A person standing in the forest taking notes
A person standing in the forest taking notes
Bold Ideas: Saving the planet


Co-leads: Jennifer Haverkamp (Graham Family Director, Graham Sustainability Institute) and Jonathan Overpeck (Samuel A. Graham Dean, School for Environment and Sustainability)

Group members: Arun Agrawal (School for Environment and Sustainability), Todd Allen (College of Engineering), Aimée Classen College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), Catie Hausman (Ford School of Public Policy), Jen Maigret (Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning), Marie O’Neill (School of Public Health), Brad Orr (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts/Office of the Vice President for Research), Chris Poulsen (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), Allison Steiner (College of Engineering), Kyle Whyte (School for Environment and Sustainability)

Our planet is suffering. How can we save it for the children of tomorrow?

The Challenge

Climate change and environmental degradation are among the most devastating crises of our time, creating existential risks and threatening to drastically diminish our quality of life. The impacts of climate change are no longer a distant menace, but an existing emergency that currently threatens people’s lives and the Earth’s ecosystems. And the impacts of this crisis are happening faster than anticipated. Creating resilience, mitigating the effects, and eliminating the causes must happen now.

How important is the societal challenge of addressing climate change to you?

The Vision

U-M can lead the mitigation efforts with research, education, and programs designed to both create resilience amidst unavoidable climate change and eliminate additional, currently avoidable impacts. For this to happen, there is a need for new energy and transportation technologies, just and affordable solutions to a growing water crisis, environmentally sound and socially just food systems, among others. It is an opportunity to create more equitable social organizations, and to educate and empower our students and faculty to help solve these ominous challenges.

How well does this vision resonate with you?

The Initial Bold Ideas

Addressing the urgency

In February, the United Nations issued a stark warning: It’s “now or never” to limit global warming to avoid global disaster. The urgency associated with stopping climate change is more critical than ever, and U-M can bring to bear phenomenal interdisciplinary research, partnerships, and engagement resources to immediately begin to lessen its impacts. One area of focus would be accelerating the state of Michigan’s climate action plan, with U-M leading a politically durable transition to an economically robust clean energy economy that is sustainable and just. Another is focusing on creating net-zero carbon innovations, combining cutting edge elements of technology, design, and the arts. Carbon sequestration science, the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide (a chief pollutant) produced in forest, grassland, and agricultural landscapes, thereby removing it from the atmosphere, is another key focus. 


Bettering lives through sustainability action

Preserving and supporting our natural resources through sustainability actions is a central principle in mitigating climate change. U-M has an opportunity to enable the transformative change needed to ensure a more sustainable ecosystem in Michigan and beyond by focusing its unrivaled cross-campus interdisciplinary and leadership excellence on the most pressing environmental challenges. Equitable access to clean water is of paramount concern. We should work to transform current, ineffective approaches to planning, financing, constructing, and managing water services, including drinking water, stormwater management, and wastewater treatment. Building food systems that are health-promoting, economically viable, equitable, and ecologically sound is another critical area. Transforming transportation systems is an ongoing global effort and must address the complex technical, human-centered design, social, built environment, policy, social justice, physical health, and economic issues surrounding transportation. We will also lead efforts to develop the adaptation and resilience strategies that ensure that Michigan thrives despite climate change and is ready to welcome those from other parts of the country overwhelmed by climate change impacts. 


Leaders for climate justice

The effects of climate change disproportionately fall on underserved communities who are least able to prepare for and recover from them. Because of where they live, their health, income, language barriers, and limited access to resources, members of these groups face the greatest threats and are particularly vulnerable. A Next Generation Leaders and Change Agents educational program would train leaders of the future to achieve climate justice. The program would empower leaders in the communities facing climate change inequality, as well as be accessible to U-M students, faculty, and community-based professionals working outside academia.  

Transforming how academia designs education for impact, this program would be designed around the qualities of leadership required to tackle climate change and inequality and the concrete skills essential to leading adaptation/mitigation initiatives. These include grassroots organizing, gathering scientific and community-based knowledge, communications, institution and organization building, familiarity with legal and policy issues, and fundraising.


Understanding the risks

Assessing the extent and severity of risks is key to finding solutions. Yet despite access to more information, individuals and organizations consistently misunderstand the nature and scope of the risks they confront, including those with potentially catastrophic results. Creating a center dedicated to an interdisciplinary understanding of the central risks threatening the planet, its people, and its ecosystems is a first step in developing solutions. Through innovative, cross-sectoral, multi-level partnerships, this center would strengthen our capacity to understand, analyze, and respond to the full suite of cascading risks that threaten the future of humanity. It would evaluate the severity of those interconnected risks at every level of impact and develop scalable and transferable solutions to these risks, identifying the most promising partnerships for implementation at scale. 

This center would focus on three main sources/broad categories of catastrophic risks. The first is preventing everyday risks from escalating into catastrophic risks. The second is risks linked to natural disasters, like fires, earthquakes, or floods. The third is extinction risks—for people, species, and ecosystems—such as unchecked development of artificial intelligence, tampering with the genome, or accidents in the creation of novel viruses. It will also work to assess potential mitigation strategies.

Which of the bold ideas in this section spoke to you the most, and why?

Which do you think is least important for us to pursue, and why?

Are there other bold ideas related to this concept that we are missing?

Who are thought leaders in your network that might be interested in providing insights or feedback on this concept?