Climate Change Blogs

Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

Published: May 19, 2015
Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

My last blog was on universities divesting their endowments and pension funds from fossil fuel companies. One of the articles that I referred to was by George Will taking the position that divestment was sustainability gone wild. Will states that sustainability is like a religion with, for example, its premises “more assumed than demonstrated,” and “weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy.” Will is riffing off of the more than 250 page document by the National Association of Scholars entitled, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.

The National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987 by Stephen Balch, who is identified as an American conservative scholar. The National Association of Scholars should not be confused with National Academy of Sciences, which is the abbreviation I associate with “NAS.”

The material I reference above strongly links sustainability and climate change, and, ultimately, takes the position that universities are taking unfounded positions based on “unresolved scientific debates." There is suggestion that faculty are pressured “to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.” The document relies, sometimes deftly, on the rhetorical forms that are used to nurture doubt.

Enough – I am certain to get some grief for the amount of words I have devoted to the National Association of Scholars. It’s important to know where ideas and talking points come from, especially when there is the imprimatur of scholarship. There is the suggestion in these writings of a cultish march towards sustainability across the university community, and that divestment of fossil fuels is part of that cult.

As stated in my divestment blog, my faculty colleagues don’t all support divestment. In fact, I would conjecture that more universities have denied efforts to divest than have approved them. Similarly, there is a wide range of opinions on sustainability and the integration of sustainability into curriculum. In science departments, there is often the opinion that sustainability is notional, and it is not easily defined nor easily measured. Hence, it is not science. It is also true that sustainability has far broader reach than climate change.

I was first introduced to sustainability as a subject of research and education when I started my university career in 2005. At University of Michigan there is the Erb Institute, “Creating a Sustainable World Through the Power of Business,” the Center for Sustainable Systems, which supports “the design, assessment, and management of systems that meet societal needs in a more sustainable manner,” and the Graham Sustainability Institute, which fosters “sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically integrate talents across all U-M schools, colleges, and units.” All of these institutes have strong relationships with donors who have high success in business. These endowments paint the picture of individuals, families, and businesses, which recognize the importance of sustainability to assure future societal and business success. (Disclosure: I work closely with the Graham Sustainability Institute, and I am a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow.)

Sustainability is a young and changing field of research and education. Sustainability is not as easy to define as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, urban planning, etc. The Graham Sustainability Institute answers the question What is Sustainability? as, “Sustainability encompasses solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet's life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations. The field is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It draws from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, engineering, design, and health sciences; from the professions and humanities; and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.”

Adding the concept of sustainability to problem solving requires thinking about where our resources come from and what happens to our waste. It brings into consideration the energy required with obtaining resources, manufacturing, disposal, and management of the waste products. The value of the environment and ecological systems is brought into the calculation of cost. There is nothing in that list which is an easy calculation, and there are many aspects of sustainability that are not uniquely and definitively quantified. There are value judgments made by individuals, governments, advocacy organizations, and corporations.

I recently attended a webinar, organized by Our Spheres of Influence on the emergence of sustainability as a course of study, with a special focus on The New School. The New School is at the forefront of issues such as sustainability which fits into the vision “where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time, such as democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization.” It is one of the schools that has divested (Figure 1). One of the points from the webinar is that sustainability is emerging and that standards and practices are evolving. For those interested in sustainability and its incorporation into education there is the resource, Sustainability Improves Student Learning, which is a group that includes associations of physics, chemistry, biology, and geosciences.

Since sustainability crosses many disciplines, it is, in fact, quite difficult to bring into the discipline-focused culture of universities. It brings a focus to problem solving and participatory, deliberative process. There is a high demand from students, who increasingly see the requirement to manage our resources and wastes in order to thrive. Sustainability is an essential topic of research and education.


The discussion from the previous blog was fantastic, and I sent links to faculty and students. There was also a link in the comments to this article Map: Tracking Academia's Fossil Fuel Divestment. (See also

Figure 1: More than $50B in divestment pledges has come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals. (Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)
Categories:Climate Change

Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns

Published: May 2, 2015
Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns

Like many colleges and universities, students at the University of Michigan are advocating for the University to divest itself of fossil fuel assets. Specifically, Divest and Invest states “We, students at the University of Michigan, ask that the Regents form a committee composed of students, faculty and staff to determine the propriety of fossil fuel investments …” followed by a set of reasons the request is made.

