“Identity and sense of place” – that is what climate change threatens to take away from us, said Laura Petes, the chief of staff for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
On Oct. 17, in the John J. Hemmingson Center auditorium, the Gonzaga University Center for Climate, Society and Environment hosted an event in which Petes spoke about the real-world importance of the integration of science within government policy through the lens of anecdotes throughout her career.
With nearly 100 people attending in person and more via Zoom, the attendees were able to witness the intersection of understanding climate science and making policy around that, according to Brian Henning, director of the Climate Center.
Early in her post-doctoral years, Petes studied at the Florida State Marine Laboratory focusing on a major drought in the southeast of the United States that was severely impacting Florida’s declining oyster industry.
Petes said she remembers feeling powerless as a scientist.
“I knew what was happening and I knew what thresholds could be used to inform water management, but it wasn’t like me as a post-doc at this one lab was going to fix the waterworks of Georgia and Florida,” Petes said.
Petes said she began talking to the harvesters and the local seafood industry whose livelihoods depended on the oysters to better understand how she could be helpful to them. She said that this quickly led to her volunteering as a science advisor.
“It made me feel more useful to directly engage with people who were being affected by what I was working on,” Petes said. “I think we’ve all had stories like this where places that we love … are fundamentally changing in ways that you’re like, is that even recognizable to me anymore?”
Driven by her empathy for communities impacted by climate and the environment, Petes said she began her journey with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the federal government during the Obama Administration, focusing on the use of science to support the implementation of climate policies capable of significant positive change throughout the country.
Throughout her presentation, Petes said that scientists are the connection that policymakers have to the best science to be able to make a difference.
When Florida issued a disaster declaration to the federal government regarding the severe drought and the suffering oyster industry, Petes was the first choice by NOAA to assess the scientific validity of the declaration. Due to Petes’ assessment, Congress granted Florida the declaration which enabled the same harvesters Petes had worked with years before to be able to feed their families.
Henning said that it was a very impactful moment for him because he got to use his knowledge to inform something in the real world.
“When our country decides to, we can really do hard things again and focus on the problem, so it gives me hope and I was really excited to see that,” Henning said.
Kris Hatley is a staff writer.