CU Denver Researchers Confront Climate Crisis on All Fronts
Brian Buma, PhD, Associate Professor of Research College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Integrated Biology

CU Denver Researchers Confront Climate Crisis on All Fronts

April 18, 2023

In just over 40 years, Earth Day has evolved from being a single day celebrating the environmental movement in the United States to a year-round global connection that empowers billions of people to better understand, protect, and improve the environment for future generations.

CU Denver’s researchers and faculty have long been asking questions, providing insights into the climate crisis, and helping to drive change locally as well as around the world. As a multifaceted challenge, climate change research requires a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that considers behavior science, geography, biology, policy, social equality, land and resource management, architecture, urban planning, product design, infrastructure, disaster recovery, and resiliency. It is this type of multi-faceted and global research that CU Denver aims to support as part of its 2030 Strategic Plan goals.

To highlight the breadth and depth of the work being done at CU Denver, below is an overview of just a few CU Denver experts and their latest work on the environment and the climate crisis.

Brian Buma, PhD, Associate Professor of Research; Senior Climate Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Integrated Biology

Katharine Kelsey, PhD, Assistant Professor
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography & Environmental Sciences

Dr. Kelsey and Dr. Buma are principal investigators on a five-year, $3.6 million grant to study elements of the landscape that maintain valuable characteristics, such as carbon storage or shade on a hot day, despite the pressures of climate change. These units are also known as “climate-change refugia.” The goal is to learn better ways to manage mountain headwater systems in the Colorado Front Range.

A female CU Denver professor speaks to her students in front of a white board.
Dr. Kelsey talking with students during her class called Climate Change: Causes, Impacts and Solutions.

“The challenges of something as fundamental as climate change–where everything is changing at once–requires real creativity in solutions, and that means teams of people, working across disciplines, coming up with integrated solutions. [Our] work is exactly that: focused on the complicated interaction of water, snow, plants, animals, and people that create the landscape of today and determine what will thrive, and where, in the future.” —Brian Buma

“As scientists working in the realm of climate change, we still have so much to learn from one another, and from our partners in land management, and this interdisciplinary project allows us to do that.” —Katharine Kelsey

Deserai Crow, PhD, Professor, Director of the PhD in Public Affairs
School of Public Affairs

Dr. Crow’s work assesses environmental policy and disaster or crisis policies, including stakeholder participation and influence, information sources used, and policy outcomes in developing policies. Her research often focuses on natural disaster recovery and risk mitigation in local communities. Her natural hazards work includes a study of community wildfire recovery decision-making after Colorado’s Marshall Fire in 2021, as well as flood recovery and policy learning in the aftermath of the 2013 floods in the state. Her current National Science Foundation-funded project looks at environmental justice outcomes associated with oil and gas decision-making in Colorado’s local governments.

“Colorado is a special place to live and raise a family, so I’ve spent most of my career trying to understand the risks that we face as a state and how our governments are grappling with these challenges. I hope that my work helps decision-makers so that we can have more resilient communities.” —Deserai Crow

Priyanka deSouza, PhD, Assistant Professor
College of Architecture and Planning, Urban and Regional Planning Department

Dr. deSouza’s research focuses on how to make cities around the world more resilient to the impacts of air pollution and climate change. She is also the co-principal investigator on a NASA Environmental Justice grant and will be monitoring air pollution and heat at bus stops around Denver. This is in partnership with the United States Geological Survey to examine how air pollution and heat affect bus ridership in neighborhoods corresponding to different socioeconomic statuses. Finally, she is also setting up a mobile laboratory at CU Denver to monitor air pollution and other exposures at a fine spatial scale.

“I hope my research will make our cities more healthy and more just.” —Priyanka deSouza

Tanya Heikkila, PhD, Professor
School of Public Affairs, Co-Director, Center for Policy and Democracy

Professor Heikkila’s research and teaching center on policy and environmental governancethe process of decision-making around the control and management of environment and natural resources. She is particularly interested in how conflict and collaboration arise in policy processes, and what types of institutions support collaboration, learning, and conflict resolution. Some of her recent research has explored these issues in the context of interstate watersheds, large-scale ecosystem restoration programs, and unconventional oil and gas development. She also serves as member of the Delta Independent Science Board and advises California’s Delta Stewardship Council.

“Society is facing critical challenges that impede our capacity to address emerging climate and environmental issues. Some of these challenges are due to political conflicts and power inequities. Others stem from a lack of capacity to ensure that policies are designed to be responsive and equitable to diverse interests and values. I hope my research on policy conflicts, learning, and collaboration can contribute to improving knowledge and understanding on these critical challenges.” —Tawyna Heikkila

Carrie Makarewicz, PhD, Associate Professor & Department Chair
College of Architecture and Planning, Urban and Regional Planning Department

Dr. Makarewicz’s research looks at on how the interactions among public investments, development, and public policies affect human development through their effects on household income, accessible and safe neighborhoods, housing affordability, individual health and well-being, access to regional opportunities, and environmental quality. She is conducting a housing study that is related to the Governor’s new proposal to direct local governments to adopt denser housing to provide more affordable housing and to address climate change.

“I’m interested in this topic for the health and wellbeing of people, especially those with the fewest resources. My research over the last 18 years has related to the benefits of transit-oriented and walkable communities that are rich with amenities, and most importantly, affordable to all household types. When individuals can easily access their daily needs, from work to schools to groceries, they have more time for more meaningful activities, such as being with friends and family, taking care of their health through exercise, healthy eating and rest, learning new things, and participating in community activities. ” —Carrie Makarewicz

A common dragonfly species called the Blue Dasher on orange and red leaves.
A common dragonfly species, studied by Dr. Moore’s lab, called the Blue Dasher.

