Helping cities adapt to climate change

Q&A with Sharon Harlan

Dr. Sharon Harlan

Dr. Harlan discussing her Phoenix research at the Scientific Workshop on Climate Change Health Adaptation in Ahmedabad, India.

Graduate students Tommy Bleasdale and Carolyn Crouch making seed pots for inner-city residents as part of a discussion on gardening and urban heat island

Graduate students Tommy Bleasdale and Carolyn Crouch making seed pots for inner-city residents as part of a discussion on gardening and urban heat island.

extreme heat

Urban heat affects pets, too - photo by middle school student Brian Garcia Escalante as part of a project to understand youth perspectives on extreme heat in inner-city neighborhoods.

Sharon Harlan is a Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her work addresses the social impacts of climate change in a rapidly urbanizing environment. She also directs the Phoenix Area Social Survey, which examines the impacts of income and residential segregation on environmental inequalities. Dr. Harlan teaches courses on the social and environmental impacts of industrial production systems and on environmental justice.

When did sustainability become part of your research focus?

Ten years ago I was working with colleagues on a proposal for a social survey about the impacts of rapid urbanization on people's attitudes toward community and environment in the Phoenix area. Chuck Redman, then director of ASU's Center for Environmental Studies, gave us some key advice: Frame this work in the context of the emerging concept of "sustainability."

What are your most important sustainability-related research projects?

First, I am leading a project on urban vulnerability to climate change. This research involves social, biophysical, and health scientists in a collaborative effort to understand how various urban land covers and temperatures are associated with different neighborhoods and why we see disparities in heat-related health outcomes between low and high-income neighborhoods. A major objective of the research is to improve the capacity of inner-city neighborhoods to adapt to climate change. To accomplish this, our team is doing basic scientific research on urban ecology and health, and developing future climate scenarios for the Phoenix region. We are also working with community partners to revitalize a community gardening initiative, model the cooling effects of neighborhood parks, and learn from the perspectives of middle school students about how high temperatures affect local families and communities.

Second, I am continuing my work with the Phoenix Area Social Survey. It is repeated every five years to track public opinion on regional and neighborhood quality of life and four areas of the natural environment: land use, water supply, air quality, and climate change. This summer, we will conduct our third survey in the series, which will be administered to 900 households in 45 neighborhoods.

How will your sustainability-related research affect policy decisions?

Cities face significant health challenges from climate change and recent heat wave disasters around the world have given them a wake-up call. At the same time, climate adaptation strategies to deal with extreme heat events, air pollution, flooding, and infectious disease outbreaks have been attracting more attention globally. Our research in Phoenix provides insights about urbanization in a warmer world and also offers lessons on how cities might act to address these challenges.

What is the world sustainability challenge that concerns you most?

My priority is protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized populations from the disruptions of global environmental change. To do this, we must ensure that Earth's resources are consumed equitably, the limits of those resources are respected, and that people in all types of economies have adequate livelihoods, health care, and safe working conditions. Ultimately, we need to eliminate extreme inequalities and poverty on global, national, and local scales.

April 27, 2011