As Amber Pairis, PhD ’05, and her colleagues organized the first National Adaptation Forum in Denver in the spring of 2013, she thought that at best perhaps 100 people might show up. So when they finally had to close the doors at 500, they couldn’t believe what they’d created.
Pairis, who earned her PhD in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England (AUNE) in 2005, has proved herself a force for progress when it comes to climate change. She’s now the assistant secretary for climate change in the California Natural Resources Agency.
In her work for the department, she has been integral in forging sweeping climate-change adaptation strategies, grown a group of stakeholders, and created an online climate college, among other things. That earned her the 2013 Alumni Environmental Excellence Award from AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies. But these things took time, patience, a talent for bringing people together, and the determination to do some good.
An Early Passion
The seeds of Pairis’ passion were planted early. Growing up in a little town in the mountains near Palm Springs, California, she was a kid who belonged in and to the outdoors. After getting her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she headed into the field where she spent three years working on remote Hawaiian Islands researching marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, and vegetation restoration.
Though she loved her work with endangered species, she recognized her desire to get a seat at the table to help inform policy and she embarked on a new adventure to AUNE. In the course of her AUNE studies, Pairis worked closely with military officials on Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Southern California to enact protocols that benefit both endangered species protection and military training goals while addressing large-scale land management issues.
“Antioch is a unique and special place that holds an important spot in my heart,” Pairis says.” During the time I was at Antioch I was given the freedom to pursue the education and experiences that would lead to a career that I love, a job that I am not only passionate about but also good at, and a sense of community that I am part of something bigger, not just at Antioch, but out in the world.”
“The faculty, staff, and students have created a community at Antioch New England that moves beyond the boundaries of a traditional education and created a space that honors the individual, a place that supports you as it pushes you out of your comfort zone, a place that nurtures values like commitment, honesty, and the importance of doing what is right for the greater good,” she says.
Drawing People Together.
Working in Washington, D.C., for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Pairis was the science and research liaison coordinating research and policy between state fish and game departments and federal natural resource agencies on science and research issues particularly around energy and climate change. She discovered quickly that if she were to have any impact at all, she’d have to figure out how to get people talking about climate change in a way that was not confrontational or political. And she did. In Washington, she learned not only the value of being able to bring together people, many of whom have differing goals and ideals, but also that she was good at it.
Pairis then moved on to the California Department of Fish and Game, where she was asked to start a climate program. The philosophy she brought to that task was that, for lasting and large-scale impact, the department would have to move beyond looking for new tools, resources, and research. Department managers would have to change the culture of the agency as well as the way they plan for management and stewardship. The only way that could happen was by building a coalition of people who really support mainstreaming climate change into everything the department did.
She started building that group, made up of both usual partners as well as those not normally invited to the table. She told them that she knew they had different missions, that she knew they were going to disagree, but that there was common ground and that was where they would start.
I said “if we could just focus on that, we can really do something amazing,” she says. “And we did, we really did.”
The group that started out with 20 organizations and agencies grew to 150 and helped to shape the biodiversity section of Climate Adaptation Strategy for the state of California. But she wasn’t done. She had an idea to offer an online Climate College open to the public. Then there was the forum, which brought together people from a range of industries, agencies and organizations.
“I’m really proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t really done it alone,” Pairis says. “I will know that I have been successful when they don’t need me anymore. When it’s just a part of the culture. Then I can sit back and say, ‘Okay, I’m done now.’”