Faculty News

Crucial Conversation Panel on Understanding and Addressing Climate Change

The impact of our world’s ever-growing population and resulting pollution only compounds concerns related to Earth’s rapidly changing climate. From cutting-edge research to global advocacy, researchers, students and leadership at the University of Michigan are dedicated to helping explore and combat climate change through expertise and action. A panel of U-M climate, environment, and sustainability experts discussed this in an engaging live conversation on Friday, April 30. 

Dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability Jonathan Overpeck moderated the conversation.

“It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly. It’s a global concern, and we’re stepping up as a nation in the US with action,” Overpeck said as he opened the conversation. 

“As the top public research university, we are leading efforts to understand the problem and develop solutions. It’s critical to understand what climate change means, and more importantly what we can do about it.”

Kyle Whyte, George Willis Pack Professor of Environment and Sustainability and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, spoke specifically on environmental justice and how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color and ingenious people. He explained that during the industrialization process, many indigenous people were not only dispossessed of their land, they were also denied the benefits of industrialization such as the electrical grid, which wasn’t fully extended to many reservations. 

“The US industrial economy destroyed the indigenous economies that pre existed it and created a very challenging situation that climate impacts like extreme weather events can literally debilitate a tribe’s energy system, their housing, their infrastructure, and pose serious challenges to that tribe’s economy and even threaten people’s cultures,” Whyte said, emphasizing that environmental justice is an aspect of climate change that cannot be overlooked.

Stephen Forrest, Peter A Franken Distinguished University Professor of Engineering and the Paul G Goebel Professor of Engineering, also touched on disproportionate impacts, climate justice, and the importance of understanding the many facets of climate change. Forrest served as the Co-Chair of the President’s Commission for Carbon Neutrality, which submitted its recommendations for the University of Michigan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in March.

“The framing concept of the PCCN’s report and recommendations to the university centered on climate justice and leadership. Beneath that follows everything. If you’ve got leadership and the leadership is attuned to primary impacts that it has on society, other things will fall naturally,” he said, adding that the University of Michigan community doesn’t just include Ann Arbor, but also Flint and Dearborn.  

Beyond exploring the impacts of climate change, the panel discussed the importance of educating and empowering communities to take action. Alexa White, PhD candidate in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, co-director of Climate Blue, and the World Wildlife Foundation’s 2020 Conversation Leadership Awardee, said that it’s important to inform, motivate, and include others in the efforts. 

“I think that the dialogue surrounding climate change oftentimes forgets that youth has been the group that has charged a lot of the grassroots movements, that have created a lot of the changes that we’ve already seen,” White said.

“I think it begins at a cultural level of how we come to understand climate change, the autonomy that you have within those spaces, and what you can actually do as an individual person. Those conversations are going on, I think it’s more of a question of how can we all participate in those conversations.”

Overpeck, Whyte, Forrest, and White also talked about agricultural sustainability, sea levels, renewable energy storage, and motivating communities to take action. They also highlighted the actions they feel are most important to address, which included ensuring that agencies take seriously their duties of equity, increasing participatory governance, valuing the voices of those who are oppressed, and getting renewables in place to help get carbon out of the atmosphere as soon as possible. 

Watch the full panel conversation to learn more