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.
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.