This is the second student effort at Michigan for divestment in fossil fuels, the first being back in 2013. In that first effort the Regents decided not to divest. Looking at these two stakeholder groups, they have both acted rationally in the positions they have taken.

Fossil fuel divestment efforts at universities are part of a history of universities making statements on issues of societal importance and social justice. The statements are made by how they do and do not invest their endowments. Earlier divestment examples include tobacco and apartheid-related boycotts of companies doing business in South Africa. According to the advocacy organization, “Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”

I have signed both the current and previous letters supporting the students. I have forwarded the letter to other faculty members, and I get about as many skeptical or negative responses as I get positive responses. In fact, if you look across Michigan’s campus, and I suspect Michigan is not unique – if you look across Michigan’s campus, there is much disagreement about the practicality, efficacy, and politics of divestment. In fact, the efforts of another student organization, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, to get the Central Student Government to support divestment was definitively defeated.

The Guardian has recently reviewed university-led efforts on divestment. A basic premise of the Guardian’s piece is that working with the fossil fuel companies has been too slow, with many of the companies being disingenuous. Of course, some companies have been overtly hostile and, in fact, have worked to disrupt efforts linking fossil fuels to dangerous, human-caused climate change. Note, the Guardian, itself, has become an advocate of aggressive divestment from fossil fuels, a decision of notable skepticism.

Many of the divestment arguments are based on appeals to social justice. In fact, the definition, quoted above, mentions moral ambiguity. The ultimate push or motivator, however, for divestment is the knowledge that fossil fuels extraction and use are causing rapid and dangerous climate change – along with a host of other environmental problems laden with issues of social justice. Most times, when there is an argument based on ethics and moral ambiguity, the argument falls into a quagmire. The easiest quagmire to fall into is the one of near-term and long-term consequences as well as choosing winners and losers. I have written about the complexity of some of these issues in previous blogs, for example We Like to Burn Things, and No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy. I note, only, that moral ambiguity is, by definition, ambiguous and, therefore, not often the foundation of definitive action. There are substantive moral and ethical issues on both sides of the fossil fuel divestment issue.

There is an interesting discussion on divestment from The Institutional Investor. In the article Why Endowments Should Resist Fossil Fuel Divestments, the authors, who have history with the University of Michigan, accept as given the role of fossil fuels and climate change. Their last two sentences are that, “It [divestment] contains an emotional message which may make some feel good. Whether is would actually do good is more doubtful.” An interesting statement in their article is that divestment serves to increase the polarization in the political argument, which is damaging, and my longer-term readers know that this is an issue of importance to me.

George Will, writing about divestment, claims it only does damage to the university, and therefore, damage to the students. In addition to financial damage, Will claims divestment efforts, and sustainability initiatives in general, marginalize academia and establish universities as non-serious. This is not an opinion I agree with; however, Will’s opinion does represent a point of view that is likely shared by some who are in the position of making decisions about divestment. Indeed, maintaining the money stream off which major universities feed and protecting the seriousness of the institution are, surely, high in the mind of many in the university community.

Stepping into the space of “how do we really solve this problem” my colleague John DeCicco has a piece Rather Than Divest Advocate for Carbon Balancing. He states that a scientific argument “offers reasoning more fundamental than the financial arguments or moral pressure heard in much of the discussion around fossil fuel divestment. In fact, climate science itself implies that the real need is to focus on rebalancing the global carbon cycle.”

DeCicco ends with:

“Even if one decries the policies and practices of certain corporations, that doesn’t mean their core business should be eliminated. There is rightful anger at some parts of the fossil fuel industry for sponsoring anti-environmental campaigns.”

