Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Tuesday, August 2, 2022

New center explores human dimensions of environmental challenges

CIRES’ Center for Social and Environmental Futures will unite social and environmental scientists across CU Boulder

Image of a wind farm
Te Apiti Wind Farm viewed from Ashurst Domain in New Zealand in July 2020.
- Geoff McKay/Wikimedia Commons

In a rapidly changing world, humans are facing a growing number of environmental challenges, including rising temperatures, dwindling water resources and more extreme weather events. At CIRES and CU Boulder, social and environmental scientists are working to better understand how these challenges will impact people and communities, and how people and communities can develop successful solutions. Now, CIRES’ new Center for Social and Environmental Futures (C-SEF) will bring them together, in a move that will foster collaboration and cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research.

“Our goal is to connect researchers studying the human dimensions of environmental problems, to each other and to natural scientists,” said Matthew Burgess, CIRES fellow, assistant professor of Environmental Studies and director of C-SEF. “Our center’s theme is futures–both the here and now, and the big picture.”

Research at C-SEF will focus on the intersection of humans and the environment, in the near future at local scales (the ‘here and now’), to better understand how communities can adapt to today’s environmental issues, and also in the long-term at large-scales (the ‘big picture’), to better understand how social systems will evolve in the face of continued environmental change. The research will help scientists better understand how development trends—such as economic growth,  geopolitics and migration patterns—will be impacted by climate change, and how business, governments and stakeholders can work together to build resilience and solve problems. The center will build on previous environmental social science work led by CIRES’ Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, which closed its doors in 2020.

“People are at the center of developing effective solutions to climate change and other environmental issues,” said Lisa Dilling, a CIRES fellow, professor of Environmental Studies and core faculty member of C-SEF. “One of our goals is to ensure that social science helps inform solutions to solve the critical and urgent environmental issues of our time.”

C-SEF will be led by Burgess and supported by Dilling and three other core faculty: Max Boykoff, a CIRES fellow and professor and chair of Environmental Studies; Kris Karnauskas, a CIRES fellow and associate professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences; and Kathryn Wendell, executive director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility in the Leeds School of Business. The team, whose members also helped guide the development of the center, will serve as the center’s primary governing body, overseeing its research, education and outreach activities.

Research fellows and graduate research assistants will also play a pivotal role in advancing C-SEF’s research goals. In 2022, Heather Yocum, a CIRES research scientist, will serve as the center’s first research fellow. The fellowship will provide funding for Yocum to develop a research proposal. This summer, the center also funded three summer graduate research assistant fellows—Ashley Dancer, Alex Flores and Sara Hoose—who each are completing an independent summer research project related to the center’s mission.

“My hope for C-SEF is that we will be a catalyst for creativity, collaboration, clear thinking and pragmatism in addressing environmental problems, and that we will build bridges across academic disciplines and sectors of society,” said Burgess. 

The center will host its first events later this year, including seminar series and a workshop, co-hosted with Center for Creative Climate Communication and Behavior Change, about social science and sustainable technology in October.


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