“The last two years have made climate change feel gut-level real”

Environmental scientist Professor Sophie Gilbert talks to The Biologist about quitting research and academia – just as she was given tenure – to find more direct and impactful climate-related work

Last year a brutal ‘heat dome’ fell over the American north-west – a prolonged heatwave that led to record-breaking temperatures of 40°C in Seattle, 44°C in Portland and almost 48°C in some rural parts of Oregon.

Driving through the heat dome with her toddler, unable to get out of the car for more than a few moments at a time, Sophie Gilbert knew she had to do something. The professor of wildlife ecology and management pledged there and then to do more to fight climate change directly. In April this year, just a month after receiving tenure, she left her role at the University of Idaho to join a natural capital-based start-up that incentivises landowners to grow and maintain carbon-rich forests in North America.

Gilbert is one of an increasing number of scientists feeling that even applied research cannot deliver the rapid change needed to save future generations from catastrophic climate change. She spoke to The Biologist’s Emma Wrake about her career pivot, and advice for other researchers feeling overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the environmental crisis.

Hi Sophie. Can you tell me when your feelings about the impact of your research career started to change?

During my PhD the message I was receiving all the time was that academia is the best thing you can possibly do with your mind, and if you're able to do it, it's the best way to contribute to society. I was inspired by my professors and was really enjoying what I was doing. So I continued onto the next step and did a postdoc at the University of Alberta studying woodland caribou and their conservation challenges, and that was wonderful – I have a really great network of collaborators in Canada as a result. And then I got a tenure track job, a golden ticket in academia, at the University of Idaho.

SophieGilbertCaribouGilbert's research focused on wildlife management and conservation, including the conservation challenges of woodland caribou

It’s a wonderful place to work, but as you jump through the career hoops you are always looking for the next hurdle to clear. And of course you hope that your work will be taken into account and applied. At the end of every paper on a wildlife management or conservation-oriented topic, we have this big section on what managers and conservation practitioners should do, and I would always try to be careful and thoughtful and make great recommendations – and they almost never happened. So there was a growing sense that this trickle down version of science that I was practicing was really not making the kind of impact that I'd hoped it would.

What was your ‘now is the time’ moment, where you felt a strong need to act?

Like many other folks of my generation, climate change was not on my radar as a child. During college, it became more apparent that this was going to be a really big deal, but it wasn't clear to me whose job it was to fix it. Then through graduate school, I told myself 'well, I'm helping towards the biodiversity crisis, which is deeply interwoven with the climate crisis, and so if I do good science, to help understand how animals respond to habitat loss and climate change, I'm doing my bit.' However, in the last few years, it became increasingly clear to me that climate change underpins all the other crises we're experiencing, and exacerbates them, from social inequality to war to loss of biodiversity – and that crucially, we have a very short window here in which to turn the ship.

Sophie Gilbert heatdome 1The historic and dangerous Pacific-Northwest heat dome of 2021 may become more common as the global climate changes (Credit: Accuweather)

I also now have a two-year-old child, and I think he's made the future feel very much more real. Caring about the year 2100 has gone from an intellectual exercise to a very physical feeling. Then there's been mounting impacts on all of our lives. We had the heat dome, where there were people dying of heatstroke on the streets – just mind-boggling stuff. My parents had to evacuate from a wildfire that got to within a couple miles of their home in California last year, and there are days where they can't go outside because the smoke is so bad. In any given summer that's just normal now.

Last summer really was the moment, driving through the heat dome with my toddler in the backseat and not being able to take him out of the car for very long, I just looked around and realised: 'Oh, my goodness, the world is literally and metaphorically on fire.’ I couldn’t just go and publish another paper that nobody's going to do anything with, I couldn't keep not doing anything.

It's become really clear to me that the time is now to act, but also that we have almost all the technical solutions we need – we’re just not doing it fast enough. It got to a point where I realised that if this is how I feel then I really must do something different.

You are now moving to a new role at the Natural Capital Exchange. Could you tell us a bit about what it entails?

I'll formally begin in June, and because I am inherently a nerdy academic at heart, I've already started thinking and reading and contemplating some of the problems I'm going to try and solve.

Fundamentally, they are a forest carbon company. They're focused on connecting landowners who are open to delaying when they cut down their trees to let those trees get older and bigger and store more carbon. They connect those people with corporate and other buyers who have worked to reduce their emissions and now have some remaining carbon emissions that they want to offset, folks who have net zero and other targets.

