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Know the West

Geographer Diana Liverman explains how to tackle the climate crisis fairly

The first step? Don’t panic.

 

Geographer Diana Liverman has been a leading climate researcher for more than 40 years: In a grainy 1997 C-SPAN video of a White House conference about global climate change, she can be seen seated next to President Bill Clinton, discussing consequences, such as hotter summers and the spread of tropical diseases, that Americans might soon face. Today, she is Regents’ professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she studies the human dimensions of the climate crisis. Liverman is particularly concerned with how climate change — and potential solutions, whether technological or political — impact disadvantaged communities.

Despite dedicating her career to what some people might consider a depressing field, Liverman is inspired by the ways she’s found through her research that people are addressing the climate crisis already. But she often gets frustrated when she tries to convey her reasons for hope.

This was particularly true in 2018, when Liverman co-authored what became known as the “Hothouse Earth” academic paper. It described how the planet might stabilize at a dangerously warm average temperature, with disastrous consequences for humans and ecosystems. But it also detailed how people could steward the planet away from that worst-case scenario, stabilizing the Earth at a much safer average temperature. To Liverman’s chagrin, most media coverage focused only on the worst-case scenario, rather than the paper’s more hopeful aspects.

Diana Liverman photographed in Tucson, Arizona in March.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra / High Country News

Later that same year, Liverman was frustrated once again by the media’s coverage of her research. A special working group of international scientists, which she chaired for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published a report that found, essentially, that the sooner people worked to get climate change under control, the easier it would be. But headlines reduced its complex research down to an overly stark message, saying that people had only 12 years to save the world from climate change.

Now, under a Democratic administration, Americans may be more willing to share Liverman’s cautious optimism. Since being sworn in, President Joe Biden has signed a slew of executive orders signaling that the United States is ready to act on the climate crisis. After four years of a Republican administration that denied climate science and pushed fossil fuel extraction — to the detriment of Western ecosystems, Indigenous nations and communities of color — Biden has made climate change action a priority. What’s more, he’s pushing for solutions that explicitly address environmental justice.

That’s crucial, because as researchers and community activists have long known, climate action is not the same thing as climate justice. Liverman cautions that climate adaptations — actions taken to cope with a warmer world, such as helping coastal communities survive sea-level rise, or protecting the elderly from extreme heat — can lead to further social inequalities, if they’re not carefully designed.

You don’t have to tell people, “You can’t do anything,” but you can say, “Here are the things that you can consume that have a lower environmental footprint.” 

According to Liverman, climate justice means taking into account who is most responsible for the crisis, who is most vulnerable to its impacts, and who wins or loses from policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help people adapt.

High Country News spoke with Liverman recently about how her childhood sparked her interest in climate justice, what she wishes the media would get right about the climate crisis, and how to make sure climate adaptations are fair. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: In your research, you’re not necessarily the person who’s taking ice cores or measuring atmospheric levels of various greenhouse gases to study climate change. Instead, you really focus on the human side of climate change, with a particular emphasis on inequality. How did you become interested in that?

Diana Liverman: I was born in Ghana, in West Africa, because my dad was working on the development of dams. And when I was a kid there were famines in the Sahel (desert). So I’ve had this long-term interest in West Africa.

I think what drew me into the human dimensions was my initial interest in drought and famine when I was an undergrad, and realizing that vulnerability mattered. The impact of (less) rainfall was fine if you were well-off and had access to water. But if you were poor with no land and no water, then you were really going to suffer. So I got that insight into the importance of vulnerability, and how it was very much determined by inequality.

About 10 years ago, I started thinking about how climate adaptation had justice dimensions. I had students and projects looking at how adaptations can benefit men and not women, or better-off communities rather than less-well-off communities. I think this question of justice in responding to climate change is fascinating.

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HCN: What do you wish people better understood about the causes and solutions of climate change?

DL: The one that’s sort of a long-standing annoyance is people who think that it’s the fault of women having too many babies. I really wish people would stop obsessing about population numbers — because women are choosing to have fewer children — and focus much more on consumption, and how we can reduce the carbon footprint of consumption. You don’t have to tell people, “You can't do anything,” but you can say, “Here are the things that you can consume that have a lower environmental footprint.” 

I’d like the (research) to be more nuanced about business. I do work with some (climate adaptation) networks that are business-related, and I don't think you can just blanket-blame business and capitalism for climate change. I think it’s got to be part of the solution as well, and will be.  

HCN: How could climate change adaptation create new vulnerabilities or inequities? 

DL: There’s a paper we just published, written for Norway’s Minister of International Development, on adaptation interventions, and what makes them successful. A team from all over looked at about 60 studies. We found that a lot of times, the adaptation was creating inequality.

For example, to receive adaptation funding for irrigation you might have to own the land. Women might not own the land, or poor people might not. To be able to have air conditioning as an adaptation, you have to have a certain income level.

There’s a really interesting historical example if you look at New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The adaptation was to build dikes to protect the area, so you’ve got that historic adaptation of building a dike, often to protect the better-off neighborhoods. And then, climate change exceeded their capacity, and it was often poorer people who were in the lowest-lying areas. 

HCN: In your 2020 essay “Our Climate Future,” published in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, you brought up how the media responded to your “Hothouse Earth” research paper. You wrote that you tried to talk to journalists about what people could do, and in many cases already were doing, to address climate change, but that most people who interviewed you just wanted to talk about —

DL: — Apocalypse Earth?

HCN: Yeah. What do you wish the media could get right in its climate coverage?

Diana Liverman conducting fieldwork in Tlaxcala, Mexico.
Hallie Eakin

DL: The whole idea of that paper was that it was in two parts. The first was, “If we don’t do something, we could get runaway (global) warming.” And then the second part of it was, “But here’s all the things we can do, and here are the signs we’re already doing it.” 

And the media just picked up on the first part. And it was sort of frustrating.

That came out just a few months before the IPCC 1.5 report (a report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures), which was also picked up as an apocalyptic vision. The story was, “We’ve got 12 years before it’s the end of the world.” And that was so not the message we were trying to convey!

I got quite upset about young people just feeling paralyzed by that message. The message wasn’t that the world’s going to end. It’s, “The world will be a bit warmer, and it will be harder to reduce emissions, if we delay.” Which is sort of a softer message.

HCN: On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order prioritizing the climate crisis. How did you feel about that?

DL: I was happy, both in terms of personal politics, but also in terms of the science. But most of it was just reversing what (President) Trump had done and going back to (President) Obama. And Obama had not done enough.

At this point, we can’t just reverse. And I don’t think they are just reversing; I think they're trying to go beyond that. But the first day, it was mostly just reversing things rather than going the next step.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of increased women's rights in lowering population growth rates.

Disclosure: In 2015 and 2016, Maya L. Kapoor worked part-time for a research institution that Liverman then co-directed; Kapoor was not her direct employee. 

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor