Joel Scheraga: EPA’s climate change leader embraces unexpected career path

Joel Scheraga, senior adviser for climate adaptation at the Environmental Protection Agency, tells Federal News Radio why he’s honored to be public servant.

Tell us something about your job that most people don’t know or realize.

I think most people don’t realize how rewarding my job can be. I get to make a positive difference in people’s lives every single day, and I get to interact with those people in communities all across the country. I get to listen to them, learn about the things they care about and value in their daily lives, and then I get to work really closely with them to protect those things in a world where the climate is changing — to protect those things for themselves, for their children and for future generations. Public service is an honor and a privilege. If you do it right, it can be incredibly rewarding, and the thing that keeps me going is knowing that I can make a difference in people’s lives.

Joel Scheraga is the EPA's senior advisor for climate change. (EPA, Eric Vance)
Joel Scheraga is the EPA’s senior adviser for climate change. (EPA, Eric Vance)

How does your job connect the government with citizens in a more efficient or effective way?

Everything I do in my job on a daily basis is about protecting the things they care about in their daily lives. It’s about protecting public health, the environment, the economy, even our lifestyles that we’ve become accustomed to in a world in which our climate is changing. We now live in a world in which the Earth’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, faster than anything society has had to adapt to in the past. This changing climate is affecting the things we care about in our daily lives. My job, working with my colleagues at EPA, is to help people all across the country anticipate, prepare for and increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change. It’s about ensuring that investments that communities make with scarce taxpayer dollars to protect public health and the environment in their communities will be effective even as the climate changes.

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For example, if a community in a coastal area is building a facility to provide safe drinking water for its citizens, my job is to help inform them about the risks that rising sea levels and more frequent storms and storm surges can pose to those facilities, so they can go invest those taxpayer dollars in a facility that will in fact be protected and effective even as the climate changes. I like to say it’s about smart government. We have an opportunity to prepare the nation for the future in a smart way, and it’s exactly that opportunity that keeps me awake at night.

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It’s exciting because we’re already making a difference. It’s incredibly rewarding when you see a city like Boston anticipating rising sea levels so that the billions of dollars they invested to upgrade their Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant are effective and ensure that the facility is in fact protected over its lifetime as the climate changes. Even closer to home, it’s especially rewarding when you see your own community making smart investments. I live in Maryland, and just the other day it was invigorating for me to hear a local developer describe how he’s using more permeable materials when he paves parking lots to limit the amount of runoff of harmful pollutants into our rivers and streams and sewer systems whenever there are intense storms, exactly the sorts of storms like those that are already occurring more frequently with climate change.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your  job with the government?

The best thing I’ve in done in my career with the government is making a difference in people’s lives in several different ways. That certainly starts close to home right here in the workplace. I’ve been very privileged over my career to work with and learn from some very talented and dedicated colleagues here at EPA and across the entire federal government. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me to help many of those friends and colleagues grow in their careers, especially young people.

Looking beyond the federal government, I’ve also gotten to meet and work with people in states and tribes and local communities all across the country. I’ve had the privilege of working with them and gained a real appreciation for the things they value and cherish, and then partnered with them to protect those things in a world in which the climate is rapidly changing. It’s about them and what they care about.

Finally, I particularly enjoy working with students. They’re the next generation and it’s rewarding to mentor them in the same way that very special people took the time to mentor me throughout my career. More and more these days, I get phone calls from students all the time asking me about the work we do at EPA and how they can have the opportunity to do similar work. I always drop everything that I’m doing and take time to work with those students.

What’s the best piece of job related advice you ever got?

The best advice I ever received came from my dad. When I came out of college I never dreamed I’d be working on the issue of climate change, and I certainly never imagined I’d end up being the senior adviser for climate adaptation at the EPA. In fact, I was going to be an astronaut. I ended up here because of my dad. When I was in college, I vividly remember my dad telling me that when he was my age, if anyone had ever told him he would end up doing what he did later in his career he would have laughed at them. Unexpected doors and opportunities opened up for my dad throughout his career. What he was conveying to me was that if he hadn’t had the courage to be adventurous and take risks and go through the doors, he never would have achieved the successes he did. My dad advised me when I was pretty young to never be afraid to pursue unexpected opportunities when doors opened for me. I heeded his advice. I went from an undergraduate degree in planetary geo-physics when I was still hoping to become an astronaut to a Ph.D. in economics. I immediately went into academia as a professor and again, I never envisioned working for the federal government. It was the furthest thing from my mind. But when the opportunity presented itself, I took it, and I’m sure glad I did.

The second best piece of advice I ever got came from a close family friend when I was a teenager. He told me to never lose my idealism, and I never have. I’ve maintained that enthusiasm and belief that I can make a positive difference in people’s lives throughout my career, and I really think that has helped make this entire experience I’ve had at EPA and the federal government much more enriching for me.

Read all our coverage of the 2016 Public Service Recognition Week.