UA Geographer Earns Prestigious International Medal

A prestigious medal approved by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II that has historically gone to some of the most prominent explorers and scientists is being awarded this month to a University of Arizona professor.

Diana Liverman, a geography professor who co-directs the UA's Institute of the Environment, received the Founders Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

Liverman's medal, along with other medals and awards, was presented by the society's president, Michael Palin, during a June 7 ceremony in London. (Picture belowis of Liverman with Palin.)

Liverman is being honored for her contributions in "encouraging, developing and promoting understanding of the human dimensions of climate change," the 180-year-old Society announced in a release.

“I was surprised and incredibly touched by this award and its role in the history of geographical thought and exploration," Liverman said

Other recipients include African explorers Rev. David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Capt. Richard Burton; Antarctic explorers Robert Scott and Fridjof Nansen; Mt. Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary; marine explorer and researcher Captaine Jacques-Yves Cousteau; and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

More recently, medal winners have included several academic geographers. Also, Liverman is one of only half a dozen women to receive a Society Gold Medal, with explorers Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark being among them.

"As a child I was fascinated by stories of exploration and loved geography because it allowed me to study other places and people," said Liverman, who was born in Ghana, West Africa and attended school in England.

During her youth, Liverman visited the Royal Geographical Society as part of school trips to listen to lectures by mountaineers and explorers. It also was also common for her family to spend vacations hiking in Britain’s national parks, she said.

Liverman went on to launch a career as an academic geographer trying to understand the interactions between people and nature, especially the social causes and consequences of climate variability and change. She has published and presented widely on issues related to environmental change and policy.

"When I started research into the human dimensions of global change, hardly anyone was interested in the topic," she said. "Now climate change is one of the great challenges of our time and threatens to transform the landscapes so carefully described by earlier explorers and to destroy the livelihoods of millions of people in the developing world."

Liverman also holds a position as visiting professor of Environmental Policy and Development at Oxford University, where she is a fellow of Linacre College and senior research fellow in the Environmental Change Institute. She directed the institute from 2003 to 2009.

In 2009, she arrived at the UA to co-direct the Institute of the Environment with Jonathan Overpeck, a UA professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences.

"One of the things I think this medal goes to and speaks to is a kind of global presence, a figure who is an international figure," said Paul Robbins, the UA School of Geography and Development director. "This is a centennial kind of event."

Last year, Liverman helped organize a series of conferences on climate change, including a science conference in Copenhagen prior to the United Nations climate negotiations, a meeting to bring scientists and artists together in Oxford and a workshop on climate change and food security.

Currently, she chairs a panel for the U.S. National Academies America’s Climate Choices study and is a former chair of the National Research Council's committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change.

"You can always give scientists the medal, but the kind of people who receive the Founder's Medal are translators and explorers," Robbins added, noting that Liverman has a particular strength in being able to convey the importance of scientific findings to policy makers and members of the general public.

"She is taking seriously what we can do in terms of mitigating climate change without being starry-eyed, romantic and naive," he added.

Liverman has written widely on the human dimensions of climate change including climate impacts on food and agriculture, climate policy, and climate and development in Latin America and is known for her efforts to promote the role of the social sciences in understanding environmental issues.

"She has a careful critical approach to things and is also very practical," Robbins said. "She is at the cutting edge, but she always brings it back. We are lucky to have her here."
By Stephanie Doster and La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications