Op-Ed: We need an effective carbon neutrality commission

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 4:35pm

“It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.” So claims renowned climate scholar Bill McKibben in his latest piece urging our leaders (and the public they serve) to devote the attention and resources demanded by the world’s scientists and military strategists to the greatest threat we have ever faced. Despite the University of Michigan’s intimate involvement in producing the very science behind McKibben’s appeal, the University’s climate efforts have remained painfully weak, with substantive action stymied by committees formed with little guidance and no structural accountability.

In 2015, University President Mark Schlissel’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee released its report detailing how to achieve the meager University emissions reduction goals made in 2011, with numerous additional actions to take in the pursuit of carbon neutrality. In the four years since, progress has been seemingly non-existent. The administration has failed to undertake even the simplest recommendations, such as switching building standards to ones that better account for greenhouse gas emissions.

As is often the case, this failure is not due to the passionate and well-meaning individuals who volunteered their time and effort to produce the report, but rather seemingly due to a lack of top-level prioritization and a bureaucratic framework that rendered the committee impotent. More recently, another committee, the Blue Ribbon Panel, has been accused of being unrepresentative and ineffectual due to having a vague charge and limited power — suggesting a more systematic failure in how committees are being structured.

For this reason, it should be no surprise that Schlissel’s announcement in October to “put U-M on a trajectory toward carbon neutrality” was met with skepticism, as the only real commitment made was to create yet another commission “tasked with developing U-M’s plan.” Indeed, there is no indication that the new Presidential Carbon Neutrality Commission will not suffer from the exact same structural flaws that doomed the GHG Reduction Committee and waste precious time in the fight against climate change.

So what would make for an effective PCNC?

Firstly, the commission needs a clear mandate to develop a climate action plan in order to achieve an explicit goal: a target date of 2035 for carbon neutrality. Without a commitment to a specific goal from the highest levels, committees spend time exploring irrelevant possibilities, and risk having hard-wrung recommendations be ignored — wasting time we cannot afford to lose. As McKibben notes, “In this war we’re in — the war that physics is fighting hard, and that we aren’t — winning slowly is the same as losing.”

We know the emissions targets we need to hit, and from the resolutions passed unanimously by Central Student Government, Rackham Student Government, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and others, we know that the U-M community is united in its support of committing the significant resources necessary to achieve them.

Secondly, we must be assured that our leaders understand the task before us and that the considerable time taken to chart a path to a sustainable future will not be wasted because those at the top balk at the ambition it requires. Transparency of this entire process is therefore critical to sustain public trust and engagement and to hold the administration accountable to the plan developed by the commission. Attaining this level of accountability and transparency requires built-in structures mandating a publicly available review and assessment of each recommendation the commission produces.

Thirdly, the commission must have representatives from across the diverse spectrum of the U-M community and include members specializing in environmental justice. We commend the administration for its swift solicitation of public input for the commission, but true representation only comes from a seat at the table.

Finally, we can capitalize on the efforts of others to implement standards of transparency and facilitate the flow of information between the University and other institutions. A straightforward and powerful way to do this would be to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which would take advantage of the framework and resources already developed and employed by others in the pursuit of carbon neutrality. Rather than wasting precious time reinventing the wheel, the PCNC could learn from the experience of hundreds of other institutions, and easily share the efforts undertaken at the University so as to amplify our impact and join a growing community of institutions working to rapidly adapt to an uncertain future.

These reasonable and specific steps provide the foundation needed to achieve the difficult but necessary goal of carbon neutrality in a scientifically well-founded and fiscally responsible manner. Furthermore, by having a strong vision and adhering to the principles of transparency and accountability described herein, the University will serve as a model institution in the fight for a sustainable future, providing the framework for other institutions to follow. We are eager to work together to ensure the University is part of the Leaders and the Best in the fight for a sustainable future.

The Climate Action Movement is a coalition of University stakeholders (students, faculty, staff and community members) working to enact sustainability policy that reflects the values of the broader U-M community, with a focus on the commitment to, and attainment of, carbon neutrality.

This letter is adapted from a longer, open letter sent to University President Mark Schlissel in October 2018.