Addressing a University of Michigan crowd packed with students dedicated to climate and environmental justice, Vice President Kamala Harris encouraged them to “help people get excited about all the opportunities that will open up in the midst of crisis.”
As climate change has been a central focus of the Biden-Harris administration, the vice president urged those cheering her on in Rackham Auditorium on Jan. 12 to get involved in the movement to combat the climate crisis. Her appearance was part of a White House effort to promote its climate initiatives.
“I think that we are at one of the most incredible moments in this movement — a movement that, yes, we are a big part of, but that you all will be leading for years to come, and I’m so excited,” she told students in the crowd.
Harris discussed her thoughts on sustainability and the climate change battle in a Q&A session that was moderated by U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and included Kyle Whyte, the George Willis Pack Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability, who specializes in environmental justice.
Granholm, a former Michigan governor, praised Harris for her efforts championing climate action and her role in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the Climate and Equity Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, all of which have made measurable strides in fighting climate change.
Harris said there’s even more to come. She said every aspect of her work is dedicated to “trying to honor and preserve this beautiful earth that gives us so much in return.”
When Whyte asked how young people can take action, Harris said the sustainability movement will create opportunities for students in any field. From electrical engineers to human resource specialists to communications professionals, clean energy will provide jobs and pave the way for a richer economy, Harris said.
Jacob Sendra, one of the students listening to the speech, agreed.
“I thought it was great to hear Harris’ commitment to climate action and a lot of what they’ve done. It’s a great opportunity to hear her come on campus and talk with climate leaders,” said Sendra, a junior studying political science and vice president of U-M’s Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Prior to Harris’ Q&A, Provost Laurie McCauley spoke about the university’s dedication to achieving carbon neutrality on the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses.
“The climate crisis is the challenge of our time and I’m convinced we can meet it together. As we’ve seen in the recent news that the ozone layer is recovering, we have the opportunity to unmake, to remake and to restore a better world,” McCauley said.
Other speakers at the event included:
- U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor.
- Lashaun Jackson, an undergraduate student and co-president of the Student Sustainability Coalition.
- U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.
- Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor.
Every speaker emphasized the crucial role Michigan plays in combating the climate crisis in terms of manufacturing, agriculture and clean energy.
“(Harris) is in Michigan because we’re at the heart of the mission: fighting it, recognizing it and making a difference,” Dingell said.
This was Harris’ first visit to U-M and the first time a sitting vice president has spoken on campus since 1978.
The event drew a crowd of approximately 900. Students focused on climate and environmental justice were invited to attend, along with various faculty, staff and community leaders.
Granholm asked Harris if there were any recent technology advancements she looked forward to seeing develop further.
“Among the many things, I’m excited about electric school buses. I just love them, for so many reasons,” she said.
Harris said more than 25 million children in America travel to school on diesel-fueled buses every day. Not only are these buses terrible for the environment, she said, but also for the children, bus drivers and educators who inhale the toxic fumes.
Harris said this is an example of how climate change intersects with other complex issues, including public health. The regions in America with the poorest air quality, highest maternal mortality rate and widespread poverty are low-income areas with people of color. To confront climate change, the country must confront the issues it intersects with as well.
“The intersections must be front and center when we think about our movement, and always at the center must be the communities that are directly impacted,” the vice president said.
Harris said complex issues — the climate movement, civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, bodily autonomy, voting rights — have profound correlations. She encouraged the audience to work together, create coalitions and push back against the forces that create these issues.
“This is our opportunity to rededicate ourselves to bringing the communities together — communities and fights and movements that seemingly have nothing in common but have everything in common,” she said.
“One of the most powerful things we can do is build coalitions to remind people they are not alone and that we are in this together. Let’s seize this opportunity. It’s profound and it’s fun. It’s fun to do this work.”