Latest Posts


AAG Presidential Column – Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography

Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography


Glen M. MacDonald

Ensconced in our academic environs, as students or as faculty, we are sometimes accused of being removed and aloof from the issues of the real world and our research regarded as being of purely scholarly interest. Indeed, there are times for many of us that this may be more than a little bit true. I certainly have not been immune to being intrigued by questions with no apparent implications for the practical problems of the here-and-now. However, today, as often has been the case over its long history, the discipline of geography is being called upon — and called out — because of its importance in identifying and addressing problems of the wider world. Three recent items in the news reminded me of the potential role of geographers and geography in addressing the myriad challenges swirling around us at the present time.

First, this past week the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, spoke at a Republican Party meeting in Philadelphia. She then met with President Trump in Washington. The Prime Minister’s speech was one in which geography, and geopolitics in particular, formed a central focus. She turned her attention from one geographic region to another, from the threats felt by the Baltic Republics, to the situation in the Mideast, to details of British trade with Pennsylvania. This should not be surprising, the Prime Minister does after all hold an undergraduate degree in geography from Oxford. We may debate their political stands, but it is notable for our discipline that the first world leader to meet with the newly inaugurated President of the United States is a geographer. May’s speech might be taken in part as a geography lesson for the now empowered, but increasingly nativist, Republicans. Political Editor, George Parker, who is himself a geographer, wrote recently in the Financial Times about the Prime Minister’ grounding in geography and the growing political influence of the discipline. Parker concludes that “Her arrival in Downing Street is symbolic of the subject’s renaissance.” In this he is speaking not about a purely academic renaissance, but ascension of geography to a prominent place on the world political stage and the highest ranks of policy making.

Also in the past week, a more critical take on President Trump’s policies was offered by the geographer Michael Dear, professor emeritus at Berkeley. In interviews with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and later with Michael Smerconish, Dear provided criticisms of the proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He informed CNN viewers on the 650 miles of current walls and fencing and the geographical obstacles that confound extending this barrier in many places. He also critiqued the efficiency of such structures and the policies behind them. The demand for Dear to share his expert opinion on the geographical and policy problems of the proposed wall is based upon his book Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide. The fact that this book was published in 2013, its research and writing occurring well before the recent election and new administration, displays a prescience that one would hope geographers can bring to real-world issues.

In the realm of natural and environmental sciences there has been increasingly strong emphasis on conducting research which is informed by, and directly applicable to, issues of environmental resource management, planning and policy. In the past this work fell under the rubric of “applied research.” Today the term “actionable science” is often used to denote research which can be directly used in management and planning and the term “policy relevant science” used to denote work which has direct engagement with policy questions. By its very nature, the discipline of geography, which is after all concerned with the Earth’s physical and biological processes and features, and human use of, and impact on, those features and processes, should be a fountainhead of actionable and policy relevant knowledge. I would argue we are seeing increasing efforts to produce actionable and policy relevant geography throughout our discipline and that the recognition of the value of such work within the world of geographical scholarship has also increased. Take for example the trend in the impact of the journal Applied Geography. The journal has seen its Researchgate Impact rise from <0.5 in 2000 to hover around 4.0 over the past few years.

Increasing participation in actionable research is a widespread trend in universities that extends far beyond geography and began well before the present century. Michael Gibbons and his colleagues described this emerging trend and its impetus in their influential 1994 book The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. More recently, a 2015 study published in Higher Education by Peter James Bentley, Magnus Gulbrandsen and Svein Kyvik analyzed survey data from over 12,000 academics in 15 countries. They found that in the United States the number of academics who conducted solely applied and practical research significantly exceeded the number who conducted solely basic and theoretical research. However, the preponderance of academics surveyed conducted a blend of applied and basic research. There are a number of factors driving the embracement of applied and practical research. These range from altruistic desires of students and faculty to demonstrably contribute to alleviating health, social and environmental harm, a greater communication of such applied issues and the need for specific research, greater academic recognition and acceptance of such research in universities, and greater funding and other support for such research both inside and outside of academia.

Now, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that purely academic and theoretical work has no place within the geography corpus. Within academia in particular such work must be valued and supported. I do want to suggest, however, that geographers have, like other academics, increasingly embraced actionable and policy relevant research and that our discipline has much to contribute to mitigating the world’s health, societal and environmental ills in this manner. Aside from the benefits accruing to people and planet by such contributions, the individual researcher and the discipline also benefit. Bentley et al. concluded that researchers engaged in practical and applied research generally were better funded than their colleagues. In addition, they note that that increased engagement with practical and applied research can produce “shifts towards collaborative and transdisciplinary research, greater heterogeneity in the sites of knowledge production, deeper social accountability and broader forms of quality control.” These would seem to be goals which many of us in Geography embrace for our discipline. Finally, our actionable engagement with widely perceived health, social and environmental challenges raises the profile of geography and geographers amongst our academic colleagues, the public and policy makers. These are all audiences upon which the long-term health of our discipline depends. Simply stated, the discipline of geography must be widely seen as relevant and of practical importance to people and planet if it is to survive and grow in the 21st century.

Fortunately, geography, through substantive interests such as health geography, demography, housing, economic geography, social justice, development, hydrology, climate change, conservation biogeography etc., is well positioned to produce actionable and policy relevant research. The twinning of geography with planning in a number of departments and schools provides an exciting opportunity to engage in actionable and policy relevant research while strengthening internal ties. There is no question that our technical capacity in areas such as mapping, surveys, qualitative social research, geographic information sciences, remote sensing, etc., also equip us to be leaders in actionable and policy relevant work. In this, geographers are not only using, but creating new technologies and approaches. As one example I would point to AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson’s 2013 Annals article on the development “real-time GIS” and the near instantaneous integration of spatiotemporal data, which has widespread applications in government, businesses, and society in general. The capacity for geography to engage in actionable and policy relevant research must, however, be realized through efforts by geographers to seize these opportunities.

In the past decade or so my external research funding has almost entirely shifted to actionable and policy relevant work. I have found this immensely satisfying both on a personal level and in terms of supporting my work and expanding my research team. In this effort I have noted the remarkable ability of such work to snowball in which an initial engagement leads to deeper understanding of a problem, expanded contacts and collaborations, and ultimately additional research opportunities and support. My own experience is that this snowball is started by reading broadly beyond disciplinary and academic pieces and attending meetings and communicating directly with those involved in management, planning and policy. It takes a commitment to being open to actionable research opportunities that arise and willing to think hard on how your geographical tool set might be modified and applied to such applied research questions. One must also work hard at figuring out how to translate your research into the language and concepts which are employed in the management, planning and policy communities with whom you wish to engage. Pursue opportunities to co-produce research with the members of those communities and can deepen your understanding of the problem and increase the transmission of your work. Finally, one must be willing to accept that you may have to learn new perspectives and that your work may not be the sole or most important deciding factor in a management, planning or policy decision — i.e. display some humility.

