May 17, 2022

ClimateCheck Team Interview - Maximilian Stiefel PhD Geography UC Santa Barbara

Fire | by Wendy Erickson | 5 Minutes

Maximilian Stiefel PhD Geography UC Santa Barbara

Our team at ClimateCheck uses complex modeling to understand how climate risk will affect our future. Maximilian Stiefel is our expert on modeling socio-environmental risk. Read below for his take on understanding the risks of natural hazards and how we can best understand and prepare for them as a society.

Max at ClimateCheck

What is your background? What education and experience are you drawing on most for your work at ClimateCheck?

  • I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah where I got my Bachelors in Environmental Science and Economics. I did a lot of activism on campus and in the community towards sustainability and climate change mitigation. The air pollution in Salt Lake City air is really bad so I was always quite attuned to human impact on the environment there. I went on to pursue a Masters and PhD in geography with a focus on climate risk at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What are you working on at ClimateCheck?

  • I am responsible for modeling risk from climate hazards – heat, storm, drought, flood, and wildfire. In the past few years people have become a lot more aware of natural hazards which are primarily climate-sensitive. The recent wildfires in California, heatwaves in the Northwest, and flooding in Germany have increased awareness. I think it’s really important to help people know more about their climate risk, especially when they are paying more attention to it.
  • Right now we’ve been focusing on modeling the physical hazard part of the climate change equation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) defines climate risk as hazard, exposure (whether there are people or property in an area that has hazards), and vulnerability (variation in characteristics across people and places). In the future, I’m excited to focus more on modeling the vulnerability and exposure aspects of climate risk and think more holistically about what risk means. It will be important for telling us how effectively communities will be able to evacuate, rebuild, and mitigate loss from future climate hazard events.

Climate Risk

Are you optimistic about our climate future?

  • I am optimistic. Humans are pretty clever, innovative, and resilient. We will find a way to adapt to increasing hazards and changing resource availability from climate change. However, I am also concerned about the most vulnerable and marginalized, both in the U.S. and around the world because they are the people and groups that will be most affected. At a societal and species level I am optimistic, but at an individual level and across socio-economic and racial/ethnic lines I am quite concerned.

Have you seen changes to the way that people and companies approach climate change data in recent years?

  • Climate hazards have always been present, but climate change is increasing their frequency and intensity. We are now much more aware of them, which is a good development because of the huge potential for loss that can ripple through a community or a society when an extreme event occurs. People are paying attention to their climate risk and they are wanting to use this data to help inform decisions about how to conduct business and where to live.

The Global Impact of Climate Trends

Do you think we can stabilize and reverse atmospheric carbon levels?

  • I think we can stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas levels by the middle of the century, maybe. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon. There are a lot of natural feedback loops that we don’t understand well which could be a huge complication in addressing climate change mitigation.

What are some possible pitfalls in addressing climate risk?

  • I’m pretty scared of geoengineering (the deliberate large-scale alteration of natural systems to combat climate change). It is an extension of what humans have been doing with our landscape for all of our history. Sometimes it has gone well in the sense that we have managed our environment and there have not been large repercussions, at least for humans. But sometimes it's also gone very poorly, like in the case of wildfire suppression techniques in the U.S. or over extraction of water supplies for large-scale farming and irrigation in areas that experience a lot of drought and erosion. I’m afraid of what would happen if we attempted to do something at such a global scale without really understanding the complex interactions of each element in the system.

What do you see as the most interesting or impactful climate change topic that isn’t commonly discussed?

  • Composting is something people know about but don’t really seem to associate with climate change mitigation, despite being a source of methane emissions. This would be a pretty fruitful way to reduce both emissions and waste and create a more holistic agricultural system.

And More…

Where’s your favorite source of climate change news?

  • I mostly pay attention to information from environmental and climate research institutes at universities, like the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. I get a lot of information from the New York Times; they do a lot of interactive data visualizations which can help engage people and inform them in a different way from just reading a standard article.

What do you do when you’re not working for such an amazing company?

  • I do a lot of yoga, backpacking, trail running, and cooking.

If you could say something to every person in the world, what would you say to them about climate change?

  • All of the ways in which we could mitigate climate change will also improve our quality of life, so why not pursue them in the best way we can. But that is something that's hard to communicate to people.