by Jillian Eller | Environmental studies

On Sept. 26, six faculty members from  the Department of Geography and Urban Studies openly addressed recent natural disasters in a panel titled “Extreme Weather or Extreme Politics: Climate Change, Urban Planning and the 2017 Hurricane Season.”

The panel was organized after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas. After the hurricane made landfall, many reporters noted the lack of urban planning in the city and discussed the implications for recovery. Since a big weather event only becomes a “disaster” when human lives are impacted, our faculty wanted to examine how Houston’s (lack of) planning and building over of wetlands contributed to the making of a natural disaster. Unfortunately, between the time the panel was organized and Sept. 26, both Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall across the Caribbean and southern United States, which broadened the discussion past Hurricane Harvey.

Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Urban Planning 

Facilitated by Hamil Pearsall, the panel also included Charles Kaylor, David Organ, Victor Gutierrez-Velez, Robert Mason, and Christina Rosan. The panelists discussed different dimensions of the multiple Category 5 hurricanes that have devastated many islands in the Caribbean and the coastal South in the United States this fall — including the role of climate change, environmental justice implications, the impact of pro-growth urban planning, and the politics of climate denial. 

How do we take these ideas out of the classroom and apply them to real-life solutions? 

Each faculty member contributed their expertise to help attendees understand all 360 degrees of this multifaceted problem. Gutierrez-Velez explained the connections between climate change and this year’s extreme hurricane season. Rosan focused on the urban growth and lack of city planning in the flooded zones. Organ elaborated on environmental justice concerns associated with building affordable housing in low-lying areas and in exposing low-income populations to noxious facilities that were also compromised during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Kaylor shared his research on popular perceptions of climate change and how it may shift after cities are damaged by extreme weather events. Mason shed light on the miscommunications within the public about the reality of climate change. 

The floor also opened up for questions from the student audience. Student questions were concerned with how researchers and scientists can make meaningful changes in how climate policies and adaptations happen, what we can do to assist in relief aid, and the responsibilities that government and fossil fuel companies have in the process. The first student question brought up one of the most important questions of the day: how do we take these ideas out of the classroom and apply them to real-life solutions? 

The general consensus of the panelists was that policies must be instituted at governmental levels to enact change and make progress for prevention, mitigation, and resiliency to climate change, with a healthy dose of “we need to address these issues head on” and “go vote!”

Twenty-first century challenges in sustainability, urbanization, globalization and social justice are at the heart of the Department of Geography & Urban Studies, which offers majors and minors in Geography & Urban Studies and Environmental Studies and a Certificate in Geographic Information Systems. Students who are interested in climate change, hazards, land use planning, impact assessment, policy or mapping technology can find a place to learn from experts in these areas in the classroom, to then make reach change in the world.


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