Published: July 27, 2023

Katherine Clifford, a recent PhD and scientist at the Western Water Assessment, named to American Association of Geographers ‘Elevate the Discipline’ cohort

Katherine (Katie) Clifford, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, is among 15 geographers to be designated as “public scholars” in the realm of climate and society.

The American Association of Geographers (AAG) this month announced the first cohort in its new “Elevate the Discipline” program, which will train and showcase geographers in action—in the media, as voices for public policies and in advocating for change—on this year’s theme of climate and society. 

The newly selected participants in 11 states and the West Indies “represent the rich and diverse range of practice within the discipline, including hydroclimatology, political ecology, climate and health, disaster geography, geoinformatics, soil science and more,” the AAG stated.

Katherine Clifford

At the top of the page: Katie Clifford leads a discussion in a climate-adaptation workshop in Wyoming recently. Photo courtesy of Katie Clifford. Above: Katie Clifford

Clifford, who earned her PhD in geography at CU Boulder in 2019, is lead social scientist at Western Water Assessment, a research program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is under the auspices of the university. It supports “engaged science” to tackle real-world climate adaptation issues across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. 

With a strong background in environment-society geography, Clifford is known for her research illuminating the regulatory challenges and uneven consequences of climate hazards and effects.

Clifford’s work focuses on how frontline communities are uniquely affected by climate hazards, and her findings help diagnose policy loopholes and develop equitable and just adaptation strategies in partnership with communities, the AAG stated.

Her research has explored how the U.S. Clean Air Act has in many ways failed to adapt to increasing dust storms, which often leave Western communities with unsafe air quality. She also is currently working with rural, low income, Latinx and tribal communities on issues of extreme heat, flooding, wildfire and drought.

Clifford said she is honored to be selected “alongside so many talented geographers and know this will make me a better engaged researcher. This fellowship shows that the field of geography invests in and values scholars who are doing work that is actionable and impactful for pressing societal and environmental issues—something that not all disciplines have embraced.” 

She added, “This is why I chose to be a geographer: We tackle real-world issues, with a holistic approach that embraces complexity, engage with multiple scales and center questions of equity and justice. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues we face today, and this fellowship harnesses geography’s strengths to make important contributions to policy and practice.”

Fifteen geographers were selected through a competitive process. The program will train them over the next several months in leadership, media skills and policy strategies, and thereafter will promote their work in public discourse.

This is why I chose to be a geographer: We tackle real-world issues, with a holistic approach that embraces complexity, engage with multiple scales and center questions of equity and justice."

“It’s exciting to support the work of these scientists as they engage in community-oriented, justice-based work on climate change,” said Rebecca Lave, AAG’s 2023-24 president and a professor of geography at Indiana University Bloomington, where her specialties include critical physical geography and the political economy of stream restoration. 

“We want to open up avenues to value and protect geographers’ opportunity to do public and engaged scholarship.”

The program will be launched this month, with frequent virtual meetings culminating in a week-long intensive training onsite at AAG headquarters in Washington, D.C. Thereafter, AAG will work with the participants and their institutions to continue promoting their public scholarship.

“Geography is essential to understanding and solving the world’s most pressing issues,” said Gary Langham, AAG executive director. “We created Elevate the Discipline to help geographers raise the profile of their work, showing how instrumental our discipline is to addressing climate change and critical social issues.”

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