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Climate activism at The College

From biology and chemistry to religion and politics, disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences are contributing to the climate change conversation

Aerial view of the Earth and clouds from space.
April 01, 2022

In honor of Earth Month, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University is highlighting work throughout its academic units and centers that addresses climate change from multiple perspectives. Scholars in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences are researching innovative solutions for a healthier, more sustainable planet. 

Subhead: "Sustainable plastics."

What if we could “reduce, reuse and recycle” all plastics? Timothy Long, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and his team of researchers are working to eliminate end-of-life plastics with their $1.89 million research project. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project will optimize and standardize processes and develop a circular economy for polyurethane foams, or PUFs.

“Polyurethanes are an enormous fraction of the polymers we manufacture and use, and right now, we have no viable recycling strategies,” said Matthew Green, an associate professor of chemical engineering and member of the research team. “If we are able to accomplish what we put into the proposal, it will have an immense societal impact.”

Subhead: "Labor markets and migration."

“I started thinking about how climate change affected housing and labor markets as far back as when writing my dissertation in the early 2000s,” said Valerie Mueller, associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies. “As an environmental economist, I was interested in quantifying the costs of climate change. I wanted to use economic theory about how amenities are capitalized in wages and housing prices as a way to identify the economic consequences of bad climate in Brazil.”

Her recent work includes a panel on climate migration, mitigation or pathways to political conflict; insights on how sea-level change affects farming communities in Bangladesh; and an interview with ASU News on how climate change impacts refugees, countries and markets.

“This interdisciplinary work is important because interventions or policy responses will be necessary to protect migrants from suboptimal adaptation or protect receiving communities facing constraints on resources and employment opportunities,” said Mueller.

Subhead: "Relationships with land."

A study co-authored by 50 leading land-use scientists identified 10 facts on the relationships people have with land and the social, economic, cultural, environmental and spiritual implications of how land-use decisions are made and by whom.

These new guidelines will inform decision-makers to hopefully inspire more equitable solutions to addressing challenges like limiting the impacts of climate change, designing systems for sustainable food and energy production, protecting biodiversity and balancing competing claims to land ownership.

“The (10) ‘facts’ point to what the science community now understands about land dynamics and provide insights of which decision-makers should be aware,” said B.L. Turner II, Regents Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and study co-author.

Subhead: "Religious reflection."

Evan Berry, assistant professor at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, has focused his research on how religious beliefs, ideas and identities play a role in shaping how people respond to ecological challenges.

His recent work has addressed the intersections of religion and climate change in several ways, including: 

“The climate crisis presents a set of fundamentally religious questions: What does it mean to live well and live collectively in a precarious future? How will future generations tell stories about this crisis and how it came to pass? Are we capable of transcending our most base impulses?” said Berry. “Our collective pursuit of sustainability doesn’t just need religious support — it merits religious reflection.”

A field of crops.

“There’s a lot we can do as individuals, but more importantly, I would say as communities, as cities, as states, as countries, and international is a piece of that, but just because we don't make as much progress on these international goals, I don't think that means we should just give up,” said Abigail York, professor of governance and public policy and director of graduate studies in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

York recently co-authored a paper on integrating institutional approaches to address climate change, which argues that climate change is a social science problem that requires considering multilevel perspectives across communities, from the individual to the global. 

With the growing awareness of climate change over recent years, York has seen many community groups come together to effect change. Farmers are adapting to changing weather patterns to grow crops, Native communities are seeking ways to maintain traditional food strategies in a shifting climate and students are eager to get involved in their local communities.

Subhead: "Clean energy."

Several faculty at the School of Molecular Sciences are leading studies to advance clean energy research and expand the potential of clean energy resources:

These research projects seek to learn from natural biological processes to develop energy solutions.

“Rather than exploiting the products of natural photosynthesis, we can be inspired by our knowledge of photosynthesis to pioneer new materials and technologies with properties and capabilities rivaling those of their biological counterparts,” Moore said.

Subhead: "Indigenous knowledge."

