LSA’s associate dean for natural sciences, Chris Poulsen, leads a division of scientific fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, with lots in between. As a professor of earth and environmental sciences in LSA and a professor of climate and space sciences in the College of Engineering, Poulsen investigates climate change throughout Earth’s history and uses these lessons to understand what the future of climate change might look like.
As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change kicks off on December 2, 2019, LSA spoke to Associate Dean Poulsen about the way climate change shapes and fuels research and conversation on campus.
Do higher education institutions have a particular role to play in climate change?
Chris Poulsen: Absolutely. Higher education has four key roles to play.
The first is to educate students about climate change so that they can make informed decisions in their personal and professional lives and at the ballot box. Climate change is a broad topic that reaches across many disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It includes the basic science of climate change, such as why the earth is warming; climate impacts, like the ways climate change is affecting natural and human systems; and steps we can take to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, particularly as they relate to social justice and the politics and ethics of climate change.
The second role is to be an engine of research and innovation. Academic researchers have been at the forefront of discovery in climate change, whether by improving our climate predictions, identifying vulnerable ecosystems and communities, developing new mitigation and adaptation strategies, inventing new and more efficient processes of energy production, use, and storage, or creating policies and regulations to reduce emissions.
Third, higher education institutions serve as role models and laboratories for the rest of society. They have opportunities to experiment with strategies ranging from the way we might implement energy-efficient campus operations and facilities to divesting from fossil fuels to developing sustainable campus farms. If these strategies are successful, then they could be adapted by communities and government and corporate institutions.
And, finally, higher education institutions have an important role in community engagement with regards to climate change. We can form institutional partnerships with local communities and governments, engage local community groups including K-12 schools by faculty and students, and encourage community participation in faculty-led research projects.
How does climate change affect the way you’re leading the natural sciences division and its research when climate research is so important?
CP: Climate change plays a very large role in the way we operate and maintain our campus facilities. Over the last decade, the college led an aggressive and successful effort to reduce its energy consumption and carbon emissions. Since 2006, LSA reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent, nearly meeting the university’s climate sustainability goal of a 25 percent reduction by 2025. The new Biological Science Building is a shining example. It uses half as much energy per square foot as the buildings it replaced, and has been certified as LEED Gold. I can’t share any specific plans now, but stay tuned—we’re actively pursuing ideas to further reduce LSA’s carbon footprint.
There are also many faculty and student researchers in the natural science division and across the college and university conducting cutting-edge research on climate change and sustainability. The challenge at a university as large and decentralized as U-M is to use our size to our advantage. In my role as associate dean, I am working to both create and incentivize opportunities for our researchers in climate change and other science fields to maximize interdisciplinary collaboration and shared resources.
Given the urgency of climate change, how do universities overcome public skepticism about science, experts, and institutions?
CP: Excellent question. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicates that the public—86 percent of those surveyed—does trust scientists, and has significantly more confidence in scientists than other professionals including business leaders, politicians, and the media. The level of trust in scientists is actually higher now than it was in 2016. This is good news.
Faculty and students have notably increased our participation and leadership in outreach over the last decade, and the way to continue to overcome public skepticism is for scientists and other experts to continue to engage the public in the great work that they’re doing. At U-M, the Museum of Natural History has been a leader in these activities. The museum staff have developed programs—the Science Communication Fellows and Citizen Science Fellows Program to name two—that facilitate interaction and collaboration between scientists and the public. Universities must continue to support these types of efforts and to expand them to reach a wider audience that does not have easy access to a public university.
The not-so-good news is that trust of scientists softens when the public is asked about issues of scientific integrity—issues like whether scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest—and splits along partisan lines for certain scientific issues including climate change. The solution to overcoming this skepticism—and more generally skepticism of academic institutions—is to act with complete transparency. The vast majority of scientists has no conflict of interest and receives no support that would influence their scientific integrity; the minority that do should openly declare them and even consider whether the conflicts are worth the doubt that they create. Likewise, partisan mistrust on climate change will only be mitigated with fuller transparency. It’s incumbent upon all scientists to make their work and their data accessible to the public.
Your own research focuses on what we can learn from the past about climate systems. What have you discovered about the way our own climate system is changing?
CP: One way to learn about our climate system and how it will change in the future is to study how it worked in the past. This longer view is especially insightful because with the rise of carbon dioxide levels the climate is headed to a state that humans have never experienced.
Past climates offer a few important and unsettling lessons for us. The first is that our current climate change is truly without precedent—the magnitude and rate of human emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting warming is larger and faster than any known event in Earth history, which spans 4.6 billion years. Our effect on Earth’s climate is easy to underestimate because we measure time relative to our own lifespan, say 80 years. The problem is that the carbon dioxide that we emit during our life will be around and warming the climate for hundreds of human generations in the future.
The second lesson is that slower and smaller warming events in the past have been extremely disruptive to the existing organisms and ecosystems. Life has persisted through these disruptions but not in the same form. Finally, past climates tell us that our projections of future climate change are too conservative. Climate models that successfully simulate past warm climates indicate that the temperature response to an increase in carbon dioxide in the future might be larger than the response to the same increase now. That’s a scary possibility.