As wildfires continue to desolate the West Coast, scientists fear that efforts to reduce the impact of climate change are insufficient. Last week, vibrant pink skies were visible in Ann Arbor due to the haze from the fires. The West Coast fires did not impact air quality in Michigan, but they did make the sky appear cloudy.

Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, is a climate scientist who studies climate change and its impact on humans. He is also a member of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, an advisory body of students, faculty and staff who looks into ways the University community can reduce carbon emissions to environmentally sustainable levels. 

Overpeck explained that communities need to adapt to deal with the crisis. He said reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions is the first step to halting the spread of the fires.

“Wildfire patterns will spread toward the Midwest if we don’t stop this now,” Overpeck said. “More people are going to be threatened by wildfires than ever before if we don’t stop this.”

Fires are able to become so large, frequent and destructive partially because people burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases in their everyday lives and for industrial purposes.

Overpeck said while wildfires cannot be eradicated, people can do their part to lessen their effects and severity. According to Overpeck, these changes can start at major research institutions, like the University, where there are resources to create carbon-neutral solutions.

“What’s really key in what we’re doing is not just to drive the University of Michigan to carbon neutrality but to develop technologies to use for the broader world,” Overpeck said. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to make Michigan completely carbon neutral by the year 2050 by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and positioning the state to attract clean energy jobs. Ann Arbor has been developing a strategy to go completely carbon neutral by 2030, while Ypsilanti has followed suit and drafted a similar plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. 

Rackham student Austin Glass, one of two student commissioners on PCCN, previously worked as a technical adviser for Ann Arbor, analyzing the feasibility of carbon-neutral solutions. Glass said addressing the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere is key to preventing future fires.

“It is the right thing to do from an ecological perspective to ensure diversity in the ecosystem,” Glass said. “If we don’t do something about the carbon in our atmosphere, wildfires will be more severe and in some cases more frequent.”

Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute, and Engineering professor Stephen Forrest are both co-chairs of the commission. In an email, Sustainability Communications Manager Adam Fisher said the co-chairs’ goal is to create solutions that will allow the University to be a more sustainable campus. 

“The PCCN, charged with developing scalable and transferable solutions, will enable U-M to help lead in broader carbon neutrality efforts,” Fisher wrote on behalf of Haverkamp and Forrest.

The PCCN is currently considering options for the University to achieve carbon neutrality. 

Overpeck said educating more students about the impacts of the fires is crucial to curbing their spread.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about environmental education,” Overpeck said. “That’s what is, to me, an important part of what we’re doing.”

Daily Staff Reporter Meghana Lodhavia can be reached at

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