“But it’s not helpful if such frustration causes a confusion of ends and means. Getting rid of fossil fuels is not the end goal. The end goal is balancing the carbon cycle. That’s what must be urgently pursued through whatever means are at hand, including those that enable prudent use of coal, oil and natural gas while actively mitigating their impact. In short, restoring the Earth to balance is the proper focus of environmental policy and advocacy.”

Why, therefore, do I support the student divestment efforts? At the top of my list, this is a place where the students have decided to take a position. It is a rational position from not only an ethical and moral point of view, but it is rational in the context of political process and societal change. In addition, the students have made the argument that they and their children will be the ones living and curating the world as the impacts of climate change grow and accelerate. Therefore, they have a solid position as a stakeholder in consequential decisions. I have written about generational time, and it is essential to reduce the amount of time that it takes today’s students to have profound and broad impact.

Next, this is a complex problem of climate change. I run an entire course on solving the complex problems of climate change. The skills gained by these students will be learned early in life and will place them in a better position to accelerate our society’s ability to respond to climate change.

Finally, divestment is a recurring part of political process and policy change. On the other side of the argument, as discussed in Merchants of Doubt, disruption of the process is also a part of the process. In some instances, the behavior of the disruptors is, definitely, immoral, based on establishing and marketing lies. The divestment argument stands on a foundation of knowledge; it is fundamentally responsible and its long-term goals are underrepresented and essential.


A positive spin on Earth Day from WU

Published: April 22, 2015

The challenges facing our global environment are serious indeed, but there are many smart people working on solutions, and there’s much to be optimistic about. At Weather Underground, we’re highlighting a wide range of these good-news stories in a special WU microsite created in honor of Earth Day. The theme is progress: through a collection of articles by researchers, field experts, and scientists, the microsite outlines the current state of our climate, how humans can adapt in coming years, and the various ways that we can minimize the damage to our planet's precious ecosystem.

Among the topics we cover:

--How climate change will influence food and wine production

--Why we needed Earth Day, and how it’s evolved since 1970

--The true cost of water: how water and energy are inextricably intertwined

--What a terrarium can teach us about the atmosphere, plus how to make your own

--How middle-school kids are using personal weather stations to learn about weather and climate

We invite you to dig into the microsite today as well as after Earth Day. It’s full of accessible information from experts and packed of engaging artwork and informative graphics. As is our tradition on Earth Day, we also present at the bottom of this post Dr. Jeff Masters' favorite wunderphotos uploaded to our web site over the past year. The Weather Underground staff has also put together an Earth Day gallery of 50 all-time awesome wunderphotos. Thanks go to everyone who has participated in making this the largest (1.8 million!) and best weather photo gallery on the Internet--your photos are truly an inspiration! Many of the choices were taken from our Worldview Gallery, updated weekly with the top wunderphotos of the week.

Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Figure 1. Top wunderphoto of the past year: “Clouds to the Left", was taken on July 16, 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska, by wunderphotographer LarryD. Driving across Nebraska, it’s the scenery above that always impresses!

Categories:Climate Change

Carbon Dioxide Hits a New Peak this Spring: 404 ppm

Published: April 21, 2015
Weekly carbon dioxide measurements from the pristine air atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa have just topped another predictable yet worrisome milestone: 404 parts per million. The actual preliminary value reported by NOAA for last week (April 12–18) was 404.02 ppm. By all evidence, we now have the largest amount of CO2 present in Earth’s atmosphere for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably several million. The most prevalent of the human-produced greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide has been measured regularly by scientists at Mauna Loa since 1958. The gas is also measured at other sites around the world, but the Mauna Loa dataset is the most widely tracked index of global trends because of its uninterrupted 57-year length.

The weekly CO2 readings at Mauna Loa will crest over the next couple of months, making a run at 405 ppm before the annual seasonal decline begins (see below). Eyeballing the multiyear trend shown in Figures 1 and 2, it’s a fair guess that the final time we see a weekly value below 400 ppm will be somewhere toward the end of 2017, perhaps a year sooner or later. From that point on, we’re unlikely to again see a week below 400 ppm for many years—probably centuries, if not millennia—because of the ever-increasing accumulation of atmospheric CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels.

