Op-ed: Time to lead on climate change

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 5:45pm

A bombshell report was dropped over Thanksgiving. The Fourth National Climate Assessment provided perhaps the most detailed scientific assessment of how climate change is going to impact every area of our lives. Produced by a confederation of 13 federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and more, it details societal response strategies to mitigate and adapt to the effects of global climate change. Projected effects include massive declines in crop yield, sea-level rise that threatens millions, devastating wildfires and billions of dollars of economic losses every year. All of this will destabilize food and social systems we rely upon, which will exacerbate conditions leading to war and mass migration. Almost every national and international scientific body on the planet has converged around this reality, pointing to climate change as the largest impending disaster humankind has ever faced, and urging rapid action.

The advantage of a global scientific consensus is that we also have a roadmap to avoid these catastrophic effects and a metric to gauge our progress. The NCA reaffirms that avoiding the most damaging effects requires us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October indicates that achieving this will necessitate global carbon neutrality by 2050. This is still technically feasible, but it requires dramatic and immediate action.

Unfortunately, we at the University of Michigan have a lot of catching up to do. Universities are particularly well placed to act on climate: They have the means to understand the science, are not subject to the same quarterly focus as private institutions and have a stated mission to “serve the people.” In spite of this, the University has been woefully negligent when it comes to climate action — our emissions reduction goals are among the very bottom of Big Ten institutions, we lack a climate action plan, our administration refused to divest from fossil fuels despite broad community support and we have yet to join any of the large national coalitions (such as the University Climate Change Coalition or Climate Leadership Network) that help universities and their communities to become more sustainable. It has been noted in the press how badly we compare to Michigan State University, which is highlighted in the NCA for generating 5 percent of their energy locally via solar carports, and to The Ohio State University, which is 10th in the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the top 30 green-powered universities and which committed to carbon neutrality 10 years ago. University President Mark Schlissel’s own Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee recommended back in 2015 that the University commit to much more ambitious targets and detailed specific ways to achieve such targets, but three years later, little has changed.

We can and must do better. The U-M community is filled with knowledgeable and passionate individuals, but climate change is an issue that we can only tackle if we work together, and we need bold leadership to focus our collective efforts. In a sign of hope, Schlissel announced in October that he was committed to "putting U-M on a trajectory towards carbon neutrality," along with his intention to form a commission that would be "tasked with developing our plan." But for this commission to be effective, Schlissel must commit to a defined, science-based date for carbon neutrality. In a detailed letter to Schlissel, the Climate Action Movement at U-M (of which I am a part) has urged him to commit the University to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, a goal in keeping with the IPCC timeline. This puts a firm date with a tangible outcome to the pledge that Schlissel has already made to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as laid out in the 2015 Paris agreement, and would reposition the University as a leader in the fight against climate change.

Without a specific date, the commission’s mandate remains frighteningly vague and we will lose valuable time as they debate what their mandate even is, let alone how to develop a plan to achieve it. It will be far too easy for the commission to set the bar low and fall back on Schlissel’s qualification that such a plan must be “financially responsible,” an excuse for inaction that is all too familiar to a younger generation that has seen its future grossly and systematically undervalued. While there is a consensus that aggressive climate action now will be far cheaper than if it is delayed, the necessary investments in our future will still be substantial, and we will need the mandate of a public commitment from the highest levels of the University in order to sustain momentum.  

Schlissel rightly calls climate change "the defining scientific and social problem of our age." Beyond the science we produce, the greatest asset that the University has to offer in the fight against climate change is bold and public leadership. Even though we at the University produce nearly a third of Ann Arbor's emissions,  Schlissel is right that simply becoming carbon neutral will not alone make a significant difference for climate change. The University’s impact — our impact — will only be meaningful if it is public and if it is ambitious. We must put to rest the notion that the necessary changes are simply too difficult or impractical. We can be what we have claimed to be all along: Leaders and the Best. The world needs leaders right now, and with some of the world’s greatest minds, a commitment to serve the public good and an endowment larger than the economies of one-third of the world's nations, no one is better positioned to lead than we are. I hope we do, and quickly. Our future depends on it.

Noah Weaverdyck is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics and a member of the Climate Action Movement at U-M.