New Environment and Sustainability discusses mission and cross-campus work at new school

Thursday, October 26, 2017 - 9:37pm

Approximately 100 University of Michigan community members gathered at the Dana Natural Resources Building to hear Jonathan Overpeck, the inaugural Samuel A. Graham Dean of the University’s new School for Environment and Sustainability, discuss plans for the new school and its mission to serve the public Thursday evening. 

SEAS, which officially opened July 1, replaced the School of Natural Resources and Environment. In September 2016, a research committee recommended the new school be created to respond to global challenges. Overpeck, an expert on climate change who served as an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment and has published 200 papers in the field, was appointed dean by the Board of Regents in June.

Prior to Overpeck’s lecture, Donald Graham, a University alum and benefactor, founder of the Graham Sustainability Institute and leader in other environment-related efforts at the University, discussed the importance of these environment and sustainability efforts. Graham grew up in Ann Arbor and attended the University’s College of Engineering; his father Sam, for whom the dean title is named, was a professor in the department of Forestry, the longtime predecessor of SNRE.

Graham explained several years ago he and his family funded the Dean’s chair at SNRE to support the school and to honor his father.

“Today, we have a new school that we’re welcoming, but again … we’re welcoming a new vision,” he said. “I think that’s the important thing. We really have an opportunity to change the world.”

Graham described his father as a stark environmentalist; he published papers in the late 1940s and early 1950s on issues such as clean water and the misuse of chemicals. He was, according to Graham, decades ahead of his time in terms of the recognition of such problems.

“I’m sure he’d be very happy about the changes that we’ve made, not just in the names, but in the focus and mission of the school that are really showing particularly in this last change — the School of Sustainability and Environment,” he said. “I think he’d also be extremely pleased with the University for making the funds available to this new school, and resources available, that will allow it to make a difference.”

In his lecture, Overpeck thanked the faculty, staff, students, donors and alumni for their work in preparation for SEAS.

He then discussed environmental challenges that are threatening to humans, but that humans are also falling behind in addressing.

He first addressed climate change, what he called the “mother of all challenges for humankind in this century.” He said just in the last year, hurricanes have been supercharged by warming, there has been increased rainfall due to the warming atmosphere and there have been wildfires, such as those in California.

“The climate challenge isn’t just in America, it’s a global phenomenon,” he said. “The costs in the U.S. this year alone, of course, were in the hundreds of billions and many lives lost. Around the world, it’s much worse. Poor and less powerful people both in the United States and around the globe are being disproportionately affected by climate change and that’s something we have to do something about.”

Overpeck said pollution has to remain the main focus of all things related to environment and sustainability. He said the global price tag for pollution is almost $5 trillion and 9 million premature deaths.

“That’s 15 times the deaths from all wars and other forms of violence in this country,” he said. “We’re talking about the biggest challenges our planet is faced with.”

Overpeck also explained there are changes occurring around the globe with terrestrial and marine ecosystems, saying it will be a major challenge to conserve and sustain them.

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Overpeck said the world needs more robust sustainable designs, systems, strategies and policies — what he called “a good challenge” for the University.

“We need a lot of real talent and energy going into understanding and providing sustainable solutions for the future,” he said.

Overpeck said in the political realm, the United States is backtracking on environmental matters for the first time in his life. He said he took the position at the University because he saw an opportunity to work with people on and off campus to create a more sustainable future.

Overpeck noted the United States is one of the only countries that hasn’t signed on to aggressively combat climate change. However, he also said the global community is moving too slowly in general to alleviate environmental challenges.

Overpeck said it is important for high-achieving universities to become more functional partners in society, something he believes can be done around environment and sustainability.

The new SEAS will be the first cross-campus school of its kind, according to Overpeck.

“This means we can work without any turf battles, I hope — from the farthest reaches of public health and law and medicine, engineering, the liberal arts, social work, education, the list goes on,” he said.

Overpeck said the school also aims to be “porous,” one in which people can come in, work with their partners, work in the real world and return, both on and off campus, as a University-public partnership. 

Alexandra Haddad, director of communications at SEAS, said the lecture marked the official launch of the new school, adding that faculty and staff were thrilled to hear Overpeck’s vision for a facility that is engaged across campus and is committed to solving real-world problems.

“We have been preparing for this moment for a couple of years around here, as we just get ready to make the transition from the School of Natural Resources and Environment to the School for Environment and Sustainability, and this was sort of the culmination of preparation and the launch of the new school and so that’s why it’s a very exciting moment,” she said.

University alum Geri Unger, conservation scientist and an environmental educator, serves on the dean’s External Advisory Committee for SEAS. She said she is excited about the creation of the new school.

“There are such pressing needs, and it’s really important to have Michigan at the center of it,” she said. “I’m excited to be part of it still.”

Echoing Overpeck’s point, Unger said she was looking forward to the interdisciplinary nature of the school.

“I think what’s so exciting is it’s really going to be campus-wide and the school is going to serve as a hub for integrating other expertise from other units at the University and really try and broadcast that out — that we have such great capacity to do work,” she said.