Climate Change Problem Solving at Michigan

Published: 5:57 PM GMT on September 20, 2014

Climate Change Problem Solving at Michigan

At the University of Michigan a group of graduate students founded and manage the Michigan Journal of Sustainability. The Journal aims to foster transdisciplinary communication by publishing timely, innovative, stimulating, and informative articles that translate scholarly research on systemic sustainability problems into useful formats for practitioners and policy makers. The Journal focuses on three areas: (1) sustainable freshwater systems, (2) livable communities, and (3) responses to climate variability and change. The Journal is sponsored by the Graham Sustainability Institute. In the current issue there are a number of articles on climate change including one on the efforts of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (Washington State, not Virginia) efforts at climate adaptation and planning for climate change in legacy cities (those that have lost jobs and population). I have links to all of the articles at the end of the blog.

I wrote the introduction to the issue. The blog below is extracted from that introduction. My entire piece can be accessed here.

Recently, I gave a talk on information systems and usable science. In the past decade, I have focused on accelerating the use of climate-change knowledge in planning and management. In the academic literature, the term “usable” science has emerged to describe information that is understandable, relevant, and capable of being used by decision makers (Dilling and Lemos 2011). Usable science stands in contrast to the data and knowledge that scientists and researchers proffer as useful, but which are created in isolation from decision makers and without knowledge of specific decision contexts. My talk was drawn from an article that Paul Edwards and I wrote following our experimental class on climate informatics (Rood and Edwards in Earthzine, 2014). In the article, we emphasize that there are many online data services and portals and that the data from these assets are often so hard to use that they are deemed unusable. This usability gap is not unique to the climate informatics field but is pervasive across the sciences. Simply put, access to data is not enough.

Access to knowledge can be framed as an extension of access to data. We naively expect that knowledge will be broadly used to address problems of climate change and sustainability, but, like access to data, access to knowledge is insufficient. It follows that simply generating knowledge is not adequate for problem solving. We need to provide information on what to do with that knowledge, as well as training on how to use that knowledge. We need to correct “[t]he erroneous assumption…that skills evolve naturally from knowledge” (Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera 1987).

The academic enterprise in the United States is magnificently successful at generating knowledge. Some say that the miracle of the Enlightenment and the advance of Western thought lay in the emergence of the reductionist scientific method. The reductionist approach breaks down problems into pieces, isolates them, and studies them in a controlled fashion (Wilson 1998). Reduction leads naturally to disciplinary study. Problem solving, on the other hand, requires the integration and translation of knowledge and the synthesis of that knowledge into actions. Though we talk about cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary research, such broad-based research struggles to gain traction in our scientific enterprise. We do not adequately value the unification of science; we do not adequately value the integration of knowledge across fields. Therefore, problem solving is frustratingly slow.

Problem solving often requires reaching out of your area of expertise, out of your discipline, but academia awards funding and tenure for discipline-based production of knowledge. There are tensions and barriers between the rules of the game for successful academics and the elements of effective problem solving. This tension reaches deep, as the review process and funding practices support the successful academic more robustly than they support successful problem solving.

There is another role for the academic in the public and political discourse— education (Cuomo 2011). At the request of students who were not scientists, I started a course on climate change that attracted a mix of students. Some were deeply expert in how particles of dust in the atmosphere influence energy exchanges. Others were acutely aware of the disruptions that climate change will cause and wanted to know how to integrate this knowledge into finance. Early in the course, I was faced with the fact that the non-scientists often knew more about the climate as a whole than the science students. What was needed was a framework for critical thinking to allow students to use knowledge from many fields in problem solving. This example also illustrates that we need to learn how to solve problems earlier, rather than later, in our lives. Sustainability and climate change are problems of the here and now, and these problems require problem solvers ready to take action on these challenges.

A unique way that universities can influence the public and political discourse is to develop professional problem solvers, translators who are prepared to break down the barriers created by disciplines and competing interests. These professionals need to take their places in the workforce and in political entities and work to bridge divides. In keeping with the mission of the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, we need to bring scientists, practitioners, and policy makers together. As you read the articles in this issue, I encourage you to think about how topics outside of your own field may actually be connected to your work, and how you might serve as a translator across fields to contribute to the synthesis and development of strategies that will address the challenges of the future.


Articles from Current Issue of Michigan Journal of Sustainability

Welcome from the Editorial Board

Introduction to Volume 2

Climate Change and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe: A Customized Approach to Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Planning

Planning for Climate Change in Legacy Cities: The Case of Detroit, Michigan

The Ecology Center: Organizational Structure, Leadership, and the Environmental Movement

Internet-Based Heat Evaluation and Assessment Tool (I-HEAT): Feasibility Analysis of a Visualization and Decision-support Tool for Extreme Heat Preparedness in Detroit, Michigan

Internet-Based Heat Evaluation and Assessment Tool (I-HEAT): Development of a Novel Visualization and Decision-support Tool for Extreme Heat Preparedness in Detroit, Michigan

Participatory Landscape Design Detroit: A Tool for Environmental Education and Action

The Sustainable Urban Alternatives House in Flint, Michigan

The Forgotten Americans: A Visual Exploration of Lower Rio Grande Valley Colonias

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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