I do not want to mislead anyone, however, into thinking that the production of actionable and policy relevant geography is risk-free. Work which transcends purely academic interest can have real socioeconomic and environmental consequences. There are often two or more conflicting sides on such issues. One should expect that important actionable research can potentially draw sharp public and private attacks. An obvious example is the ad hominin assaults launched in debates over the science of climate change. Although this may be personally unpleasant and even professionally challenging it should not be a reason for geographers to turn away from actionable and policy relevant work. Rather it should be a call to action. There will be times that we as individuals, as an association, and as a discipline must fight to preserve our ability to engage in actionable and policy relevant research. This then brings me to the third news item that I wish to relate to you.

At this time there is a direct and dangerous political attack launched explicitly against geospatial data and geographical research that could have a dramatic chilling effect on applied geographical research and ultimately on racial equality in the United States. Twinned Senate and House of Representatives bills (S.103 and H.R. 482) introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the Senate and by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) along with a number of Republican Congressmen in the House would do the following:

SEC. 3. Prohibition on use of Federal funds.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

The wording above is clear and troubling. Not only would the creation of new Federal geospatial databases on racial disparities be prohibited, so too would access to existing geospatial information of this sort and the use of Federal funds from agencies such as the National Science Foundation to study such data. As written, this represents a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country. What then can be done about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482 to geospatial and geographical information and research? The AAG has already drafted and sent a letter of concern to Senator Lee. However, I would suggest more needs be done by our members directly. First, spread the word to geographers, other scholars and the public about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482. Second, take a moment to contact your Federal Senators and representative – easily done via Third, you may want to also contact the Bill’s sponsors with your concerns. Finally, stay aware, informed and communicative of similar threats to geospatial information or geographical research that may arise in the future. We may well be entering an era when not only has the need to create actionable and policy relevant geography never been more pressing, but the fight to preserve our ability to conduct such research never more necessary.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald


AAG Presidential Column – Strengths and Challenges of Diversity

Strengths and Challenges of Diversity


Glen M. MacDonald

It is fair to say that the recent election has created deep concerns in our community regarding issues of diversity and gender equity. This unease certainly extends far beyond the campuses. In writing about the uncertainty in America’s corporate workplaces a recent article in Bloomberg stated, “Diversity issues have come to the fore as the presidential campaign exposed and deepened bitter divisions on matters such as the treatment of women and minorities.” So, as we enter the potentially troubled waters of 2017, allow me to share some of my thoughts on the fundamental issue of diversity as it relates to our discipline and the AAG.

This past month the University of California reported on our 2017 applicant pool and it makes for enlightening reading in this regard. By the numbers — the UC applicants were 34 percent Chicano/Latino, 30 percent Asian American, 25 percent White, 6 percent African American and about 1 percent American Indian and Pacific Islander. In terms of socioeconomic diversity, 42.4 percent were from low income families and 46 percent would be the first in their families to obtain a degree. On my own campus about 21 percent of the current undergraduate population are Chicano/Latino, 32 percent Asian American, 26 percent white, 5 percent African American and 1 percent American Indian/Pacific Islander. Slightly over 50 percent of UC undergraduate students are women.

This increasing diversity and gender balance amongst university students is of course not just a feature of the University of California. It is part of a long-term national trend. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) the proportion of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students in higher education tripled and African American enrollment increased by about 40 percent between 1976 and 2008. Since about 1980 women have been the majority gender amongst undergraduates. The diversity amongst graduate students remains lower than amongst undergraduates, but the NCES data indicate progress towards developing a graduate student body, which more closely resembles the complexion of the nation. The percent of African American graduate students has increased from 6 percent to 12 percent, Hispanics increased from 2 percent to 6 percent and Asians/Pacific Islanders increased from 2 percent to 7 percent. Women now account for a bit more than half of all graduate students. Recent data by NCES also shed some light on the diversity of the faculty. Although the ranks of full professor are largely dominated by White males, there is increasing ethnic and gender diversity in the more junior ranks. One would suspect that this increased diversity in the ranks of associate and assistant professors will propagate upwards into the professorial ranks over time.Diversity of U.S. university faculty from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics –

There are obvious reasons why, in a healthy and equitable democracy, access to higher education must be open to all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. There are also many reasons why diversity bestows benefits to students in the classroom and on the campus in general. The potential added value of greater diversity has been articulated many places including in U.S. News and World Report – 1. Diversity expands worldliness in regards to exposure to people beyond a single social set, 2. Diversity enhances social development, 3. Diversity prepares students for future career success in today’s diverse workplaces, 4. Diversity provides preparation for work in a global society, 5. Diversity drives increases in the student’s own knowledge base, 6. Diversity promotes creative thinking, 7. Diversity enhances self-awareness, 8. Diversity enriches the multiple perspectives developed by higher education. It is not surprising the U.S. News and World Report includes a Diversity Index in its campus rankings.

The value of diversity extends beyond the campus setting and into professional life. For example, a study authored by Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince and released in 2015 by McKinsey and Company examined management data for 366 public companies across a range of industries in the Unites States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Latin America. They found that firms in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. They also found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Interestingly, for the United States there was a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance. Every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity in senior management was correlated with an increase in earnings before interest and taxes of 0.8 percent.

Collaborator diversity has also been shown to be a positive driver of research performance. As Jean Vanski, Director of Management and Analysis, Division of Institution and Award Support at the National Science Foundation, has stated “Diversity is important to our mission because different perspectives bring to an enterprise different ways of solving problems.” Katherine Phillips argues in Scientific American that it is not just the diversity of views that is important, but the diversity of the voices expressing those views is also impactful. Differences in race and gender can actually increase the impact of novel or dissonant opinions in group research. There is also a potential payoff to diversity in the communication and impact of the resulting research. In a 2014 commentary published in Nature, Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang of Harvard discuss an analysis of 2.5 million research papers in which they found greater ethnic homogeneity among authors was associated with publication in lower-impact journals. In contrast, papers by multi-ethnic teams of four or five authors experienced a 5-10 percent advantage in terms of citation numbers.

So, with all this in mind, we might ask how our discipline and our association are faring in terms of diversity? As it happens, there is a wonderful AAG Disciplinary Data Dashboard that allows members to explore this question in detail. If you have not visited the Dashboard I highly recommend you take a look. The data therein suggest a positive trajectory, but as of yet incomplete journey. Let’s assume that with almost 12,000 members, the association roughly represents the demography of the discipline as a whole in terms of gender balance and ethnic diversity. Since 1972 the proportion of female members has increased from less than 20 percent to about 40 percent. Close, but not quite parity when measured against the general population or university student proportions. In terms of ethnic diversity we clearly have work to do. Our numbers of African American, Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan and Pacific Islander remain markedly below the proportions of those groups in the general population.


