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When Victoria Keener was starting her environmental career about a decade ago, one of her mentors told her that scientists are either innovators or connectors. The innovators are the ones on the cutting edge, advancing their fields, while connectors are the ones who can bring people together across different silos.

“At the time, I was like ‘Oh, crap! I’m a connector,’” Keener said.

Like many others, she wanted to be an innovator. As her career advanced, however, she realized there is innovative work to be done as a connector — and that solutions in the fight against climate change rely on building those bridges between otherwise segmented sciences and industries.

 

 

That’s a critical part of her job now as a senior research fellow at the East-West Center in Manoa and a research professor at Arizona State University, where she co-leads the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program.

As a principal investigator, she works with a team of seven social and physical scientists researching ways to apply climate science and data to decision-making in the Pacific region. They provide information to policymakers at local and state levels when elected leaders have to make big decisions addressing climate adaptation and mitigation, for instance.

Victoria Keener Pacific RISA
Victoria Keener leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists who translate climate knowledge for county and state leadership. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

In her role, she connects politicians, natural resource managers and community organizations to scientists and academics – all in an effort to initiate climate solutions. The Pacific RISA team comes with a diverse background in the sciences as well, enabling them to approach climate change more holistically.

In fact, Keener finds that gaps in knowledge between differing fields are where there can be the most growth.

“The sticking points in being able to make changes, especially when addressing big problems like climate, are that we have siloed ourselves into these situations where we’re not sharing information and collaborating,” Keener said.

Victoria Keener Band Shredd Papaya
Victoria Keener and her sludge metal band, Shredd Papaya, have been playing local venues since 2014. Courtesy: Victoria Keener

She co-authored the Hawaii and Pacific Islands section of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an authoritative report on the impacts of climate in the U.S., and has been a member of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission since 2018.

When she’s not leading her team on projects, Keener can be found hiking, snorkeling or free diving. To blow off steam, she is also a drummer in a sludge metal band. And even though she bikes everywhere to cut down on her own carbon emissions, you’d be remiss to think she’s writing songs about coastal erosion or drought.

“I can’t think about climate change outside of work because if I did, it would totally overwhelm me,” Keener said.

Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Keener was always interested in how things worked. She’s wanted to be a scientist for as long as she could remember and spent a lot of time hiking and fishing with her dad. Fascinated by nature, she played with insects and even raised praying mantises, something she still does for fun today. In another life, she says she would’ve been a naturalist like one of her heroes, E.O. Wilson.

Victoria Keener East West Center E.O. Wilson
In her office at the East-West Center, Keener has a photo of her and world renowned scientist E.O. Wilson. His work inspired her to become a scientist. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

As the world’s lead expert on ants, Wilson’s work enchanted Keener at a young age so much that when she saw him give the keynote speech at the IUCN Conservation Conference in 2016 in Honolulu, she teared up.

“He was someone that really impacted how I see the world and the importance and joy of life,” Keener said.

She originally started her undergraduate career in biomedical engineering but working with live mice examining disease made her want to switch fields. Instead, she became engrossed by the way natural resources work together to service people and ecosystems. After getting her doctorate in hydrology and climatology at the University of Florida in 2010, her interests in climate change grew along with her desire to work within an interdisciplinary team to address it.

Fortuitously, she was hired by Melissa Finucane as a co-investigator at Pacific RISA in 2011. The former program lead says that it was Keener’s curiosity and compassion that really shone. Not only was the candidate deeply knowledgeable about climate science but she could also bring people together for a common goal.

“You need physical scientists who are open and curious about people because humans are complicated,” Finucane said.

From Mayors release. Mayor Kirk Caldwell responds to the Fourth National Climate Assessment with right, Chief Resilience Officer Josh Stanbro, far left, Honolulu Climate Change Commission Vice Chair Dr. Chip Fletcher, who is one of the authors of the Hawaiʻi and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands chapter of the report, and Honolulu Climate Change Commission Member Dr. Victoria Keener, who serves as the NCA Chapter Lead. The Assessment, released last Friday by 13 federal agencies including NOAA, details a multitude of current and future impacts of climate change in Hawaiʻi and the broader U.S
Keener is one of the climate experts tapped by city and state policymakers when they make decisions about climate change mitigation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Finucane is a trained psychologist specializing in understanding how people take different information and use it to make decisions. As a decision scientist, she looks into all the factors that influence the choices people make, asking why we do what we do.

“Climate change is complicated because there’s so many different perspectives and so much uncertainty,” Finucane said. “The future could go in many different directions depending on what people choose to do in terms of their behavior.”

When addressing sea level rise, for instance, people can choose to retreat, build a seawall or both. It’s in that thought process that people like Finucane and Keener really have to dig in. What climate change adaptation and mitigation solutions make the most sense to the affected communities? That’s an issue in many places across the Pacific that are dealing with the effects of climate change at faster rates than other parts of the world.

The Pacific RISA team has been facilitating peer-to-peer climate knowledge exchanges, where they bring county officials from across the state and country together to learn more about climate action happening in other places. For example, Kauai county did an exchange with the City of Boston to see how the latter was dealing with sea level rise and zoning ordinances. The team will be hosting another of these exchanges as a part of Hawaii Climate Week 2023.

Victoria Keener Climate Protests 2017
Keener and some of her Pacific RISA team at a climate protest in 2017. Courtesy: Victoria Keener/2017

Keener calls this the more exciting part of her career because she gets to witness people making connections, but it can be a lot of work.

She keeps a little blue Post-it on the front of her Dell computer that reads “SAY NO.” Needing to focus on her current projects sometimes means waiting on new collaborations.

“There’s always something to do,” Keener said.

The Pacific RISA program is centered around the people who need information the most, Finucane said. Instead of putting their own reports and models at the center of understanding climate change, they put people at the center. To the team, it’s not just about knowing the science behind what’s happening, but also the context around the choices. What are the opportunities, constraints and timelines needed to address people’s real world problems?

Drone shot of Molokai shore
Increased sea level rise is one of the climate impacts most affecting Pacific island communities. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“We want to understand the people that are affected and have the tools at their disposal to try and shift the needle,” Finucane said.

Before Finucane’s departure to the RAND Corp., she imparted some of her sociology and psychology know-how to Keener, even though those fields can sometimes seem separate, because using both sides of science is foundational to what her team does today. It’s seen in the program’s leadership structure, for instance — Keener co-leads the program with Laura Brewington, a geographer with a background in conservation science and policy.

By the end of her career, Keener hopes that the Pacific islands will be more resilient. In a perfect world, she said, everyone would have access to clean water, shelter and food and live in a more sustainable way where communities feel empowered to make their own decisions.

“On a very basic level, I want to look back and know that the things that we worked on helped make a more just world for people in the Pacific,” Keener said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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