Peter Erickson

Peter Erickson in Seattle. Photo: Emily Yehle / SEI.

  • Q

    Back when you were studying, what did you think your career would look like?

    A

    I’ve always been interested in physical science and how it connects to the natural world and people’s lives. As a geologist, the most lucrative career tends to be in the oil industry. But that really wasn’t appealing to me.

    So I started by working at the community level. I worked in social services with homeless youth; I worked on a vegetable farm growing organic tomatoes and melons and zucchini; then I worked in environmental consulting at a local scale.

  • Q

    What drew you to SEI?

    A

    I was struck with how rigorous and deep SEI’s work was in looking at climate change questions. And I met Michael Lazarus, who described how he saw that work: finding the important next steps in climate policy, tilling that ground, and figuring out where the conversation is going, to develop technical and scientific aspects before the rest of the world gets there. That way, we can define and shape the conversation and policy framework to make the world more equitable, more just, and more sustainable.

Five seated participants and a speaker at a podium at COP23 Fiji, UN Climate Change Conference, Bonn 2017.

Peter Erickson (first seated from the left) at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany. Photo: Berit Kristoffersen.

  • Q

    What kind of work do you do?

    A

    I work on fossil fuels and climate policy, from different perspectives. Climate change issues are fossil fuel issues, and that realization leads to interesting research questions about how we address what is so embedded in our economy, especially with the fossil fuel industry having so much power. There are all kinds of approaches and analytical tools we can use from economics and physical science. There are also huge social dimensions of how the fossil fuel economy persists, and of course the political dimensions too.

    What I love about SEI is the freedom and the imperative to look at questions from multiple angles, and to really dig deep. I also appreciate SEI’s focus on gender and equity. Using that lens is not a given, especially in more technical fields – and people aren’t necessarily trained to do it. It brings in important dimensions, and I’m trying to build it in more with my work.

  • Q

    What’s your approach to communicating your research?

    A

    Even though SEI’s mission is about bridging science and policy, public audiences – including the media – can also be important routes to induce policy change. Sometimes that happens in unexpected ways. For example, there was a reporter who rang me up after reading something we put online. She ended up writing a whole story motivated by our work, and it ended up being a front-page story in a major international newspaper. So you never really know what kind of impact you’re going to have. People can find our work in ways we don’t expect – not because we sent out a press release, but because we wrote something that was clear, and understandable, and important in the moment.

    Interacting with the media can also be strategic. In 2018 I went to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, during the height of debate about the Canadian government buying an oil pipeline to help it get finished. I had some new research to present and was invited onto a prime-time TV show on CBC. I was slotted right between the national environment minister and the leader of the Conservative party in the oil patch of Alberta. They have different views, and it was fun to be a part of the discussion – and, hopefully, help change some mindsets about expanding oil development in Canada.

  • Q

    Could you give another example of the impact you’ve seen from your work?

    A

    Over the last year I’ve worked with policy-makers in California around their oil, and how oil production relates to the climate. It’s so important from a scientific perspective, and there’s also the perspective of the people who live next to oil wells and feel the immediate health effects.

    That work we did in California was recognized by the Governor at the time, Jerry Brown, who mentioned it in a press interview in Washington D.C. Other senior policy-makers in California have said to me – or said publicly – that this work has been influential. They made a workshop around it in Sacramento – the state capital of California – in August. So we’ve really helped shape and define the conversation, and I think it’s largely because of our interdisciplinary perspective and focus on bridging science and policy.

  • Q

    What advice would you give to new employees at SEI?

    A

    If you’ve just started at SEI, take some time to scout out other interesting researchers here. If you approach them in a curious way, you can build those relationships across the institute that end up being very professionally rewarding. I also recommend going to the Science Forum to meet people and get a good perspective on what the institute does.

    I’d also say: don’t be afraid to be bold in your thinking. The great upside and opportunity of SEI is that you can be ambitious and chart your own path. Obviously it’s still a job, and there are constraints – but think big. We need you, and the world needs you.