Some of this may reflect the fact that about a third of our membership is international, but I do not think that wholly explains the disparity between the AAG and the U.S. population. We should also be cognizant that our survey numbers remain incomplete in terms of socioeconomic background, sexual orientation and other attributes that contribute to the full palette of diversity in any society.

As a discipline, and as an association, we are making progress, but work remains. That work must center on making sure that the discipline of geography and the AAG are seen as relevant and valuable to a wider cross-section of the population. Here I believe there are important positive feedbacks to be realized. As we add more geographers from currently under-represented groups we add to the perspectives that geography provides and the voices by which those perspectives are communicated. Our work expands in its relevance and the message of that growing relevance is shared more widely and effectively through having a diverse membership.

We would be remiss if we think of diversity simply in terms of numbers needed to fill-out comparative spread sheets. There has been much work done in business on the challenges of the effective development and capitalization of diversity. This is often referred to as “diversity management.” As Glenn Llopis points out in Forbes Magazine, “Diversity can no longer just be about making the numbers, but rather how an organization treats its people authentically.” To be effectively and authentically diverse an organization must allow its diverse membership to be both meaningfully engaged with the organization and empowered to change operating models and chart new courses. Engagement means more than just giving voice. It means identifying priorities and providing opportunities that are relevant to broader populations. Empowerment to change priorities and operations may mean surrendering of some power by established leaders. However, as Kathy Hannan, National Managing Partner, Diversity & Corporate Responsibility, KPMG LLP, argued in the Forbes piece, “Diversity must move from just a value, to being operational.” I believe that this is the same for our discipline and association.

This all sounds good, but how can it be effected? As diversity has increased in universities and other organizations there can develop a sense of alienation by both the previously dominant or empowered groups and newly arrived and developing groups. Communication and cooperation give way to dismissal and adversity. An article in the Harvard Business Review by Tessa L. Dover, Brenda Major and Cheryl R. Kaiser suggests that in many cases corporate diversity training does little to improve such cultures or alleviate increasing senses of alienation. To overcome these challenges takes more than exposure to training, it takes more than curriculum, it takes doing by each and every one of us. Simon Goring at the Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, was part of a team that produced an article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on creating and maintaining diverse and high-performing collaborative research teams. I find the piece quite instructive on how we, as individuals, can promote a healthy diverse organization. The article highlights the importance of Social Sensitivity (empathy, honesty, clarity, integrity, accountability) coupled with Emotional Engagement (shared excitement about goals, personal commitment to the team, trust). Another important element they identify is Team Communication (evenness of talking and listening, lack of dominance, equality of interactions and tone). These values are important for any team or organization, and critical for those which are highly diverse and incorporate members with a variety of markedly different life experiences and perspectives. One might distill this all down to actively showing mutual respect.

Many of our members have long been working hard in their teaching, research and service to advance the cause of diversity and equity. So too has the Association. The commitment of AAG leadership and staff from past presidents on down has been continuous. I invite you to the read the 2006 Diversity Task Force Report on goals for enhancing diversity. My recent predecessor, Mona Domosh, has written in this column about the importance of diversifying our curriculum. Each year the AAG expressly honors a geographer for their efforts toward encouraging a more diverse discipline. Geography is innately a discipline about diversity and geographers should be better equipped than most to embrace and foster a culture of diversity. If we wish to see our discipline and organization grow and prosper in an increasingly diverse nation we must do so. In addition, we as geographers can and should provide an example of the strength of diversity and the route to overcoming any challenges along that path. Let’s all think about working to achieve this, particularly in our own personal interactions, as we move forward into the New Year.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0001


AAG Presidential Column – Post-truth World

Geography in a Post-Truth World

Print Friendly

Glen M. MacDonaldThis past month the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as its 2016 Word-of-the-Year. The word was chosen because it has seen a “spike in frequency this year in the context of the European Union referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States” and “has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary.” For scholars and educators the idea that being truthful is now optional should be deeply troubling, as it undermines the ethical and operational foundations upon which we function. In this column I want to explore the turn towards a post-truth world.

Two other similar descriptors have become more widespread in recent years — post-factual and post-rational. I believe that these terms are all part of the same sociological and political trend, but have important differences. Post-factual does not necessarily mean being untruthful, it may represent situations in which pertinent factual information is either not sought, not considered, not valued, or is simply reviled. The term post-truth implies deliberate provision or knowing acceptance of information that is known to be untruthful. I would suggest the deliberate suppression of factual information would also fall under this rubric. Post-rational suggests situations in which facts, reasoning and logic are deemed unnecessary or even loathed when decisions are taken. The term post-truth is widely used in a sense that captures all three of these issues. In the context of western philosophy and history, an increasingly post-truth world can be seen as a rejection of 300 years of scientific, socioeconomic and political development that was initiated by the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.

At the moment post-truth phenomenon is sending shockwaves through the body politic and causing concern about the future of democracy. As political economy professor William Davies pointed out this August in The New York Times, “Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation. But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” The Brexit referendum and U.S. Presidential election offered political pundits much evidence of a turn towards post-truth. For example, a centerpiece of the Brexit Leave campaign was the claim that the EU is taking £350 million a week from the U.K. and that this money could be spent on the National Health System. This figure was so misleading that it drew an official rebuke by the U.K. Statistics Office and yet the Leave campaign continued to cite it. After the election the figure and promise to give those funds to the National Health System was then disavowed by one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage. Yet due to this post-truth campaigning, some 47 percent of British voters surveyed accepted the figure and an additional 14 percent were uncertain of its legitimacy. Immediately following the vote some 6 percent of the Leave supporters stated they wished they had voted to remain in the EU. Either they did not understand their “protest” vote would count in such a tight election or they did not fully reason the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. This seems to me an example of the post-factual, post-truth and post-rational.

Turning to the U.S. — according the Pulitzer-Prize-winning site Politifact, some 51 percent of the checked statements made by Donald Trump and 12 percent of those by Hillary Clinton were deemed false or worse. Although both candidates appear to have made false statements, the large difference in the proportion of such statements between the eventual President Elect and Hillary Clinton indicates that facts and demonstrable truthfulness were not deciding factors in the election. In some cases the dismissal of facts and truthfulness may be an informed and deliberate choice on the part of the voter. As Salena Zito famously wrote about Donald Trump in The Atlantic, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Donald Trump’s capacity to win voters’ trust in him as a leader despite a lack of veracity in many of his statements was no doubt honed by his experience in modern broadcast and digital media. It cannot be assumed though that the public recognize political statements as false in all cases. The recent U.S. election was marked by an incredible amount of “fake news” containing lies and outrageous speculations. The fake news problem has become viral due to the ability of its practitioners to use the web to reach huge and widely dispersed audiences. It would be wrong to think that the turn to a post-truth world, fueled in part by a changing media, is a new phenomenon created by these recent elections. Almost two decades ago, Carl Bybee wrote in Journalism & Communication Monographs, “we appear to have moved into a post-factual age where the border between fact and fiction, news and entertainment, information and advertisements has increasingly blurred.”

