No time left for you
Whenever I do interviews about climate change, the reporters tend to ask if there are any points I would like to make sure we cover.
These days, I have one answer: We are at the start of a rapid and accelerating period of global warming. This will be true for the next several decades. And the warming will not “settle down” in 50 years. It is time to adapt.
- We need to incorporate into our behavior that the planet is warming and that it will continue to warm.
- We need to incorporate this reality into our institutional planning.
- We need to take steps to limit this warming; that is, we need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
If nothing else, it’s time to get specific. And if we understand the characteristic amounts of time – the time scales – on which we function, we are better able to prepare for and manage this complicated issue.
Time after time
A good human time scale is 50 years; think of it as the time between being “educated” and retirement. City planners often work on a time scale of decades. A building might be constructed to exist for more than 50 years, but we also expect to renovate at some point. Now, apply that 50-year time scale to Earth. We are at a point that if we were to strive to limit global warming to (approximately) twice what we already have realized, we would need to, essentially, eliminate fossil fuel emissions in 50 years. There is no evidence we are on that path.
Adapting to a changing climate may feel insurmountable on the individual level. But I encourage everyone to think about scaling up your own influence right now. Run for office, volunteer in a community organization, change your business model, influence your institution toward “renovating” our environment.
I see signs of that scale happening on the U-M campus. Since spring 2019, an emergence of youth activism on climate change has gathered palpable momentum, and with it has come a growing and justified tension between generations. Students increasingly dismiss “the boomers” as not effective in taking on the monumental challenges of climate change.
Time is not on our side
Climate scientists – and U-M students — understand we need to manage our time wisely. Think about how much time it takes to get things done on a community scale, let alone on the scale of a nation or the world. How long does it take to design and permit a water project, a building, a highway? Perhaps, 10 years? That just consumed 20 percent of the 50 years we have to reduce emissions. Policymakers need to incorporate climate change into those plans, now, rather than starting five years down the road. So does the University.
Student activism at U-M and Ann Arbor always has been focused on moves the University can take right away. One demand is that U-M divest from fossil fuel investments. Students also are pushing the administration to take more active and immediate steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels going forward. These demands are not new. In March, the University celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Environmental Teach-In, in which these same issues were top of mind.
Time stands still
In 2018, students, staff, and faculty organized a group called Clean Wolverines and issued a white paper after a year of strategizing about how the University could reduce emissions. The report asserted that a renowned research institution like U-M was obligated to take the lead in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A comparison to peer institutions, however, revealed that in an absolute and relative sense, U-M had fallen behind.
In February 2019, President Mark Schlissel announced the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. This 2019 commission emerged as the result of years of activity, including, as early as 2013, another aggressive call to divest from fossil fuels.
The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality has held town halls. It has formed committees that are writing reports and developing recommendations. It is apparent, however, that many students and student groups find these efforts unconvincing and slooooooow. Observers question whether the administration is taking steps to incorporate climate change into planning and design.
Many decisions have decade-length consequences. These decisions need to consider both the changing climate and the high likelihood of a vastly changing energy market as time ticks on.
If I could turn back time
Climate change advocacy groups have had a persistent presence at the Regents meetings for the past year. The trend will only continue. The namesake of this column is the student group Climate Blue. They recently wrote to President Schlissel and the Regents commending the initiation of the Commission and asking for more immediate and tangible efforts to reduce emissions. They asked the administration to prioritize issues of social justice and wellbeing, environment, and governance when making investment decisions.
The Climate Action Movement is another local activist group comprising alumni, donors, students, staff, faculty, and Ann Arbor community leaders. They protested at the December 2019 Regents Meeting, along with members of a group named One University.
At the February 2020 Regents’ meeting, Climate Blue personally presented its letter. A group of faculty and alumni, representing Voices for Carbon Neutrality, delivered a letter with more that 1400 signatures and spoke to the Regents as well. These public statements underline the urgency for the University to accelerate our efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to align our investment principles with social and environmental priorities.
Notably, the Regents voted for a freeze on new investments while alternative investment policies are studied. This is a promising beginning to the reduction of barriers to integrating climate change into our planning and design.
Solving the problems associated with climate change requires attention to communication and continuity. This is difficult in a University setting, which ebbs and flows with the academic calendar. In my transition from a career at NASA to a career at Michigan, I have worked in many situations where there is a good meeting – one good meeting. But it is the next meeting that matters if one is to achieve continuous progress from academic year to academic year.
And then we are back to that time-scale problem. Problem-solving benefits from research, something we are very good at here. There is, of course, the need for more research to improve our ability to prepare for and to limit climate change. I am a strong advocate for systems design and implementation. I value organization.
But I also believe there are consequences of waiting even five more years to take significant action. I warn my students about how the calls for “more research” and “more evidence” can be used as a political tactic to avoid decision-making. I warn them that in academic settings it might be, essentially, a cultural practice that becomes a barrier.
The ability to reduce emissions is at hand. Yet, for decades we, in the U.S., have not taken this opportunity. I expect that student and public activism will persist, and that we have reached an opportunity moment, which will require leadership to overcome the organizational and cultural barriers that keep us entrenched.