Climate change, environmental concerns and net-zero carbon emissions: Think globally, act locally

By Will Shakespeare, Groundcover vendor No. 258

“Our purpose is to bring new ideas, new analyses, and new approaches to persistent problems — both national and international — to the attention of all those who care about, and help determine the quality and direction of our life…We hope that “The Limit to Growth” will command critical attention and spark debate in all societies.”

 — William Watts, President, Potomac Associates (1972)

America’s first Earth Day celebration began on April 22, 1970. Today, in 2021, more than one billion people in over 190 countries celebrate Earth Day. Environmental historians have given credit to former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson for proposing the event in order to raise awareness about climate risks and environmental degradation. Nelson issued the proclamation for an Earth Day celebration in September 1969 while he was urging college students across America to begin a “National Teach-In.” The Senator also wanted Earth Day to be “A National Day of Conversation.”

Groundcover’s April 2020 Earth Day article was subtitled, “As Earth Day turns 50, local leaders step up on climate action.” It  addressed two important policy questions: What is the University of Michigan doing about climate change? What is the City of Ann Arbor plus the Washtenaw County government doing about addressing climate change? An update follows. 

The  torch has passed from the 1960s/1970s generation of environmental activists to the Millennial Generation and Generation Z. These young people organized the Washtenaw County Climate Strike in 2019. College students, along with their high school and middle school allies, demonstrated on and around the University of Michigan campus.  

Concerned parents were calling high school and middle school administrators asking where the teachers and their children were. Thousands of the students and many of their teachers were participating in the rallies. They protested and demanded urgent actions to combat climate change. The City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County governments have subsequently declared a climate emergency. They have taken steps in 2019, 2020 and 2021 to achieve carbon neutrality and net-zero emissions. 

Recently, a new student group formed at the University of Michigan. They call themselves the Climate Action Movement, or CAM. They raised concerns about investments in fossil fuel by the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor. They are both fearless and aggressive, displaying hundreds of posters across the town and the campus which say, “Invest in Our Futures, Not Planetary Destruction.” 

Before the U-M Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) handed over their published final report to President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents, CAM made three key demands: 

1. DIVEST from all companies whose business is to enact or fund the exploration, extraction, refinement or transportation of fossil fuels; 

2. REINVEST capital in initiatives that advance a just energy transition and build community resilience; and 

3. REALIGN the endowment with U-M’s mission to serve the public good. 

Update on what the University of Michigan is doing to combat climate change

On March 18, 2021, the U-M PCCN released its 104-page final report. The document outlines 50 recommendations for the University of Michigan’s three campuses to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. The commissioners identified multiple steps to reducing the University’s carbon footprint. There were three essential scopes for achieving carbon neutrality: 

Scope 1) The University’s direct emissions, including those from the University power plant, the transportation and bus fleet on the campuses, and emission from boilers; 

Scope 2) Emissions that derive from University off-campus electricity and ‘purchased power;’ 

Scope 3) Emissions indirectly attributed to the University that include commuting to campus and food procurement on campus.” 

In order to forward the PCCN’s suggestions, the U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute’s Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program announced in February 2021 that a $5 million gift from anonymous donors will have “the dramatic potential to help reduce net carbon emission.” Dr. Jennifer Haverkamp, Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, co-chairs PCCN with Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, Dean of the School of Environment and Sustainability.

Some of the student activists involved with CAM and the previous Washtenaw County Climate Strike decided not to fully embrace the new PCCN recommendations— especially the recommendations that rely on carbon offsets. 

Update on what Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County governments are doing for climate change

The City of Ann Arbor declared a climate emergency in 2019. The Wash-tenaw County Board of Commissioners did the same, followed by the city of Ypsilanti. U-M Ph.D. graduate Dr. Missy Stults is the City of Ann Arbor Manager for Sustainability and Innovation. She is the primary representative of the city on the formulation, implementation and evaluation of carbon neutrality and net-zero carbon emission policies. In March 2020, the city launched the net-zero carbon neutrality programs. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has worked closely with the Ann Arbor City Council and the City staff on issues of climate change, net-zero carbon emissions and goal setting. 

Missy Stults and her Ann Arbor action team will help residents plant 10,000 trees to offset sources of air pollution within its jurisdiction.

Both local governments are committed to increasing their budgets and community education on the risks of climate change and the benefits of achieving net-zero carbon emission goals by 2030. Between April 30 and May 2, Missy Stults and her Ann Arbor climate action team will help Ann Arbor residents plant 10,000 trees to offset sources of air pollution within its jurisdiction. 

Leadership in Ann Arbor’s climate change policies will be maximized in the coming years. Ann Arbor’s Mayor, Christopher Taylor, was invited in February 2021 to become a special adviser to the Global Executive Committee on Climate Action. Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced in September 2020 that the state of Michigan would set the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

The issues of climate change are not just local issues. They are global issues. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted to mitigate extreme weather events and minimize deaths and destruction. In 2015, about 195 countries became signatories to the Paris Climate Action Agreement. The United States Government withdrew from the Agreement in 2017. In January 2021, the Biden administration re-joined the Paris Accord.

What disappoints many young activists is that Big Oil companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, knew about the catastrophic effects of climate change in 1968 and tried to hide the information. The big electric, coal and gas utility companies also knew about climate change risks during this time but chose to, instead, perpetuate a decades-long disinformation campaign to deceive the public. 

There is a Planning and Public Policy lesson on preparedness to be learned from the recent COVID-19 global pandemic. Dr. A. Feldt, a former U-M urban planning faculty expert on simulations and games once asked, “How do you plan for the acts of God and nature?” In the 21st century, the question is what are individuals, industries, and governments doing to save our planet? And what are they doing to keep the global temperatures from increasing a catastrophic two or three degrees Celsius? It is imperative that the richest and largest economies act now in order to save our earth from irreversible harm.

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