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Torah and science come together for UArizona climatologist

Gregg Garfin, Ph.D.

Growing up in the 1970s it was almost impossible not to be surrounded by environmental movements. The first Earth Day was held in April 1970 and many people were concerned with saving forests and protecting the air, land, and water from pollutants. Gregg Garfin, Ph.D., was no exception.

Garfin, 62, was born and raised on Long Island, and would spend most summers in the mountains north of New York City where his grandparents had a home. “I had a chance to go up to those forests and walk around the country roads and see tall pine trees and play around in streams, so I had a real affinity toward saving that,” he says. “That’s kind of what got me started in doing environmental work.”

Although he knew where he wanted to go in life, Garfin wasn’t quite ready to jump into higher education right out of high school. He took time off to explore his spirituality more deeply. He was raised in a Jewish household, but in his 20s, he became a bit disaffected with Judaism and took up Buddhist meditation.

Garfin recalls a retreat where the teacher talked about the Buddhist way of life and Buddhists’ history of persecution. “I can remember this thought coming into my head, ‘Gosh, I wish I was part of a wisdom tradition that was thousands of years old where people overcame such adversity,’” Garfin says. “And then the very next thought was, ‘Duh, you are.’”

Nevertheless, some time passed before Garfin fully embraced Judaism. He finished his studies, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography and geology at the University of Massachusetts. He took courses in hydrology, forestry, and climatology and became fascinated by how climate changes over time and how events happening far away can strongly affect the climate close to home.

Garfin came to Tucson to complete his doctorate in geosciences at the University of Arizona. As he was finishing his studies, his mother fell ill. He and his siblings talked about what they should do when she passed. Nobody was sure what her wishes were, so Garfin sought advice from a synagogue in the town where she lived.

“I walked into the synagogue and it was way different than the synagogue that I had grown up in, which was much more Conservative,” Garfin recalls. “The first thing that was different was that when the service started one of the rabbis strapped on a guitar. It was more about inviting the congregation to take part in the service and in the interpretation of the Torah passage.

“It was really quite a revelation and that sort of sparked an interest to be more connected with my Jewish roots and to see those connections with the kind of work that I was doing,” he says.

One of his first projects after finishing his doctorate involved drought preparedness.

“There is a lot the Torah has to say about drought and the prophetic voice, with Joseph prophesizing a bad drought, then planning and preparing for it so that people could get through the hard times,” he says. “I saw that profoundly in my work in drought planning. It felt so rewarding to have that connection between my spiritual life and upbringing and the work that I was doing as part of my 9 to 5.”

After getting his Ph.D., Garfin worked for the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at UArizona and then spent about a year engaged in adult Jewish learning on the East Coast.

“Gregg is earnest, intensely dedicated, serious, and thoughtful in his approach to life,” says Katie Hirschboeck, emerita associate professor of climatology at the tree ring laboratory. “Gregg’s faith commitment underlies how he lives his life, nurtures his love for nature, and energizes his environmental advocacy.”

Sinking his roots into Tucson 

When Garfin moved back to Tucson, he started working for a program called Climate Assessment for the Southwest, which was a part of what is now the Arizona Institute for Resilience.

“I have been part of the institute for the last 20 years, and starting in 2010 I became a faculty member in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment,” Garfin says. “Most recently I’m also director of the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is a program funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, which is part of the Department of the Interior.”

Garfin’s research focuses on working with different kinds of people who need climate information to make decisions, such as urban planners, ranchers and farmers, water resource managers, or public health officials. He was the lead author on the chapter on the Southwest for the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report to Congress that came out in 2018. This report summarizes the impact of climate change on the United States now and in the future.

“I’ve known Gregg for about 20 years,” says Robert Varady, UArizona research professor of environmental policy and immediate past director at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. “Our academic interests overlapped. He works really hard, and because of the timeliness and significance of what he studies, he is much in demand and seems always stretched thin, since he tends to accommodate most requests for his expertise.”

Garfin’s commitment to Judaism engendered a deep belief in the concept of shmita, that the earth and land need a rest.

“We’re ceaselessly extractive, and the results of that is that not only do we not give the land a rest, but we’re not giving the atmosphere a rest.” Garfin says. “And all of that has implications through climate change with changes to the weather patterns, the ocean temperatures, what happens to wildlife and sea creatures, and our ability to feed ourselves.”

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism