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Laurence C. Smith | Brown University Climate Scientist | Author of Rivers of Power
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

How have rivers shaped—and disrupted—human civilization? And what will that intricate relationship look like heading into a global climate crisis? Dr. Laurence C. Smith, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and author of the recently released Rivers of Power, knows that to anticipate the future we must look to the past—and the sweeping natural history of rivers and humanity offers plenty of insight on society, economics, politics, and power.

“Smith has written a tour de force―a narrative as powerful as the rivers he documents. He is up there with Jared Diamond―a storyteller with real craft, and an academic career that makes him an important part of the modern revival of geography.”

— Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry

In Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World­, Smith explores the connection between civilization and rivers: sharing how we can trace back cultural and economic ties between nations and the migrations and histories of their people, to the topographic divides rivers and river valleys carve out in the world. Called “fascinating, eye-opening, sometimes alarming, and ultimately inspiring” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, Rivers of Power offers both a rich historical overview and future-forward approach. How will environmental issues like flooding and sea level rise affect the way we inhabit an increasingly uninhabitable planet—and what opportunities for innovative collaboration and problem-solving will they present? What role will bold new solutions like riverfront renewal projects, river diversion projects, and using rivers themselves as renewable energy, play in the process of adaptation? Smith presents a sweeping portrait of the intimate, unbreakable relationship between humanity and rivers.


In his award-winning debut The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilizations Northern Future, Smith envisions the future of a warmed planet; drawing especially from the groundbreaking research he and his team conducted on the melting ice sheet in Greenland. It was the first of its kind, and work that can “help scientists figure out how rapidly sea levels will rise in the 21st century, and thus how people in coastal areas from New York to Bangladesh could plan for the change” (The New York Times). It’s a work of enormous scope, cross-cutting themes of demographics, globalization, natural resource demand, and climate change. Will the combination of a booming global population, global warming, and rising sea levels mean major gains for the North? It’s science fiction—without the fiction. The World in 2050 won the Walter P. Kistler Book Award, was a Nature Editor’s Pick, and has been translated into 14 languages. 


Smith is currently the John Atwater and Diana Nelson Chair of Environmental Studies at Brown University, in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences (DEEPS) and Institute at Brown for Environment & Society (IBES). Previously, he was Professor of Geography at UCLA, where he held a joint appointment in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Science. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in leading journals including ScienceNature, and PNAS, and has won more than $9M in research funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA. A Guggenheim Fellow, Smith has assisted the National Academy of Sciences with a major report on abrupt climate changes; NASA with a new satellite mission to monitor global water resources; and the World Economic Forum with issues of Arctic development. His research has received coverage in outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New YorkerThe Economist, and many more. 


“It was quite a delight to have Laurence visit UNBC and be part of our Polar Week activities. His public presentation was excellent and at the level we were hoping for such an event. We particularly enjoyed the significant amount of Canadian (and even British Columbian) content that Laurence presented, this engaged the audience even further on the topic of change in the Arctic including northern Canada. It also had the social dimensions of change that many appreciated. Further to this, the visuals were stunning, particularly those images of Greenland. So it was quite an honour to have Laurence do this presentation and we wish to thank him sincerely for his visit to campus and the wonderful presentation he delivered.”

University of Northern British Columbia

“I just wanted to send you a quick message and thank you for the cooperation. It was a pleasure to have Laurence here, he made an excellent contribution to our opening conference and it was a pleasure to work with you in advance. Please find enclosed a pdf of the front page article from the leading financial daily here in Norway. Needless to say, we are very happy with that. The conference received excellent coverage and Laurence’s speech was very well received by the audience.”

Norweigan Ship Owners Association

“I'm deeply appreciative of all of the care you [Laurence Smith] gave to the many different dimensions of your time with us—the attention offered to guests at the dinner, the wonderful lecture, the generosity and openness with which you met students on Thursday morning. Some things that really stand out to me in reflecting on how you were present with everyone: your warmth and openness and the thoughtful regard you gave to every question and perspective that came forward were outstanding; the breadth of your interests and unique ability to value the many contributions of different disciplines, researchers, and approaches underscored a twenty-first century approach to deeper understanding and problem solving; your patience with each person who approached you and your willingness to give so much of your time and energy made a strong impression on many who met you.”

Friends’ Central

Speech Topics

Politics & Society
Rivers of Power Exploring the Natural History of Humanity's Ancient, Complex Relationship with Rivers
Rivers, more than any road, technology, or political leader, have shaped the course of human civilization. They have opened frontiers, founded cities, settled borders, and fed billions. They promote life, forge peace, grant power, and ca capriciously destroy everything in their path. Even today, rivers remain a powerful global force—and one that is more critical than ever to our future.
In this talk, geographer Laurence C. Smith explores the timeless and vastly underappreciated relationship between rivers and civilization as we know it. Rivers are of course important in many practical ways (water supply, transportation, sanitation, etc). But the full breadth of their profound influence on the way we live is less obvious. Rivers define and transcend international borders, forcing cooperation between nations. Huge volumes of river water are used to produce energy, raw commodities, and food. Wars, politics, and demography are jolted by their devastating floods. The territorial claims of nations, their cultural and economic ties to each other, and the migrations and histories of their peoples trace back to rivers, river valleys, and the topographic divides they carve upon the world.
Beautifully told and expansive in scope, Laurence’s talk reveals how and why rivers have so profoundly influenced our civilization, and examines the importance this vast, arterial power holds for our present, past, and future. 
Climate Crisis
The New North The World We’re Making

In this all-encompassing talk, Laurence Smith presents a vivid and timely projection of what the world might look like in ten years’ time. Here, Smith identifies key global pressures and trends, like urbanization, population aging, energy tech, water supply, immigration, and the rising economies of China, India and the developing world. He goes on to describe the emergence of a new geographic region, which he coins the “Northern Rim”—eight northern countries and their surrounding seas set to experience profound transformation over the next ten years, making the Northern Rim a place of rising human activity and global strategic value relative to today. A fascinating, cross-disciplinary talk, Smith gives audiences a glimpse into the future, and describes the world that we can leave for the generations to come—if we choose to.

Climate Crisis
Country of Ice The Beauty and Perils of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Why it Matters To Us All

This is not a talk just about climate change: it’s about the adventure and beauty of the spectacular Greenland ice sheet. In this thrilling keynote, Laurence C. Smith describes the rare breed of scientists who work on the sheet, and the story of three planes that went down there during the second World War (which his friend Dr. Alberto Behar helped to find again in 2012 after being frozen under the ice for 70 years; also the subject of the bestselling book Frozen in Time). Smith interweaves this compelling story with his research on the meltwater rivers flowing on the ice sheet and the physical and economic changes that are going on in Greenland today to describe why this extraordinary landscape matters to us all.

Politics & Society
Canada in 2022 The True North Strong and Warm?

This keynote contains valuable information for any Canadian firm eager for a forecast of the country’s future migration, natural resource shifts, and political implications of this new era. The image of a remote, sparsely populated, Canadian North might not be around for much longer. In this talk, Laurence C. Smith outlines how Canada will look by 2022. While some of the world may be worse off by 2022, Canada and a group of northern countries Smith calls the “Northern Rim” will actually benefit from a warming planet. Smith expects Canada will experience an uptick in settlement of barren lands, and heightened northern strategic values from newly thawed trade routes. Canada’s role as steward of the largest wilderness on the planet—with abundant water and other natural resources—will also come under pressure as demand for these resources increases with a swelling world population.