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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: The state of the environment as Earth Day 2024 approaches

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.
Kevin Allen
Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.


Professor and Dean Emerita Bierbaum, PhD, focuses her research on the interface of science and policy--principally on issues related to climate change adaptation and mitigation at the national and international levels. She also holds an appointment in the School of Public Health at Michigan, and in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Her experience extends from climate science into foreign relations and international development. Rosina served for two decades in both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. Government, and ran the first Environment Division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She chairs the Scientific and Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility, served on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, was an Adaptation Fellow at the World Bank, and a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment. She has lectured on every continent, and in more than 20 countries.

Bierbaum is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Ecological Society of America, and Sigma Xi. She received the American Geophysical Union’s Waldo Smith award for ‘extraordinary service to Geoscience’ and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Protection Award. Bierbaum serves on the board of the AAAS, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Federation of American Scientists, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the Climate Reality Project, the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing, and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. She earned a BA in English, a BS in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

About Dr. Rosina Bierbaum

Earth Day 2024


David Fair: The 2024 edition of Earth Day is right around the corner--April 22nd to be exact. I'm David Fair, and welcome to the April edition of 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. Earth Day was first launched in 1970, and each year, the goal is to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide. Earth Day is just a little over two weeks away, but we wanted to take some time to reflect on where we've come, assess where we are, and perhaps look ahead to where we need to go when it comes to our environment. My First Friday co-host is Lisa Wozniak, and Lisa is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And a happy early Earth Day to you!

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you! And you too, David! We are going to cover issues that you've just laid out, and it takes someone with great expertise and a multi-prism perspective to do that. That's why we've asked Doctor Rosina Bierbaum to be our guest today. Rosina has spent a full career in the environmental realm. She worked in the federal legislative and executive branches of government for two decades, which included serving as the acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She is a well-respected and frequently published academic and, right now, among many other prominent titles, Rosina is a professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan, with a primary appointment in the School for Environment and Sustainability. So, thank you so very much for making time, Doctor Bierbaum.

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Oh, thank you for having me, Lisa and David.

David Fair: What differences do you see between the first Earth Day in 1970 and today?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Well, over that 54 years, we've watched environmental issues evolve from local to regional to global, and what once seemed inconceivable that humans could impact the global cycles of water, of nitrogen, of carbon, has now become well-established. I mean, the issues we identified as most worrisome on that first Earth Day didn't include the now front and center ones. So, I guess I would say there's three main differences. One, global issues dominate now: biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, climate change. And back then, we had rivers on fire--people breathing polluted air. Secondly, we've also learned that toxics are more pervasive and harmful to humans and ecosystems at lower doses than we expected. You know, think about asbestos or formaldehyde or PFAs or PCBs or pesticides or lead. And in a third way, we now have to think about the combination of stressors together, which can create a tipping point. So, for example, in human health, the combination of air pollution, heat stress from climate change and malnutrition can actually be lethal. And we see climate change exacerbating biodiversity and vice versa. So, these three things all require systems thinking to solve. But it's a skill that today's students acquire much more easily than I did. And that actually gives me hope.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Doctor Bierbaum, at what point in your personal and educational development did you make the choice to focus on this arena of environment and sustainability as a career path?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Very early! I grew up in the smoggy steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and learned about pollution issues at a very early age, certainly pre-teen. And so, whenever possible, my family would escape to the more pristine environment of the many rivers and lakes nearby. And those expeditions shaped my career goal to be a biologist working to preserve our natural resources. Actually, my parents reminded me that I stood on the stage on that first Earth Day when I had won my first regional science fair. I was also enthralled with Rachel Carson's other book, "The Sea Around Us." And then, as a first-generation college student, I went on to earn a PhD but, serendipitously, won a congressional fellowship. And wait! Was that an epiphany? It was an epiphany and that I learned so little of what happens out in the ivory tower makes it into Congress or the White House. And it gave me the idea that maybe translating science and connecting it to policy could be a noble vocation. And that led me to a career in the Congress, the White House, the World Bank, the UN, and back to the University of Michigan.

David Fair: So, did you find work in government or your work in academia more fruitful? Or is it apples and oranges?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: They are both fulfilling. But, yes, in different ways. In the government, I learned that science is never the loudest voice in policymaking, but it is a necessary one. Scientists must be at the table when decisions about budgets or treaties or policies and regulations are made. And one has to actually be nimble to make technical information relevant to whatever policy issue is deemed urgent at that moment. And you have to keep things simple, but correct. And so, it's a necessary skill to communicate with policymakers. And I think that being a civic scientist requires us all to help educate the way from K through gray about this data science for advancing human well-being. But, boy, it was exhilarating to conduct the first national climate assessment to oversee the Antarctic program--challenging, but exciting in the government! But then, as dean of the environment school at Michigan, it was exhilarating to train students in a more interdisciplinary way to understand the language of economics and engineering and political science. We developed many more dual degrees with urban planning, engineering, public policy. So, students graduate with clear credentials in two areas. And it's so gratifying to see these students now succeeding in Congress, the White House, the federal agencies and leading environmental groups.

