Interactions between humans and the environment is a two-way street. Human actions change the environment, and changes to the environment affect human behavior.
David Lopez-Carr, a geographer a the University of California-Santa Barbara, calls it “human environment dynamics.” He studies how climate change impacts food security, crop production and human health, particularly infant mortality.
“Babies and infants are the hardest hit when there is when there are food shortages,” Lopez-Carr told KGOU’s World Views.
During his career, Lopez-Carr has worked in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Lopez-Carr’s research center, the Human-Environment Dynamics lab, has determined that sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world that is most vulnerable to climate change. The region has experienced high population growth density with climatic anomalies, such as high temperatures and decreased precipitation.
Rural areas shoulder the brunt of the burden in Africa. Rain-fed farming is imperative for livelihoods. When there is not enough rain, farmers can’t raise food to feed their families, so they search for alternatives.
“They can migrate. They can try to find off-farm labor. They can maybe have fewer children even. These are all potential responses and they all have potential limitations,” Lopez-Carr said.
Studying this field can be difficult for scholars like Lopez-Carr because every weather anomaly is not necessarily related to climate change. His lab examines climate data that goes back 30 years to make sure a climatic event, a temperature anomaly, is not a random short-term occurrence.
“By doing so we have higher confidence that is part of a longer term global climate change pattern,” Lopez-Carr said.
Space and time add another layer of complexity. An action can occur in one place on the globe that later changes conditions in Africa.
“If you go back to you know the vast majority of human history as hunter-gatherers, our impact on the environment was very intimate and sudden in space and time,” Lopez-Carr said. “The impact was here. The impact is now. Increasingly that's much more complex. You know, the impact is in a different place and a different time.”
Trade and global business deepen this complex study in today’s advanced economies. Fossil fuels are used to import coffee into Oklahoma, for instance, which damages the environment without a trace to any one individual’s actions.
Lopez-Carr on the harsh impacts of climate change in rural areas
What we didn't know is where these two forces - the climate side and kind of the human population side - collide most vigorously and it came out in eastern Africa quite a lot. Where you do have the combination, and in sort of pockets in across western Africa, particularly where there are higher rural population densities. So a lot of people essentially on limited farmland that is also undergoing climate change and reduction in precipitation. So for most of the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, most people are farmers and they're depending directly on rain fed agriculture. So there's not rain, to survive they have to often migrate. Sometimes they don't survive and that's what we're trying to understand.
Lopez-Carr on studying climate change
Particularly in more advanced economies like here, we are sitting in Oklahoma, and we're having our breakfast. And the eggs might be local but, you know, other components of that breakfast, especially the coffee, for example certainly isn't from Oklahoma. So we're buying products that are coming from all over the world and we're using fossil fuels for this transportation. And so these impacts are happening in a very complex way over space and time that's seemingly disconnected to any one individual's actions and therefore is also very difficult to study scientifically.
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Suzette Grillot: David Lopez-Carr welcome to World Views.
David Lopez-Carr: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Grillot: Well David, you had a very impressive career in environmental issues. You're a professor of geography, but you direct the Human-Environment Dynamics Lab. Can you tell us what you do and that lab is an actual lab and what tells what you do?
Lopez-Carr: Great question. So, you know, I'm trained as a social scientist first, but I as a geographer connect to the physical sciences as well and so environmental change and ecological change. So the sort of questions that I'm interested in pursuing are those that involve how are humans interacting with the environment and the causal arrow goes both ways. You know humans impact the environment. So much of my work is on deforestation in the tropics in Amazon or the Maya rainforest in Guatemala. But then humans also react to environmental change. And so increasingly much of my research looks at the aspect of human environment dynamics, particularly examining climate change and its impacts on food security, crop production, and human health and particularly infant mortality, because babies and infants are the hardest hit when there is when there are food shortages. So these are some of the topics that I deal with.
Lopez-Carr: And I do get this question you know, "To what extent is this a lab right?" So no we're not like bringing in soil samples, though our colleagues do at our labs next door. You know it's more like a group where our doctoral students and post-docs convene to work.
