Op-ed: U-M is complicit in climate change

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 6:43pm

This March, 1.4 million kids took to the streets to protect their futures. Some were marked absent from school, and many were lambasted by local news outlets, but all helped bring to light the threat of climate change and government inaction. Ever so slowly, people are taking note. From the World Bank to the New Zealand government, those in power are recognizing that they must take major strides to mitigate the climate crisis.    

This is not the case at the University of Michigan. During Ann Arbor’s thousands-strong climate change protest, officials arrested 10 participants including University students, high school students and community members. The protesters’ demand? Simply for University President Mark Schlissel to meet and discuss strengthening the University’s weak attempts to fight the climate crisis.   

The protest and arrests followed months of unanimous student government resolutions, public letters and testimonials at Board of Regents meetings aimed at getting the University to address climate change beyond quick fixes and token programs. The University continually maintains that it is a big ship and it takes a long time to change, but we no longer have time to wait. 

Sustainability projects that benefit our campus, like energy-reduction plans, composting programs and educational campaigns, were brought to fruition by passionate individuals, but the University administration refuses to consider long-term solutions — like true carbon neutrality, renewable energy infrastructure or education reforms — that reflect the urgent action we need. 

For instance, along with the vague promise to “(put) U-M on a trajectory towards carbon neutrality,” the University bought a greater percent of renewable energy, which would be exciting, but the purchase was only made as a last-minute, publicity-generating attempt to reach a Planet Blue Sustainability goal that should have, instead, been met with real innovative energy solutions.  

Even the new U-M President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality is an ineffectual response to climate activists, lacking direction, a focus on environmental justice and any indication that its recommendations will be acted upon. During the first commission meeting, the committee was told that the Central Power Plant new gas-powered turbine and the University’s investments in fossil fuels was out of the scope of their discussion. This is a huge mistake, since emissions from the use of gas-powered turbines are under-researched and investment in fossil fuels increases global carbon emissions.

The arrests are a clear attempt for the University to hide its complicity in the climate crisis. By refusing demands to reshape the way it approaches the climate crisis, the University has shown that it does not support its students, understand the research of its faculty or believe in the herculean efforts of its environmentally-minded staff. By encouraging the state prosecutor to press charges for arrests made, the University administration is disrupting the studies and research of its own students in order to silence protest; thankfully, the state prosecutor refused U-M’s request to charge the 15 and 16 year-olds. These are not the actions of an institution that supports a safe future for its students, nor their freedom of speech. 

The University should remember the forward-thinking institution it was when it hosted the very first Earth Day 50 years ago. You, reader, can help to make that happen. You can write to the people listed below and encourage them to take appropriate action. 

Here are a few suggestions: request the state prosecutor drop trespass charges against those arrested at the Climate Strike on March 15; bind U-M to recommendations from the PCCN and instate a dedicated justice advisor; halt the construction of the natural gas power plant until options for a transition to alternate fuels are explored; begin divestment from fossil fuels.

Your voice matters, and we need you to use it. Our University will not change unless we as a community make clear that it needs to, for all of our sakes. 

Write opinions on the President’s Committee on Carbon Neutrality here.

Find contacts for the Provost here.

Find contacts for the Regents here.

Kristen Hayden is a junior studying Earth and Environmental Sciences and PiTE and a member of the Climate Action Movement.