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ASU participates in international summit on global change

May 07, 2009

Finding ways to understand and effectively deal with the spectrum of environmental changes that are occurring – and will occur – around the world is one of the most pressing needs of our time. Directly or indirectly, environmental change impacts humans on a number of levels, from something as simple as how comfortable we are throughout the seasons to something as profound as whether we have sufficient amounts of drinking water or arable land on which to grow crops.

Yet, so far, most of the research in this area has been aimed at the environment itself and directed through the physical and natural sciences. Only about 2 percent of federal funding for climate-change research goes to the social sciences, despite the fact that humans alter physical environments in myriad ways, including creating policies regulating the use of the planet’s resources.

But the tide is changing, and social sciences are increasingly viewed with promise in the battle to preserve our earth and equitably provide for all who call it home. At the forefront of this field of human-environment interaction known as human dimensions research is the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change.

IHDP, a program by the International Council for Science, the International Social Science Council and the United Nations University, organizes the world’s largest international science conference series dealing with the social aspects of global environmental change. This year’s open meeting occurred April 26-30 on the United Nations Campus in Bonn, Germany, where a delegation of Arizona State University researchers from the Global Institute of Sustainability, School of Human Evolution and Social Change and School of Sustainability are engaged in an interdisciplinary, international effort to understand and undertake the social challenges of global change, the theme for the 2009 gathering.

“In recognition of our evolving leadership in this area, ASU researchers were central to framing the conference agenda and will contribute significantly to the discussions,” explains James Buizer, science policy advisor to the president and the director for strategic institutional advancement. “Of particular significance is the attention given to questioning the adequacy of existing institutions to meet the needs of our very rapidly changing world.”

Along with adapting institutions to meet global change, other conference themes are dealing with demographic challenges, limited resources and ecosystem services, and establishing social cohesion while increasing equity at various levels.

Sander van der Leeuw, who is the director of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is currently the treasurer of the IHDP Scientific Committee. As faculty in the School of Sustainability and a member of the Board of Trustees for Sustainability at ASU, van der Leeuw is well acquainted with the importance of using socio-economic science to frame the effects of global environmental change.

And he is enthused about the new perspectives generated by assembling a diversity of researchers—like economists, geographers and anthropologists—to discuss different facets of the same problem.

“The summit’s overall goal is to work across political and demographic boundaries to create more focus on the future of environmental change research and policy,” he states.

That seems a very doable goal considering the conference has brought together more than 1,000 scientists, government officials, journalists, key members of the private sector and leaders of institutes, international organizations and NGOs.

And this year, roughly half of the gathering’s participants are from the developing world. IHDP considered the inclusion of delegates from typically underrepresented regions so important that they raised funds to subsidize their travel.

The subjects being tackled at the IHDP open meeting are human problems that affect us all, from small individual communities up to the entire world population. By involving a wide range of stakeholders and allowing scientists to rub elbows with policy makers, journalists and the heads of organizations, they hope to positively shape decision-making and get out the message that global environmental change is, at its core, a social sciences issue.

About ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability

The Global Institute of Sustainability is the hub of ASU’s sustainability initiatives. The institute advances research, education and business practices for an urbanizing world. Its School of Sustainability, the first of its kind in the U.S., offers transdisciplinary degree programs that advance practical solutions to environmental, economic and social challenges. For more information, visit the Global Institute of Sustainability at

About ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change

A leader in innovative education and research, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change is a model for the transdisciplinary study of the human trajectory and its many facets. Its diverse faculty—from anthropologists, mathematicians and geographers to sociologists, economists and political scientists—prepare students to become agents of change in a globalized world with limited resources. The school oversees a museum of anthropology, a rock art nature preserve and a research laboratory in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Also under its auspices are several institutes and centers, including the Institute of Human Origins, the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity and the Center for Bioarchaeological Research. For more information, visit the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at

ASU Delegates

Rhimjim Aggarwal, Chris Boone, James Buizer, Michail Fragkias, Corrie Griffith, Lynda Sygna, Sander van der Leeuw, Jameson Wetmore, Arnim Wiek, Abby York