Featured C+Ser: Whitney Peterson

Photo by Arezou Paksima

By Nadav Gazit, Climate and Society ’13

Whitney Peterson couldn’t have ended up any further from New York after C+S than her current position. It’s not just space that separates Peterson, a 2010 graduate of the program, from the city. It’s her surroundings, too. Her life might be vastly different 7000 miles away in American Samoa but the skills she gained from the program inform her work everyday.

Her journey to American Samoa started before C+S when a growing passion for the environment was sparked during her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her undergraduate studies provided the spark but it was through the C+S program that provided key skills. “Although I had a fairly solid policy background, the expanded knowledge of climate science as a result of the C+S program has proved critical to working in the field,” Peterson said. “I was able to sharpen my knowledge of those subjects while expanding my interests even more to include climate adaptation policy.”

Regional Dynamics, Climate and Climate Impacts, one of the core courses of the program, was one of the most enjoyable for Peterson and proved to be very helpful in her current position working as a climate change specialist with the American Samoa Governor’s Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG). “Focusing on the interaction between global climate change and regional data allowed me the ability to see how climate information can be gathered and used in local planning and policy, which has been essential in my work in American Samoa,” she said. Her favorite elective, Climate Change Law, expanded her previous interest in policy and adaptation and was crucial in understanding how law can be used at the international, national, and regional levels for both mitigation and adaptation, which has been an asset in her current position.

Peterson’s work at CRAG runs the gauntlet from reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a variety of initiatives with the American Samoan government to providing education and outreach about climate change. “The most recent projects that I have been working on include the Territorial Climate Change Adaptation Framework,” Peterson said. “This Framework contains a number of prioritized adaptation projects that the Territory will be working on to strategically implement over the next several years in an effort to adapt to the many impacts of climate change.”

Peterson also works closely with communities. “The nature of the close-knit island culture here in American Samoa provides great opportunity to meet with community members, implement actions and see change occur quickly,” Peterson noted. “As Climate Change Specialist, I’ve been able to go out into the community, meet with the mayor and members of the Climate Resilience Taskforce, and assist them with brainstorming and outreach efforts to fully understand the way that climate change will impact many core issues in the community.”

Peterson’s work is truly at the nexus of climate and society. Coral bleaching, shifting ecosystems, saltwater intrusion on aquifers and ocean acidification are long-term threats to American Samoans’ way of life while seasonal shifts in El Niño affect rainfall and hurricane tracks. Working with communities to understand those changes and adapt to them is exactly what the C+S degree was designed for.

“The best advice I have is to keep an open mind! It’s great to enter the program with a specific goal or idea, but be open to developing new ideas and changing your mind as you get deeper into the coursework,” Peterson said when asked for words of advice for current and prospective students. “Although C+S is a relatively short program, there is still ample time to learn and discover new interests, which may change the course of your career. You may even get as lucky as I did, and have the opportunity to work with all of your interests at once!”

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