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Q&A: Michael Lazarus on taking the helm of SEI’s U.S. Center

A 25-year veteran of SEI-US, the new Centre Director envisions growth, expanded research areas and policy engagement, and innovations in analytical tools and capacity-building.

Marion Davis / Published on 25 February 2015

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Michael Lazarus
Michael Lazarus

Center Director


Michael Lazarus, who became Centre Director on Jan. 1, has built his career at SEI. He joined the U.S. Center in 1989, when it was housed at the Tellus Institute in Boston, focusing on reform of the U.S. electricity sector and on energy planning and climate change mitigation capacity-building, using SEI’s Long-range Energy Alternatives Planning (LEAP) tool.

In the early 2000s, after moving to Seattle, he turned his attention to state and local climate action, working with stakeholders in nearly a dozen U.S. states. In the past decade, he has also worked extensively on international climate policy, including carbon markets, and served on the Clean Development Mechanism’s Methodology Panel. Most recently, he has focused on what he calls “the vast gulf between energy policy and climate policy” – in particular between the push to exploit fossil fuel resources and support for a transition to a low-carbon, green economy.

Q: What led you to apply for the Centre Director position?
ML: I care deeply about SEI and the U.S. Center, and I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to help it grow, in size, in global impact, and in workplace vibrancy and fulfilment. I have been with SEI since its inception, and have stayed on for three core reasons: the mission, the colleagues, and the ability to continuously reinvent and stretch oneself that SEI offers. SEI is great place to work, to explore intellectual passions, and to translate insights into policy change.

Michael Lazarus with SEI Executive Director Johan Kuylenstierna at an SEI-US seminar last October.
Michael Lazarus with SEI Executive Director Johan Kuylenstierna at an SEI-US seminar last October.

Q: What are your goals as director?
ML: Among my initial goals are to diversify our research capabilities, attract new talent, and increase our presence in both academic and policy-oriented publications. Ultimately, I want to amplify our collective contributions at the intersection of science and policy, where SEI fills a unique and highly valued role. That said, I see goal-setting for the Center as a very interactive process that builds on the ambitions and talents of our team, and we’re putting a number of steps in place to strengthen that process.

One of SEI’s greatest strengths is the breadth of our knowledge, skills and perspectives. We have a well-recognized global presence, at the level of international processes (climate, energy, water, etc.) as well as among national, regional and local institutions and policy-makers. The U.S. Center is home to one of the top experts on climate equity, as well as some of the world’s most widely used energy and water planning software tools (LEAP and WEAP), with a global capacity building-programme. We also work closely with stakeholders and policy-makers in the states where we have offices – Massachusetts, California and Washington – to guide state and local water, energy and climate goals and policies.

Q: How big of a domestic impact does SEI-US have, and do you think it should be greater?
ML: Impact is the ultimate objective of much of our work, but it’s always elusive to measure progress towards it when your main contribution is research and advice. I think it’s fair to say – and I’ve heard this from our partners in government and the private sector – that SEI’s work has been influential in several arenas in the U.S.

Our climate-neutral Seattle study, for example, formed a basis for the city’s goals and plan. We’ve been supporting Washington Governor Inslee’s efforts to establish a carbon pricing mechanism, though it’s still too early to tell where that will lead. Our Water Group colleagues are engaged in analysis that could help address some of California’s more contentious water struggles.

In general, engagement in our nearby policy contexts generates the insights and experience that makes our national and international work much more effective. That local-international connection is what makes SEI-US rather unique, as well as a great place to work.

In that context, it was gratifying to see the debate and attention generated by our Keystone XL analysis. The broader aim of this research is to encourage more careful consideration of policies that can spur greater extraction and trade in fossil fuels. For too long national climate policies, in the U.S. and in many other countries, have focused almost exclusively on reducing fossil fuel consumption, with little attention to the lock-in and market effects of major investments in coal, oil, and gas supply infrastructure, and the policies that support them.

Q: What other U.S. Center activities are you excited about?
I’ll just note a few. Our Water Group is using “robust decision support” frameworks to engage local planners and stakeholders in identifying key vulnerabilities and finding solutions. I’m hearing great things about its applications from California to Colombia, and the related visualization work is quite impressive.

We’re also ramping up activities in the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) this December in Paris. For example, our LEAP team is helping several developing countries to prepare their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). Sivan Kartha has created a powerful Climate Equity Reference Calculator tool that both Parties and observers can use as a common platform for rigorous assessment of the INDCs.

In my own work, I’m excited to co-lead our recently launched SEI Initiative on fossil fuel supply and climate change mitigation. It’s an effort that epitomizes SEI: teamwork across five centres (U.S., Oxford, Nairobi, Bangkok and Stockholm) and collaboration with partners in specific policy venues (U.S., Norway, South Africa) on cutting-edge, policy-relevant research.

Q: How will you balance your very substantial research agenda with your CD responsibilities?
ML: Very carefully! The U.S. Center management model is highly participatory, and the distribution of responsibilities allows me to free up time for the hands-on writing, analysis and presentation work that I love. Most important, I’m fortunate to have gifted and dynamic colleagues here in Seattle and across SEI. I’ll continue to work closely with them on carbon markets, fossil fuel supply, climate policy, and the role of cities in climate change mitigation. My new responsibilities offers them a chance to take on added leadership roles, as well as to add new colleagues. We have a couple of active job postings that we hope to fill soon, and are always open to bringing on new and dynamic researchers.

Learn more about the U.S. Center »


The SEI-US team at a staff retreat in Davis, CA, in November 2013.

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