U-M Research News: COVID-19 Exposes Government Shortcomings, University Offers New Online Master’s-level Programs, Some Recent Climate Models Unrealistically Warm

A researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says that the COVID-19 pandemic, much like the Flint water crisis, has exposed the shortcomings of government. Municipal agencies must legally prepare for public health crises.
COVID-19 face masks with gavel
U-M researchers say that public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the need for governments agencies to better understand their roles in such events. // Stock photo

A researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says that the COVID-19 pandemic, much like the Flint water crisis, has exposed the shortcomings of government. Municipal agencies must legally prepare for public health crises.

“Once again, we’re seeing confusion about the relative legal roles of local, state, and federal agencies, along with failures to communicate and cooperate productively across levels of government,” says Peter Jacobson, professor emeritus of health law and policy at U-M.

To prepare for and mitigate public health crises, government officials should examine which federal, state, and local agencies have legal authority to investigate and counter threats to public health, as well as develop criteria for notifying the public, according to Jacobson.

In “The Role of the Legal System in the Flint Water Crisis,” Jacobson and colleagues from the U-M School of Public Health found that flaws in the legal structure as well as how the laws were implemented not only failed to stop but also exacerbated the crisis in Flint. Legal preparedness, they say, could prevent future public health crises by helping government officials understand and identify gaps in complex legal arrangements and better coordinate across agencies and levels of government.

“Legal preparedness is about understanding the law and then preparing accordingly for water contamination, a viral outbreak, or an environmental disaster,” Jacobson says. “Public health and environmental officials have a lot of discretion over when and whether to act. They need to be very careful about using their authority, without waiting too long. It’s the balance that failed in Flint and likely led to the delays we’ve seen in responding to the coronavirus.”

Flint’s residents continue to face long-term harm to their health after the city’s water source was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-saving measure. In turn, state officials were slow to address the exposure and effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and have yet to produce accurate numbers in order to formulate a holistic response.

The study’s other key recommendations for policy makers include ensuring public health agencies are involved in regulating safe drinking water supplies by changing regulations or statutes as needed and creating more accountability for emergency managers so that public health is considered in decision-making and there is a process for public participation.

The study, based on research funded by the de Beaumont Foundation, appears in Milbank Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal of population health and health policy.

In related news, U-M is launching three new online master’s level programs in public health, social work, and sustainability and development. The programs are offered on Coursera, an online learning platform that offers courses, specializations, and degrees.

The Master of Science in population and health sciences degree is the second online degree program from the School of Public Health and has a research focus. The program is pending final approval from the Michigan Association of State Universities.

A MasterTrack Certificate program in sustainability and development is also available. These programs are a series of courses that lead to certificates, and successful completion can accelerate individuals’ paths toward degrees for students admitted to an associated master’s degree program at U-M.

The social work: practice, policy, and research MasterTrack Certificate provides a path into an accelerated Master of Social Work degree.

“As we face complex global challenges, we need to prepare future leaders to create a healthy, sustainable, and just world,” says James DeVaney, associate vice provost and founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation. “With these three new programs, we are expanding our efforts to increase access and ensure a variety of pathways for learners to engage as part of the Michigan community while gaining skills to solve grand challenges.”

The programs are accessible through Michigan Online, an online learning destination that includes hundreds of courses, teach-outs, certification programs, and degrees that can be completed entirely online.

U-M has also released a study that concludes that some of the latest-generation climate models may be overly sensitive to carbon dioxide increases and therefore project future warming that is unrealistically high.

In a letter in the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers say that projections from one of the leading models, known as CESM2, are not supported by geological evidence from a previous warming period about 50 million years ago.

The researchers used the CESM2 model to simulate temperatures during the Early Eocene, a time when rainforests thrived in the tropics of the New World, according to fossil evidence.

The CESM2 model projected Early Eocene land temperatures exceeding 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) in the tropics, which is much higher than the temperature tolerant of plant photosynthesis, conflicting with fossil evidence. On average across the globe, the model projected surface temperatures at least 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer based on geological evidence.

“Some of the newest models used to make future predictions may be too sensitive to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus predict too much warming,” says Chris Poulsen, a professor in the U-M Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and one of the study’s three authors.

The authors say their study shows how geological evidence can be used to benchmark climate models and predictions of future warming.

The new study focuses on a key climate parameter called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), which refers to the long-term change in global temperature that would result from a sustained doubling – lasting hundreds to thousands of years – of heat-trapping carbon dioxide above the preindustrial baseline level of 285 parts per million.

The present-day CO2 level is about 410 ppm, and climate scientists say atmospheric concentrations could hit 1,000 ppm by the year 2100 if nothing is done to limit carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

For decades, most of the top climate models predicted an ECS of around 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), with a range of 1.5-4.5 degrees Celsius (2.7-8.1 degrees Fahrenheit).

That recently changed with some of the newest climate models participating in CMIP6. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) is an internationally coordinated effort between climate-science institutions and is now in its sixth phase. The next assessment report from the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is due next year, will rely on CMIP6 models.

Of the 27 CMIP6 models, 10 have an equilibrium climate sensitivity higher than 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning they are more sensitive to CO2 increases than most previous-generation models. The CESM2 model tested by the U-M research team is one of the CMIP6 models and has an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 5.3 degrees Celsius (9.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

The predecessor to CESM2, the CESM1.2 model, did a good job of simulating temperatures during the Early Eocene, according to the researchers. It has an ECS of 4.2 degrees Celsius (7.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Our study implies that CESM2’s climate sensitivity of 5.3 C is likely too high. This means that its prediction of future warming under a high-CO2 scenario would be too high as well,” says Jiang Zhu, first author of the Nature Climate Change letter and postdoctoral researcher at U-M.

“Figuring out whether the high climate sensitivity in CMIP6 models is realistic is of tremendous importance for us to anticipate future warming and to make adaptation plans,” says Bette Otto-Bliesner of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the third author.

The team’s simulations of the Early Eocene incorporated the latest paleoclimate reconstructions and included data about paleogeography, vegetation cover, and land surface properties. Reconstructions of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from that time predate ice-core records and rely on geochemical and paleobotanical proxies.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, finalized in 2014, said the global surface temperature increase by the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to the 1850-1900 period for most emissions scenarios, and is likely to exceed 2 Celsius for some emissions scenarios.

The projections in that assessment were based on the previous generation of CMIP models, known as CMIP5 models. The newer CMIP6 models will likely lead to projections of even greater warming.

The Paris climate accord’s long-term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation to Poulsen, who is the associate dean for natural sciences at U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.