Climate activists can usually remember the moment they realized the magnitude of the ecological problem humanity faces.
Ten years ago, Noah Weaverdyck, currently a doctoral student in physics at the University of Michigan and a member of Climate Action Movement, an environmental policy organization on campus, attended an environmental advocacy event at Goshen College. He had heard about climate change and its supposed dangers, but didn’t know much else. He decided to attend the event and listen to the featured speaker’s presentation with an open mind.
The speaker was Bill McKibben, a renowned author and perhaps the most influential environmentalist in the country. McKibben recounted his experiences suffering through dengue fever, a painful and potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes whose habitats have expanded due to global warming. McKibben used this to underscore the global nature of the threat posed by climate change. Weaverdyck was struck by the certainty of this threat and the supreme importance of fighting it.
“That was what queued me into the reality that this is the biggest thing that’s happening and has ever happened in terms of challenges facing humanity,” Weaverdyck said.
This is a perspective shared by scientists and activists around the world. There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that the significant global warming of the last 150 years is both caused by human activity and preventable through the efforts of governments and individuals. This warming is caused by an overage of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. These gases trap the sun’s energy in the atmosphere and warm the earth, an effect which normally keeps the planet habitable for life, but now threatens to overheat it and irreparably harm the ecosystems on its surface.
A major goal in combating climate change is thus the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. American universities have made pledges in the last two decades to reduce their emissions and build permanent sustainable systems that will both reduce their impact on the environment and provide resources to other communities and organizations to follow their lead.
The University of Michigan, however, has faced some criticism from students and faculty for lagging behind institutions with similar resources and academic standing. While the University has improved its environmental stature and made laudable efforts to build a more sustainable school, other Big Ten universities and elite research institutions have set more ambitious goals and made further progress in fighting climate change than the University.
Stanford University, for example, has been remarkably proactive when it comes to climate policy. The institution has committed to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2021 and is currently building its second solar power plant in order to meet that goal. Additionally, Ohio State University, historically Michigan’s biggest rival, has some of the most ambitious environmental policies of any school in the Big Ten. Its administration has pledged to cut its emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 as well as achieve a zero waste system by 2025.
When asked how the University compares to such other schools, Andrew Berki, the director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, said environmental policy should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“Each school has a different approach to reducing its impact on the environment because each has different circumstances,” Berki wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “U-M involves a broad range of stakeholders in the goal-setting and decision-making process, which is important at our institution.”
It should be noted that the University does face several unavoidable challenges that make climate progress more difficult than at other schools. For example, the University administration has noted that Ann Arbor exists in a more extreme climate than both Stanford and Ohio State — its facilities require significantly more heating and cooling energy to keep people safe and comfortable. The University, along with individual state residents, is also required by state law to use electricity from the local utility grid, which is more carbon-intensive than most others in the nation. The University involuntarily inherits the environmental impact of this electricity.
However, seeing the progress of these other institutions and spurred by the increasingly apparent dangers of climate change, concerned students and faculty have been pushing the University to make greater strides in its environmental policy. The most prominent campus advocacy group in recent months has been the Climate Action Movement, a group of undergraduate and graduate students that was founded last year by LSA junior Julian Hansen.
CAM is now composed of several dozen students with considerable involvement in the campus environmental community. These students are at the center of an increasingly urgent debate among activists, faculty and administrators over how to effectively combat climate change in higher education. Most members are part of other climate organizations, including Climate Blue, the Climate Reality Project, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Students for Clean Energy, the Sunrise Movement and undergraduate environmental fraternities and sororities.
According to Sasha Bishop, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology and a member of CAM, this wealth of experience informs much of CAM’s work; members make recommendations for policy and advocate for specific causes based on the expertise its members have gathered in their years of involvement in environmental activism. Bishop believes this is one of the core strengths of CAM and a reason for its considerable presence despite its relative youth.
Weaverdyck said a significant portion of CAM’s work has simply been spreading awareness about the University’s climate policies and their potential shortcomings. Weaverdyck believes that most students overestimate the University’s level of involvement because of its self-identification as a leader in higher education and scientific achievement.
“We need to raise a lot of awareness,” Weaverdyck said. “A lot of people assume that U-M, as this progressive campus, one of the world’s leading research institutions — people just assume that U of M is at the top when it comes to emissions reductions and being proactive. But that’s not the case.”
According to Weaverdyck, one of the biggest challenges for climate policy is the reluctance of the University leadership to set concrete goals as the administrators of other prominent universities have.
“When the leadership comes forward and sets a public goal — that’s what’s needed to get the huge machinery of a university to start moving and working together to achieve those goals,” Weaverdyck said.
