Mapping Opportunity

Written by Rachel Lamb //

I recently decided I was comfortable calling myself a “geographer.”

Although a lesser known discipline in the United States, geography’s origins stretch back at least two thousand years to ancient Greek scholarship, with contemporary integration into academia throughout the 18th century. But what do geographers today do?

One primary role of modern geographers is to consider the influence of place and space on the relationship between people and the natural world. Like the old real estate adage, geography focuses on “location, location, location!” As scientists, geographers analyze dynamic and diverse natural systems (such as ecosystems) and the ways social systems mirror and influence them (such as governments or other social institutions). They also study the layers of interconnectedness between our global environment and its variable influence on local communities. No matter the application, this work is all about scale, scope, and discerning patterns in the midst of complexity. The more we understand about the connections between people and the planet, the better decisions we can make about our world’s future.

A high-resolution look at the world gives geographers the opportunity to distinguish the who, what, and where of environmental decision-making. With the aid of spatial tools like geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing, we can identify socio-environmental variables of interest to society and guide policy makers towards more responsible and targeted policy solutions.

But how do we practice justice as geographers, as natural and social scientists? How do we ensure that our research questions, methods, and outcomes reflect care and concern for those who are often overlooked by the powerful and underrepresented in decision-making processes?

Often buried in these complex questions is the normative ethical theory of consequentialism, which downplays how we achieved our policy goals as long as the outcome keeps us in sync with mainstream cultural preferences. Even in the world of climate policy, where my work is situated, there can be too much focus on reaching a lofty goal and not enough debate on how the policies in practice will truly address environmental vulnerabilities, curb insatiable economic growth, and meet the needs of those impacted most by climate change effects. However, when we make information more precise geographically, when we can point to specific locations of interest on a map, we are forced to reconcile with the particulars of the people, communities, and ecosystems affected. In this way, geography brings us closer to more accountable decision-making.

My current research centers around finding “geographies of opportunity”: the physical locations where we can implement climate policy solutions and provide the greatest number of benefits for both people and the environment. In Maryland, we have an ambitious goal to reduce our carbon emissions by 25% by 2020 from 2006 emissions levels. In the state’s plan to achieve this goal, a myriad of programs and strategies work together to reduce our carbon impact in an economically smart and environmentally conscious manner. Undoubtedly, Maryland is ahead of most other states in its effort to lead on climate change–however, just because the state sets a goal does not mean everyone will benefit equally from its achievement.

Take for example the state’s renewed efforts to protect our forests and other terrestrial ecosystems, which provide an estimated $2.2 billion to Maryland’s economy and $24 billion in ecological services, including carbon sequestration. As carbon sinks, forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – particularly when trees are young and growing rapidly. In their climate plan, the state has made the goal to afforest, or plant, at least 1,000 hectares of forest each year. Although an admirable goal, planting trees anywhere in the state to meet this numerical policy goal, will not guarantee the same benefits to biodiversity, low-income communities, urban populations, riparian management, flood control, etc.

My research lab works to solve the state’s data problem with advanced technology and modelling that can estimate exactly how much carbon we can store in our forests over time, down to the individual tree and based on local environmental conditions. Pretty cool, right? Without this data, it would be nearly impossible to track our progress on emissions goals related to land-use planning and forestry management. However, perhaps even more important to policy is how we can use this tool and other spatial data to determine exactly where we should afforest, in which counties and communities. We want to find the geographic areas where these carbon-storing trees can also promote increased access to green space, support public health, provide corridors for migratory species, or act as a buffer for pollutants flowing to the Chesapeake Bay. Showing on a map where and how public values concerning environment, economy and human health may or may not converge across a landscape, provides an additional opportunity for us to call attention to frontline communities, those disproportionately impacted by climate change, and highlight vulnerable ecosystems that warrant further protection.  

While policy goals act as helpful directives and scientific tools provide critical information support, the most difficult decisions come from questions of practice. How and where should the work be implemented? Who has access to the proposed programs and activities? What gets included as “valuable” in the final calculus? Scientists are in a unique position to inform these difficult conversations by the data they collect, the structural relationships to which they assign meaning, and the diversity of perspectives they invite to inform their analysis. Without intentionality, our efforts to evaluate and inform policy may be misleading or unintentionally biased toward the values of those with the most political power. Science itself does not prescribe a particular action; that is where ethics enters into the frame. Scientists, however, can create opportunities for the consideration and implementation of justice if a consciousness is cultivated as we practice science. Who and what we include in the analysis says something about our values.

As a scientist, I am always looking for ways to improve public policy with good science. But as a Christian and citizen, my responsibility goes beyond that–and as someone who has spent years in climate advocacy, I am often reminded of our need to demonstrate that we care about policy decisions, that we are concerned about who is impacted, and that we want to know what information (scientific or otherwise) is being used to guide proposed actions. We also have a responsibility to consider how our own actions influence the expected outcomes. If my disregard for creation harms my neighbor, how can I say that I care about their wellbeing? If I am willing to support an environmental policy that protects economic growth but further marginalizes the poor, how can I say that I am seeking justice? When we make these issues personal, we draw from our own powerful stories of awareness and conviction.

In that sense, perhaps we all have the opportunity to be a kind of “geographer” as we give unique meaning to the places and spaces and relationships that shape our concern and drive us toward environmental justice.


Rachel Lamb is a PhD Student and Flagship Fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, Rachel serves on the steering committee for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and teaches environmental policy courses at the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. Rachel’s professional expertise is in cultivating interdisciplinary strategies to combat climate change that simultaneously address ecological, economic, and sociopolitical concerns.

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