Helping humanity through climate research 

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Several NAU professors are part of a global team of climate scientists recently recognized for their service to humanity. 

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was awarded the 2022 Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity. The IPCC, a body of the United Nations that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, provides regular, research-based reports on the impacts and future risks of climate change and options for adaptation and mitigation. NAU researchers on the most recent report, Assessment Report No. 6 (AR6), include: 

  • Kevin Gurney, professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, is a lead author of Working Group III, which focuses on the mitigation of climate change.  
  • Darrell Kaufman, Regents’ professor in the School of Earth and Sustainability, is a lead author of Working Group I, which focuses on the physical science of climate change. 
  • Ted Schuur, Regents’ professor of ecosystem ecology and the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (Ecoss), is a lead author for a special oceans/cryosphere report and a contributing author to Working Group 1. 
  • Michelle Mack, Regents’ professor of ecosystem ecology, is a contributing author for the IPCC special report on oceans and cryosphere.
  • Christina Schädel, an adjunct professor in Ecoss, is a contributing author for the IPCC special report on oceans and cryosphere and a special report on warming of 1.5 degrees.

The award, presented by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a scientist herself, centers on IPCC’s crucial role in communicating scientific knowledge and supporting governments as they study and implement measures to control climate change. It is an important recognition for the organization, Gurney said. 

“This award recognizes the important contribution that the IPCC, and science in general, make to understanding how climate change will impact humanity,” he said. “Because climate change has progressed to a point of crisis, the implications for humanity are more serious than they have ever been.” 

All the report authors contribute on a voluntary basis in addition to the individual research they do. The research is obviously important, but so is educating people about what the research says, Kaufman said. 

“I volunteered to help write the IPCC climate report because I aspired to make the latest scientific knowledge available to the world’s governments as they confront the grand challenge of climate change,” he said. “For the IPCC scientific community to be awarded this high-level international ‘prize for humanity’ is strong recognition of the role of science in helping to solve major societal issues.” 

Gurney focused on a chapter about urban systems. He wrote sections of the report, reviewed sections from other authors and approved final content for the chapter. His chapter focused on how urban areas dominate the emission of greenhouse gases globally, which means that solutions to these emissions must be operable in cities.  

Kaufman’s chapter focused on the changing state of climate systems prior to industrialization as context for understanding both what’s happening now with climate change and what we can expect to happen in the future. He also co-authored his working group’s report FAQs and summary documents.  

Schuur’s contributions focused on a chapter about polar regions, which included the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, ice, glaciers and permafrost. The report demonstrated that sea levels rose twice as fast in the last two decades as the previous century, putting coastal communities worldwide, including many Indigenous communities in the Arctic, at even greater risk. Schädel worked on this research as well, including on research that expanded the Permafrost Carbon Network to better track carbon flux in permafrost regions.

In addition to synthesizing permafrost carbon and climate research, Schuur and the other authors worked with government delegates to ensure the report communicated the most important assessments so decision-makers can take steps to adapt and manage risks. 

“The IPCC synthesis reports provided the crucial science foundation in order for U.S. policymakers to take action on climate change, which they have in the form of the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act,” Schuur said. “These congressional acts in the past two years directly provide funding to reduce U.S. carbon emissions, putting us one step in the right direction in order to avoid dangerous climate change.” 

Mack’s contributions to the IPCC report had to do with understanding impacts of increasing disturbances in the Arctic, such as wildfire or abrupt permafrost thaw, and how these can accelerate or slow terrestrial feedbacks to climate change. Her research has demonstrated that the unprecedented release of stored carbon is too often left out of current forecasts of Arctic feedback to global warming.

“It is worth considering the implications of increasingly frequent and large wildfires for the fate of carbon that is currently locked away in the permafrost soils and sediments that underlie much of the Arctic,” she said. “This increased combustion of the insulating peat layer in this part of the world can expose more permafrost and lead to the thaw and decomposition of an even larger reservoir of organic matter, releasing carbon that has been stored underground for centuries or even millennia.”

Other themes of the report include: 

  • Climate change is now being felt directly by humankind and the natural systems on which we rely. This is punctuated by the impact of climate change on extreme events, making events like hurricanes and floods more frequent and more extreme. 
  • We will require a mixture of mitigation through both removing greenhouses gases from the atmosphere and reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, while adapting our society to avoid the negative contributors to climate change. 

They are all big, complicated, multi-pronged action items that require action from governments at all levels and throughout the world, especially knowing most emissions come from the Global North and the Global South is experiencing more of the extreme effects of climate change—though even the wealthier nations are starting to feel the effects. 

 “The IPCC reports are crucial to establish the basis of knowledge on climate change and how it can be both mitigated and adapted to,” Gurney said. “These reports remain the most authoritative synthesis of what is known on climate change and continue to be critical inputs to global decision-making.” 

Gurney has done significant research into urban emissions, including mapping carbon dioxide emissions with the goal of informing state and city governments about how much their urban areas were contributing and measuring the decline in emissions during COVID lockdowns in 2020, when many people stopped commuting to work. The goal, as with the IPCC reports, is to give decision-makers accurate, current information so they can have a clear picture of the problem as they work to solve it. 

Several other NAU scientists have served on IPCC working groups and/or contributed research to previous IPCC reports as well, including Regents’ professor Scott Goetz. All NAU scientists’ efforts for the IPCC are voluntary. 

NAU Communications