Panel offers multidisciplinary perspectives on climate crisis


Janet Napolitano, former University of California president, U.S. secretary of homeland security and Arizona governor, joined University of Michigan sustainability experts for a panel discussion on climate action.

The discussion, part of the Presidential Inauguration Symposium and titled “Working Together to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” centered around mobilizing government, higher education, the private sector, community stakeholders and individuals toward addressing the climate crisis.

It took place March 7 at Stamps Auditorium.

From left, moderator Chris Kolb and panelists Janet Napolitano, Margaret Wooldridge, Omolade Adunbi and Andy Hoffman, with President Santa J. Ono. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)
From left, moderator Chris Kolb and panelists Janet Napolitano, Margaret Wooldridge, Omolade Adunbi and Andy Hoffman, with President Santa J. Ono. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

“Climate change is a classic frog-in-boiling-water problem,” Napolitano said.

“These types of frog problems are difficult for policymakers to deal with in a world of competing crises and where the required societal changes are so fundamental. The list is endless: economic, energy, food systems, health, housing, natural resource management, transportation, waste — all require mitigation and adaptation if we are to continue to thrive.”

Napolitano spoke about the difficulty in achieving carbon neutrality without purchasing controversial carbon offsets, the need to include health systems in university sustainability goals, and the importance of research universities working with local, state and federal governments.

During her tenure at the University of California, Napolitano led the creation of the University Climate Change Coalition. U-M currently serves as the organization’s lead institution.

Watch a video of the panel discussion on “Working Together to Tackle the Climate Crisis.“

Additional panelists included:

  • Omolade Adunbi, professor of Afroamerican and African studies and director of academic programs for the African Studies Center in LSA.
  • Andy Hoffman, Holcim (US) Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and professor of management and organizations in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and professor of environment and sustainability in the School for Environment and Sustainability.
  • Margaret Wooldridge, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor; Walter J. Weber Jr. Professor of Sustainable Energy, Environmental and Earth Systems Engineering, and  professor of mechanical engineering and of aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering; and director of the Institute for Energy Solutions.

Chris Kolb, vice president for government relations, moderated the discussion.

Panelists discussed the intersection between the climate crisis and equity, noting climate change’s reverberations beyond temperature and sea level.

“We have to begin to think about global inclusivity,” Adunbi said. “Many of the conflicts that we see in many African countries today are climate-related, although sometimes some of those conflicts are either tagged as ethnic or religious conflicts.


“Lakes that provide livelihood to many of these communities are drying up, farmers are in conflict with herders. … How do we engineer a new form of technology that is inclusive, and that also brings a lot of disenchanted and disenfranchised communities to the table to be part of the solution to the crisis.”

Hoffman spoke to the importance of a broad, systems-level approach, noting that U-M climate action should involve collaboration across schools and colleges to address implications related to technology, economics and equity.

“Climate change is just one marker of this broader systems breakdown,” he said. “We have — our species — grown to such numbers and our technology to such power that we can alter global systems.

“So we can talk about climate change; we can also talk about biodiversity loss, land system use, ocean acidification — all the markers of what is called ‘the anthropocene.’ With that in mind, we have to go down to fundamental questions about how our systems are structured.”

Wooldridge spoke about the need to not always take a dire view, citing enthusiasm on the part of the campus community.

“We have tools and appetite, and that’s great,” Wooldridge said. “We live in unprecedented times, unprecedented levels of communication, and we have unprecedented tools at our disposal. Whether they are technological tools, whether they are social-political tools, we really are informed in ways we’ve never been before.”


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