Strategies for a Changing World

March 26, 2012

Regents’ Professor Diana Liverman is a geographer and co-founder of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Her overarching task, however, is creating communities of science and policy to help the world cope with climate change.

Liverman has countless collaborative projects with colleagues and graduate students that focus on understanding the processes of adaptation and what adaptations successful or unsuccessful.

“I mean, are we going to get to the point where in some parts of the world it’s so warm that you can’t even grow the same crops anymore?” she asks, “Or are we going to have to move cities away from the coasts?”

Liverman sees these both as serious policy questions, but also fascinating research questions. To address these problems, the Institute, co-directed by Jonathan Overpeck, PhD, and professor of geological sciences, taps into the pool of talented researchers from across campus. She loves to see the collaboration that goes on there.

“To see a new professor in English who teaches environmental writing, talking to a new young guy in economics that works on environmental economics talking to an atmospheric scientist is really what the institute is about,” she says. As a geographer, Liverman thrives on such interdisciplinary collaboration.

Sallie Marston, Ph.D., professor of geography and development, appreciates Liverman’s ability to play in such a multi-faceted environment.

“The discipline has two major components to it: physical scientists and social scientists,” says Marston, “so she (Liverman) understands both environmental kinds of questions as well as the human questions that go along with the environments in which those humans live.”

An Accessible Expert

Liverman’s commitments go from chairing National Science Foundation committees to working on startups like the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research. Closer to home, she helped start the UA’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest.

According to Marston, Liverman is inquisitive and convincing by nature. “She’s very good at asking other people questions,” Marston says. “She sits next to people on planes and she asks them questions, and before you know it, they’re giving money to some cause that she’s got.”

Liverman was invited as an expert to participate in the Clinton administration’s White House Conference on Global Climate Change. According to Marston, “She sat there, right in between President Clinton and Vice President Gore, and she talked to them like they were her next door neighbors. She’s very comfortable, I think, because she believes in what she’s doing.”

A Love of the Landscape

Her world views were shaped in part by her early years. Liverman was born in Ghana, West Africa. At the time, her father was working for the British government on a large dam project. Every holiday, her parents would take the family to a British national park where they would rent old cottages and go hiking and swimming.

“I think going to all those different national parks really gave me a love of the landscape,” she remembers.

The Rewards of Teaching

“Probably the most rewarding part of my career has been working with graduate students over the years,” says Liverman, who loves learning from her students’ ideas. “Every year you can have a new set of graduate students that re-inspires you and re-enthuses you even if you’re feeling a bit burnt out.”

Miriam Gay-Antaki, a graduate student in geography, appreciates Liverman’s knowledge and expertise as much as her commitment to her students.

“Whenever I need her help or advice, she’s always there” says Gay-Antaki. “I send her an email and she gets back to me immediately, wherever in the world she is. Like sometimes I don’t even know she’s not here. So she’s very available.”

Ongoing Contributions

Today, Liverman’s former students are doing research and serving on committees around the globe. As geographers, however, she and her students are also deep into field work.

“A lot of the work my graduate students are doing now is looking at various policies that are coming in, either protecting forests, or providing money to help with adaptation to sea level rise, and actually seeing if those policies are working in the communities,” she says.

When not in the field, serving on international committees or teaching, Liverman enjoys spending time with friends in a local Tucson book club or poking around in the desert. Ultimately though, Diana Liverman is focused on a very big picture.

“Unlike many pessimists among us, she believes that she can make a difference,” says Marston of Liverman’s unquenchable drive, “that she can have an impact by the kinds of conversations she has, by the kind of work she has, and having the world be different.”

Learn more about Professor Liverman’s work at the Institute for the Environment. 

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