Network Member of the Month: Charles Lester

Charles Lester has been working in the California coastal management community for over 20 years, most recently as the executive director of the California Coastal Commission. He is currently a researcher at the Institute for Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

“No one of us is going to solve these problems. We’re going to have to do it together… That’s why I continue to be excited about things like this particular network, because of not only the challenges it’s trying to take on, but just the diversity of perspectives we need in order to take it on.” – Charles Lester

An interview with the Member of the Month:

What are you working on these days?
I’m a researcher at the Institute for Marine Sciences at UCSC, and I’m very interested in the challenge of adapting to sea level rise and this concept of resiliency. We used to talk about sustainability, now we’re talking about resiliency. For me, it’s all the same challenge, which is again, how do we balance our need to live and work and be productive and have a society that is fair and just, but also protect our environment and do that in a way that all of those things work together? I’m continuing to focus on those issues, and the challenges remain.

How did you end up working on coastal adaptation? What inspires you?
I’ve been working in coastal management for a long time, and I think it really goes back to when I was eight. My parents gave me a copy of Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder. I was always a science, kind of nature-child and really taken with the environment. I think that sense of wonder is what originally motivated me, and when I met this coastline, it just continued.  Underlying everything is just wonderment with this dynamic environment where sea meets land and land meets sea. I’m really interested in figuring out how we can live in the environment, not work at cross purposes or against it.

I’ve always been inter-disciplinary. I have an undergraduate science degree, geochemistry. That’s where I first learned about climate change, 30 plus years ago. I have an advanced degree in social policy and law, so I’ve always been focused on bringing those things together, and that naturally led me to my time at the Coastal Commission where you’re dealing with policy and law and the environment, and figuring out how to make that intersection work for the public. That was the other thing that brought me here: an overwhelming desire to work for the public interest has always been a professional motivation of mine.

What are the biggest new challenges facing the coastal management community?
The challenges are in many ways the same that we’ve always had: public access to and along the shoreline, protecting the natural environment from development, population growth and how to make sure that we’re maintaining the coastal economy in a way that is not overwhelming the natural environment. Many people see [sea level rise] as a new emerging issue, but in many ways we’ve been dealing with the problems of shoreline hazards, erosion, flooding, for a long time. Those issues have been there since the beginning of the coastal program and we know a lot about how to deal with them. Sea level rise, though, is a new challenge in the sense that the problem is accelerating. Climate change has meant that we can’t avoid some of these issues… We aren’t going to be able to just throw up sea walls and say everything will be fine, because it won’t.

What does success in coastal management look like to you? If we could achieve all your hopes and dreams for the coastline and how we live here, what does that look like?
People have different ideas of what success is, but for me [success is] an amazing environment that is still relatively unaltered from natural conditions, preserved for the public to use and enjoy, but also maintaining nature and the natural relationship with things. It’s also learning how to, again, live with that environment without coming up against it, so being able to adapt and learn from what’s happening. That’s something that’s becoming increasingly challenging, particularly with climate changes.

I’m inspired by the challenge of figuring out how we can live in our environment in harmony, not against it. I’ve always been inspired by the challenge of integration and bringing- not just people together- but people and the environment together in a way that’s harmonious.

What would you hope to see change in terms of our collective coastal management in California?
When I think about where we’ve been and where we are right now and how things might need to change in terms of our being effective at managing our coastlines, I think it’s really important that we continue to focus on the integrity of the public process and the ability of people to be engaged in our decision processes, especially in California. The Coastal Act was born out of Proposition 20. It was a public movement for public purposes for public resource protection. We need to remember that and make sure that the public and the public’s interests are the foundational concerns of what we’re considering and that’s what drives our decisions. People need to be able to participate in that process, so I think the focus on the integrity of that process is really important.

A second thing I think we need to continue focusing on is making sure that we have a diverse movement of people involved in coastal protection. Not just in California, but everywhere. That’s an area that the environmental community need to deal with broadly, which is making sure that everyone is able to participate and that it’s a diverse experience.

The last thing I’m concerned about, particularly now, is the ability of our federal system to continue supporting coastal management. Not just in California, but around the country, because that program at the federal level has been really important to California over the years and hopefully that’s something that’s going to continue.

What does resiliency mean to you?
We’re talking a lot about resiliency nowadays, and to me, resiliency is more than the scientific notion of the ability of a system to respond to a disturbance and bounce back. There’s necessarily some system state that you’re trying to achieve in assessing resiliency, and I think we have that in front of us now. We’ve always had it in front of us. It’s called the Coastal Act, and the values that we articulated that we want to protect in California: Public access, protection of natural resources, protection of amazing views, protection of cultural resources, protection of wetlands and riparian. All of those things contribute to resiliency and protection of the coastal economy. We’ve had these things in front of us for a long time. We know how to do a lot of it, but there are new challenges, so resiliency means continuing to do what we’ve been doing with as many people involved as we can.

Why do you belong to the California Coastal Resilience Network?
One of the really exciting things about California’s coastal management community is that there are so many different kinds of people involved with different backgrounds and different training. In my experience working at the Coastal Commission, problems were always solved in a better way and more effectively when you had different perspectives coming to the table and contributing, not necessarily as a team at work, but a larger team. I think any kind of network that’s focused on a problem like this one is, is going to help us deal more effectively with it because you have these different perspectives coming and interacting, and that’s really important for all of us to recognize. No one of us is going to solve these problems. We’re going to have to do it together. That’s why I continue to be excited about things like this particular network.