Jonathan Overpeck saw the climate catastrophe coming.
“I started out as a climate scientist,” says Overpeck, dean of the U-M School of Environment and Sustainability. In 2007, he was a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment that global warming was an “unequivocal” fact and almost certainly caused by greenhouse gases released by human activity.
The assessment shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year with climate activist and former vice president Al Gore. But Overpeck knew that naming the threat was only the first step. He expected the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to take decades–too late to prevent devastating environmental, economic, and health damage.
Then, in 2019, he invited his onetime college roommate to Ann Arbor. Dave Blood had gone on to head asset management at Goldman Sachs and then cofounded the sustainable investment firm Generation Investment Management–in Overpeck’s words, he’s “the financial genius behind the partnership with Al Gore.”
“He met with a lot of folks on campus, including the president, and we had a lot of chances to talk, and he gave a really fabulous lecture,” Overpeck recalls. And to his surprise, Blood “suggested that sometime in this decade he thought the fossil fuel industry would collapse–that we reach a tipping point.”
Overpeck came away convinced. “We’re reaching a point where it’s just no longer affordable to rely on fossil fuel,” he says. “Coal has clearly been outcompeted by natural gas, and that’s why the coal industry is dying or has almost died. And the same thing is happening now with natural gas [competing with] renewable energy. And it’s just a matter of time. But there is one big factor that is saving the day for fossil fuel: The fossil fuel industry has lots of money, and they’re putting that money into politicians’ pockets to tilt the balance.
“Part of the genius of the fossil fuel industry was to connect themselves with a political way of thinking, so that if you’re a good conservative or a good Trumper or whatever, you feel like you need to be pro-fossil fuels at all cost,” Overpeck says. “And what we have to do is explain to folks that you can have all the trappings of your conservative outlook or your liberal outlook, but we’ve all got to come together on climate change and snuff it out. And we’ll all benefit.”
Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, was “a disaster for the environment generally, and … hands-down the worst environmental president in modern history,” he says. But Joe Biden rejoined the pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions. “The American people elected a president who is committed to climate action, and that is really a sea change. That’s the kind of action that will hasten the demise of fossil fuel.”
His optimism is fueled, he says, by polls showing that “a solid majority of Americans believe climate change is happening, believe that we need to do something about it, and government should regulate it.” But others doubt the transition can happen as fast as Overpeck believes.
“I don’t see where we have to be a hundred percent renewables in five or ten years,” says Chuck Hookham, Ann Arbor Energy Commission member and executive officer of CMS Enterprises, which consults on energy projects in the region. There’s no question, he says, that “decarbonization is important. We all get it. The utilities get it. They’re doing things in those directions. It’s the speed at which we can change that’s the challenge.”
Hookham says he hopes that Michigan can fully transition to renewables in “twenty, thirty, thirty-five” years–and also that “we’re not going to all die because we didn’t do something faster. And is it soon enough? Nobody really answers that question. We’re dependent on people like Dr. Overpeck to give us that answer.”
Overpeck says it has to be sooner. “We’ve got to really make this transition. We’ve got to have a tipping point in our politics in our treatment of the oil and gas industry this decade.” And he thinks it will happen, due to “unrelenting pressure … from the financial industry, from corporations, from citizens, and hopefully all our politicians …
“I’m not saying it’ll be done and over by 2030. What I’m saying is it’ll be really well underway by 2030.”
You may say Overpeck, Blood, and Gore are dreamers, but they’re not the only ones. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos launched their own renewable energy company, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in 2015 with $1 billion in committed capital and added another $1 billion last January.
Their most significant investment is in the Macro Grid Initiative which promotes a nationwide, high-voltage transmission network that would make it easier and cheaper to deliver wind and solar power where they’re needed.
The country is currently divided into three energy networks: the east, the west, and Texas. And when Texas’s power grid crashed in February, the state’s rugged independence meant they couldn’t get power from the east or west grids. “Texas highlights that our infrastructure is a mess,” says Overpeck. “This is already causing companies to think twice about moving to Texas.”
Transmission is one way to manage the intermittent nature of solar and wind power. Another is to store it. “Just like the rest of the clean tech needed for the transition away from fossil fuels, batteries are also becoming cheaper by the season,” Overpeck emails. “This makes roof-top and community solar, with local battery storage, another way to avoid peak demands that exceed capacity, and thus for ‘peaker’ natural-gas power generation to fill in when renewable energy isn’t yet enough.
