Podcast: Dr. Juliet Christian SmithMay 9, 2017
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Climate change pulls no punches. Not with the economy, not with the health of humans, not with air, not with land, and not with water. It absolutely means business, and so does this month’s guest who has built a career of researching and broadcasting the consequences of that last one. Dr. Juliet Christian Smith is the head climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, author of “A 21st Century Water Policy,” and editor of the journal “Sustainability Science.”
Publishing article after book after white paper, she’s raised the red flag and put a fine point on what the changing climate is going to mean for water resources in California and around the country. This woman’s work is not about alarm. It’s about bringing to light innovative and accessible solutions founded in good science and progressive policy.
Listen to the full episode above or read a sampling of the interview below.
Q: Where did you start from and what path led you to becoming a concerned scientist?
A: I think most children are kind of little scientists. I started off being interested in the natural world and was lucky enough to be encouraged in that pursuit. I have a very vivid memory in my childhood of spending summers on an island off the coast of Maine where they had a marine ecology lab, and I spent a lot of time there with the scientists. The island didn’t have piped water, so there was a cistern on top of the buildings. Every year we it would be different, whether we got one or two showers. Every morning you would get a pitcher of cold water and a pitcher of warm water, and that was what you got for the day. That was the drinkable water that they actually shipped from the mainland. It made me think about how resources are very finite. Particularly growing up on the eastern coast of the US, water scarcity wasn’t a huge concern. But I was aware that it was a very valuable resource, and that when you didn’t have it there wasn’t a substitute, from a very early age. When I was in school I decided to work on issues that intersected biology and government, and tried to understand how human systems manage resources. I worked on marine park management in the British West Indies and a lot of different things before coming to California for my graduate work. When I got to the west coast, the big issue was freshwater. There just isn’t enough, and I got very interested in freshwater ecology and management.
Q: A lot of scientists don’t choose to cross that line into the world of policy, most just stick with the science. Why did you decide, you know what, I’m going to go in?
A: I think it was a part of understanding that this was the way to real change. In many cases our natural environments are now managed my humans, and so if we want to change the management we have to deal with the human dimension. That whole world is very foreign for scientists and can be scary, but that’s the decision maker.
Q: So do you feel like you’re more of a translator, a connector, a pathfinder, or a little bit of all of those things?
A: All of them, definitely. I think out of all of the things, people usually think that the translation is the hardest, and we do have a growing set of tools to help scientists communicate about their work more broadly and those are very valuable, but in my experience the pathfinding has been the most challenging. Finding that point in time where a decision can really change the outcome of water management and land management, finding that lever in a particular piece of legislation and legal decision and making the right intervention at the right time with the right information, that’s a very difficult job.
Q: Are there ways that climate change is impacting our water resources that are currently going unnoticed by the media and the public?
A: Yes. One of the things that we’ve been looking at is the coverage of weather phenomenon. If you look at the media hits on some of our favorite weather systems like El Niño and La Niña, there’s a lot out there. There’s been a lot of coverage of those pretty temporary annual cycles. When you look at the coverage of how climate change as a much larger, much longer term game changer is affecting our water supplies, you get a lot less. So, we’ve been working to educate the media about how to connect the dots between climate change, the impacts that we’re experiencing, and our water policies. We coined a term to try to help people talk about it, which is La Madre. We’ve got the little boy and the little girl, but the big kahuna here is the mama and she is climate change, and she is bringing much more severe conditions. So we know that the drought in California is our most severe drought on record was made worse by the very high temperatures that we’re experiencing. We know that the snowmelt we’ve been seeing and even when we get snow it’s melting a lot faster and it comes a lot sooner. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but it does mean that we have much less water in the summer months when we need it.
Q: If people could only do one thing at the intersection of climate and water, what would you recommend?
A: One thing that people can do is write a letter to the editor of their local paper when their local paper covers a water issue and doesn’t mention climate change. When there’s a weather event that is connected to a warmer atmosphere driving more extreme events, specifically when there are actual studies that show that climate change has led to or worsened that event. Writing to your local newspaper and telling them that you want them to give the whole story, not just a piece of it, is really important because people can’t begin to address the problem before they know what the problem is.
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