So, what does this evolving and potentially post-truth word mean for scholarship and geography? Let’s tackle the sciences, as that is the realm I know best. Scientists often decry the divergent views on what is factual or true between themselves and the public. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary and large consensus amongst scientists, 32 percent of the adult U.S. public do not believe in the value of mandatory childhood vaccinations, 63 percent do not feel it is safe to eat genetically engineered foods, 50 percent do not believe in anthropogenic climate change and 35 percent do not believe humans evolved over time. Scientists often lament and ponder why the facts or consensus opinions from our hard work are so widely dismissed, even in instances when there are measurable and repeatable observations (“facts”) to back it up. In some cases, such as the anti-vaccine movement, the contra-factual trend is more or less grass-roots in nature, fueled by personal fears, religious beliefs, political ideologies or misinformation. In other cases, however, public skepticism and dismissal of scientific results arise from sophisticated and large-scale media campaigns and political lobbying by special interests, such as the tobacco or fossil fuel industries. As described in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, such campaigns, often co-opting scientists, have suppressed facts or spread false information. Healthy skepticism and inquiry is good, deliberate sowing of misinformation is not. In either case, the powerful tool of the Internet now allows the unprecedented spread of both valid factual information and misinformation alike.

Perhaps more troubling in the context of creating a post-truth world are governmental attempts to suppress facts and research. This both denies factual information to the public and policy, but also reinforces messages that facts do not matter and those facts that you do not like can simply be suppressed. For example, as reported in Science, in 2012 the North Carolina legislature passed HB 819, a measure that initially banned the use of scientific sea-level rise projections in coastal planning. This was a response to a scientific study that outlined the dire impacts or projected sea-level rise on the state’s coastline. In Canada, the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed severe restrictions on the public communication of science by Federal scientists. As reported in Nature, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada summed up the situation this way, “Here’s how we do things in the Harper government” — “We muzzle scientists, we cut research and we ignore anyone who doesn’t tell us what we want to hear.” Looking at the recent U.S. election, the The Guardian newspaper interviewed Trump science advisor, Bob Walker, and concluded, “Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate-change research conducted by NASA as part of a crackdown on “politicized science.” It remains to be seen if this is an overstatement by the Guardian or an accurate take on the situation ahead.

The issues and concerns outlined above extend beyond the natural sciences. In Canada, the former government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper did away with the mandatory long-form census, a tool vital to collecting social sciences data. A Conservative Party advisor summed up the reasoning succinctly in The National Post newspaper, “If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander. I imagine that [in] Stephen Harper’s view, Canada should be a country of individual initiative, not one of collective dependence ‘justified’ through the collection of data.” I am not sure I know of a clearer statement of the cynicism and unethical quest for political expediency that is fueling the march towards a post-truth world.

The healthy and vital debates which we have as scientists and scholars about our research and how we go about it have also been cited as helping drive the movement towards a post-truth world. Andrew Calcutt’s op-ed, entitled “Forget Brexit and Trump, “post-truth” was spawned by the liberal left long ago,” provides a particularly strong take on the role of academic concepts of social constructionism in the current turn towards a post-truth world. Geographer David Demeritt has long worked on social constructionism in the sciences, and in a 2001 paper in the Annals he points out that “This political strategy of social construction as refutation has been pursued by the so-called climate skeptics and other opponents of the Kyoto Protocol.”

So, where does this leave us as individual geographers and the AAG? Because our discipline deals with so many socially, economically, culturally and environmentally relevant issues, we have a particular need to be concerned about this turn towards the post-truth. For example, many of our members work with earth-surface data and support provided by NASA. Defunding those programs would disrupt our work, and also decrease our ability to help inform the public and policy makers about important issues. I can envision many other areas of physical and human geography where the embrace of post-truth policies and public perceptions will be deeply felt by geographers and limit our efforts to contribute geographical knowledge to the public and policy makers.

However, to address these challenges we must move beyond past standard responses. I believe that, as scholars, we must understand that for many people the facts do not “speak for themselves” and that lines on graphs and numbers in tables do not carry the persuasive weight we might think they do. Neither can we assume that somehow our presumed academic authority on a topic translates to public trust. As scholars we progress in part through our skepticism of orthodoxies — why should we expect others, including the public, not to do the same? In his Annals article David Demerritt urges the scientific community to recognize “Science does not offer the final word, and its public authority should not be based on the myth that it does, because such an understanding of science ignores the ongoing process of organized skepticism that is, in fact, the secret of its epistemic success. Instead scientific knowledge should be presented more conditionally as the best that we can do for the moment. Though perhaps less authoritative, such a reflexive understanding of science in the making provides an answer to the climate skeptics and their attempts to refute global warming as merely a social construction.” I quote this passage at length because I believe it pertains not just to scientists and the issue of climate change, but to every sphere in which we, as scholars and teachers of geography, operate and wish to effectively counter the post-truth world. It is important to understand that these efforts demand truthfulness, self-examination and full-disclosure on our part. If recent political events and the rise of the post-truth world tell us anything, it is that facts in-and-of-themselves are not enough, we must also engender trust if we want our messages heard and valued.

As an association the AAG will continue to do what it has long done to monitor and respond to efforts to stifle or censure geographic research, education or the dissemination of geographic knowledge. We will work to make sure that the public and public policy makers have access to, and are informed by, geographic knowledge. We will work to make sure that such efforts support geographers and their work regardless of race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disabilities. When appropriate we will join with other scholarly associations in these actions. In these efforts we need the aid of our members in bringing the problems engendered by the post-truth world to the attention of the association and in helping to tackle them. In pursuit of a world that is truthful and rational we have our work to do — both individually and collectively.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald

Loading charcoal bound for Bomako in Mali

AAG Presidential Column – Geography, Institutions and the Fate of People and Planet in the 21st Century

Geography, Institutions and the Fate of People and Planet in the 21st Century

Glen M. MacDonald November 2, 2016 Geography, Institutions and the Fate of People and Planet in the 21st Century 2016-11-03T08:34:11+00:00

Let’s talks about Geographical Determinism. Got your attention? I thought so. The term, along with its cousin, Environmental Determinism, has long been disdained and pejorative amongst geographers, anthropologists and other disciplines. There is a rightful rejection of determinism’s racist connotations and applications in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is also good cause to question explanations of complex societal attributes and histories that are based on selected geographic/environmental conditions alone. To even utter the terms Geographical Determinism here in the Newsletter of the American Association of Geographers, much less start a column this way, might well be considered a step into dangerous waters!

