June 26, 2018

The Interdisciplinary Scientist: Juan Declet-Barreto’s Career as a Geographer and Environmental Social Scientist

Posted by Danya AbdelHameid

Climate change isn’t just about melting ice sheePhoto of Juan Declet-Barreto ts and rising sea levels. It’s also about people. Learn more about how climate scientist, Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto, is tackling the social, ecological, and human health dimensions of climate change by re-imagining the relationship between scientists and the communities they serve in our latest Paths Through Science.

Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto, grew up in the suburbs of Puerto Rico, but this didn’t prevent him from recognizing at an early age that some communities in Puerto Rico are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances and other environmental hazards.

“…There was something inherently unfair and inequitable about the level of exposure that many other Puerto Rican people were exposed to,” he said. “It always seemed to me that there must be a way to not burden so many people with so much [exposure to toxic substances].”

This mantra has driven much of Declet-Barreto’s career as a climate scientist working to increase the resiliency of communities vulnerable to climate change at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C. UCS is a national science advocacy organization that works to promote synergy between the science and policy spheres regarding issues of human and environmental health.

In this role, Declet-Barreto primarily works to determine the impacts that climate change will have on the occurrence of extreme heat events, or prolonged periods of high temperatures. These events are the leading cause of weather-related mortality in the United States and severely impact the most vulnerable populations and communities. Most recently, he worked to address extreme heat in Washington, D.C. in support of the Climate Ready DC climate adaptation plan, as a volunteer scientist with the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange program.

The Need for Empathy

In Declet-Barreto’s line of work, including relevant communities and stakeholders in the research process is just as important as the scientific research itself.

“…One of the key skills you need as a scientist… is being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” he said. “There is a [necessary] level of empathy and solidarity that you either have because it was instilled in you as you were growing up or that you developed…and certainly the textbooks and science are not going to teach you that.”

It’s not just about determining how climate change may impact vulnerable communities but working with those same communities to find solutions. Doing so requires gaining the trust of the community being impacted, a task that can be extremely difficult.

“Many of the environmental injustices and environmental hazard problems that these communities have are part of the story of broken promises,” Declet-Barreto explained. Science and scientists historically haven’t been the most trustworthy community partners and Declet Barreto believes that its necessary to be able to grapple with this legacy.

You can’t properly address the challenges posed by climate change and come to viable solutions if the communities you’re working with don’t trust you.

‘What Would Grandpa Do?’

Declet-Barreto has learned some of the skills necessary to grapple with science’s unfavorable legacy from mentors, some of whom do not the fit the bill of “traditional” mentors in the sense of an academic adviser or teacher.

“I think the key mentor in my life has been my paternal grandfather, whom I share a name with,” he explained. “His legacy, the things that I learned from him guide me morally and ethically, which makes me ask the question, ‘what would grandpa do?’ ”

Declet-Barreto also credits his graduate adviser, Dr. Sharon Harlan, for teaching him “how to engage truthfully and honestly with people.”

These mentors have guided Declet-Barreto and encouraged him to think critically of his role as a scientist in society, a topic that he urges all scientists to consider thoughtfully.

“My advice for somebody who wants to engage in a holistic understanding of the climate crisis and environmental hazards is to take different courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in both the social and natural sciences,” he said.

Tackling Climate Change Across Disciplinary Boundaries

Although we are generally inclined to think of different disciplines as separate and non-interacting domains of knowledge, Declet-Barreto emphasizes that such thinking isn’t reflective of reality.

“…the issues that we face don’t care about those boundaries,” he explained. “We need to have an interdisciplinary understanding of both the social and natural environment reasons why people are exposed to environmental hazards, why people are displaced by climate change, why people are exposed to toxic substances in the air…so that then we can build solutions.”

The full interview, a collaboration between AGU Narratives and Paths Through Science, is available on the AGU Narratives Community in the StoryCorps archive. To learn more about the AGU Narratives project and how you can get involved with AGU’s Centennial, visit the AGU Centennial page about StoryCorps interviews.

Danya AbdelHameid is the Summer 2018 Talent Pool Intern.