Collaboration key to solving climate crisis, says new BIHE director

Q: What caught your eye on IBES?

In most places, academic researchers have very few opportunities to advance research outside the boundaries of their discipline, due to the way academic departments, academic journals, and grant funding are structured.

IBES is a major exception to this rule. Interdisciplinary collaboration is not a new priority at IBES; it is already part of the fabric of the institute. There are so many long-term research projects here that cut across disciplines and reach beyond the University, and they inform policy locally, nationally and internationally.

I believe these collaborations and partnerships will be key to solving many of today’s most pressing challenges, including climate change. These problems require systems-level thinking about solutions, and they require people from all backgrounds and professions to come together and contribute their diverse perspectives and tools.

Q: How can collaboration across disciplines help solve some of the most pressing climate issues people face today?

I think every catastrophic extreme weather event we’ve seen this summer – flooding in Kentucky, fires in California, record heat in Europe – is an example of systems failing. Let’s be frank: we knew for decades that these disasters would come to our doorstep, and we didn’t work together in earnest to leverage that knowledge to keep communities safe. We are now playing catch-up to accommodate our climate reality, which means now, more than ever, we need everyone on deck to address these issues.

Take urban heat waves, for example. Recently, the city of Starkville, Mississippi recorded a heat index of 140 degrees Fahrenheit due to a combination of humidity, sun and lack of wind. These temperatures sound like science fiction, but they are real and, tragically, they are causing deaths.

What would it take to keep communities like Starkville safe? Revised emergency planning and response protocols are needed to begin with. Deeper household-level data would be needed to find and protect those most vulnerable during heat waves, including those without air conditioning, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions. such as cardiovascular disease. There should be partnerships between cities and community organizations to provide more public cooling centers, distribute air conditioning units to the most vulnerable, and ensure that everyone knows how to stay safe during a heat emergency, including in knowing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

And that’s just the beginning. We also need to think about how we can design our cities to stay cool with more green space, more canopy, more white roofs and less tarred roofs. We need to think about putting in place energy systems that put less strain on the electricity grid in the summer. We need to think about how to take advantage of new cooling technologies that can keep us comfortable while reducing our carbon footprint.

This example illustrates how nearly every department at Brown could be part of the solution. We need designers, engineers, political scientists, urban planners, sociologists, doctors and public health experts, I could go on.

About Geraldine Higgins

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