Adding the People Factor

Now that environmental scientists have a good understanding of why our climate’s changing, how can they help us prepare for a warming world?

Michael Prather
Kavli Professor, Michael J. Prather in front of Iguazu Falls. (Credit: Michael Prather)

This is the question posed by Michael Prather, Fred Kavli Chair and Professor of Earth Science at the University of California, Irvine. A leader in the field, Prather wants scientists to do more than find the root causes of climate change. He hopes they can apply the same rigor used successfully in identifying the physical, chemical and biological factors behind climate change to understanding how people interact with the climate. To do this, he envisions traditional researchers taking a more holistic approach to their work by teaming with colleagues who specialize in fields such as sociology, demographics, economics, political science and the humanities.

The goal: to study of how the environment and society interact, and address issues such as how climate change will alter public health and welfare, or whether people will accept the living patterns of green cities, or what will be the environmental impacts of new energy technologies.

Climate Change from All Angles

To accomplish this, in 2008 Prather accepted the position of founding director of the UC Irvine Environment Institute: Global Change, Energy and Sustainable Resources. Prather views the Institute both as a clearinghouse for environmental research and education on campus and as a way to focus climate science on questions of politics and education. If successful, it will make sharper predictions and chart practical policies by enlisting experts who, up to now, have played a mostly peripheral role in global climate-change science.

"We need to start looking at what people do. We have an idea of what will happen [in the atmosphere], and now we have to anticipate what our reactions response will be." -Michael Prather

As an example of the gaps that sociologists and political scientists could fill, Prather points to how climate scientists are just beginning to address how future generations will need to adapt locally to a radically changing environment. One example is the southwest U.S. Scientists largely agree that this region will lose much of its winter snowpack, crucial for storing water, over the next 20 to 30 years as temperatures warm and more winter precipitation falls as rain at higher elevations. During that time, California – which relies on water from Sierra Nevada snowfall and from the Colorado River, also fed by winter snows – is expected to grow by 50 million people. Determining how best to adapt to a shrinking water supply, or develop new water sources, are climate questions that cannot be answered by the physical sciences alone.

Prather also cites China as an example of the need for cross-disciplinary work. As the world’s most populous nation, China makes energy choices that can have a profound impact on the global environment, particularly if it keeps building new coal-fired power plants at its current pace rather than stressing conservation and renewable energy. To predict climate accurately, Prather explains, science needs an understanding of Chinese political and social trends, either to forecast or to influence them. To do so, he says the climate-science community needs to be enriched with “researchers who study how people move around in China, researchers who make predictions about water use and supply.”

Putting Policies to Real-World Tests

He also sees the social sciences as essential to framing policies that can work in the real world. It’s one thing for physical scientists to decide that compact cities are the best way to minimize the greenhouse-gas footprint of Southern California’s huge population, but what would it take to get people to live that way? Is the idea even feasible?

Prather asks similar questions about alternative energy. Though the Institute is not directly involved in implementing new technology, it does want to study the physical, economic and social factors that determine how widely the technology is adopted. “We cannot begin to apply the needed level of focused effort on major technologies, such as clean coal, that are a mandate for the Department of Energy," he says. “But we do want to study, for instance, how much the public might use distributed micro-turbines and switch to off-the-grid living.”

This attention to the complex dynamics in coupled systems, such as climate change, is a theme running throughout Prather’s career. Trained in mathematics, physics, astrophysics and astronomy, he specializes in the development of detailed, three-dimensional models to describe the interaction of atmospheric ozone and other trace gases, including the greenhouse gases that are now driving climate change. Since 1992, he has served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.-sponsored scientific body that assesses the risks of climate change and that received the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Al Gore) in 2007.

Prather has authored a number of IPCC reports and served as lead author on the latest, in 2007. He and UC Irvine scientist Juno Hsu made news in 2008 with their recognition of the greenhouse threat from the rapid rise in production of the unregulated chemical nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). NF3 is used in the manufacture of flat-screen TVs has 17,000 times the climate-warming power, kilogram for kilogram, of carbon dioxide.

A Culture of Cross-Fertilization

Michael Prather
Kavli Professor, Michael J. Prather, at the 2008 Ozone Symposium, in Tromso, Norway at midnight. (Credit: Michael Prather)

Prather’s Environment Institute is a logical outgrowth of UC Irvine’s interdisciplinary spirit. He came to UC Irvine in 1992 as one of the first faculty members of the Department of Earth System Science, which was conceived as an answer to the traditional academic silos. Susan Trumbore, who started at the same time and is now department chair, says, “We were founded specifically to be interdisciplinary,” and she says the the “first seven or eight” professors were all from different fields. Earth System brings together “people ranging from doing fluid dynamics to genomics of photosynthetic plankton in the ocean” says Trumbore. A new bachelor’s degree program has been proposed to link Earth Systems with social science departments.

Prather’s Institute will be taking such cross-fertilization to new levels. Mostly recently, he has been working to recruit faculty in the physical science, biosciences and engineering who share an interest in studying the human factor in global change. These scientists will be hired by existing departments, so they need a significant record of achievement in their own disciplines. But Prather says he wants people who are ready to branch out and, among other things, encourage their graduate students to do the same.

He is also sounding out UC Irvine faculty and finding plenty of interest. “A lot of faculty are already looking for this direction, so I had little trouble forming a steering committee,” he says. In two or three years, he expects the Institute to be producing “interesting, innovative research projects that cut across the range of disciplines necessary to solve our looming environmental challenges. We hope to get off the ground, even if external funding is moderate, but even our mini-grant program relies on well funded disciplinary research programs in the sciences.” He also hopes to influence major federal research programs by “showing what needs to be done, and that it can be done.”

In the longer term, Prather says, the Institute may end up being a school, or more likely, an academic program, “but for now I’m not fighting for that.” What he does foresee is a “healthy, diverse group of academics developing the research needed to help society address the range of environmental challenges. For this kind of work, UC Irvine should be an exciting place for students and faculty.”

-Summer 2009

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