A group of multidisciplinary researchers, funded by a $3 million NSF grant, will record the traditional knowledge of the Kichwa and Waorani Nations in order to gain insights on how the global demand for clean energy is impacting local biodiversity in the Amazon.

“We're working closely with those who really have this knowledge of plant-animal relations,” said Tod Swanson, associate professor at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and project principal investigator. “Their knowledge is traditional knowledge handed down, and knowledge from living in relation to the forest they live in every day."

Swanson hopes this project will become an example of looking beyond scientific, quantitative analyses and giving voice to humanistic, qualitative perspectives when considering environmental issues: “Hopefully, if we keep trying and keep trying, the importance of Indigenous knowledge will become more evident to scientists.”

Subhead: "River ecosystems."

Nancy Grimm, Regents Professor at the School of Life Sciences, and her colleagues at Duke University examined the pulse of more than 200 rivers and streams in the U.S. They found that annual light availability and flow stability are the most important factors in determining the health of river ecosystems.

“We need to pay attention to these variables if we want to maintain systems in some kind of a state — whether it’s their natural state or if we want to think about restoration, or if we want to think about even the creation of systems that are highly managed by people,” said Grimm. “We would do well to pay attention to those master controlling variables.”

The new research findings may fundamentally change the way rivers are studied and improve our understanding of river ecosystem dynamics, with important ramifications for future river management, policy and climate change. 

Subhead: "Ocean stories."

Many renowned literary works have featured stories of human interaction with ocean environments. “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts,” said Ishmael in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

The new Blue Humanities initiative at the Institute for Humanities Research, led by Department of English Professor Jonathan Bate, will bring humanities scholars together with marine scientists and sustainability researchers to study the interactions between humankind and the ocean’s past, present and future

This project is in collaboration with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences at the Global Futures Laboratory, the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and King’s College, London.

Subhead: "Apocalyptic narratives."

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has partnered with the Narrative Storytelling Initiative and Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory to develop an initiative at the intersection of storytelling, climate change and apocalyptic thinking. 

The Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change initiative brings together journalists, climate scientists and scholars of religious studies and the broader humanities to tell stories about the stakes of inaction on climate change.

At 11:30 a.m. Friday, April 22, the initiative will host “Hope, Alarm and Climate Change: The Climate Narratives Prize” at the ISTB7 auditorium on the Tempe campus.

Subhead: "Threats to democracy."

What is the relationship between threats to democracy and those posed by a destabilizing climate? Former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore has said, “In order to solve the climate crisis, we’ve got to fix the democracy crisis.”

In partnership with ASU’s Earth Week celebration, The College will bring together community leaders, students and scholars from across ASU for the inaugural conference on democracy and climate change.

The conference, from April 19–20, will feature Gore as the keynote speaker and will address topics such as climate justice, constitutional reform, international climate initiatives and more.

Subhead: "Ocean habitats."

Research led by Steven Mana'oakamai Johnson, a postdoctoral research scholar at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, examined how climate change may impact ocean habitats over the next 50 years. 

The research team found that large, marine-protected areas — that are designed to preserve threatened species and rare habitats around the world — are highly vulnerable to climate change.

“This work is important because it highlights the need to start reconciling that all future climates … will require a shift towards understanding how, when and where changes from normal are going to occur,” said Johnson. 

Subhead: "Public policy."

Comprehensive policies are an essential component in creating effective climate action. Glenn Sheriff, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, researches the distribution of benefits and costs of environmental, natural resource and climate policy. 

“Individuals and businesses acting on their own in an uncoordinated way will not and cannot solve the climate problem,” said Sheriff. “For example, if a large group of people were to voluntarily decide to switch to electric vehicles, that would reduce demand for, and hence the price, of gasoline. That drop in price would reduce the incentive for others to drive less or purchase more efficient vehicles, thus undermining the gains.”

Sheriff has analyzed and advocated for climate change policies and reform in his recent work, which includes:

Top photo courtesy of Canva

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