My reasons are not, however, to delve into the darker corners of our discipline’s history or weigh the value of examining humankind’s past through an environmental lens. Rather my focus is on the present-day and the future. My purpose being to examine some current academic and policy debates that could shape the fates of people and the planet over the 21st century. These are debates that geographers should be front and center in, because they are explicitly concerned with the role of geography in determining that future.

To illustrate the currency of this topic let’s consider the depressingly low per-capita gross domestic product of much of sub-Saharan Africa. This past month there was an interesting article in Business Daily entitled How economic geography has conspired to keep Africa down. By the term “economic geography” the article was not referring to the sub-discipline of economic geography or its academic practitioners, but rather the economic argument that “the underdevelopment of the continent is a case of “bad latitude” and that income disparities within and between regions can be explained by erratic climate, poor soil, low agricultural productivity and infectious disease.” Might this argument not be called geographic determinism? Let’s look at the context from which this article in Business Daily arose in terms of the current debate over geographical determinism and what is at stake.

Debates about regional differences in economic growth and development have a history as long as economics itself, Adam Smith being one notable proponent of the importance of geography in such variations. Some of the stimulus for the current debate on the economic roles of geography and environment can be traced to 1997 and the impact of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel along with Jeffrey Sachs’ writings such as Nature, nurture and growth, which appeared in the Economist. Diamond was then a professor in Physiology at UCLA, but would soon join the Department of Geography, and Sachs was director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, and would subsequently become director of The Earth Institute at Columbia. The arguments that Diamond puts forward about geographical configurations and environmental conditions contributing to the economic ascendency of Europe and the West are well known to geographers. It is worth noting however, that Diamond, in contrast to the geographical determinism of the 19th and early 20th century, is explicit that he pursued this work as an argument against racism and racist interpretations of history. In his articles Sachs argues that tropical countries, particularly those with high reliance on the agricultural sector, suffer from economic growth penalties related to geography due to “disease, poor soil, unreliable rainfall, pests, and other tropical ills.” Sachs pays particular attention to the high human and economic costs of tropical diseases. Sachs’ 2006 book; The End of Poverty provides a strong articulation of his arguments in favor of geography being a key economic determinant. In the 1997 Economist article he concludes that geographical conditions may pose “insurmountable barriers to higher incomes” in many tropical regions. In reviewing Guns, Germs and Steel and drawing parallels with Nature, nurture and growth, the Economist headlined their piece with the title “Geographical determinism.” This is the sense in which many people outside geography understand the term today.

Now, criticisms about the role of geography and environment in determining the human condition can be launched from many perspectives. One example of this is the plethora of views expressed on Guns, Germs and Steel in a special section of Antipode published in 2003. However, the questions I am focusing on concern the role of institutions versus geography/environment in determining inequalities in economic development. Institutions in this circumstance could be defined as: The humanly devised constraints that structure social, political and economic exchanges in human societies. Economists might cite things such as property rights and the existence of functional markets as important attributes — although a neoclassical economist would have a very different take on the positive values of these than a Marxist. Perhaps the most well-known proponents of the institutionalist view on regional economic development inequalities are Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, and James Robinson, a political scientist and economist in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Their views, that institutions trump geography and environment in determining regional economic inequalities, were developed in a number of publications starting with a series of papers in the early 2000s and resulted in the book Why Nations Fail published in 2012. They take direct aim at a number of the geographical arguments posited by Diamond and Sachs. For their empirical arguments they use examples such as the economic underdevelopment of North Korea versus South Korea or the divergence in economic status between European colonies originally dominated by Spain versus those dominated by England. They argue that it is not geography, nor is it culture or race, but economic institutions facilitating stable property rights and robust markets that are the most important determinants of economic prosperity. The responses and counter responses between Diamond, Sachs, Acemoglu and Robinson in the New York Review of Books and in Foreign Affairs illuminate the differences of opinion and arguments related to each side.

Now, given its dark history, many geographers have been reluctant, and even vehemently hostile, to discussing anything that can be remotely considered geographical or environmental determinism. Some of the responses to Guns, Germs and Steel that were published in Antipode provide evidence of this. I suppose that ignoring the debate over geography versus institutions and leaving it to economists and others to argue would be ok if this was merely an academic question. However, that is not the case. For example, Jeffrey Sachs’ 1997 piece in the Economist arose from research he conducted for the Asian Development Bank’s “Emerging Asia” report. The purpose was to forecast and help plan for economic development in Asia. He has been an active policy advisor to governments, including presidents in Africa and Asia and many international organizations. Speaking at a U.N. conference in 2000, U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers seemed to echo Sachs when he warned against thinking that “the economic failures of isolated, tropical nations with poor soil, an erratic climate and vulnerability to infectious disease can be traced simply to the failure of governments.” The question of geography versus institutions in terms of economic development is one that transcends the confines of the academy and has real world implications.

People in developing nations, particularly those in the tropics, are facing challenges of providing food, water and economic opportunity for burgeoning populations. In addition, climate change will exacerbate environmental threats from drought, flooding, heatwaves, agricultural pests and human disease in many of these countries. In such a world, we desperately need the right paradigms and strategies for economic development. In this we face two types of error. If we assume that geography and environment are the overwhelming determinants of economic disparity we may well throw resources at infrastructure or other geography/environment focused growth strategies while ignoring socioeconomic issues, which will confound such efforts. On the other hand, to assume that simply providing economic tutelage and some start-up capital here and there will be sufficient in countries which faces real geographic and environmental challenges can be equally ineffective.

What about the planet? It is not just people who pay the price if we cannot get the development balance right. There is a strong correspondence between the locations of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and global poverty. A 2004 paper in Science, led by geographer Bill Adams from Oxford, illustrated the critical linkages between alleviating poverty in the developing world and improving biodiversity conservation there. In Mali, where I have worked, supplying charcoal for domestic use in urban areas such as Bamako leads not only to increased rates of deforestation and associated biodiversity threats, but also contributes to greater greenhouse gas emissions then use of LPG or electricity which are economically unattainable for most people. When economic resources are in short supply, it is difficult to impossible for national environmental conservation efforts to be developed and implemented. At the same time, it does not seem right for international groups to focus funding on endangered species or other environmental concerns alone and ignore the plight of the people in those nations. People and planet must, and can, be considered in unison.

