1. Global Climate Change and the University of Michigan’s Path Forward

    September 9, 2021

    Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most daunting report to date, detailing how precarious the situation is for humanity as it grapples with the climate crisis.

    Among the report’s conclusions: that human-induced climate change is contributing to extreme events all around the world, that global warming of at least 1.5 degrees Celsius is essentially guaranteed over the next generation, and that some effects caused by greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries and millennia to come.

    The climate crisis is no longer looming; it is here. The University of Michigan endeavors to be on the forefront of a broader effort to limit climate change’s severity, advance innovative multidisciplinary solutions for the planet’s benefit, meet our campus’ own bold commitments toward carbon neutrality and imbue our community with a culture of sustainability.

    What’s at Stake

    Climate change can be observed in the U.S. in real-time, as evidenced by extreme events like the severe hurricanes, droughts and wildfires occurring at many places around the country this past summer, becoming more frequent and intense with time. In Michigan, severe flooding overwhelms 20th century infrastructure ill-prepared for climate change, while harmful algal blooms disrupt Great Lakes ecosystems and harm industries and communities that rely on clean water. Crucially, climate change burdens lower-income and historically disadvantaged communities disproportionately.

    Since its inception in 1988, the IPCC has analyzed human-induced climate change, its effects on the natural and built environments, and potential response strategies. Its most recent report details a bleak forecast, and it’s crucial that humanity acts together to limit future warming with its adverse effects on our environment and economy.

    It has become clear that going forward, sustainability and the bottom line go hand in hand. A majority of Michigan voters believe that climate change is a threat to Michigan’s economy, and regional anchor institutions like General Motors are pivoting to lower-carbon strategies and offerings “from a position of strength.”

    A Comprehensive Approach

    Spurred by the advocacy of so many in our community and U-M’s mission to serve the people of Michigan and the world, we committed in May to achieve carbon neutrality university-wide, including greenhouse gas emissions from Scope 1 (generated from on-campus sources), Scope 2 (resulting from purchased electricity) and Scope 3 (resulting from indirect sources such as food procurement, commuting, and university-sponsored travel) categories.

    We’re learning from other like-minded institutions and pursuing scalable and transferable strategies to help others in turn. We’ve shared our initial progress toward carbon neutrality and will have more updates in the months ahead.

    Also earlier this year, we announced new strategies that shift our endowment’s natural resources investments to focus more on renewable energy, stop investing in funds primarily focused on certain fossil fuels and discontinue direct investments in publicly traded companies that are the largest contributors to greenhouse gases.

    We’re also investing in our faculty expertise by supporting interdisciplinary research collaborations through efforts such as the Institute for Global Change Biology, the Global CO2 Initiative and the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program. Our greatest opportunity to make a transformative contribution to mitigating this existential threat lies with our tremendous research capacity as America’s leading public research university.

    Getting Involved

    Faculty can join the more than 700 U-M researchers, representing an array of schools, colleges, departments and disciplines, who are bringing their expertise together toward a more sustainable world — whether by developing new technologies, addressing equity implications inherent in ongoing energy transitions, or working with affected communities.

    On campus, programs like Planet Blue Ambassador and the Sustainable Workplace Program are providing students, staff and faculty with resources to live, work and learn sustainably at U-M. Students can take part in sustainability action through organizations like the Student Sustainability Coalition, the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and Planet Blue Student Leaders.

    We all have a role to play, in addressing an issue that requires our sustained attention and action. While we’re excited to put sustainability commitments into practice, efforts must not end there. We strive to continue learning from environmental advocates, peer institutions, and crucially, communities that are on the front lines of the climate crisis. We look forward to engaging with our community every step of the way.

    Mark S. Schlissel