1. Addressing Climate Change as a Powerful Community

    December 4, 2015

    This week, leaders from about 150 nations have come together in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, with the goal of taking international action to limit carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

    A delegation of 10 U-M faculty members and students are attending the U.N. conference, including participants from the School of Information, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the College of Engineering and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

    Universities across our nation are approaching the climate change problem in various ways, including research, education, campus operations, and divestment from fossil fuel companies in endowments. More than 200 campuses, including the University of Michigan, signed the American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge, as a precursor to the U.N. Conference. These institutions are taking significant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase campus sustainability and incorporate teaching on issues of relevance to environmental sustainability into academic curricula.

    The University of Michigan is proud of its work addressing climate change at multiple levels.

    U-M’s work to reduce carbon emissions stretches across the full breadth of our university, tapping our strengths in research and education, as well as the more direct impact we can have as a community of more than 80,000 individuals to operate and act in a sustainable manner.

    Our researchers are tackling climate change from virtually every angle. We help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change, create new knowledge and technologies that advance the ability to achieve emissions goals, and study the complex intersections between the environment, law, science and public policy. Among our many environmentally focused research projects, U-M researchers travel to Antarctica and take core samples that help us better understand climate change today, they develop lightweight batteries for electric vehicles, and they improve the energy yield and economic performance of renewables.

    Additionally multiple institutes, including our Energy Institute, Graham Sustainability Institute, and Transportation Research Institute, leverage university-wide strengths in research with public impact and U-M’s power to convene as an unbiased intellectual resource.

    Our educational programs provide opportunities for students from all 19 of our schools and colleges to obtain degrees or take courses in sustainability, including minors, concentrations and certificates. Many programs foster cross-disciplinary study and engaged learning. One example in our College of Engineering is the Climate Impact Engineering concentration, an undergraduate program that promotes the study of particular aspects of climate impact that also requires hands-on learning outside of the traditional classroom environment.

    Last month, I was proud to announce that U-M will invest $100 million during the next few years in sustainability efforts recommended by three campus-wide committees. The committees were comprised of dozens of faculty, staff and students with expertise and interest in sustainability, and the groups spent a year gathering information and developing a set of comprehensive recommendations on the best steps forward in sustainability. The committees recommended improvements in waste reduction, greenhouse gas reduction, and campus culture. To reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, we are moving forward with recommendations to enhance energy conservation and to generate our own cleaner energy.

    I very much appreciate the commitment and passion exhibited by students who have steadfastly advocated on the issue of climate change, specifically that U-M divest from fossil fuel companies in its endowment.

    In the previous two instances where we eventually divested, the investments – in tobacco and in South African corporations under that nation’s system of apartheid – were inextricably linked to immoral and unethical actions and ideologies. There was little to no redeeming social value related to the investments or the industries.

    In the case of the fossil fuel industry, it is a very different matter. Fossil fuels enable us to operate the university, to conduct research and to provide patient care. At this moment, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at the necessary scale. In addition, most of the same companies that extract or use fossil fuels are also investing heavily in a transition to natural gas or renewables, in response to market forces and regulatory activity. I do not believe that a persuasive argument has been made that divestment by the U-M will speed up the necessary transition from coal to renewable or less polluting sources of energy.

    For these reasons, I do not think that consideration of divestment from fossil fuels is the right step. We made a commitment to our donors to use income generated from the endowment to support our mission for today and for future generations –academic and research programs, student support, and life-saving patient care. The endowment should not be used to further other causes, however noble.

    On Monday, President Obama called on the world’s nations to create “an enduring framework for human progress — not a stopgap solution, but a long-term strategy that gives the world confidence in a low-carbon future.”

    I support such an approach, both globally, and at the University of Michigan. I will continue to help us push forward as an institution to address climate change through our power as a comprehensive research and educational institution and to conduct our own operations in a more sustainable manner — and continue to rely upon collaborative teams of students, faculty and staff to help drive those efforts. I have asked our three sustainability advisory committees to continue to help steer us toward a more sustainable future, and I commend our fellow institutions of higher learning and the more than 154 U.S. companies that have pledged their support of international action at the U.N. Summit.

    I also thank the numerous individuals at U-M who are helping address climate change in their work and in their daily actions, so that we may leave a healthy planet to our children and grandchildren.