For this reason, CAM has campaigned heavily for a firm commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035. Members have created a petition, published criticisms of the University’s policies and made appearances at the University’s Board of Regents meetings. After several months of lobbying and activism, the administration made a commitment to take action, and on Feb. 4, University President Mark Schlissel launched a commission tasked with developing timelines and strategies for the University to achieve carbon neutrality.
However, members of the campus environmental community have expressed concerns that the commission will not be effective in solving the problem. To explain their worries, Weaverdyck and Bishop cited the example of the President’ Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee.
This committee was similarly formed to reduce the University’s carbon footprint in 2011, and it delivered a non-binding report with several recommendations in the summer of 2015. The University has made progress on several of the goals, including an upgrade to the Central Power Plant and plans to purchase renewable energy credits, which would allow the University to pay for the creation of renewable energy elsewhere. However, these plans still include extensive use of fossil fuels and no plans for future renewable energy sources on campus.
“We are currently implementing many of the GHG committee’s recommendations, including the Central Power Plant natural gas turbine; continued investment in the Energy Management Program, which focuses on energy conservation within some U-M buildings; on-campus demonstration projects; and renewable energy purchases,” Berki said.
Bishop and Weaverdyck also expressed worried about a perceived lack of accountability for the commission, again drawing parallels to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee. They believe a firm commitment from University leadership at the outset is the only way to ensure that progress will be made in the near future.
“It’s death by committee,” Weaverdyck said. “That’s something that we really can’t afford given the timeline that the science makes clear. We can’t afford to lose another few years debating what the target is.”
Adam Simon, a professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, shares this concern. Simon has been a member of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee since the summer of 2017. He believes the committee has been able to do some productive work despite a few shortcomings.
“It was overall a positive experience,” Simon said. “There were certainly some times when I felt frustrated by what, to me, seemed like a slowness to react among the committee members.”
For instance, Simon was glad the committee met last year with the director of Renewable Energy at DTE Energy, which is a Detroit-based energy company that runs the grid on which the city of Ann Arbor is situated. But he was surprised to find out the committee had never done so before, describing the collaboration as a “no-brainer” that should have been started years previously.
Despite such delays, Simon praised members of the committee for initiating the relationship with DTE and cited it as an example of the kind of environmental work the University needs to be doing moving forward. In his view, it will be absolutely necessary to bring in outside expertise to accelerate the work of the Commission on Carbon Neutrality.
“I hope that (the Commission on Carbon Neutrality) does exactly what we need it to do, which is to reach out to people in the real world who do this for a living and figure out how we can partner with private industry to make carbon neutrality a reality,” Simon said.
Simon has also expressed particular concern about the University’s 2011 goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025 — which, remeber, is a goal among the least ambitious in the Big Ten. As of 2018, the University has achieved only a 7 percent reduction from the 2006 baseline measurement.
The impending upgrade to the Central Power Plant is expected to reduce emissions further, to around 12 or 13 percent. Right now, the University buys roughly two thirds of its energy from DTE Energy. The other third is produced by the Central Power Plant. Once the plant is upgraded, the University will produce about half of its own energy.
The Greenhouse Gas Committee’s report stated this upgrade is the single largest contributor toward meeting the emissions reduction goal. But the report also noted the upgrade ties the University to fossil fuels for at least another two decades, and likely more. Natural gas still has a notable environmental impact due to the emissions involved in its use.
Emissions are often organized into three categories, called scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of energy that an institution purchases. Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions, not included in scope 2, that occur from sources not owned or controlled by the institution.
The University does not count scope 3 emissions in its measurements, and neither do other institutions; this is the standard procedure for emissions measures. But during the extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas, methane — a greenhouse gas — leaks into the atmosphere and warms the planet. These emissions fall under scope 3 and are thus not considered when calculating emissions reductions. This means the reductions are being measured without considering the life-cycle environmental impact of the natural gas that the University uses. Because of this, Simon expressed frustration with the lackluster impact of the Central Power Plant upgrade.
“For a university our size, with an $11 billion endowment and some of the greatest intellectual power on the planet, we should have nailed that target,” Simon said. “We should have moved beyond that target.”
Proponents of the plan say the upgrades will reduce emissions and give the University time to consider renewable energy sources.
“It is important in the view of the committee to establish concrete plans for alternate fuels for this facility in the longer term, and/or ways to offset its emissions,” the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee’s report reads. “It will also be important for the university to be clear that this investment is part of a transition toward carbon-free alternatives.”
