Students and activists express frustration at Climate Action Committee public forum

The IU Climate Action Planning Committee hosted an open forum in the IU Auditorium on Wednesday for students, faculty and staff to learn more about the committee’s work and share their ideas on what the committee should focus on.

The event, co-hosted by the committee and its partner SmithGroup, a Detroit-based architecture firm, focused on the university’s 2023 Climate Action Plan, which specifically includes a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2040.

“It’s time to start just writing a check today where you’re investing in planting trees on a property,” said Stet Sanborn, SmithGroup principal investigator for the project.

However, the event was also marked by quiet protests from several attendees who brought cardboard signs with messages such as “Practice What You Teach, Climate Action NOW” and “Climate Action Plan by 2023”.

Much of the beginning of the event consisted of anonymous polling sessions, where attendees were able to answer questions from the committee. Many of the same participants took a skeptical stance on IU’s current work on reducing carbon emissions and used these sessions to tell the committee that the university is still not doing enough.

When asked, “What is IU Bloomington doing today to reduce carbon emissions?” the most common response was, “They say they are making a plan.” Others simply said, “Not enough.” Still others answered questions like, ” What challenges might Indiana University face in reducing carbon emissions?” with specific concerns: “The IU Foundation continues to invest in fossil fuels.”

Student groups have long called for the IU Foundation to stop investing in fossil fuels, with the All University Student Association passing a resolution to that effect in 2014, according to the Board of Trustees’ website. Sunrise Bloomington, a climate activist group, called for the same thing just this year, according to WFYI. Still, Thomas Morrison, a committee chair, said the university has no authority to direct the foundation’s investments.

“The university cannot legally direct the foundation,” he said. “However, in the interest of transparency, we met with the leadership of the IU Foundation over the summer and discussed the issue of investments and they are reviewing their investments in relation to renewable energy.”

The open mic portion of the event provided attendees with an opportunity to pose questions more directly to the panel and clearly demonstrated the unrest and pessimism among students and staff regarding the university’s climate policies. A key concern was a perceived lack of transparency on behalf of the committee, including that its meetings are private.

“What we’re trying to do with any committee is to allow people to freely exchange, and that’s one of the reasons,” Morrison said. “We want committee members to have an open and honest dialogue, and if that’s a public framework, maybe you don’t have that.”

Others particularly criticized the fact that even at the public forums the committee has held, students and staff who cannot attend in person have no other way of seeing these sessions. No live broadcast or post-session transcript will be provided.

“You mentioned earlier that you’re making it available to the public to see community feedback,” said one student, referring to the event’s anonymous polls. “Don’t you think your responses to community feedback should also be available online for accessibility, accountability, and clarity?”

Morrison reiterated that the committee has no plans to record or transcribe future public forums or open the committee’s meetings to the public.

“Everything is public in this area,” he said in reference to the open forum. “So I give answers.”

Another concern among participants was the plan’s specific focus on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, which many viewed as ignoring Scope 3 emissions. According to Sustain Life, Scope One emissions are emissions burned in “owned or controlled assets” such as vehicles or boilers; Scope 2 emissions are those from purchased electricity, heating or cooling in buildings.

The committee defined Scope 3 emissions as “all other indirect emissions resulting from the activities of assets not owned or controlled by the university.” Morrison said the committee’s goal right now is to focus on scope one and scope two emissions and that its data on scope three emissions isn’t nearly as robust.

“The committee wanted to tackle areas one and two immediately and we anticipate that area three will be part of future plans,” he said.

According to News at IU, the Climate Action Planning Committee was set up by IU President Pamela Whitten in April 2022, and the committee’s recommendations on reducing greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are due by April 2023. Some students at the open forum raised concerns about Whitten’s role in this process, which includes selecting the committee’s members.

“So many great answers we seek can only be given by President Whitten,” said one student. “I hope and expect that Whitten will be able to attend the next of these panels to hear feedback and answer these questions.”

Morrison said the next public forum is planned for the spring semester, but there is currently no tentative date.