The Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) provides drinking water to 1.3 million people in its region, among other tasks. About six years ago, the management embraced the idea that climate change is an issue requiring sustained and focused attention. It is a technical issue and more, encompassing science, public policy, politics, and water management. Paul Fleming was tapped for the job of managing SPU’s climate resiliency program, leading climate research initiatives, assessing climate risks, developing adaptation and mitigation strategies, and establishing collaborative partnerships. He’s leveraged his knowledge and passion to participate in leadership beyond Seattle’s borders. He is an appointee to the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee, formed to oversee the development of the 2013 US National Climate Assessment (NCA), for which he is a Convening Lead Author of the Water Resources chapter. He is also a lead author of the Adaptation chapter. For two years, he chaired the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), a group of 10 US water suppliers collaboratively providing leadership in assessing and adapting to climate change’s potential effects. Fleming is also involved in the International Water Association’s Water, Climate, and Energy Program. He promotes adaptation, climate risk, and infrastructure management for water utilities when he speaks on water and climate change internationally.
What He Does Day to Day
Fleming spends most of his time communicating with colleagues at other water utilities, often those in WUCA, and NCA via phone and e-mail. “It’s a collaborative process, so there’s a lot of interaction as we work together to advance the sector’s knowledge of how to respond to climate change,” he says. Fleming says he also meets with SPU colleagues, “popping over the cubicle walls to have a spontaneous discussion on issues.” Fleming keeps abreast of news, such as a recent report on flooding in the United Kingdom and California’s drought. “I want to understand the attribution of climate change on the scientific side, but also how the media portrays climate change and its effects on the water cycle,” he says.
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What Led Him Into This Line of Work
Fleming’s interest in public policy dates to his childhood, which he spent watching the news and reading newspapers, absorbing issues that his father also followed.
“Public policy always interested me as a place where you can affect change,” he says, adding that he likes its service aspect. After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke University and an MBA from the University of Washington, Fleming had “an awakening associated with environmental issues” after moving to the Northwest. He has integrated that with his public policy concerns. Fleming worked on environmental programs for the Agency for International Development before becoming Seattle’s climate resiliency program’s point person.
What He Likes Best About His Work
Fleming favors his work’s “forward-looking” aspect: “It’s figuring out what do future alternatives plausibly look like and how do we prepare accordingly so we’re ready and resilient?” He finds the “unknown” aspects of climate change interesting and challenging, but uppermost in his mind is the responsibility water utilities have in managing the impacts of climate change so as to continue to provide services. The question is a relatively new one to the industry, whose players collaborate to figure it out in a dynamic situation with no guiding conventional rules, which appeals to him. Fleming also enjoys his world travels, meeting people working on similar issues. “It’s very eye-opening and rewarding,” he says. “It’s ubiquitous, but in some ways is hidden from large segments of society. The implications make it an exciting field to be in.”
His Greatest Challenge
Fleming’s biggest challenge in working with an agency that is responsible, at all times, for delivering essential services is taking what’s being learned in this emerging field and embedding it into how services are managed in a way that reflects future–not past–conditions. “Some of the information we’re getting is still hazy and opaque enough that it doesn’t have the kind of detail some of our decision-makers are accustomed to having when they want to plan a project,” he says, adding that water utilities may have to change the way decisions are made to reflect the current level of knowledge.