbor and Washtenaw Climate Reality hosted an event titled Climate Change Negotiation and Policy at Home and Abroadwith University of Michigan alum Tim Arvan at the Ann Arbor District Library’s Westgate branch. Arvan attended the United Nations COP24 Climate Change Convention in Katowice, Poland as a Climate Blue student delegate. 

He started the talk by recalling his time in Katowice. He said that while he did not take part in any of the negotiations, his presence showed the United Nations’ commitment to exhibiting transparency in its climate negotiations. Additionally, he doscussed the challenges the United Nations’ consensus requirement in decision-making poses when navigating climate change negotiations and creating a plan that countries will follow. 

“There’s no way that the UN has to force a country to do a particular thing,” Arvan said. “That means that every single nation has to be on board with every single significant step that we take to solve this problem. And right off the bat, that just makes it impossible to take more than incremental steps over twenty four years.”

Arvan also discussed transitions as well as common but differentiated responsibilities, and how he saw examples of people worried about the effects of the United Nations’ missions on their income.

“When we decarbonize the global economy, this has real-life implications for people’s livelihoods,” Arvan said. “For instance, there were coal miners from Poland who walked around the hallways in the venue talking with party delegates… ‘what happens when I’m out of work… will I be reskilled for another job?’”

Arvan then moved on to dissect carbon pricing. He explained while there are multiple ideas about what to do with money collected from a possible tax, such as investing in renewable energy alternatives, some believe the tax money should be distributed as dividends back to taxpayers as a way to show that there are benefits to being environmentally friendly.

He explained that if the dividends were implemented, the question of whether the dividends should be equal would follow. Arvan said whether or not there are dividends at all, the priority should be to create a plan which will successfully reduce carbon emissions. 

“It’s very important that we are making sure that low-income and middle-income families are really seeing the benefits of this kind of policy,” Arvan said. “There’s been a lot of impact over other environmental policies, particularly electric vehicles, tax rebates and such that are only taken advantage of by the wealthiest, top percentages, and that’s not really ideal.”

Arvan then examined the controversy surrounding carbon pricing.

“The immediate criticism among those who haven’t studied this problem is, ‘well, aren’t the people just going to respend all of that money buying exactly the same fossil fuel intensive goods they bought in the first place?’” Arvan said. “Once we have the carbon fee implemented, those carbon intensive goods become relatively more expensive to cleaner alternatives. So when people get the money back... they’re going to buy the cleaner alternatives.”

The conversation then turned to the University's new commitment to be carbon neutral. After briefly touching on the University’s failure to fulfill its original agreement, he discussed University President Mark Schlissel’s newly-formed President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality

“We’ll see whether the age-old excuses of ‘oh, the University is growing, so we can’t be bothered to reduce our emissions,’ we’ll see if that holds up,” Arvan said.

Arvan also explained the differences between different types of emissions and how the University’s overall level of carbon emissions are unknown. He also said University students’ doubts about whether the members of the President’s Committee will yield positive results.

“There’s been a lot of, I guess drama on campus surrounding this idea that DTE, Consumers’ Energy, the big utilities representatives are on this commission,” Arvan said. “Just because the way their business models work, they’re not really incentivized to be environmentally conscious. And so, the optics of that, at least in the eyes of the students on campus, is that… they’re not going to be driving ambition on this project.” 

Arvan then referenced the aftermath of the Climate Strike on the Diag earlier this year, speaking about the repercussions that some students are facing due to their actions.

“A lot of the conversation has moved recently to the arrest of 10 or so student activists in the Fleming Administrative Building,” Arvan said. “It’s unfortunate that we are now talking about how U of M deals with the prosecution of students and community members over them showing their voices rather than the actual issues, but unfortunately that is where we are.”

Arvan then circled back to his earlier discussion of carbon pricing and the complexity of the University’s responses to carbon pricing, and whether such initiatives will truly change people’s behavior and reduce carbon emissions.

“A lot of this has to do with how the structures of departments and schools is set up at the University,” Arvan said. “And so it’s extremely complicated to figure out, ‘well, who is actually paying here and is the fee actually assessed to the right person here such that emissions will come down?’” 

The University is looking to Yale University’s successful implementation of carbon pricing on its campus as a model for a similar plan.

Arvan concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of viewing carbon neutrality as achievable, rather than far fetched.

“It can be done in 2020, not in 2050. It’s important to be thinking about timelines too,” Arvan said. “When is it actually feasible to construct a renewable versus participate in RGGI, or another carbon market?”

After the event ended, Nadine Wang, a co-organizer of the event and a member of the CCL’s Ann Arbor chapter, told The Daily she hopes that Arvan’s talk will contribute to local climate change discourse.

“Our primary focus is pressuring Congress to pass federal legislature to fight climate change,” Wang said. “But as part of that effort we try to have public education, public outreach events to get the community talking and thinking about climate change and what we can do as a society to fight against it.”

Trish Koman, a research investigator at the School of Public Health who also works at the College of Engineering and is a part of the Climate Reality Project of Washtenaw County, expressed similar hopes about community. In particular, she was happy to see student involvement in conversations about climate change. 

“I think it’s really helpful to hear students being this involved and engaged on the details of what’s going on,” Koman said. “I think it’s super important that students get involved in all aspects. No matter what students are studying, there’s a way that climate change can be relevant to them.”