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Climate Change Work Comes in Nearly as Many Types as STPF Fellows

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A snapshot of STPF alum Ana Unruh Cohen. | Ana Unruh Cohen

Though few would venture to describe any discipline of science as “simple,” the study of climate change and its multivariate impacts surely ranks high on the complexity scale.

Despite, and possibly because of, the many formidable challenges and unknowns, a deep roster of AAAS Science & Technology Fellows (STPF) have committed their livelihoods to the problems presented by climate change. Fellows represent an extremely broad spectrum of scientific backgrounds, including engineering.

Chris Frey, who started his career in government as a 1991-92 fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, was tapped in September to lead its Office of Research and Development. Having served as a 2013-14 fellow at the State Department, Farhan Akhtar now serves at the agency as a senior scientist on the Subcommittee for Global Change Research, which coordinates climate change research for the federal government. At the Department of Energy, Tanya Das is now the chief of staff for the Office of Science having served as a 2017-18 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow in the office of Senator Chris Coons.

A lifelong habit of studying a broad range of sciences and complex processes was particularly good preparation for physicist-chemist Rod Schoonover’s fellowship in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 2009 to 2011. He left his tenured professorship at California Polytechnic University to join the agency after his fellowship. Since resigning from government in 2019, he has joined the Council on Strategic Risks as head of the Ecological Security Program.

“As a physicist, I can say that modeling the Earth and all of its complexity turns out to be comparatively easy compared to understanding what people and systems will experience as a result of climate change,” Schoonover said. Could a particular nation be destabilized by a natural disaster or a political response to that event, and if so, how? How does heat affect food production, aquaculture, even antimicrobial resistance—and how do the ramifications of those shifts affect people, populations, and institutions?

“Policymakers want to know the wheres and the whens. Without that information, we can only talk in broad strokes,” he said. “The intelligence community often just took what the scientific community gave them and sprinkled some security on top of it. Now, we’re talking more with scientists about what the U.S. national security needs are.”

Similarly, in her role as staff director for the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in the US House of Representatives, Ana Unruh Cohen said virtually every sector of the economy or society is affected by climate.

“Climate solutions need to touch on everything,” Unruh Cohen said.

Unruh Cohen joined the STPF program as a fellow in the office of Congressman-turned-Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) after completing her Ph.D. in earth sciences at Oxford University. Growing up with an environmentally active chemist father, she said she’s had a lifelong interest in the intersection of environmental impacts on humans, and the social systems that influence natural resources decisions.

In building a massive recommendations report for Congress published last year, Unruh Cohen said it is easier to list committees that did not receive climate recommendations.

“Labor, education, finance – we sent recommendations to all of these committees that people may not think are core to solving the climate crisis, but are important,” she said.

While pollution has gotten a lot of attention, policy still lags in adaptation and resilience. An increased emphasis on integrating support for equity and justice for communities that have suffered environmental and climate injustice over the decades is also critical, she added.

On the other end of the career spectrum, Anjuli Jain Figueroa just started as an Energy Justice Fellow in the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the Department of Energy. She is working on the DOE’s Justice40 initiative, an executive action by the White House to ensure disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of the benefits of climate investments and research. Among her duties is assisting with creating definitions for common yet vague terminology frequently invoked in Justice40 efforts, such as “federal investment” and “disadvantaged communities.”

Growing up in Costa Rica and with family living in water-challenged slums in Nicaragua, Jain Figueroa had an early interest in the impacts of poorly maintained infrastructure. Working on her Ph.D. in water resources engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she described a clarifying moment while working abroad in India that highlighted the complexity of climate decision-making.

While researching land and water use in India’s Krishna Basin, she observed that the ministry of agriculture and the municipal water system offices were located in the same building. But they didn’t seem to coordinate or talk to one another, she said.

“It really highlighted how the issue wasn’t just about natural changes, but also about human behavior,” Jain Figueroa said. “Understanding more about who has authority over certain decisions really motivated me to want to look more at policy.”

Amanda Fencl is also just beginning their STPF fellowship, with the Millennium Challenge Infrastructure, Environment and Private Sector Division. At University of California, Davis, Fencl studied marginalized communities’ access to water in California during the last drought. The communities she worked with were often just beyond the boundaries of municipal water systems and relied on private well sources—which are increasingly drying up as long-term western droughts deepen.

Listening is at the heart of how she approaches her work—and leveraging the cross-cutting applications of her training as a geographer.

“In California, the biggest takeaways for me were about representation and stakeholder input,” Fencl said. “There are tradeoffs between economic growth, agricultural use, and water security for households.”

Fencl added that inclusivity is also a key focus of her upcoming fellowship work.

“If you don’t shift who is in the decision-making room, then you end up reinforcing and replicating a lot of the inequities in the system,” Fencl said. “To sustainably and equitably achieve economic growth and alleviate poverty—that’s challenging. We want our climate investments to be smart, robust, and sensitive to a range of futures as far as what we know of the science.”