There's the strong possibility that if all we do is reward carbon in ecosystems, we could actually end up with quite unbalanced ecosystems, monocultures of non-native tree plantations where biodiversity is not really a part of the equation. I've been brought on board to help with some of their new crediting programmes, trying to do a rigorous job of mapping and quantifying biodiversity credits. We're also going to be trying to tackle fire-risk reduction credits, where perhaps the best thing to do is not let forests grow unchecked, but to do some strategic thinning and management so the standing carbon is less likely to burn down.

SophieGilbertUSForestGilbert will be working to ensure that biodiversity is considered with carbon crediting

                                                                                                                                                              It's going to be a really great opportunity to contribute directly and to learn a lot. Importantly, I think their approach has the opportunity to get pretty big, pretty quickly. As there are no acreage minimums and the time contracting is much shorter, it is much more accessible to small and medium landowners. Traditionally it's been 100-year contracts and 5000-acre minimums, and as a result, the forest carbon market has stayed very small.

This approach is making things more accessible so that not just rich people with enormous amounts of land can participate – although it is important for those people to participate too.

As someone leaving academia, do you still think academic research and research institutions can drive real change?

I’m sure [the impact people feel they can make] varies from person to person. I feel some of our biggest impacts are via the students that we're training – they're going to be the next scientists and managers of natural resources. But I was hired primarily because of research and I think that's the reality at many research focused institutions; they hope and want you to be a good teacher and mentor, but you are hired for your research abilities. I always did my best to help my students, but it really didn't feel like my vocation professionally.

I think of course we need to keep making progress on basic science, and there are some key applied questions that we don't yet have the answers to in terms of fixing climate change, for example, battery technology and direct air capture. But as an applied scientist doing science that I really hoped would be implemented and watching it not get implemented, academia did not feel like the place I was going to be able to make the biggest difference when it came to climate change and biodiversity.

Academic science is quite slow, which is how it should be. It’ll be a real learning curve to adjust to the iterated, learn as we go approach that that I'm going to be a part of.

How do you feel about working in a far more fast-paced, action-oriented organisation?

I am really excited to work on something fast paced but I'm also a little bit terrified, because finally somebody's actually going to do what I'm recommending! I've been making recommendations for years and nobody ever does anything, and that's classic academia. Now suddenly there's a whole team at my back to try to roll out and scale whatever it is we come up with, so it is both exciting and a bit scary – it really feels much higher stakes that what I have done in the past.

Do you have any advice for others who might be having similar thoughts to you, in terms of wanting to affect change more quickly than studying and publishing allows?

It took me about nine months to make the change from my-soul searching catalytic summer. August of last year was when I really got down to business and started taking active measures to make change. I started with a broad survey of what climate solutions are out there, and how important they are, relative to each other. Then, what are the big broad categories within those categories? What are the major areas of impact? The whole thing was very motivational and inspiring, to realise that there's this whole other world over there of just really bright, creative, motivated people working to solve this existential challenge.

By March, right around when I was getting tenure, I'd lined up my next step. I will say – there were certainly dark moments, but I really thought of it as a learning journey, and I think most academics love to learn. Change is hard and jobs don't fall out of the air into your lap, but I think that by treating it as a research project, just as we've all been trained to do, that that made it much more approachable for me.

I ended up having 50 or 60 informational conversations with people, ranging from NGOs, to government to start-ups and everything in between – people who were just working on interesting things that I wanted to learn more about.

For folks who've been in academia a while, I think it is easy to feel as though we're really specialised, so there's no way we could transition and contribute. Reading descriptions of some of the jobs I might want, it became clear to me that I do have a pretty great skill set that doesn't necessarily have that much to do with how much I know about moose, caribou or pika.

Changing from a one million page CV to a two-page resume was really enlightening and empowering. Suddenly, I had this document where I had to describe clearly and succinctly what I want and what my skills and experiences are. It was really difficult but it was also fun and at the end, I had this magical document that felt like a passport in these conversations. Finally, I think people would be very shocked by how many other people have made the leap. There's an enormous number of PhD holders now over there trying to solve climate change – and they're very understanding of what an academic might have to offer.

Most of us will only make incremental contributions – I’m not Jane Goodall – but there is a real peace to knowing my drips in the bucket are going in the right bucket. I feel that when my child is twenty years old I will be able to look him in the face when he asked why I didn’t fix climate change and at least have something reasonable to talk to him about.

Sophie Gilbert is a former assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Idaho soon to be joining the Natural Capital Exchange