Meet our Council: Diana Liverman

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Based in Tucson, USA, Diana currently holds an appointment as Regents Professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. She was one of the lead authors of the IPCC Global Warming 1.5C report and she talks to Bron York about climate resilience, hope, inaction, and engaging the young.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace Wells has been getting a lot of attention. What is your opinion of the book?

I found the book a bit breathless in terms of the relentless sense of catastrophe – although of course we are facing an enormous challenge in terms of the risks and needed responses to climate change. For example, I am always concerned about predictions of increased conflict because it is just as likely that climate change will promote cooperation, as we have seen with competition over other resources such as water. The book is rather alarmist about conflict and also about population growth – which is actually slowing.

Sandra Postel’s new book Replenish explores the urgency of protecting and restoring water systems with many hopeful examples of collaborative water management. I’ve been talking a lot recently about the need for hope in response to my role in the IPCC 1.5C report and the PNAS so called “hothouse earth“ paper. There is a lot to be hopeful about. Though I did feel a bit despairing after Hurricane Idai hit Mozambique and then the recent episode of the television show Madame Secretary portrayed the disappearance of the country of Nauru from sea level rise and cyclones.

What advice do you have for companies in terms of increasing climate resilience?

Beyond reducing emissions, companies need to do an assessment of their supply chain vulnerabilities. They can use recent extreme weather events to look at how vulnerable they are. And they can also look at risks to the people working within those supply chains to protect their labor force.

Companies need to work quickly to make supply chains more resilient.

Companies need to work quickly to make supply chains more resilient. This includes both looking at adaptation and diversifying supply chains, so that they aren’t dependent on a single location or region. Then of course they can review insurance which is getting increasingly more expensive. That is another challenge for companies.

You mentioned the importance of hope, what gives you the most hope right now?

There are a number of things that give me great hope. One is the dramatic increase in women’s rights, which means that women are choosing to have less children. Less people will put less pressure on the planet although we have to watch out for growing consumption. The rapid growth of cheaper renewable energy is another one.

We’re seeing an increase in grassroots movements calling for action on climate change. Leadership from young people like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.

I would also highlight school kids putting pressure on governments. We’re seeing an increase in grassroots movements calling for action on climate change. Leadership from young people like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg. We’re also seeing sustained attention on climate change action from the media – at least from more reputable media outlets.

I’m also optimistic about the fact that many large businesses are taking climate change very seriously.

Which countries give you the most hope regarding climate action?

I think the European Union is still taking climate action seriously. I have some optimism about China because of their aggressive investment in renewables and improving efficiency. But that is balanced by their substantial growth in consumption. I’m also hopeful about smaller countries like Costa Rica with their carbon neutral goal and by California. As a state it has a larger economy than most countries, and it’s making some very strong progress on mitigation.

Developing economies need to find low-carbon pathways out of poverty. Millions of people don’t have access to electricity right now. And making sure they can leap-frog fossil fuels and go straight to clean energy for homes, industry and transport is incredibly important. Also, with the reduction of conflict in Central Africa, globally important forests may be opened up to development. Managing land use for carbon sequestration, while also increasing standards of living is going to be a key challenge.

And which countries are you most concerned about when it comes to inaction?

I wish the US federal government would make a stronger commitment to climate action even though states and local governments are doing quite a lot. I’m concerned about Brazil, with the new leadership under Bolsonaro and the likelihood of decreased protections for the Amazon. Australia has also had a tough time making meaningful commitments to climate change.

You teach at the University of Arizona and have previously taught at Oxford; how are young people engaging with the topic of climate change?

Students are very worried about climate change as I know from a survey I do at the beginning of term. Some are angry about the inaction from older generations given we’ve known about climate change for so long and done so little. Many are willing to take action to reduce their emissions, but many feel limited regarding what action they can take.

Here in Arizona, many of my students come from lower income backgrounds. They can’t afford solar panels on their roofs or an EV. They feel limited in the choices that businesses are giving them because they can’t afford the sustainable products that are available like organics or renewables. And they’re angry about the subsidies that government provides to fossil fuel companies rather than renewable energy companies.

Finally, what do you think the chances are of achieving a bipartisan approach to climate change in the US in the lead up to 2020 election?

The move towards a carbon fee and dividend may be getting more bipartisan support. and the movement towards greater investment in climate adaptation may gain more bipartisan support.

I think we need to talk more about what is a fair share when it comes to global climate mitigation action – the US should probably be cutting 80% by 2030.

I gave a talk recently about the IPCC 1.5C report to the League of Women Voters – they’re a very important bipartisan organisation that are involved in getting people to vote. One of the issues that we discussed was the need to cut emissions in half by 2030. They asked me how people in Arizona can do that. And I told them that they actually need to do more than that because the US has more responsibility due to both its historical and high per capita emissions, as well as its wealth. I think we need to talk more about what is a fair share when it comes to global climate mitigation action – the US should probably be cutting 80% by 2030. But then again, people are already overwhelmed when they hear that we need to halve emissions by 2030 so we need to focus on doing as much as we can.

About the author

Bron York
Bron York

Bron is one of the co-authors of this year’s Globescan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey. She is also part of SustainAbility’s Research and Trends Team, providing clients with insight into emerging sustainability developments across sectors and geographies.

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