PICS after six: a Q&A with Tom Pedersen

- Valerie Shore

After six years as executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), which is hosted and led by the University of Victoria, climate scientist Tom Pedersen is moving on to other opportunities. “It’s been challenging at times but it’s always been fun,” says Pedersen. “I took this job because I wanted to build something, to make a difference in an area I feel passionate about. I think we’ve made some progress.”

In a recent interview with The Ring, Pedersen reflected on his years with PICS:

What was your first task when you took the helm at PICS in 2009?

To build consensus about the direction of the institute. It’s taken time to do that and we’ve been very careful not to alienate anyone, including the fossil fuel industry, which is represented on our external advisory board. It’s very helpful to have insight into the industry’s perspectives. 

The research mission of PICS has shifted timespan. Why did it shift?

The five original research themes were good ones but lacked an integrated focus on solutions across disciplines. By early 2012 we realized we were having limited policy impact. We were too diffuse, trying to be all things to all people in the research world. 

What did you do?

We refocused. We came up with five major projects, each addressing an issue of compelling importance to BC’s future—natural gas, carbon management in forests, energy efficiency in buildings, transportation futures for BC and integration of the Western Canada electrical grid. It took a lot of time and effort to get the community to agree, to build the teams, to put the key questions together and to fund them. 

How far along are those projects?

The five teams are already producing some leading-edge research and policy recommendations geared toward a low-carbon, prosperous BC. It’s an exciting time.

Why is an interdisciplinary approach important?

We’re not going to make any progress on climate change unless the knowledge we provide in support of solutions considers social, economic and physical implications. For example, we can’t say “Let’s change our vehicle fleet to electric” without thinking through the cultural, behavioral and infrastructural changes needed, and the costs. We have to consider how all these things fit together.

What other PICS initiatives stand out for you?

We’ve produced 29 white papers on a wide variety of solutions-oriented issues aimed at government decision-makers. We’ve funded 91 young graduate fellows who are investigating a range of climate-change related research topics. And our popular intern program has placed 84 students from the four PICS universities in a wide range of government and NGO climate-related jobs for four-month terms.

What about public education and outreach?

This is a big part of our mandate. I’m very proud of the online climate science courses, Climate Insights 101, which were a joint effort with our downstairs neighbours, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium. Our popular Climate News Scan offers a weekly analysis of major climate-change related news for BC decision-makers, businesses and the general public. And we hold multiple public events—82 in the last two years—almost all of which were live webcasted.

What challenges lie ahead for PICS? 

We need to maintain our momentum while navigating a shifting political landscape. And we must vigorously continue to communicate issues and solutions to the BC public. Our research program will soon yield a broad array of policy-relevant results. It then falls on our politicians to act on the new knowledge. I like to think optimistically that they’ll run toward the better future in front of us.

What do you think will galvanize political and societal action on climate change?

We must elect wiser, more visionary leaders. On that front, the results of last month’s federal election give us hope for Canada. But in general, global action will happen only when broader society “gets mugged by the realities of climate change,” to quote former US foreign secretary George Schultz.

Do you get the sense that people are overwhelmed by the scope of the climate change problem? 

People often hear about the doom and gloom of climate change but they don’t hear enough about the opportunities— to do things better, to generate new economic opportunities and to move toward a more sustainable society. We have all the pieces to do that.

What’s next for PICS?

Our new research program is firmly focused on BC’s future. We’re widely seen as constructive, non-partisan and able to produce high-quality research. Recognition for PICS is strong nationally and we’re working hard to strengthen our international presence. I’m happy with where PICS is now. I think it’s the right time for me to step out of the picture and for fresh thinking to take PICS to a higher level. 

What’s in the future for Tom Pedersen?

In the near-term I plan to write a book on BC’s climate action agenda. It will address two simple questions: Why did BC become a climate action leader? And how did we get here? I’ll also be devoting more time to the Canadian Climate Forum, which I’ve chaired since July 2014. Beyond that, we’ll see.


In this story

Keywords: Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, climate, sustainability

People: Tom Pedersen

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