The Role of Statistics in Sustainability Research

M. Haran, R. Nicholas, and K. Keller

Essay contribution for Math Awareness Month (2013)


Human use of natural resources has enabled tremendous economic growth, but has also negatively impacted ecosystems that sustain human life. The design of sound risk-management strategies hinges on a scientific understanding of the complex ways in which economic choices impact the environment. The example of fossil fuel consumption provides a useful illustration. At present, fossil fuels are often less expensive than renewable energy sources, but there is a trade-off between short-term and long-term costs. This is because fossil fuel combustion releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to the warming of the planet through a process first identified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896 [1] and understood in increasing detail through scientific efforts in recent years [2]. Future climate change associated with anthropogenic (human activity-induced) greenhouse warming is projected to carry considerable costs, ranging from impacts on agricultural yields [3] to increased flooding [4] to reductions in labor productivity [5]. Understanding these trade-offs involves building mathematical models to analyze the interplay between our actions, current and future states of the climate, and ways in which climate affects natural and human systems. Mathematics and statistics are central to these analyses.

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