David Fair: WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. Our guest is University of Michigan professor and dean emerita Doctor Rosina Bierbaum. And my co-host is Lisa Wozniak from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Doctor Bierbaum, you have published and authored a number of different reports spanning a number of different facets of, notably, climate change. And your work in the public sector led you to author a report for Congress. I believe it was back in 1991 called "Changing by Degrees: Steps to Reduce Greenhouse Gases." And in it, you identified a whole series of options to reduce U.S. and worldwide emissions. And I think about this, and that was 35 years ago. It's hard to imagine that it was 35 years ago, but it was. How successful have we been and in achieving those reductions as we sit here in 2024 and look at this?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Well, Lisa, not as much as we needed to. You know, back then, six committees of the Congress and a more action-oriented group back then asked how much and how fast we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the answer was 30% from 1990 levels by 2030 at low cost, if we started in 1990, Well, we didn't. We've lost decades. But fortunately, this administration is committed to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, but we grew 20% instead of dropping 30% by 2005. And so, as you know, the world is seeing the impacts of climate change today at the 2 degree Fahrenheit or 1 degree Celsius level above pre-industrial temperatures. But there is a global treaty, and the cost of solutions--solar and wind--have plummeted, making the global goal of avoiding two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels just barely possible if we have the political will.

David Fair: So, to take it a little further and to piggyback on Lisa's question, in 2007, you coauthored a report with a apt title, called "Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable." So, 17 years after that publication, what's your assessment? Have we appropriately managed the unavoidable? And will we avoid the unimaginable?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Oh, David! That report for the UN was actually, I think, the first that treated the importance of adaptation to climate change as worthy of equal attention as mitigation or reducing emissions. But it is clear now we are adapting to climate change reactively. It would be much better to do it proactively. We will not escape unmanageable consequences if we don't reach that net-zero emissions by 2050. But I am heartened by the massive influx of funding from the Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which are now flowing out to help communities adapt and plan for both the changes already underway and the ones that will increase as climate change proceeds--so delayed, but finally happening.

David Fair: We're talking with climate and sustainability expert Doctor Rosina Bierbaum as we prepare for Earth Day 2024. She is professor and dean emerita at the U of M school for Environment and Sustainability and our guest on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Doctor Bierbaum, we're in another presidential election year, and I know I'm feeling the intensity of that every single day. We're going to see some turnover in the U.S. Congress, no doubt. And in the state Legislature, I think there's eight people that have decided not to run for reelection. We've got open seats up and down the ballot, really. Some characterize the climate crisis as our greatest existential threat. And certainly, here in Michigan, the state Legislature has taken action in this last year to address climate change and clean energy with the Clean Energy and Jobs Act of 2023. Why is this not a greater part of our political discourse? I mean, I feel it. I work at it every single day. But from a broader perspective, why is it not a greater part of our political discourse?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: I actually think that climate change is permeating the consciousness and the everyday life of the electorate, even if it's not, as you say, a loud part of the U.S. public discourse. I mean, we're all being affected by the impacts of the increase in extreme events of all sorts. I mean, the ideal zones where plants live are shifting rapidly north. In central Michigan, the entire lower half of the state, shifted by an equivalent of five degrees since 2012, making the question of what planting native means in a rapidly changing climate. And if you look at the polls, it depends what one you look at. 60 to 70% of Americans say that climate change is affecting their local community, and more than 50% of people in every state, whether red state or blue state, believe climate change is underway. The investment and business communities know their supply chains are being affected by increasing floods and droughts and wildfires, and through the new science of attribution, components of those disasters can be attributed to climate change. I mean, we see insurance companies are fleeing flooding properties. And just yesterday, in Environmental Health, I read that the Great Lakes region may be an ideal climate refuge. Not that we're immune to droughts and floods, but we avoid sea level rise and wildfires. We have water in our state could become a model of resilience. And I guess I would say confronting climate change is central to our human health. Disease vectors are spreading. Smog is becoming worse. And so, if you ask people what they care about, health is always first. And that, I say, is a task for all of us to convey how inextricably linked our human health is to the health and integrity of our environment, which depends on meeting the challenge of climate change immediately for the sake of the future generations. You know, Martin Luther King spoke of the fierce urgency of now. Climate change is a fierce urgency.

David Fair: The theme of the 2024 edition of Earth Day is "Planet versus Plastics." It is a part of that much bigger conversation about stewardship and sustainability. So, as we've assessed where we are and what needs to happen, what progress would you like to see this year's Earth Day drive as we move through and beyond 2024?

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Boy, plastic pollution is ubiquitous and has captured the public attention, you know, whether it's microplastics in our drinking water to that plastic Pacific gyre between Hawaii and California. And in a way, it's like that ozone hole. We could see this giant thing we humans have caused, and it moves us to action. So, 175 countries voted to adopt a global treaty for plastics in 2022. I hope it enters into force, and I hope the other international negotiations on climate change, on biodiversity, on chemicals and oceans all get agreed to and implemented. And together, they can confront the biggest global issues we face. But each person has to do something, too. Collectively, we are overconsuming the planet's resources, and it's not sustainable. Instead of the old adage of "let's make, use and waste," we have to turn to a more circular economy based on the reuse and regeneration of materials. So, I hope, this Earth Day, we challenge ourselves and our families and friends to reduce our ecological footprint. So, for example, calculate how much greenhouse gas your family emits. Each American emits 20 tonnes of CO2 a year per person and a developing country person one tonne. So, easily, try to develop a 20% emission reduction path for your lifestyle. It's not that hard, but it's important. Each person can make a difference. And, finally, vote your heart and beliefs.

David Fair: Words of wisdom. And I thank you so much for your time, perspective, and insights, Doctor Bierbaum. It's been a pleasure.

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum: Thank you so much, too.

David Fair: That is Doctor Rosina Bierbaum. She is a professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan, with a primary appointment in the School for Environment and Sustainability. She's been our pre-Earth Day guest on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. My co-host is Lisa Wozniak. She's the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And, Lisa, thanks for being here. And we'll see you Friday, May 3rd!

Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to it, David.

David Fair: For more information on today's topic and guest, drop by our website when you get a chance. It's wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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