Simon noted the University has made negligible progress on finding significant long-term renewable energy sources. When asked about the University’s progress in this search, Berki said there are “currently no plans” for future sustainability measures at the Central Power Plant. According to Berki, the University’s plan for renewables in the future is to buy more renewable energy credits, which would technically reduce the University’s emissions by paying for the use of renewable energy generated and used elsewhere. But according to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee’s report, this kind of action “is unlikely to be viewed as the action of a climate leader or to engage the campus community in the vision and implementation of GHG reduction.”
Schlissel, for his part, has stated the administration’s priority is forming a specific technical plan before making a pledge for carbon neutrality. Previously, he said he believes the University will be better placed to carry out its goal if it starts with a complete plan rather than setting an arbitrary deadline.
“I don’t know how we're going to get there yet. So what good does it do for me to put out a statement that says I'm going to do something on a certain day if I don’t know how I'm going to do it?” Schlissel said in an interview with The Daily in October. “We want to do it in a way that other organizations can follow what we do and become carbon neutral themselves.”
Weaverdyck, however, said he believes the University has already missed its opportunity to be a leader in tackling climate change. Both he and Bishop think methods for reaching carbon neutrality are in no short supply and that the University merely needs to follow the path of other similar institutions that have already made progress toward similar goals.
“The problem, historically, has not been in generating those technical plans,” Bishop said. “The University of Michigan is a top-tier research institute. We have had committees come up with these plans before. We have the skills. We have the resources. The problem has been not committing the resources and not having any reason to do so (in the absence of a public goal).”
Simon, Bishop and Weaverdyck all expressed approval for the climate policies of certain schools similar to the University. They singled out Stanford University; Michigan State University; University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois and Ohio State University for particular praise.
In Simon’s view, one of the drivers of these schools’ success is people in positions of power who can make the necessary change at the university level. This is a view shared by Weaverdyck and Bishop, who believe the absence of a high-level administration official dedicated to tackling environmental policy conveys a lack of interest in the area from University leaders.
“We think it has to do with a diffusion of accountability and responsibility,” Weaverdyck said. “There’s nobody put in charge. When you don’t have an individual who’s high up and who’s accountable to that and have them have a clear target or a goal that they’re appointed to help meet, then nobody really knows what we’re aiming for.”
Simon also said he believes the administration’s focus has been in the wrong places, which has hindered development of a more comprehensive climate plan.
“What really has limited our ability to make progress is the absence of people who are progressive thinkers,” Simon said. “I think for the administration, it hasn’t been an issue they seem to be concerned with.”
Members of CAM believe the University’s reluctance to join any of the nationwide academic environmental coalitions is evidence of this. These organizations work to foster collaboration between schools and help those schools become more sustainable in the long term. They include the Climate Leadership Network and American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which inspired the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 set by Ohio State University and dozens of other colleges.
Simon said he believes current University policy is hypocritical in some respects. He said he sees a school that teaches its students extensively about the dangers of climate change and the threat it poses to human civilization, but neglects to take significant action and demonstrate its resolve to combat that threat.
“We can’t continue to preach a message in our classrooms that climate change is today’s civil rights movement and yet not do anything at all to mitigate our effect on climate,” Simon said. “To be honest with you, if I were a student, I would be confused and depressed.”
This sentiment is shared by Weaverdyck and Bishop. Members of CAM have emphasized in their messaging that colleges — particularly large and well-funded elite research institutions — are uniquely well placed to be leaders when it comes to environmental policy. Though the individual impact of a school’s emissions is small when compared to global emissions, the University can set an example for active and intellectually rigorous climate action and aid other institutions in the fight.
“There’s so much well-informed consensus on precisely how catastrophic the impacts of climate change can be,” Bishop said. “It isn’t a question anymore of if people should be doing something about it. The University is in a position to address what is essentially the defining problem of right now.”
“Frankly, if the University of Michigan can’t do this, then how can we expect anybody to do this?” Weaverdyck said. “This should be the easiest thing for this institution over any institution, given our resources, given our understanding, given our mandate. This should be the lowest hanging fruit.”
Above all, members of the campus environmental community have expressed a supreme disappointment with the University’s policies. They see it as a shortcoming not merely in addressing the issue, but in staking a claim as one of the foremost universities in the world and a true leader in higher education.
“If you look at the intellectual power we have across campus, among our faculty, staff and students, and you compare us to other universities, we’re so far behind (in combatting climate change) that it’s embarrassing,” Simon said. “You don’t do it because the shame game makes you look bad. You do it because you claim to be the world’s best university and a university that is committed to making a positive impact for our global society. Scientific consensus is that we need to mitigate humans’ effect on the climate. And as the University of Michigan, we should be leading that. We shouldn’t be following others.”