In reading the writings of Diamond, Sachs, Acemoglu, Robinson and others involved in this debate, it is clear that they recognize the balance between the importance of geography versus institutions is not immutable, but can change over space and through time. It seems to me there is much work for geographers from every corner of our discipline to engage with this. Fundamental questions of economic geography, political geography, development geography and political ecology are clearly in play here. Our experience and insights, both in terms of on the ground work and theory, are of obvious value. Geographers such as Michael Watts at Berkeley and Marcus Powers writing articles in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography in 2003 and 2009 and Eric Sheppard writing on “Geography, nature, and the question of development” in 2011 in Dialogues in Human Geography are examples of those who have taken up these issues. Indeed, the exciting and developing field of ‘environmental economic geography’ tackles the relationship between environment and economics and the feedback between these realms head on. A 2010 article by Julie Silva, Siri Eriksen, and Zacarias Ombe in the Geographical Journal uses this approach to look at this “double exposure” effects of environment and socioeconomic institutions on farming communities in Mozambique. In addition, the arguments that are posited in some economics articles from both sides of the debate clearly are naive in terms of climate, hydrology, soils, vegetation, crops, etc. There is plenty of scope for work by physical geographers to challenge and refine some of these suppositions.

Where do I stand on all this? I clearly think understanding the relative importance of geography and institutions in determining economic development is a core concern with huge societal and environmental implications. While I take some hope from the fact that in recent years the annual economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa has outstripped the pace in many other parts of the world, I wonder how do we fuel economic growth while also promoting equity in the distribution of these gains and aiding the environment? Geographers cannot shirk from this question. In terms of choosing a side in the debate over geography versus institutions I think I would like to leave the last word to the writer of the Business Daily article, the Kenyan development economist Anzetse Were. As she puts it, “there is an interface between geography and human behaviour. Political instability, the chronic mismanagement of funds by some African governments coupled with Africa’s position in the international division of labour also explain the continent’s limited growth and development, not just its geography. None the less, economic geography provides a perspective of analysis which Kenya could make great use of.” As geographers, let’s help as best we can.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald



AAG Presidential Column – The World of the City

The World of the City

Print Friendly

Glen M. MacDonaldThose of us alive today are witnessing one of the most profound events in all of human history — and it is an event, which is fundamentally geographic in nature. The transformation we are experiencing is the concentration of the majority of the world’s population into urban areas. Although much has been made of the United Nations report that declared as of 2008 half the world’s population live in urban areas, this trend has been a long-term feature of the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1900 only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The trend towards greater urbanization accelerated from the 1950s and shows no indication of stopping. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 some 70 percent of the world population will live in urban areas. In terms of absolute numbers that means in just 34 years there will be some 6.4 billion city dwellers.

It is not just the proportion of the world’s population living in cities that is increasing. We are also witnessing an agglomerative effect wherein the relative population size of certain cities and their metropolitan areas is increasing at a remarkable pace. This is creating a global constellation of megacities which have populations greater than 10 million. As of 2015 there were at least 35 such megacities. For comparison, in 1985 there were less than 10.

The increase in urban populations is not entirely driven by the birthrates of populations already situated within existing cities. It is also driven by the outmigration of rural populations to urban centers. Thus, according to U.N. estimates, global rural population will decline in actual numbers by about 18 percent, or some 600 million people by 2050. This trend of rural exodus has a long history in Europe and the United States. It is strikingly apparent in U.S. county-level population trends. Despite overall growth in U.S. population, many rural counties, particularly those distant from larger urban centers, are experiencing declines in absolute population numbers.

The trend of rural exodus is not confined to the developed world. Between 2007 and 2050 rural populations in the world’s less developed regions are expected to decline by 17 percent or some 440 million people. Unlike the 20th century, it is outmigration from the countryside in least developed regions that will drive the global rural exodus numbers going forward.

Although the urbanization we are witnessing is a global phenomenon it can hardly be called flat and featureless in terms of finer scale geographic detail. At present the percentage of the population living in urban areas varies greatly by country and world region. According to data from the World Bank, 82 percent of the population in North America live in urban areas. In contrast, the urban percentage in Sub Saharan Africa is 38 percent. In East Asia the percentage of urban dwellers is 57 percent, but this represents a remarkable rise from a base of 22 percent in 1960. Over that same period China has seen its percentage of urban population more than triple, from 16 percent to 56 percent. The distribution and growth of megacities also shows geographic patterning. Tokyo, with approximately 40 million people, is the world’s largest megacity. However, Shanghai and Jakarta are not far behind and growth in the latter may well make Indonesia the home of the world’s largest megacity in the near future. It is notable that eight of the 10 largest megacities are in Asia. In fact, contrasting with the relatively high proportions of urban dwellers in Europe and the United States, only a handful of megacities are found in these regions. These include Moscow, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles. As a final point, this agglomerative process is likely to intensify in Asia and Africa as overall populations grow and rural exodus accelerates.

The trajectory towards increasing urbanization presents two sets of research challenges to geographers. The first revolves around the fundamental question of how do we classify a specific place, a population or a process as being ‘urban’? Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, has raised this question. He points out that the U.N. focuses upon population sizes typical of larger cities. However, many people living in smaller communities may well follow a relatively urban lifestyle and consider themselves more urbanite than rural. The U.N. itself recognizes this difficulty and has no universal definition, “Because of national differences in the characteristics that distinguish urban from rural areas, the distinction between the urban and the rural population is not yet amenable to a single definition that would be applicable to all countries or, for the most part, even to the countries within a region” (U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Some of the apparent shift from rural to urban in the U.N. data reflects the growth of smaller communities to a population size that crosses the urban classification threshold in that country. In fact though, not much may have changed for the inhabitants. An alternative would be to classify livelihood as agrarian versus non-agrarian, but this too is nebulous. As geographer Michael Pacione instructs in his text, “Urban Geography: A Global Perspective,” urban can mean many things — population size and density, economic base, administrative structure, etc.

The spatial designation of one locale as urban and one place as rural is also problematic. An interesting remote sensing study published in 2009 by Annemarie Schneider of the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin and her co-authors grappled with this. They pointed out that multiple criteria exist to make such a distinction when classifying imagery as urban or rural. Schneider et al favored an approach of developing regional specific criteria for classifying a given locale as urban. From their analysis they concluded that only about 0.5 percent of the earth’s land area could be classified as urban. When one reflects on the large proportion of humans now occupying urban areas this is a remarkable spatial concentration of people. However, things may not be so simple. Geographer Karen Seto, now at the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment, and her colleagues in their paper, “Urban land teleconnections and sustainability,” have also grappled with how one defines urban. They point out that place-based classifications, such as those typical of remote-sensing land-use products, make an artificial dichotomy between the urban and the rural when in fact there is a continuum of land uses and very indistinct spatial boundaries. Using a processes-based perspective that appreciates this continuum and the flows that connect across it is more realistic, and would appreciably expand the land area we might consider urban.

