KALAMAZOO, MI — Denise Keele has spent nearly a decade educating others about the threat of climate change for society.

The Western Michigan University associate professor is now one of the first-ever winners of the Michigan Climate Action Network awards.

Keele, the chair of both the WMU Climate Change Working Group and the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition, was awarded the Climate Champion Award for her work educating others about what she says is the “number one issue for us to survive, to be thriving humans.”

“I’m a professor in environment and politics and both of these things collide with the issue of climate change,” Keele said. “In my view, it’s really unfortunate that climate change has become a partisan issue because it is the one unifying threat to our biophysical existence.”

The Michigan Climate Action Network consists of over 70 organizations and 30,000 individuals in Michigan working for climate solutions and justice. The Michigan Climate Awards were created to recognize “dedicated professionals, activists, and young people doing the hard work of moving Michigan toward a just and sustainable future,” the website said.

Keele was one of three people recognized as winners of the inaugural awards at the virtual Michigan Climate and Clean Energy Summit in May.

The WMU professor was nominated by her colleagues who said, “Dr. Keele devotes her professional life to championing the cause of addressing the climate crisis. She does so in a way that profoundly models inclusion, collaboration, education, and political transformation,” the website said. “Denise’s infectious energy and enthusiasm have motivated many hundreds of people throughout southwest Michigan — who otherwise would have remained silent — to act on climate change.”

Keele said being nominated by her colleagues shows her that they put trust and faith in her to lead.

“So that they think I’m doing a good job is probably the best thing and then to be the first winner for the best organization working on climate is just,” she said. “Those folks are amazing. Those are the people that I admire; the speakers that I bring into my class.”

As chair of the WMU climate change group since 2014, Keele works to educate university students and the larger community about the causes and consequences of climate change. Faculty members incorporate lessons on climate change into their curriculum, she said, and bring in guest speakers to help educate students.

“Climate change does require us to challenge a lot of our dominant systems: how we get energy, how we move ourselves around, how we feed ourselves, how we entertain ourselves,” Keele said. “It’s exciting to think about creating the world that you want to live in.”

Keele believes there is a “very bright future” for humans on Earth, but it will require transformative solutions.

The Kalamazoo coalition, which works to educate citizens and elected officials in the region and combat misinformation, is preparing to celebrate its second anniversary in July.

The governing bodies in the region have all created climate emergency declarations and are now working to create action plans, Keele said.

“What does that mean for Kalamazoo transportation, housing?” Keele asked. “So, we’ve got our citizen fingers in the pie there; trying to motivate and inform elected officials.”

Local governments, she said, are more supported today by state and federal administrations that are all working to set goals and tackle the issue.

“The real work begins now,” Keele said.

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