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Collective soul

On the path to ‘catastrophic?’

I started my first course on climate change in 2006 at the request of three students in policy and business. The focus of this course was on the intersections between climate change and all aspects of society.

Hurricane Dorian

Katrina’s cousin, Hurricane Dorian, as seen from the International Space Station. (Image courtesy Richard Rood.)

In 2008, it was obvious that we, collectively, were not going to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions enough to avoid dangerous global warming. Indeed, by this time we were seeing migrations from low-lying barrier islands along the U.S. coast and from Alaskan villages that were no longer protected from erosion by permanent sea ice. We had experienced Hurrican Katrina, and we were understanding the vulnerability of New Orleans and many cities along the country’s East Coast.

In 2008, we were, about, 1 degree warmer than the pre-industrial world and already experiencing dangerous climate change. I changed my courses to think about a world 4 degrees C warmer, with the idea that examining this 4-degree world would motivate more realistic thinking about how to intervene and keep this from happening.

Now, some scientists describe a 3-degree warmer world as “catastrophic,” and a 5-degree world as “unknown.”

Necessary losses

There is no evidence-based knowledge that we, globally, are on a path to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. There is no evidence-based logic to support that we will develop, in the next decade, federal or global policy that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

We are on a path to “catastrophic” or “unknown.”  In order to manage global warming, we will have to develop technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This does not mean that we are relieved of our responsibility to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, in my courses, I talk about necessary losses. Preservation will have to change. Conservation will have to change. Legacy will have to change. We are not going back.

We are creatures with an amazing ability to adapt. We have knowledge of the future, which offers us the potential to thrive. When I describe problem-solving techniques to my students, we talk about how to take their individual efforts and scale them up. I urge them to become involved in school boards and local government, and to build a foundation of science-informed decision-makers. We talk about where we have influence, in our purchases. in our community associations, in our businesses, and in the organizations where we learn and work.

We are responsible for our predicament with climate change. We arrived here through the choices and actions made by individuals and organizations. Solutions will also come from choices made by individuals and organizations. Despite the challenges, we must have confidence that the individual choices we make will accumulate into collective positive outcomes.

Taking a proactive role

In 2009, I gave a Michigan Seminar in Florida. Because it might offend donors, there was apprehension about having a climate change presentation at this event. Since then, I have received climate-denying manuscripts written by donors for me to review. I have heard the arguments and risks assessments by those at the University to construct the barriers that slow our addressing climate change.

In the decade since the Michigan Seminar I have, also, seen carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase by 10 percent.

The University of Michigan is an organization that is immersed in knowledge. I am encouraged by the recent decisions of the University and the Regents to address the challenges of carbon neutrality. As I encourage my students to influence their organizations, I encourage the University to use its knowledge base to be proactive about its role, and to become a leader to influence other organizations and our civilization.



  1. Jerome Pando - 1984

    Wow, what happened to my university?
    I thought the world was supposed to end ~20 years ago and it got rolled into carbon dioxide emissions. Before that it was the new ice age in the 70s and the hole in the ozone layer.
    Hard to believe what passes for science anymore.


    • Richard Rood

      I don’t know what has happened to your university.

      I have never claimed the world will end in 10 years, in 20 years. In fact, I claim that we are adaptable, and if we use our knowledge, we can thrive.

      Indeed, in the 70s there were a small number of scientists maintaining we were on the brink of an ice age. Every year, I ask my students to analyze what is different, now, than then, with respect to robustness of climate science. One could, perhaps, use the 70s as an example of the perils of using cycles and correlations to predict the future.

      As for ozone, we intervened. We confined the damage to, mostly, the Antarctic, and today we are on the way to recovery. That recovery is consistent with the model-based projections. That is a quite impressive outcome from scientific investigation.

      It occurred to me, as I wrote that, how much that is like a reasonable approach to COVID-19. Intervene, confine damage, then proceed at a pace that we can manage.

      An anecdote. Last year I was signed up to do an interview on a conservative talk radio show. The host asked me about climate scientists saying we had 10 years to fix the problem or the world would end. I answered that the world would not end in 10 years. This led to about 20 minutes of rational discussion about the warming, the disruption, and the need to intervene to keep things manageable. The only problem with the interview, it did not, perhaps, feed into the narrative that the host wanted, and it was never broadcast.

      You might like this piece about climate scientists, and how we will just say anything.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to write a comment.


  2. Christina De Simone - 2009

    I am grateful for the transparency in this article, especially around donor resistance. I am not well educated in the efforts of the University around sustainability and climate change, but I am more curious now. I would love to see the University, if it is not already, leading the charge in sustainability among its donor base, similar to what BlackRock did with its investments. The University is a large and powerful organization that must use its power to drive to a better tomorrow for everyone, otherwise the power and influence is wasted.


    • Richard Rood


      There have been pockets of leadership at Michigan in sustainability. For example, the Graham Institute has supported many students and faculty projects.

      The Dow Sustainability Fellows have brought together some of the most cross-disciplinary and interesting groups I have seen anywhere.

      As you say, U Michigan is large and powerful, and these sustainability activities are a small part of the whole. It is, also, an organization that is representative of many years and many disciplines, and there is far from uniform acceptance of climate science and sustainability as a rigorous discipline. Financially, it is a fairly conservative organization, which has often worked to its benefit. One might argue that it takes a half to a full generation amount of time to steer it.

      There is, now, a persistent effort on carbon neutrality, and a more outward looking institutional presence in sustainability.

      This article is the long version of a public statement I made at the Regents meeting last on June 25.

      And, at this moment there are many unprecedented challenges.

      Thanks for reading and the comment.


  3. Nick Goodale - 1980

    I too appreciate the discussion of donor resistance: this seems like a key issue.

    I feel a bit more optimistic: there is evidence of reasonably fast growth and cost reduction of low-carbon energy sources, synthetic meat is succeeding surprisingly well. OTOH, I agree on the need for enormously better action on both the individual and national level.


    • Richard Rood


      Indeed there is fast growth of renewables in some places. If it were not for this it would be even worse.

      The problem is that, outside of recession, there is enormous energy growth in much of the world and a large portion of this remains fossil, and coal. So the sliver that is renewable, though growing, remains small.

      There is just so much inertia and built/building infrastructure, it is hard to change quickly.

      As for me, some people hear me speak and read and say I am a pessimist, perhaps a fatalist, and others say I am an optimist. In the normal run of my classes, there is a deep pessimism, followed by a cautious optimism.

      Thanks for reading and the comment.


  4. Richard Ryder - 1983

    The EN-Roads program and presentations from MIT and Climate Interactive are designed to encourage constructive dialog regarding policy choices for addressing climate change. It was developed over 10 years by world class experts and is backed by the best available science on the subject. Framing meaningful discussions with students, educators, policy makers and the merely curious is what En-roads is all about. There are no silver bullets, but there is silver buckshot.


    • Richard Rood


      thanks for the reference. I have seen the the Citizens Climate Lobby, at least some local chapters, have been given tutorials on en-roads.

      Thanks for reading and the comment.


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