In Spotlights

Juliet Christian-Smith, Senior Climate Scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists

Juliet Christian-Smith is a Senior Climate Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists‘ Western States Office. She was recently named an “expert to watch” on climate, energy, and water issues by News Deeply. She works at the intersection of climate and water issues on a range of topics from the water-energy nexus to sustainable groundwater management. To learn more about what she is working on at the moment, check out her blog.

Because western water management is in the midst of a paradigm shift driven by climate change, which requires transformational and systemic thinking, Juliet loves to collaborate on big ideas. To this end, she has co-authored numerous books and peer-reviewed articles, including Sustainable Water: Challenges and Solutions from California (UC Press 2015) and A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy (Oxford Press 2012).

What environmental issues are of most concern to you?

California’s recent struggles with record drought followed by a record wet winter highlight the growing consequences of climate change, with far-reaching implications for how the state manages its water supplies. Scientists have long warned that global warming would contribute to greater extremes – both wetter wet periods and drier dry periods, essentially “weighting the dice” toward disaster. And we are already living it with the inverse tragedies of Porterville (thousands of dry drinking water wells) and Oroville (where nearly 200,000 were evacuated due to fears Oroville Dam would fail). Unfortunately, our physical and institutional infrastructure continues to plan using the past as a guide. We need to re-examine how we build, operate, and use our water resources to better prepare for a future that is fundamentally different than the past.

Discuss any mentors that have helped or inspired you to reach your aspirations.

I have been lucky to have a number of important mentors, including my graduate advisors Louise Fortmann and Adina Merenlender who introduced me to the wild world of Western water issues. My first boss, Peter Gleick, helped me think more critically about the unspoken assumptions that underlie many of our water management decisions. And, finally, my current supervisor, Adrienne Alvord, has helped me truly understand what it means to work at the intersection of science and policy – connecting the right information, to the right people, at the right time.

What do you think are some challenges and opportunities facing women in the environmental movement today?

Water management tends to be a highly technocratic field led primarily by engineers. This raises a couple of important challenges: 1) engineers tend to have very focused training, which often does not include social or ecological sciences, and 2) engineering has been a heavily male-dominated field (in 2013, women accounted for only 23% of those awarded graduate degrees in engineering, while women accounted for 46% of graduate degrees in sciences and engineering disciplines as a whole). Water is the ultimate connecter – connecting the mountains to the shores, connecting above ground to below ground, carrying contaminants from one place to another, across cities and farms and between states and countries. In other words, water is a system in which actions taken in one place or for one purpose will have cascading impacts, affecting many other places and many other people. Managing water, therefore, requires connected thinking to consider the multiple physical, natural, and social dimensions of management actions and policy solutions. To meet our 21st century challenges, the environmental movement and the water industry in the west needs more experts and decision-makers trained in interdisciplinary and systemic thinking.