One can imagine that as the nature of economies, telecommunications and the geographies of employment change and become less spatially limited, so too will the geographies of the urban and the urban-rural continuum. In addition, rural economies, demographies and geographies are changing. In the Unites States family farms are replaced by large corporate farms. Mechanization further decreases agricultural workforce needs. At the same time networked urbanites find affordable accommodations or space for start-ups in these increasingly available rural locales. Though agglomeration of these networked or commuting exurbanite populations increase, types of labor shift to non-agrarian and rural regions become increasingly urbanized in function if not in physical form. The hinterlands surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area are an example. At the same time, the inner city cores which experienced depressed real estate markets due to the flight of upper and middle classes and manufacturing are being redeveloped and gentrified in many cities. This in turn is pulling people back to denser urban cores.

Geographers have a major role in studying and determining how the term urban is defined. In this case the focus will need to be both on the spatial and the process-oriented perspectives. Considering the paragraph above we might ask what is the comparative experience in the new Asian megacities in terms of spatial form and processes that link urban populations? Will the patterns of urban evolution experienced in more developed countries also occur in less developed countries? Geographers have been at the lead of considering such questions. Karen Seto’s work is one recent example. We might also consider work in the tradition of the late Neil Smith as represented in his 2002 paper, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy.” In it he not only spoke about the global spread of the gentrification, but also provided a much wider take on globalization, urbanism and the rise of the Asian, South American and African megacities.

The second set of questions in geography’s wheel house concern the socioeconomic, cultural and environmental implications of increasing urbanization and the growth of global megacities. Here geographers have been at the forefront. Work spans from the quantitative study of regional economic geography and the agglomerative process of urban growth to the qualitative analysis of how ethnicity, gender of sexual orientation shape individual experiences and perceptions of urban space and place. Geographers such as Michael Dear, Allen Scott, Edward Soja, Michael Storper and Jennifer Wolch of the Los Angeles School of Urbanism have had global impact through their work on the functioning and increasing economic, social and cultural dominance of the world’s global cities. The rise of Critical GIS, which directly links geography’s growing technical capacity for spatial analysis with social theory and qualitative methods is a newer and particularly exciting development. Geographer Mae-Po Kwan and her students have been recognized leaders in these efforts. Here is an approach that can provide new insights not just on the geographies within cities, but also help come to terms with the spatial and functional complexity of the urban-rural continuum.

Geographers have, to their credit, been aware that we are not just studying regression models and pixels, but the lives and futures of real people. There is the deep vein of social awareness and advocacy that permeates much of the work of urban geographers. David Harvey, who arguably stands as the preeminent urban social theorist of our time, has led the way to a melding of scholarship and social responsibility. For over 40 years, starting with the seminal work “Social Justice in the City” and continuing with a multitude of deeply reasoned works including the 2012 book, “Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution”, Harvey and his students have set the standard for the discipline.

The relationship between urbanization and the environment in the 21st century is also critical and an area where geographers have much to contribute in terms of research and education. This matters both in terms of urban impacts on the physical and biological environment and in terms of the environmental quality for urbanites. As one of many examples of the former, a paper published this week in Nature authored by Sean Maxwell, a Ph.D. student in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Queensland in Australia, concluded that urban development was the third greatest extinction threat to species classified as threatened or near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. In fact, the threat to biodiversity by urbanization was found to be almost twice as great as that offered by climate change. From the study of urban heat islands, spatial patterns of air, water and soil pollutants, and health threats to the geographies of parks and outdoor recreational spaces for cities and their neighborhoods, geographers have a strong role to play in the study of urban environmental quality and urban environmental justice. In her 2000 Annals article, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Laura Pulido, formerly of the University of Southern California and now a Professor of Geography at the University of Oregon, brings together the strands of environment, social justice and racism in a critical assessment of how cities can fail to serve their citizens and the geographies of such injustices. This follows the tradition in urban human geography where scholarship is combined with advocacy.

In closing I reflect upon a figure entitled “The nature of human geography” in Michael Pacione’s text, “Urban Geography: A Global Perspective” in which he has placed Urban Geography at the center of all the other sub-disciplines from Physical Geography to Social Geography to Cultural Geography, etc. This might appear to be hubris, but in the 21st century and for our discipline it is not unreasonable. With most of the world’s population arguably urbanized and this trend to continue, and with cities and megacities having such impacts on global economies, culture, politics, health, the environment, etc., urban geography is indeed of critical importance. We have had a strong tradition in this area and going forward I would hope to see that urban geography can indeed form a center of gravity which brings human and physical geographers to work as teams tackling the research, education and policy challenges that the urbanized 21st century brings. This is also an important nexus where those geography departments which are twinned with planning can build bridges and collaborations that will benefit both parties. There is a long history of urban geographers receiving training in planning or being appointed to planning departments as faculty. Let’s capitalize more on these linkages. It seems to me the AAG Annual Meeting can serve as an ideal venue to bring together human geographers, physical geographers and planners in focused sessions to share work and plot collaborations on urban issues. I wonder how our journals might also serve as catalysts? The 21st century is the world of the city, and geography can capitalize upon great traditions and great potential to help understand and improve this evolving new world. Your ideas on how the AAG can help are welcome!

Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Glen M. MacDonald


AAG Presidential Column – The Long, Hot Summer

The Long, Hot Summer

Print Friendly

Glen M. MacDonaldIt has been a long, hot summer. In July, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released its analysis of global temperatures for the first six months of 2016. Each of these months has set a record for global temperatures. Taken together, this marks the warmest six-month period since the record began in 1880. The temperatures for the first half of 2016 were about 1.3o C warmer than the late 19th century average. This is not a trivial amount. Two weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its analysis of August 2016 temperatures and found that it marks the 16th straight month of record-breaking temperatures for the globe. California, where I am writing this, is really feeling the heat. High evapotranspiration rates have locked the state in a condition of severe to exceptional drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

My own research focuses upon long-term climatic change. For me, anomalously warm years are to be expected as a consequence of natural variability. In the case of 2016, a strong El Niño was certainly a contributing factor to the global warmth. However, the record-breaking start of 2016 comes on the heels of a similarly record-breaking 2015 and a 21st century which has experienced 14 of the 15 warmest January-June periods on record. Looking at annual temperatures, we find that nine of the 10 warmest years on record occurred in the 21st century.  What is going on? Data from Scripps – UC San Diego shows that concentrations of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, reached 402.24 ppm this August. This beats the August 2015 record of 399.0. This equals an additional 6.9 Gt of carbon in the atmosphere compared to last year. Values have remained above 400 ppm throughout 2016. The August 2016 concentrations continue the long-term and seeming inexorable upward trend in greenhouse gases. Politicians may debate the degree of threat posed by climate change, but it is impossible to dismiss the accumulated observations that are evidence of the large amounts of greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere and the record-breaking warming we are currently experiencing. It is, in my opinion, irresponsible to ignore numerous climate-modeling experiments that indicate that a significant portion of the warming is due to anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases and that given current emissions trends, greater warming and associated climatic changes will occur over this century. Based upon a recently published study in Environmental Research Letters of a number of surveys and literature meta-analyses, it seems that well over 90 percent of climate scientists agree with this position. There remain uncertainties in model projections of future climate, but it is notable that even well-known ‘skeptic’ Patrick Michaels wrote in a Cato Institute Working Paper in December of last year “future global warming will occur,” although he argues for a rate of warming within the lower end of projections by groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change.

