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Demographer chooses path at crossroads of climate, growth

April 30, 2008

Patricia Gober understands better than most that major shifts, in a climate or a career, are periods rife with uncertainty. The professor and former chair of ASU’s department of geography was at the top of her game as a demographer and urban geographer when, a decade ago, she struck out to explore new intellectual terrain.

Her journey, which required crossing the rocky divide between the social and physical sciences, would one day bring her into the heart of Phoenix’s struggles over explosive growth, its environmental consequences and the potential impacts of human-induced climate change.

Ten years ago, Gober was president of the Association of American Geographers, a position that required her to represent the interests of both the social and physical sciences within geography. Standing with one foot in each field got her thinking about crossing some boundaries of her own.

“It inspired me to think about the discipline more broadly,” she says. “It also motivated me to see how other scientific fields operated and how they saw geography.”

The late 1990s were a time of transition and expansion for the field of climate change, too. Once the province of scientists, climate change had begun to find itself increasingly in the public eye as media, political and scientific spheres collided over the controversy.

Interest had been on the rise since the 1980s, when carbon data collection began in earnest. The resulting groundswell brought about the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 and the 1992 adoption of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, culminating in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol.

By the turn of the century, though, efforts to convert conclusions into policy were losing traction, mired in politics and a basic lack of cross-disciplinary comprehension.

Tackling human-induced climate change requires understanding how humans influence their environment and vice versa; but social scientists and physical scientists have traditionally kept to their own camps. If climate and policy were ever to come together productively, someone was going to have to unite both camps in a common cause. Beyond mere expertise, what was required was someone with enough prestige to gamble their reputation on entering an arena that would assuredly paint a bull’s-eye on their back – and the intestinal fortitude to take the risk.

“I had nothing to lose,” Gober says. “I was a full professor and well-established in my career. I thought that I should spend the chips that I had earned.”

One of Gober’s first forays into the world of environmental science was her participation in the Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP-LTER) in 1998. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Phoenix LTER stands out among its 24 sister programs nationwide in that it focuses on human modification of an arid ecosystem. Additionally, thanks to Gober’s influence, it is also one of just two LTER sites that expressly delves into the ecology of urban systems.

Her feet firmly on the interdisciplinary path, Gober began to see other opportunities to expand the public’s understanding of urban ecology.

Inspired by her work at CAP-LTER and her careerlong study of Phoenix, she began offering a class on the city’s environmental history and geography, and conducted research for a book on the same topic. Published in 2006, “Metropolitan Phoenix” examined the historical geography of the city against the background of its relationship with water. This link between people and resources – how we affect our environment and how we can adjust to changes in it – also inspired Gober to establish the Decision Center for a Desert City.

It was the right idea at the right time.

Despite growing scientific data regarding the roots and ramifications of climate change and variability, there was mounting concern in policy circles that no one was sure what to do about it. Global and local climates are exceedingly complex systems, and simulations can only provide a range of likely outcomes, not a definitive answer. This uncertainty made traditional policy-making difficult at best.

Seeking to combat this growing inertia, the NSF established its Decision Making Under Uncertainty Initiative in 2003 to fund the development of new strategies.

It was, for Gober, the final piece of the puzzle.

“Twenty-four billion dollars had been spent on climate change research, but our nation was unable to translate results into public policy,” she says. “So here I sat in Phoenix in the midst of what was then an eight-year drought. We are growing like gangbusters, and there is serious discussion of the climate warming and drying the watersheds that supply us with our sustainable supplies. Clearly, something needed to be done.”

Gober, along with Chuck Redman (now director of the ASU School of Sustainability), received $7 million from the NSF to establish the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), part of the Global Institute of Sustainability. Although she knew little about water management, Gober knew plenty about population growth, urban land use patterns and climate, and Redman – along with what was then the Center for Environmental Studies – added the missing interdisciplinary pieces and administrative infrastructure.

Establishing DCDC meant Gober had to dive headfirst into a new community, working extensively with municipal water managers and policymakers. According to Gober, the interface between scientists and policymakers is a “negotiated space,” in which both sides have to learn to overcome their preconceptions. She found that policy-makers were less concerned with climate change per se, which they felt was beyond their control, and more concerned with generating flexible scenarios for dealing with whatever situations might arise.

Although initially bumpy, the relationship has begun to gel over the past three years. While gaining her “hard-won credibility” with Phoenix water managers, Gober has been impressed with their extensive knowledge of the Valley’s 100 years of water variability data, as well as their skill in managing the shifting water needs of their communities. She sees an urgent need, however, for them to amend their thinking about water management under a changing climate.

“They accept the uncertainty of the past, but they haven’t accepted that the levels and patterns of that uncertainty will shift in the future,” Gober says. “That’s the policy-relevant aspect of climate change.

DCDC has made headway, however. Building upon a solid base of climate, water-resource management and decision-making research, the center has forged a number of collaborative relationships across disciplines. It also has earned a seat at the table with key decision-makers in municipal water management, which has given them a vital means by which to inject raw data into the discussion and to inform manager’s decisions.

One way DCDC contributes to decision-making is via WaterSim, an interactive computer model that simulates water consumption and availability in central Arizona. WaterSim allows users to adjust a number of settings and inputs to simulate scenarios such as sustained drought, higher temperatures, projected population growth and groundwater deficits.
But it’s more than a computer model. It’s a means for scientists and policymakers to collaborate. It is forward motion.

“For better or worse, we’ve put ourselves out there on what could be the cusp of fundamental change,” Gober says.

Crossing divides, particularly in the sometimes regimented, silo-dominated world of academe, is a risky move and full of uncertainty. When it comes to making decisions for a desert city facing ongoing drought and future climate change, having someone acquainted with uncertainty might not be a bad thing. Regardless, a thriving desert city requires fruitful exchanges between scientists and policymakers, and such relationships require people who understand the human and geographic forces that shape our urban landscape. That’s what Gober does best.

“I liken the journey of the past 10 years as being in the right place at the right time,” Gober says. “Changes in the nature of science funding and ASU's commitment to social embeddedness and interdisciplinary collaboration aligned almost perfectly where I wanted to go – integrated and policy-oriented work about Phoenix.”