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Christa Brelsford: Cities as concentrators of climate change

Christa Brelsford’s research at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory focuses on understanding the dynamics of how human and natural processes in cities interact to affect climate. Cities concentrate interactions between socio-economic processes, technological systems such as the power grid and other infrastructure, and natural systems like climate and ecosystems. Understanding the complex relationships among these systems can inform equitable climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Brelsford’s research in the Geospatial Science and Human Security Division draws on data science tools from economics, geography, network science, and spatial statistics to describe interactions between human systems and the built and natural environment, with the aim of better understanding the climate processes in urban communities.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

People are the single biggest source of uncertainty in the future of the global climate. But we don’t really study that in any serious way. I’ve had, through my career, a number of climate modelers tell me that they don’t study people because it’s too hard. That’s a bad reason not to study something. I have spent my career trying to figure out how to understand the interactions between human processes and Earth system processes. Most of the way that I do that is in the context of cities and urban environments.  

Cities are concentrators of interactions between human processes as well as infrastructure, ecosystems, and hydrological processes. Cities make interactions between these systems happen faster, and they’re more tightly coupled. That means that cities are a good laboratory for trying to understand how these systems interact. If we can understand those interactions, then we can start to think about solutions.

Why does the research matter?

If we don’t figure out how we’re going to address climate change, then our children don’t have a future. We have to figure out how to address climate change. The only possible way for changing how all 8 billion of us on the planet interact with the Earth system is through human social processes: our laws, policies and behaviors. Those social processes then shape the technology we use, the cities we build, and ultimately the greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere.

Research about cities matters for two reasons. One is that cities are where all of these interactions happen, and so we can use research on urban processes to develop a better theoretical understanding of how and why those interactions happen. Two is that cities are also where many of the problems are. Cities are where all the people are, and so, the climate hazards that hit cities cause some of the most extreme humanitarian consequences. And if we develop strategies to understand that, then we can start to mitigate some of climate change’s worst effects.   

I hope that a better theoretical and empirical understanding of how anthropogenic processes, in cities and in general, interact with the world around us will lead us to some good ideas for how to create the science that we need in order to figure out how to respond — from individuals all the way up to the planet.

What keeps you motivated?

I’ve always believed that the purpose of a scientific career is to do good in the world, and I feel extraordinarily lucky that is my day job. The single biggest problem I see in the world is climate change. And so, I’ve spent almost all of my career trying to do the science that I believe we need to do in order to solve the problems that we face.

What about the research keeps you up at night?

I don’t want to live in a world where climate change is going to wreak havoc on our social, economic, and political systems. None of us want to see that future. And so, I’m doing my best to do the science that I think will provide the knowledge we need to change that.  

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

It’s easy to fall into the doomsday thinking, that the climate is terrible, and we’ve known it for 40 years, and we’ve done not a lot. But I think that kind of thinking is also why we’ve failed to do anything meaningful so far. There are real and significant opportunities. Trying to find new ways of thinking, trying to find different perspectives of understanding are among the options we have for trying to build a future that we all want to live in. Students who show up with new ideas and new energy are some of the new perspectives that we need.