Kathy Jacobs, A Remarkable Career: Integrating Science, People, and Policy

Katharine Jacobs, Director, Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona


What influenced you to pursue a career in science? Kathy Jacobs

I have always been interested in environmental issues, and especially in managing and preserving natural resources.  I was a biology major in college, and managed the small college greenhouse at Middlebury.  It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that my interests and skills really aligned, however.  The environmental planning program at Berkeley is in the Landscape Architecture Department, and it is focused on using the principles of design to solve resource problems while also managing the “people” part of the equation.  Looking back on it, I realize that my admissions essay was on the topic of integrating science with decision-making, and that has been the central focus of my entire career since then.  Interestingly, my daughter Ellen just enrolled in that same program at Berkeley; I hope that her experience there is as positive as mine was.  I loved the practical, hands-on approach to learning – it is a professional program, designed to teach real-world skills.  As it turned out, I actually used many of those skills in my career - after graduate school I lucked into an entry level position at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. I started at the bottom of the food chain and worked my way up to being the governor-appointed director of the Tucson regional office seven years later.  

I’ve learned most of the science that I use on a daily basis through on-the-job training, which I realize is somewhat unusual.  Many people think I am a lawyer or a hydrologist, but actually I learned most of my important science lessons in the “real world” from working collaboratively with scientists and through a series of National Academy panels and special projects like the National Climate Assessment.

Who are you at work and what does a typical workday look like? (Please introduce what you do as well.)

I have had a number of different jobs, primarily in the public sector and in academia, all of which have involved a leadership role.  Probably the feature that is most noticeable across the positions I have held at the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Arizona Water Institute, the National Climate Assessment, and now the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona (UA) is my interest in building a working community.  For example, at the Tucson Active Management Area of DWR – where I worked for 23 years (14 as the director) – my colleagues were also my close friends, and we had wonderful times together – memorable camping trips, sharing experiences raising our children, eating lunch together every day, etc.  I think it is fair to say that empowering people to grow to the fullest extent possible in their work lives is one of the things that motivates me most in my work.  I felt the same way about the team that we created to pull the third National Climate Assessment together at the US Global Change Research Program Office in Washington DC – we were all challenged almost to the point of breaking at times, but our internal staff had great esprit de corps.

Because I have had a wide range of positions over 35 years, ranging from an entry level water resource management intern to working in the White House running the National Climate Assessment and being a lead advisor on water science/policy and climate adaptation, it is hard to describe a typical workday.  I am now a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the UA, but my position is focused primarily on building the climate adaptation program and center rather than on teaching.  I do teach because I like to do it – but always in a team teaching situation, which gives me more flexibility.  My typical day has always involved lots of conversations with coworkers, students and external partners like water utilities, because I work collaboratively on virtually everything I do.  I find that the outcomes are always better, and the process is usually more enjoyable, sharing ideas and building consensus around solving problems.  I give lots of public talks and travel frequently to attend conferences and advisory committee meetings.  I enjoy writing and editing, which is good because having tangible work products on a regular basis is really important to me.  

The largest project within the CCASS Center so far has been building the Native Nations Climate Adaptation Program – which is focused on providing hands-on support to tribes that are implementing adaptation plans, helping them to integrate climate science information into their risk management strategies while supporting and honoring their culture and preferences.  I am particularly concerned about the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations, so this is a high priority project for me.

What is your response based on your work on the National Climate Assessment and the 2016 NAS report on attribution when someone (a non-scientist) asks about attribution of an extreme event and if human induced climate change bears any degree of blame?

There is now no legitimate debate about whether the climate is affected by human behavior – the evidence is clear from measurements taken on land, in the sea, and in the atmosphere.  So at one level, all weather and climate events are now influenced by anthropogenic emissions. And the question is really not whether climate change “caused” a particular extreme event.  Rather, the question is “to what degree did the intensity or frequency of this specific event change because the climate has changed?” As our National Academy of Sciences panel on Extreme Events noted, the answer to this question is largely based on statistics – how likely is it that this particular event could have occurred in the absence of climate change? We found that it is much easier to answer this question with extreme heat events, because they are directly related to global warming, than it is for tropical cyclones or wildfires that are influenced by a wide array of factors including natural climate variability.

Who are you outside of work?

My outside of work self is a lot like my work self – I am a very passionate person and have a lot of energy, so I am always working on projects and engaging with people.  I am an avid birdwatcher, and one of my favorite days of the year is going with friends to do the Audubon birdathon – 12 to 14 hours of birdwatching around southern Arizona with a few margaritas and gourmet hors d’oeuvres at sunset at the end of the day.  I also am kind of nuts about plants, and am known for being a bit over the top with house plants and gardening.  Several times a year I do wedding flowers for friends and family, an outgrowth of my strong attraction to working with flowers.  

Possibly the most important answer to this question is my life in Maine, which as of last year when I started a theoretically half-time arrangement with UA, involves four months of sailing, gardening, projects and hosting large numbers of friends and family in a constant stream of visitors (while taking conference calls on the side).  Our house in Maine is a 166 year-old farmhouse on the coast, with a fifth generation of family members joining us here this year.  Our granddaughter Camila, who is our older daughter Emily and her husband Mike’s first child, is almost a year old.  Being a grandmother is now my favorite part of my non-work life.

What has been your favorite work-related experience?

I’ll answer this question by saying that the work that I am the most proud of in my career is producing the third National Climate Assessment report and our collective contributions to building what we hope is a sustained national assessment process.  It was by far the most important professional contribution that I have made, primarily because it engaged people across the country in the process of scientific assessments in a new way and changed the dialogue about climate in the US.  I won’t say that it was my “favorite” experience because it was really difficult for a number of reasons, but it was an opportunity to use the skills I have built up over the years to address an issue of critical importance to our country and to the global community.

The Power of One: If you could thank only one person for academic or career support, who would it be?

I have been blessed by having a large number of influential people help me with my work and promote my career.  You all know who you are – but there is no single individual I would name above the others over a career of 35 years.  I will say, however, that my husband David Plane, also a professor at the UA, has always supported me in my professional life and made it possible for me to work as a full-time professional in highly demanding jobs while also raising two fantastic children. He also supported, reluctantly, my decision to go to DC for four years to work in the White House, leaving him baking in the Arizona sun.  In many ways he is the person I should thank the most for both academic and career support.

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

I am often asked for career advice, but honestly the major factors for me have been being absolutely emotionally committed to what I am doing throughout my career and being willing to work incredibly hard. So the best advice that I can give is to do something that you really love, and don’t be afraid to take risks in order to do the right thing. I did not plan to have the career that I have had, and would not have believed anyone who suggested it was possible – rather, I capitalized on a series of unexpected opportunities and followed the path to today.

Katharine Jacobs, Director, Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona

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