Figure 1. The last two years of daily, weekly, and monthly averages for carbon dioxide concentration measured by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography atop Mauna Loa, Hawaii. NOAA operates a parallel measurement program at Mauna Loa. Image credit: Scripps/The Keeling Curve.

What’s in a curve?
One of the most renowned images in climate science is the Keeling curve (see Figure 2), generated from the Mauna Loa data. This trace is famous for its inexorable year-to-year increase in CO2, as well as the seasonal rise and fall embedded in the graph’s sawtoothed pattern, a trait that became evident as early as 1960.

Figure 2. The Keeling Curve, 1958-present. Image credit: Scripps/The Keeling Curve.

Because the Northern Hemisphere has far more plant-friendly land mass than the Southern Hemisphere, it has an oversized impact on the global CO2 pattern. The result is a net global addition of carbon dioxide to the air as northern plants decompose, from around October till May, then a net removal as northern vegetation surges from roughly June through September. These natural seasonal spikes are about twice as large as the amount added each year by fossil-fuel burning, which has recently averaged just over 2 ppm per year. Unlike the human contribution, though, the seasonal spikes cancel each other out over time. After removing the seasonal cycle from the long-term record, we end up with a steady increase that topped 400 ppm for the first time in March, according to NOAA.

Close inspection of the the Keeling curve reveals some embedded nuance apart from the obvious seasonal cycle and the long-term rise. Figure 3 (below) shows how the percentage increase in carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa varies from year to year. These bumps and dips arise from both natural and human factors.

Figure 3. The annually averaged growth rate of carbon dioxide, in parts per million, as measured at in the atmosphere at Mauna Loa. Horizontal black lines show the growth rate for each decade from the 1960s to 2000s. Image credit: NOAA Earth System Laboratory.

In a typical year, about 57% of the CO2 emissions put into the atmosphere by human activity remain in the air, showing up in the long-term measurements at Mauna Loa and elsewhere. The other 43% is removed by plants, soil, and oceans. These percentages have held remarkably steady over the long haul, but they can also vary markedly from year to year. El Niño, for example, tends to pinch off the cold equatorial upwelling that normally sends large amounts of CO2 into the air, thus causing a temporary drop in the overall global rate of increase.

The human contribution from fossil fuel also varies from year to year. Global emissions of carbon dioxide actually dropped slightly during the recession years of 1992 and 2009. Likewise, CO2 emissions tend to increase at a faster clip when the global economy is especially robust. Policymakers have long taken this connection between emissions and economic activity for granted. Many were surprised, then, when global CO2 emissions in 2013 came in essentially flat even though the world’s gross domestic product had risen by about 3%. This could be a one-year fluke--scientists and policy experts have been debating this point--but it’s also a hopeful sign that our global economic engine just might be able to run on less coal, oil, and gas while still performing well.

The long view
How high the concentrations get in this century and beyond will depend in large part on what measures the global community takes to restrict carbon emissions, including any agreements hammered out at the crucial UN climate meeting in Paris this December. Technology is a huge player, of course: wind and solar power, hydropower, and nuclear power are all close to carbon-neutral when compared to fossil fuels. But unless a price is set on carbon through some globally accepted process, there will be powerful market incentives for a growing world to use as much of our existing reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas as possible. And a key insight vividly highlighted by author and activist Bill McKibben remains: Earth holds several times more fossil fuel than needed to push global warming above the 2°C benchmark widely accepted as a target to minimize the odds of major climatic disruption.

Bob Henson

Figure 4. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations derived from ice cores (prior to 1958) and Mauna Loa data (from 1958 onward) show the rises and falls associated with several ice ages and the dramatic spike of the last 100 years. Image credit: Scripps/The Keeling Curve.
Categories:Climate Change

It’s April, Time to Finally Think About 2015

Published: April 7, 2015
It’s April, Time to Finally Think About 2015

April, winter semester at Michigan comes to an end. I’ve been re-grouping myself on the blogging front, thinking about where to pay attention for this year. I'm back.