Lopez-Carr: I'm also director co-director of the University of California systemwide involving all 10 campuses a center for planetary health. We just launched that center this fall.
Grillot: The key word to me and your lab is really dynamics, given that this dynamic relationship between both humans and the environment. I like how you put that that the causal arrow goes both ways and that they each interact with each other.
Grillot: So it seems to me a very dynamic relationship, but it's also a very broad relationship. I mean I've listed a number of issues that we are concerned with. So how do you work in a field where it is such a broad issue and there are many more right that you could add to this list?
Lopez-Carr: That's a great question you know and some people do ask me, "Human environment dynamics. You know this can encompass so many things. And how do you how do you focus?"
Lopez-Carr: And so there's a couple of things I'd like to mention about this. One is that you know to some degree despite this being an area that encompasses so many themes and interactions among themes it's only in recent years that academics, you know, professors, research human and social systems in an integrated fashion with the environment.
Lopez-Carr: And so because of that, there's opportunity almost to label one's self doing these broader themes and because conceptually we are concerned with these broader themes even though of course we're training students we have to be very very specific.
Lopez-Carr: My own expertise specifically within human environment dynamics is particularly how human populations interact with the environment. So how does population size density distribution, mobility, involved in deforestation for example in the tropics. Similarly how is it involved with where people are most vulnerable to climate change?
Grillot: Where is that happening?
Lopez-Carr: You know pursuing that very question, before we get into the dynamics of how this is happening, and thus how can we prevent it. How can we suggest policies to prevent, you know, problems associated with climate change. You know we asked ourselves a direct question is a geographer Well first thing we do is we make a map and we made a map by taking existing data on climate change by using anomalies in temperature, evapotranspiration and precipitation. So if transportation is basically how well the soils are retaining water which is ultimately the most important thing for crop production. And we link that data with Demographic and Health Surveys. Demographic and Health Surveys are sponsored by the U.N. It's probably the largest ongoing survey of human populations worldwide to map out where are areas of high population growth density coupled with anomalies in, particularly, you know, high temperatures, sub-Saharan Africa, aridity, you know lack of rainfall, and low level of evapotranspiration. And where we found these hotspots emerge are in sub-Saharan Africa and some patterns we expected and others surprise us. Now we knew that for example the Lake Victoria basin in eastern Africa has a lot of people. So there's a lot of vulnerability there.
Lopez-Carr: And we know that the Sahel sort of in central western Africa is also experiencing a dramatic climate change and increasing aridity. But what we didn't know is where these two forces - the climate side and kind of the human population side - collide most vigorously and it came out in eastern Africa quite a lot. Where you do have the combination, and in sort of pockets in across western Africa particularly where there are higher rural population densities. So a lot of people essentially on limited farmland that is also undergoing climate change and reduction in precipitation. So for most of the developing world especially in sub-Saharan Africa most people are farmers and they're depending directly in rain fed agriculture. So there's not rain, they either, to survive, they have to often migrate. Sometimes they don't survive, and that's what we're trying to understand.
Grillot: So in sub-Saharan Africa. Let's just talk about this for a second because obviously that the climate change issue is is you know you're scientifically studying that you're able to produce the data you're undoubtedly looking at the causes of this happening. But what about the consequences? You were getting at that at the end right. Migration. The fact that that you know farmers are having to migrate. People are struggling and suffering but it's also causing conflict right. Is that one thing that we don't fully understand is the impact between climate change and desertification or changes in you know rain patterns that sort of thing and the impact on the conflict over the land that we see let's say in Sudan for example.