“It will be a gradual process as renewable energy continues to get cheaper than fossil alternatives, and get[s] built out at scale,” Overpeck writes. “But, the goal is to eliminate all fossil fuel burning power generators. Coal first (most polluting in terms of air and climate) and then natural gas. We don’t need these generators, and they are more expensive. We will keep existing nuclear power generators on-line as long as they are safe, and this will help leave fossil fuel generators behind faster. In some parts of the country, hydropower will continue to be significant as well, although in some parts of the country, climate change is reducing river flows and putting hydropower generation at risk
That’s already happening in the Colorado River Basin, which has now been in drought for twenty-one years. “It’s really not a drought,” says Overpeck, who studied the basin when he ran the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. “It’s an aridification.
“We’ve never had a drought in North America last this long since we’ve had rain gauges,” he continues–it’s already outlasted the 1930s drought that brought on the Dust Bowl. And if global warming continues unchecked, he adds, average temperatures in the Southwest could rise ten degrees by century’s end. With seven desert or near-desert states depending on the heavily engineered Colorado, aridification threatens the water supply for 40 million people and some of the richest agricultural lands on earth.
In a follow-up email, he stresses that the dangers are already here. “2020 saw a record heat wave in the Southwest, and record wildfire[s] in California and Colorado,” he writes. “Human-caused warming is literally baking and burning up the West, and this trend will extend to more of North America if we don’t stop climate change soon.”
Some folks talk of a new normal–but not Overpeck. “There isn’t really a new normal,” he says, because “normal is a term that meteorologists use to define the average climate over a thirty-year period.” Now, “every year is a new normal. It’s getting more and more dry, and it’ll continue to do that until we stop climate change. And then that’s the new normal.”
But while “right now it’s as bad as it’s ever been for the Southwest,” Peck says, he believes that “if we move fast enough, we can stabilize the Colorado at 20 percent down, 25 percent [down]–and that’s a hell of a lot better than fifty or more!”
The Midwest is getting hotter, too. Overpeck says that’s contributing to toxic algal blooms, like the one in Lake Erie that turned off the taps in Toledo in 2014. Eventually, “it’ll start affecting our trees as well,” he says, “our natural vegetation.”
But while Michigan will have challenges, he says, things will be “worse elsewhere in the country. [When] you’re in Arizona having water problems, or you’re on the Gulf or the Atlantic coast having hurricane problems, or you’re anywhere in the South having heat wave problems. Michigan starts to look like a pretty nice place.”
He can imagine the state becoming “the place for high tech.” Compared with Silicon Valley or Boston, he points out, “here you could have a nice quality of life that’s affordable.” And green energy could bring new opportunities.
“We obviously could regain our dominance in mobility by becoming the state that most aggressively goes to electrification of everything,” Overpeck says. “Michigan also, with abundant water and energy, could be a winner for a lot of the advanced manufacturing technologies.
“But we need to have it work for everyone,” he continues, from farmers in rural Michigan, who could benefit from new, higher-value agriculture, to its old industrial cities. “The electric vehicle revolution has moved ahead rapidly in Michigan, as well as around the globe,” Overpeck says. “It is ready to explode, and Michigan is poised to be a big winner.”
Detroit could again be “the go-to place. And it’s not going to be just for the wealthy [and] entrepreneurs. It’s got to be the go-to place for everyone.
“We’re going to make it happen,” he asserts confidently. “Everyone I talk to, they want to do this. The businesses want to do this.” Amazed that the Ann Arbor city council committed to a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, he now expects more governments to follow. The green-energy transition will have bipartisan political support, he asserts, because “a strong economy is bipartisan. Water is bipartisan. Nobody wants those algal blooms.”
The U-M is committed, too. “The president wants to make this happen,” Overpeck says. “When he announced Michigan was going carbon neutral, he didn’t just mean the university.”
At first, he says, “all we can hope to do now is stop” global warming. But he believes that “we can eventually reverse it, [taking] CO2 out of the atmosphere with reforestation and better agricultural practices.”
That sounds almost as incredible now as Dave Blood’s suggestion that the fossil fuel industry is destined to collapse. But as Overpeck says, “I have such faith [because] we don’t have a choice.”