Geography and geographers have played and will continue to play a large role in tackling the scientific, environmental and societal challenges posed by global climate change. Although often portrayed as aspatial trend-lines on graphs, the climatic changes being experienced today and anticipated in the future have complex and important geographies. For example, a NASA map of 2016 temperature anomalies shows greatly enhanced warming across the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. The enhanced warming of the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere is consistent with climate model projections of greenhouse gas effects. Some of the more local features are not as predictable and the response of the ice sheets and ice shelves of Antarctica remains particularly problematic. At more regional scales we see features such as cooling over much of the Antarctic, but pronounced warming over the Antarctic Peninsula and Larsen Ice Shelf. A 2013 study entitled “Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change” and published in Nature by University of Sheffield geographer Edward Hanna illustrates the uncertainties in measuring, much less anticipating, the reaction of Antarctic ice to climate change. When we look at global temperature or CO2 concentrations as lines on a graph, we miss the critical geographies of climate change.

I have worked in the Arctic for many years and offer it as an example. The NASA report cited above also provides a satellite image showing one of the most prominent vegetation changes related to increasing temperatures and CO2 — the increased greening of the North American Arctic. This increase in Arctic vegetation growth has taken place as temperatures and CO2 have risen from the late 1980s through the present century. In addition, NASA reported that five of the first six months of 2016 set records for low sea-ice cover in the Arctic. Summer sea ice has now declined to the point that this August the cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, embarked on the first excursion through Canada’s Northwest Passage by a large liner. The icy waters and barren islands that claimed Sir John Franklin and all hands on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in the cold years of 1845-1850 have become a destination for ships holding hundreds of tourists in the hot 21st century.

At the same time, fauna such as polar bears and the culture of the indigenous Inuit people face uncertain futures in the newly warmer Arctic. As pointed out in 2006 by geographer Claire Parkinson, a scientist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and sea-ice remote sensing expert, in a co-authored study in the journal Arctic, polar bear responses to climate change will potentially lead to changing bear-human interactions. My colleague at UCLA Larry Smith’s recent book “2050” examines the potential climate change impacts on both environment and society in the North, including the implications of increasing ease of marine transport. These are sweeping. Paradoxically, the Arctic is one of the lowest contributors of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on earth. Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations is a global phenomenon, but the production of greenhouse gases is a local to regional phenomenon tied to human population, socioeconomic, industrial and technological conditions. The impacts of climate change are similarly regional and local in nature. Regions of greatest emissions are often not the regions most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Geography is critical to understanding both.

I would suggest three important themes that our Association and its members might consider in research and education efforts as we confront climate change in the 21st century. The first is the need for continued efforts to understand the climatic effects and other environmental impacts of increasing greenhouse gases. There is much work that remains to be done in decreasing the uncertainties that exist, particularly at finer spatial and temporal scales. At a more general level, how precipitation regimes and ocean circulation will respond to increasing greenhouse gases remains particularly problematic. The questions that arise from how plant and animal species and communities will respond are incredibly complex and in many cases understanding remains superficial. There is plenty of work for physical geographers and biogeographers. This is work that engages large numbers of us now and will continue to motivate future generations of researchers and educators.

Second, the impacts of climate change will play out in a multitude of ways on human populations and both the social sciences and humanities traditions in geography must be engaged. Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and socioeconomic adaptation to the impacts of climate change are complex problems. How do we maintain economic vigor, while shifting to a less carbon intense economy? How do we do so without exacerbating geographic patterns of income inequality?  How can we determine the likely local to regional effects of climate change on human health, resources, economic capacity…? How can we lessen those impacts on vulnerable populations – many of which are marginal contributors to the greenhouse gas problem in the first place? In 2010, geographer Robin Mearns of the World Bank co-edited an important compendium, “Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Equity and Vulnerability in a Warming World,” that illustrates the importance and complexity of these issues.

In addition to the points raised above, there are deeper concerns at play here. How do you preserve the cultures of people, like the Inuit, which were formed in environments which are now changing dramatically? How do we preserve cultures and identities of peoples whom live on islands which may be completely lost? Tuvalu in the Pacific being one example. Even if we find answers, mitigation and adaptation require will and in many cases some sacrifice. What then drives cultures to value the environment or to feel responsible enough for other cultures and peoples to undertake altruistic actions? The humanities tradition within geography has a central part to play in tackling climate change mitigation and adaptation. In doing so the humanities can also open doors to deeper understanding of ourselves. Mike Hulme, currently professor of climate and culture in the department of geography at King’s College, has long argued for the critical role of social studies and humanities in climate change work. In 2011, Hulme wrote persuasively on this topic in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. The article had a simple and effective title “Meet the humanities.” Indeed.

Third, we must remain cognizant that climate change, although of immense importance, is not the only challenging issue facing the environment and society in the 21st century. From land-use intensification and modification of the earth’s surface, to resource extraction, to pollution, to food security, to economic inequality, to health, to conflict, etc., there are a plethora of issues that confront us in the 21st century. Although, the impacts of any of these may be most readily manifested locally and regionally, the forces of globalization overlay all of this. In terms of these challenges and their solutions, what is local is global in many instances. Moving forward, the optimal solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation will be those that also aid in responding to these other challenges. At the very least, our climate change strategies should not exacerbate things like economic inequality.

Meaningfully addressing the issues of climate change is not going to be easy – the winds of change we face will blow strongly and at times unpredictably. On the other hand, nowhere is the opportunity for the broad span of our discipline to work together clearer or more pressing. Climate change is one of the central challenges we face in the 21st century. Geographers have contributed much already and it is our continued responsibility to rise to this challenge. In doing so, however, we will also be rewarded with an endeavor which can serve as a powerful glue to meld the varied elements of our discipline together into a common and crucial purpose.

Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Glen M. MacDonald