Skip to main content

University leaders address climate change

November 29, 2007

A meeting that brought together all three Arizona universities, including their presidents, to talk about global climate change and the role universities play in combating it, resulted in discussions about the need to cooperate, find news ways to adapt to the changing world and to effectively get the word out to the public.

“The certainty of global climate change is 100 percent,” ASU President Michael Crow said at the conference, adding that “now we have to adapt” in new ways because we no longer are nomadic peoples who would move away from problem areas.

“Earth is getting warmer, no doubt about it,” added John Haeger, president of Northern Arizona University. “How much warmer depends on the human response.”

“Climate change is a pressing issue that requires scientific and social responses,” said University of Arizona president Robert Shelton.

The conference, “Preparing Our Students For a Changing World,” took place Nov. 26 on ASU’s Tempe campus. It was the first time officials from the three universities got together to talk about what is shaping up to be the most important environmental issue of our times.

The conference was sponsored by the Arizona Water Institute.

In addition to the university presidents speaking, two members of the Arizona Board of Regents participated (Ernest Calderon and Fred DuVal), and each university had a researcher who works in climate change present recent results.

In general, global warming will change life as we know it, from the air we breathe to the water we consume. Being in such a fragile and arid environment as the Sonoran Desert makes the effects of global warming potentially even greater in Arizona than other areas of the United States.

Jonathan Overpeck, of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at University of Arizona, said the state is at “ground zero” in climate change – and, as a result, Arizona’s temperatures stand to increase “greater than anywhere else in the United States.”

Patricia Gober, director of the Decision Center for a Desert City at ASU and a professor of geography, talked about the social aspects to climate change. Gober focused her comments on water resources, and asked if our physical water infrastructure that was “designed to handle 20th century variability will be able to handle the variability of the 21st century, when we have twice the number of people living here.”

Bruce Hungate, a professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona, spoke about the scope of global warming, and what it will require in the way of scientific and social responses to mitigate its effects.

How the universities would respond to such a huge and monumental issue as global climate change was discussed, and the most reasonable approach was to take a huge problem and break it down into workable pieces that can be more easily understood and managed. But just as important is getting the word out on climate change – and the new tools developed by researchers, too.

Crow said having tools to solve the problem is only half of the solution to the problem. Communicating what the science of global warming is saying is a key issue, he added, citing the unheeded predictions of two recent environmental disasters caused by Hurricane Mitch and Hurricane Katrina years before they happened.

Crow said there are three things needed from the universities: they need to work to build flexible, agile integrated learning institutions; they need to produce translators who can speak across the chasm of science to everyone else; and they need to develop regional, adaptive learning organizations to help figure out how to work and adapt to the problem.