Lopez-Carr: Excellent question. And first let me let me talk a bit about the climate change aspect, so that we are confident that our anomalies that we're observing are actually climate change and not short term short term anomalies, right, that might be random, we use data that goes back at least 30 years. And by doing so we have higher confidence that is part of a longer term global climate change pattern. One. Two, that being the case, just to be clear that doesn't mean we can say with confidence that in any one specific place where there are climate anomalies, say temperature precipitation anomalies, it is from climate change. And this is the scale issue that makes this complicated so. So again have to be clear we're pretty confident that at a regional scale what we're seeing these signals are part of a larger climate change pattern. We have very very high confidence about that. OK. In any one place any one event it's hard to ascertain that with complete confidence but so. So what happens in sub-Saharan Africa, you have decreased precipitation. And with that households depending on rain fed agriculture essentially you're cutting off their lifeline. You need water to grow your crops and you know you have they have several options to respond. They can migrate. They can try to find off-farm labor. They can maybe have to have fewer children even. These are all potential responses and they all have potential limitations. And so we often refer to trap populations where there aren't real migration opportunities and people remain and they do the best they can.
Lopez-Carr: And what we are observing is that with that we do see increased mortality particularly among infants and children who are the most vulnerable to food shortages.
Grillot: I think that thing that you know we talk about the environment so much on the show and elsewhere I mean obviously it's a huge issue. It's just making those those causal connections and consequential outcomes visible. you're putting out information not only so governments can perhaps make better decisions but also so activists and interested individuals can take up that information that you've provided that scholarship that scientific research that you've provided. And actually you know lobby or or pressure governments to do what we think they need to do. But it's is it is harder and harder the further you get from you know something that's causing infant mortality for example to say climate change in sub-Saharan Africa is you know directly linked to infant mortality. That just seems like that's so hard to make that that so visible that we can actually develop better policies.
Lopez-Carr: This is a very interesting and complex question. One thing that I like to tell people is that these are sort of circumstance in terms of how we're how we're seeing the arc of human environment dynamics unfold over time is that if you go back to you know the vast majority of human history as hunter gatherers, our impact on the environment was very intimate and sudden in space and time. The impact was here. The impact is now. Increasingly that's much more complex. You know the impact is in a different place and a different time. So you know particularly in more advanced economies like here we are sitting in Oklahoma and we're having our breakfast in the eggs might be local but you know other components of that breakfast especially the coffee for example certainly isn't from Oklahoma. So we're buying products that are coming from all over the world and we're using fossil fuels for this transportation. And so these impacts are happening in a very complex way over space and time that's seemingly disconnected to any one individual's actions and therefore is also very difficult to study scientifically.
Grillot: Well and clearly the complexity also it affects how well we can address these things and I can't have this conversation with you without asking the question now that we are you know into the Trump administration. And it's been very clear that perspectives on this issue have shifted somewhat from the last administration to this. But in general politicians struggle with this issue and perhaps because it is so complex because it has been politicized but first of all how do you feel about where this administration is going on this issue on environmental issues as we have, for example, a director of an EPA that's a climate change denier. And then you know where do you find hope. Do you. Where is it that we need to concentrate our attention.
Lopez-Carr: It's these are challenging times for those of us who are concerned about the impacts of growing populations on limited resources under climate change where we also see conflict arising from these issues.
Lopez-Carr: You know I think in the short term at the federal level, I I'm not particularly optimistic about where things are going. I've already sensed from my own work where there's issues of limitations, consequences potentially, for what we write what we say how we say it. There's efforts to limit to control information. And any society that wishes to become self-actualized, truly have a functioning democracy, really solve problems that are in the best interests of everyone, we first need an open free press, exchange of information as professors. At major research universities, it's imperative that we have academic freedom. It's imperative that we all understand that facts are facts and they are unassailable and we can and should argue over opinions. We should never waste our time arguing over facts. This is something that we should be teaching our children very vigorously in the public schools starting in grade 1.
Grillot: So that's where we find hope as an early education, educating our children early on.
Lopez-Carr: Absolutely. You know I think we must not allow that budgets shrink for K through 12 education. It's imperative that we increase the education, particularly around critical thinking skills. And critical thinking skills, you can and will learn from a diverse array of disciplines.
Grillot: Well David thank you so much for being here today. And the latest is going to be an issue we continue to talk about and I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and perspectives and your research with us. Thank you.
Lopez-Carr: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
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