My climate-change problem-solving class, this term, has had one excellent guest lecturer after another. With the help of my colleague in the Ross School of Business, Andy Hoffman, we decided to experiment with my class to see if we could create something unique and potentially valuable. Our goal is to develop a new type of graduate curriculum, with a focus on, for example, climate change, but with a more formal systems approach to how does climate change fit into the world as a whole. We intend to create a new portfolio of curricular and co-curricular activities which can be used by professional Master’s programs across the university to incorporate sustainability into their programs. The centerpieces of this program are focused on interdisciplinary processes and engaged with real world partners and problems.

Andy Hoffman has a new book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. Here’s a nice review from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

My class has always been focused on participatory, cross-disciplinary problem solving, but we worked to integrate more strongly around some themes. We are especially interested in training students who can, perhaps, hit the ground in corporations, governments, non-profits, communities, all – hit the ground with skills on using climate-change knowledge and data in design, planning and management.

Towards the goals of my class, I have formalized, which might mean to make even more tedious, my approaches to structured problem solving. Not completely through it all, yet, but I am collecting the slides and some annotated, recorded lectures at this link.

I will use some of the guest lectures to bring new material to the blog. There has been more, than in previous versions, of a focus on design. We all know that we in the U.S., in fact much of the world, are stunningly inefficient in our use of resources. I have been especially impressed to see the value of design that links function, resource use and use of resource waste. Here is a interesting link to visionary design Infra Eco Logi Urbanism.

Last year, I spent several blogs following the El Niño prediction and its representation in the press. Also spent time being preachy about our fascination with monthly temperature records. This year we still flirt with a small El Niño, and people are talking, mostly with calm, that this year, 2015, is likely to break yet another record. It will not take much warming of the eastern Pacific to assure a very warm year.

This year, I am planning to develop a thread of blogs leading up to the Conference of the Parties in Paris. The University of Michigan is planning to send a delegation, and we will be coaching up some students and faculty for this event. Compared to my normal state of mind, I am more optimistic than previously that Paris will lead to something more substantive than previous international meetings. It might not be possible to develop a whole United Nations wide agreement, but the major players in the world are starting to see strategic advantage and possibility to addressing climate change. Not to mention, of course, the direct consequences of climate change we will have to deal with.

Part of run up to the Conference of the Parties will be what is happening with the climate this year, and in the U.S., political positioning for the 2016 election. There is increasing evidence that the overt political opposition to climate change is cracking up. There are certain aspects of the denial of climate change that are approaching such a level of exaggeration that politicians take on more absurdity than they can manage. I will also highlight some of the science-based findings that I think should bring important, new information to the motivation of taking international actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I want to revisit my position that if there are any fundamental inadequacies in climate-change projections, they are aligned with the notion that we have underestimated the changes and the rate of change. I also want to bring forward and organize, more, the role of climate change in national security and international stability.

Along with the high likelihood that 2015 will flirt with being the warmest year in an awful long time, there is little doubt that the drought in California will continue to worsen. The worsening drought, which is a confluence of drought cycles, population, water demand and climate change, will offer a continuing case study in what our climate means to our well being. There are a lot of unsustainable activities in California that are coming into collision. It will not be long before more people recognize the beauty of the weather and the water in the Great Lakes states.

I am also starting a project on planning for climate change at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This will require me to catch up and analyze the current vigorous research on the jet stream, the Arctic oscillation and whether or not the weather is changing in response to large changes in the Arctic. The cold winter of 2014, and to a lesser extent, the cold winter of 2015, brought large numbers of visitors to Apostle Islands in the winter – think ice caves. Of course, record numbers of winter visitors were not planned for, and that stands in contrast to largely ice-free winters of most recent years. Therefore, we will be evaluating how the observations and emerging research might inform management decisions. Going back to the California drought, I am serious when I talk about people recognizing the Great Lakes states as more desirable places to live. I think managers and planners need to be looking at population trends and imagining the designs for a future of growth.

That’s enough of thinking about themes for the next few months. Look forward to the blogs being more regular than they have been in the past few weeks.


Ice Caves at Apostle Islands in 2014
Categories:Climate Change
About the Blogs
These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.