“Doing nothing is not an option [...] climate change has now become inextricably intertwined with larger questions of social equity and environmental justice, as it is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable populations that have historically had the least intensive carbon lifestyles,” writes Professor Jeff Bury in The Himalayan Vertical Archipelago: Climate Change, Glacial Lake Insecurity, and Institutional Capacity in the Khumbu Himalaya.
Bury, an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, addresses the impact of climate change in extreme, high altitude regions such as the Himalayas and Peru’s glacial region in the Andes - an area Bury points out is more susceptible to climate change than other regions.
He is this year's recipient of the Golden Apple Award from the Division of Social Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, an award that recognizes outstanding teaching.
Currently, he is lead Principal Investigator for an ongoing study about glacial recession, a research project being done in collaboration with Ohio State University, McGill University, the University of Oregon and the University of Texas, Austin.
Melting ice caps
Over the past several years, Bury and his team explored the complexities that glacier recession causes in the Andes region. Flooding, rock ice avalanches, permafrost thaw, and even the creation of new lakes are some of the devastating and even deadly consequences of rapidly receding glaciers. As Bury points out, the local community depend on glacial water supply for sanitation, livestock and consumption - making it as much a social and economic issue as an environmental one.
How do you research disaster?
To better understand the social and environmental effects, Bury draws on interdisciplinary research methods to build a comprehensive picture of the problem. He is a geographer and political economist and his interdisciplinary approach is reflected in his work.
For example, in one 2009 study that examined a catastrophic flood in the Peruvian Andes, Bury used topographical maps, satellite pictures and photographs to visually reconstruct the event and its impacts on local communities. He also evaluated scientific data such as air and ice temperatures to better understand the changing local climatic conditions that are enhancing the risks of such floods. He also interviewed politicians, civil society representatives, residents, and media coverage. By using scientific, social, political, visual and economic research methods, Bury was able to construct a more complete picture to better understand the real impact of an environmental disaster.
How do you manage risk?
Bury argues that both a societal and environmental disaster risk strategy is needed to manage hazards. Bury points out that currently efforts to resolve climate change are reactive rather than preventive. He argues that problematically it is often not be until people have had direct experiences with disaster that they are inspired to initiate new programs. Bury discovered that it was only when authorities saw a visible threat that there was the urgency to fix the situation. But even then, risks are perceived differently - which poses a new set of problems.
Everyone plays a part
While Bury’s work focuses on specific environmental regions, his observations can be applied to the wider conversation about climate change as well. Bury argues that to solve the problem of climate change, a socio-environmental framework is necessary. That means societal factors such as public pressure, media, financial resources in additional to institutional efforts like long term development plans are all needed to mobilize change.