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Changing America

Updated Monday, 30th November 2009

Presenting at TippingPoint’s Art & Climate Change event, Professor Diana Liverman describes her personal relationship with climate change and shares her dream to change America’s attitudes.

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Copyright The Open University


How does you life relate to climage change?

My professional life has been completely about climate change. I started working on climate change in 1976 and I’ve been working on it ever since. I had the privilege to do graduate work with a guy called Ken Hare, who’s one of Canada’s most famous climatologists, no longer with us, and he showed the Keeling Curve in a lecture in ‘76 of greenhouse gases going up. And from that point I was working on various aspects of climate change, so that’s more than thirty years. And I’ve been working as a scientist and as an academic trying to understand what climate change means for humanity.

Where does the passion come from?

I think that one of the reasons I’m passionate about climate change is to do with being born in West Africa. And when I was growing up there was a lot on the television about children starving in Africa, and I think I got interested in drought and famine and about suffering and natural disasters, and I think that’s part of where my passion comes from. But I think it also comes from working on it for so long and seeing so little action that it’s almost frustration at this point.

What are you planning over the next year?

What I’m working on at the moment is, it sounds very ambitious, is trying to change America when it comes to climate change. I’m on leave in the United States and I’m trying to enter into some arguments about what the US should be doing, both in terms of its international commitments but also what can be done in different regions of the US. So I’m trying to take some of the lessons I learned from being in Europe. So how did the UK Climate Impact Programme work to communicate climate change to the UK public, and did that have anything to do with changing attitudes. So I’m trying to help design a sort of climate information service that might work in the United States.

Another thing I’m trying to do is look at adaptation and talk to people particularly in the Western US about adaptation and link it to social justice issues. And that’s just emerging as a big issue in California because people are concerned not only about how climate change will affect, how it will affect different groups but also how climate policy might affect different groups, so it’s sort of an environmental justice argument. And then the other thing I’ve been working on is trying to think through international responsibility on adaptation. And so a few months ago I worked with Oxfam on a report that they did called Suffering the Science, which was basically their argument for the need for an international adaptation fund, where they had taken witness statements from thousands of people around the world that they work with who were all saying the climate’s changing, the seasons are changing, and so I wanted to still lend my voice to Oxfam’s plea to get ourselves organised to help people adapt to climate change.

Policy and science, how do they mix?

I think for scientists they really feel like they’re really stepping beyond their mandate when they talk about social implications and politics. But I can always put on my sort of well, I work on society so I can comment on society. So I feel sometimes that I take less risk speaking out than some of my colleagues in the sort of purely natural sciences. But I also try to always speak with evidence. So I try to know that I’ve got the facts to back up what I’m saying. And I think that a sort of an evidence-based speaking out is an important thing to do.

What would be your wish list for climate change?

Well my wish list is: the world commits to 50 per cent cut in greenhouse emissions, the north to 80 per cent. I would like to see 150 billion a year for adaptation, and I truly believe that that’s what we’re going to need to cope with this. And I suppose if we don’t get those I sort of hope for some geoengineering work breakthrough that’s not going to mess up the planet, and that may be the sort of most ‘out there’ wish but I think if we don’t sort of sort it through reducing emissions or helping with adaptation we’ve got to go to the engineering technology solutions. But I’m very very anxious about how those are going to work out, but we may need to get to that point.

Optimism or pessimism?

I’m optimistic in the medium term. I’m feeling pessimistic right now because I don’t think we’re going to get the deal I would like to see in Copenhagen. But I sort of feel like soon after that the effects of climate change will become so apparent that we will do what we need to do. But I’m probably more on the pessimist than the optimist side right now. I hope in five years I’m more optimistic.





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