Michael Moore, PhD, Assistant Professor, Biology Research Faculty
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Integrated Biology

As the earth warms, plants and animals will need traits that enable them to both survive and reproduce under new conditions. While decades of previous research have documented the ways that species survive in a warmer world, Dr. Moore’s lab is uncovering the things that species will need to successfully mate and reproduce under climate change. This work is revealing that showy traits used to attract mates, like big lion manes and dark patches of pigment on dragonfly wings, may actually be harming species as the Earth heats up, and this might have big consequences for mating and reproduction in the future. Ultimately, the research in Dr. Moore’s lab is improving our ability to conserve our planet’s most cherished animals and manage the delicate ecosystems on which we all rely.

“The climate crisis is perhaps the single most pressing problem of our time; and it is as much a problem for the planet’s flora and fauna as it is for us humans. If we’re going to understand how to best protect and manage the Earth’s biodiversity over the coming decades, we absolutely need to understand which traits are going to make species vulnerable to climate change and why. My lab at CU Denver is working to characterize the many factors that will help or harm species as they try to keep pace with rapidly rising global temperatures.” —Michael Moore

Ivan J. Ramirez, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Ramirez is a climate-society geographer, originally from Quito, Ecuador. His scholarship focuses on climate change, urban health, and community engagement. He strives to understand how communities interact with climate and how those interactions influence the health and social vulnerability of populations and places. His current research examines the multi-hazard context of infectious diseases and chronic conditions in Latin America and Colorado, which are often driven by social inequities and compounded by environmental changes. In future work, he seeks to examine and highlight how communities respond to and overcome climate adversities. 

“My passion for understanding climate and society is fueled by social injustices, locally and globally, and the need for inter- and multi-disciplinary thinking. I am also deeply inspired by the voices and actions of environmental justice communities.” —Ivan Ramirez

Photo of three climate change and variability experts in Lima, Peru.
Meeting with climate change and variability experts in Lima, Peru. Dr. Ken Takahashi Guevara, Geophysical Institute of Peru (left), Dr. Ivan J. Ramírez, CU Denver (middle), and Dr. Kobi Alberto Mosquera Vasquez, Geophysical Institute of Peru (right).
Photo credit: Ivan J. Ramírez  

Marc Swackhamer, Professor and Department Chair 
College of Architecture and Planning, Architecture Department

Professor Swackhamer teaches an Undergraduate Architecture Studio V on the topic of “INVASIVENESS,” which explores contested ecological boundaries in Colorado. Students in the studio research invasive Colorado plant species and reimagine them, not as liabilities in need of eradication, but instead as abundant raw materials, rich with possibility as bio-based construction materials. While the projects do not claim to “fix” the inherent problems of invasive plant species, their goal is to call awareness to the human activities that have catalyzed decades of unchecked ecological damage.

“‘Invasive’ species embody many resilient and adaptive qualities that make them well-suited to surviving in challenging, dynamic environments. Instead of using the pejorative term, ‘invasive,’ many biologists, for this reason, have started to use the term ‘non-native,’ to distinguish the plants from native species without assigning value. Teaching this class catalyzed for me an ongoing interest in post-disciplinary collaboration with both experts in biology and in landscape architecture.” —Marc Swackhamer

Diana Tomback, PhD, Professor
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Integrated Biology

Dr. Tomback is known for decades of work on the Clark’s nutcracker bird species and the ecology and restoration of whitebark pine. Whitebark pine, which depends on nutcrackers for seed dispersal, is a keystone species that provides important ecosystem services. Without this tree, the system can collapse. Currently, she is studying nutcracker habitat use in Yellowstone National Park in collaboration with park managers and Ricketts Conservation Foundation. In 2001, in response to dramatic declines in whitebark pine populations, Dr. Tomback and several colleagues started the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation (WPEF), a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit based in Missoula, MT dedicated to the restoration of whitebark pine ecosystems and educating the public and resource management agencies about the importance of the pine. Whitebark pine, threatened by exotic disease, native insects, shifting fire regimes, and climate change, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and listed as endangered in Canada more than a decade ago. Dr. Tomback is currently the science lead on the National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan, she was just named by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to the Whitebark Pine Recovery Team, and she actively supports the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado by serving as a science advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and other NGOs.

“While engaged in doctoral research on Clark’s nutcracker and whitebark pine in the Sierra Nevada decades ago, I never imagined that the pine would be in such serious trouble. Fast-forward to today, more than 50% of standing whitebark pine are dead across its broad range in the U.S. and equally in trouble in Canada. The decline of whitebark pine was a clarion call to action, and I am grateful to all who have helped support steps to restore this ecologically important and iconic species, and grateful to all at CU Denver who have supported my work over the years.” —Diana Tomback

Christopher Weible, PhD, Professor; Co-Editor, Policy & Politics

School of Public Affairs; Program Director, Master of Public Policy; Co-Director, Center for Policy and Democracy; and Visiting Professor at Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Dr. Weible’s research centers on policy process theories and methods, democracy, and environmental policy. His recent and current research includes studying policy conflicts in energy issues including siting energy infrastructure and oil and gas development, the role of emotions in public discourse, institutional analyses of the content of public policy, and patterns and explanations of policy change.

“The challenge in mitigating and adapting to climate change must involve improving how we govern, making our politics more sustainable, and ensuring greater human dignity for all.” —Christopher Weible