High-Stakes Science for High-Stakes Leaders

A short decade ago, the field of climate science was still what Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., professor of geosciences and co-director of the Institute of the Environment, describes as “a curiosity-driven enterprise.” Scientists were researching interesting questions, such as what controls hurricanes or tornadoes.

Today, the field has changed, and a new variable has been introduced that is driving research and discovery. Along with interest, scientists are pushing to learn about topics that have become essential for human survival.

“Now there’s been a scrambling of the climate research community to understand what’s going to happen,” says Overpeck. “The stakes are going way up. Now, we’re driven by needs in society.”

The Institute of the Environment and CLIMAS

To address these ever more pressing problems, in 1998, the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona started a program called Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS for short.

The mission of CLIMAS is to improve our ability to respond to climatic events and climate change. The program promotes research on the nature, causes and consequences of climate change in the southwestern United States.

“CLIMAS is all about changing the way we do climate science,” says Overpeck. “Instead of just the scientists figuring out just what needs to be studied from a scientific point of view, we’re trying to engage with real decision makers and the public – policy makers, water managers, public health managers, public lands managers – and we’re trying to get their presence in the dialog so that we can provide the scientific knowledge that society really needs.”

The idea is that if we can get at the useful answers here, we can not only help the Southwest, but we can contribute meaningfully to the rest of the nation and the world.

Crossing Disciplines for Powerful Answers

CLIMAS represents one of the University of Arizona’s best examples of how an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems is yielding great results.

According to Diana Liverman, Ph.D., professor of geography and co-director of the Institute of the Environment, “It (CLIMAS) has got hydrologists, atmospheric scientists, geographers, anthropologists, economists. We can give people information about past and present climate variability that helps them with the decisions they’re making right now.”

How does such a wide perspective help? Take, for example, the issue of forest fire control.

“Ten years ago,” says Overpeck, “fire managers and the operational people who put out fires and fly the big airplanes and put all the people into the forest to put out these fires, they didn’t take into account climate.”

Starting in 2000, CLIMAS partnered with a number of institutions and organizations to bring together meteorologists, fire behavior analysts, fuel specialists, fire managers, climate forecasters and climate researchers for the first National Seasonal Assessment Workshops for Fire Potential. Today, the effort has grown into a major inter-agency, federal approach to incorporating climate into fire planning and operations.

Informing World Leadership

Often, faculty and researchers from the University of Arizona are invited to share their information and knowledge with leaders and policy makers on the subject of climate change.

In 2011, Liverman had the honor of serving in that capacity for a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

“The Dalai Lama is extremely concerned about the melting of the glaciers and the droughts that are affecting the Himalayan plateau and India,” she says. “I was able to spend a week with him and some other scientists talking to him about climate change and some of the solutions to it.”

According to Overpeck, while the CLIMAS and the Institute of the Environment can provide information, they cannot necessarily make the change. To do that, Liverman, Overpeck and all of CLIMAS are working to develop communications with the public and partner with outside organizations to build understanding and develop real, effective solutions.

“It’s our job as scientists to provide choices,” he says. “And I think at the University of Arizona we’re really good at that.”