A farewell Q&A with Dr. Sybil Seitzinger

Seitzinger receives an honorary degree from the University of Utrech in 2016.
Seitzinger receives an honorary degree from the University of Utrech in 2016.

Dr. Sybil Seitzinger joined the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions as its executive director in November 2015, bringing a wealth and variety of international experience in climate research. Now, after seven years, she will take her BC experience on an international adventure to gather and share knowledge around climate change.

Seitzinger was previously executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) which was based in Sweden and worked with scientists and researchers across Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe on global environmental change.

She holds a PhD in biological oceanography from the University of Rhode Island (as well as an honorary PhD from Utrecht University in the Netherlands), is an elected Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a member of the UN Global Climate Observing System steering committee.

She’s taking that education and experience on the road in January to visit nations in the Pacific, Asia and Europe that have experienced effects of climate change — and which expect to experience more — to study their plans for, and action on, mitigation and adaptation. She plans to share her findings during her travels using an online geographic information system (GIS) storybook. (Watch the PICS website for a link to that storybook once her research journey begins.)

Writer Richard Dal Monte sat down with Seitzinger to ask about her experiences at PICS, her advice to new director Dr. Ian Mauro, and what gives her hope in the sometimes-bleak-feeling field of climate change.

What’s the difference between Day 1 Sybil in 2015 and the Sybil who’s leaving PICS at the end of October?

When I came to PICS, I’d been working for seven years in a very large international network of global environmental change scientists — tens of thousands of scientists around the world studying environmental change, from climate change to water use to land use to oceans to atmospheric pollution. And both with my own research and when I was director of IGBP, the focus was problem identification. The last seven years at PICS were about solutions to those problems. And that’s what I wanted – to be working on the solution side of the problems. 

How does PICS, a consortium of universities in British Columbia, take a global leadership role in battling climate change — how can it have impact beyond BC’s boundaries?

First, climate is obviously a global problem.  We really need expertise around the world to address climate change and come up with climate solutions. And we need to share that knowledge because we’re all dealing with different versions of the same problem. At PICS, we can have international collaborators on many of our projects and money from PICS can go to support those international collaborations.

As well, the students and faculty we support have funding to share the knowledge they are developing through attending national and international conferences and to publish their work. So that’s another way PICS contributes to the global knowledge base. It’s critically important PICS continues to engage nationally and internationally because the solutions that our projects come up with are relevant at many scales and in many places.

What would you say are some of PICS’ successes during your seven years here?

One of my major goals when I came to PICS was not just about supporting the development of new knowledge for solutions, but the actual implementation of those solutions. So, everything that we fund has to be co-designed, co-delivered and co-implemented. We team researchers with what we call solution seekers. Those users have to be critically involved in identifying what the questions are that the research is going to address — questions that they need new knowledge to answer, to inform decisions and policies.  Solution seekers can be from government, municipal or provincial, the private sector, First Nations, or non-governmental organizations, for example. I think that is the greatest evolution of PICS.

Society at large has seen lots of graphs and tables and verbiage about climate change and now we’re directly experiencing the impacts — real, lived experiences — you know, wildfires, floods, sea level rise — it’s so important the work that PICS funds is not only ending up in peer-reviewed publications, but is actually having an impact and contributing to the development of policies and decisions by those people and organizations that can make change.

Also, when I arrived, we had no projects with First Nations. And now we have over a dozen First Nations involved in projects as solution seekers. For instance, the work that’s being done on kelp forests up on the northern coast of British Columbia with five First Nations was initiated by the First Nations. It’s been part of the increased commitment to reconciliation and awareness that we’re living on unceded territory.

We’re seeing solution seekers coming directly to us and looking for academics to help them address their problems.

What’s in the pipeline at PICS that you’re excited about?

One of our first projects under this model of co-designed, user-engaged research was with UBC and BC Housing. Together they developed a framework for the design of buildings that brings together climate mitigation and adaptation in multi-unit buildings.  Previously most of the design has been done looking at how to decrease emissions or how to design buildings that can withstand the impacts of climate change.  But in general, the designing of buildings that considers both mitigation and adaptation has not been done. And so this framework brought those two things together. And the success of this is that BC Housing is now incorporating the findings from the project into their way of building design. And there are other ministries and industries interested in using this tool as well. So a great success story of what we were trying to do — go from the research to the actual implementation and use.

Also, we have a project working directly with the City of Victoria to help them identify the most effective approaches to reduce emissions from the  housing sector to meet their climate reduction targets. 

And there’s Solid Carbon, one of PICS’ big Theme projects, which is investigating how to store atmospheric carbon dioxide under the floor of the Cascadia Basin as solid rock, and which recently had some exciting research results.  Our three current Theme projects are doing incredibly important work in mitigation and adaptation.

Susan Lozier, AGU president-elect, congratulates PICS executive director Sybil Seitzinger on being elected as an AGU Fellow.
PICS executive director Sybil Seitzinger receives congratulations from then American Geophysical Union president-elect Susan Lozier on being elected as an AGU Fellow in 2019.

Are you more or less optimistic about our ability to combat climate change than you were when you started at PICS?

Seven years ago, I think we were still at the stage of looking at numbers, looking at model outputs, talking about climate change. There was some coverage of it in the media, but not a huge amount. Over the last seven years, there’s been a huge increase all over the world in awareness that climate change is real and that there is essentially no one who is not going to be affected by climate change. And so the increased awareness and the action that I see being taken at all levels, from individual to international is very encouraging. 

On the less optimistic side, we are not going to escape from the impacts of climate change — we’ve waited too long — we all know that. The impacts — physical, financial, social — are going to be big. We must do everything we can to decrease the impacts and also to adapt to the changes we’re already experiencing, that are going to continue to grow.

What’s your message to Ian Mauro, your successor as executive director of PICS?

It’s been an incredible honour to be the executive director of PICS and it’s an incredible responsibility given the trajectory of climate change globally.  He knows that, there’s nothing new there. But ensuring that PICS stays on a road of truly having an impact in terms of supporting real change — in both mitigation and adaptation in the province — is, in my opinion, the most important thing PICS can do. It’s what it was established to do.

After seven years, how do you feel about leaving PICS?

My personal philosophy has always been, having been the director of three different institutions, that after about seven years, it’s time to move on and give somebody else the chance to make change and to bring their ideas to the fore… But at the same time, I’m sad to leave PICS.

It’s a wonderful institution filled with wonderful people. And interacting with faculty and students across so many departments in these four universities and beyond, plus learning from the wide range of solution seekers and learning from them … is just such an honour. I’m really going to miss that. At the same time, I look forward to my next adventures and where life takes me!