Jonathan Overpeck '79

Jonathan “Peck” Overpeck ’79 spent his senior year at Hamilton researching climate and vegetation change in the Adirondacks, an experience he suspects sowed the seeds of his life’s work.

A climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environmental and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Overpeck was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the state’s new Council on Climate Solutions. Its charge is to create and oversee a statewide climate action plan. We asked him about his work on the panel. Here is some of what he had to say, edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to be on the council?

I think what's really important at this stage of human civilization is to tackle climate change, and everybody needs to think of what they can do. As a climate scientist, I still do some climate research, but it's really much more focused on climate action now, ensuring that we transition to a climate-change-free, sustainable, and just world.

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Why this particular organization? 

I am at the University of Michigan, so Michigan is my home. But I also see Michigan as a very fruitful place to pursue carbon neutrality, much as I saw Arizona, my previous home. In Arizona, it was all because of the extra sun, the abundant sun, that we had there. But it was also the fact that the climate change and warming was eating up our water resources. Here in Michigan, it's more of a go-to state during climate change. We're not on the coasts where you're being submerged. We're not in the southwest, where there’s really bad drought. We're not in the interior west or California, where there’s really bad wildfires; we're not in Texas, where you're getting big hurricanes, as well as polar vortex cold extremes. We're in a really good place in America, assuming climate change doesn't get out of control — and if climate change gets out of control, Michigan will also suffer.

On one hand, this is all about trying to do what we can to maintain a really lovely, livable place. But it's also because I recognize that climate action right now, the states that are really getting it done, are on the West Coast, up to Washington, and they're on the East Coast. And we need a big win in the heartland of America and the industrial part of the country. And I think Michigan is the place where we can do that. We have the auto industry here. Tesla and some of those other companies notwithstanding, this is where most of the future cars in America, and hopefully around the world, will be manufactured. And electrification not only will make Michigan a better place, less air pollution, less climate change, but will also mean a stronger economy. I'm really eager to work on a solution that shows the rest of the country that you can have a really great economy in the heartland in the U.S. and solve the climate crisis at the same time.

What gives you hope in this work?

My hope springs mostly from the fact that the energy options that we need to transition to renewable — solar and wind and battery storage — are all falling in price rapidly. And wind and solar in most parts of the United States are already cheaper than the fossil-fuel alternatives. And battery storage isn't far behind in terms of providing for uninterrupted energy access, even if the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. 

So that gives me a lot of hope. The other thing is that in Michigan, we're a manufacturing state, and we're also now a high-tech state … What I really want to see is Michigan capturing a big part of the global market. And that is part of what gives us real hope is that the whole world is transitioning to renewable energy, to clean energy, to no climate change, and those states that can produce the technologies and the knowledge to do that are going to have business options all over the world.

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