Profile on Gleick by A.J.S. Rayl

Peter H. Gleick, Ph.D.

Environmental scientist
Co-founder and president, Pacific Institute

Peter H. Gleick was born and raised in New York City, one of the grandest cities of them all, but he grew up there exploring the outside world, off the beaten concrete. For as long as he can remember, he’s been interested in the environment, and when he reflects on his childhood in Manhattan, it’s not skyscrapers, but nature, trees, and birds that surface in his memories.

He was born in 1956, the second of three children, to Donen and Beth Gleick. His father was a lawyer who dreamed of being a forest ranger; his mother wrote children’s books and was an editor of newsletters. As a young student, Peter attended public elementary school, PS 6, in Manhattan. But the weekends, especially in the spring and summer, were reserved for adventure, most often and most notably treks into the Rambles in Central Park with Dad to watch birds and wandering the beaches of Nantucket. Since neither of his siblings, nor his mother, was interested in bird watching, those outings offered father and son quality time that ultimately shaped Peter’s world.

When it came to guidance and direction, both Donen and Beth Gleick were inspirational figures in Peter’s life, always encouraging his curiosities and interests. There were also experiences, in particular three “influential summers,” each during his teenage years. At 13 and 14, Peter traveled to remote Northern Michigan for science camp, where he conducted field environmental work and began to get a real feel for how science is done. He loved it. Then at age 16, he spent a summer at the University of Southern California in a National Science Foundation program doing research on water quality.

Although his siblings were interested in writing and literature, Peter’s love for the outdoors, his adventures into nature with his father, and those summer experiences led him into engineering and science at college. When brother James was in his junior year at Harvard studying linguistics, Peter, in the fall of 1974, took up studies at Yale. No one in the Gleick family thought much about the Ivy League’s greatest rivalry.

It was a time of transition and change in America. The prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s had given way to the first energy crisis and a strengthening national movement to protect the quality of our water and air. Peter caught the wave of environmental awareness just as it was beginning to build.

In 1978, after receiving his B.S., cum laude, with distinction in engineering and applied science, Gleick headed west to the University of California, Berkeley, to further his education and research at the Energy and Resources Group. He would meet his future wife, Nicki Norman, there, when they crossed paths in the same master’s program.

While pursuing his M.S., Gleick also worked as a research and teaching associate with Professor John Holdren, who became his mentor (and fly-fishing instructor). “It was clear to me even then that water was an underappreciated and understudied resource, and a source of real future problems,” Gleick says. Holdren is now the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and President Barack Obama’s science adviser.

After receiving his master’s degree, Gleick was offered a job working as the deputy assistant for energy and environment to California Governor Jerry Brown in Sacramento. In this position, he learned the value and importance of science for informing and influencing policy, as well as the political limitations on using science in the public arena. In 1983, he returned to Berkeley to get his Ph.D. At a time when most people hadn’t even heard the term “global warming,” he was researching likely impacts of climate change on water resources for his doctoral degree, which he received in 1986.

Gleick’s dissertation turned out to be the first detailed analysis of how climate change would affect water resources in the western U.S. And, not too surprisingly, one of the world’s leading climatologists, Jim Hansen, the scientist dubbed “the grandfather of climate change” and a presenter at Nobel 43, Heating Up: The Energy Debate, in 2007, provided data integral to his dissertation. “That work really taught me how vulnerable our water resources are and how interconnected they are with our society, our economy, and our ecosystems,” Gleick says. It also made him want to continue his water research.

That same year, Gleick was awarded a post-doc fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation to investigate the connections between climate change and international security. During this time, he realized that what he really wanted was the opportunity to conduct research and write on interdisciplinary topics related to the environment. The only problem was that very few places in the mid-1980s supported truly interdisciplinary research. So, out of frustration and a youthful belief in pushing the envelope, Gleick and two friends from grad school began talking about establishing an independent research institute. “Our concept was rooted in this fundamental idea: that environmental issues are not purely technical or purely economic or purely political, but all of those things, requiring an interdisciplinary approach,” he explains. “That’s the way we were trained in graduate school.”

Of course, creating an interdisciplinary institute would be an ideal way to research and think and write about a broader vision for a sustainable world. But the notion of creating a new organization and securing the necessary funding to survive was heady, a little far-reaching in the eyes of some of their friends, and risky. But Berkeley prepared them well. “We talked about it for a year,” Gleick recalls. “We designed plans and looked at budgets and basically just thought about the idea.”

In 1987, the Ploughshares Fund, a small San Francisco foundation interested in new thinking about global security, took a chance. They offered Gleick and his partners a small, $37,000 grant. “It allowed us to put together a board of directors, get non-profit status, and start work, and that’s about it,” he says. But it was a beginning and they started by looking at climate change, environmental resources, and the risks of conflict, working out of a two-room cinderblock office near the Berkeley campus.

Sustained by his postdoc grant, Gleick burned the midnight oil. At the water’s edge, he and his friends decided to dive full on into the Institute. “Very quickly we got another research grant to do a climate change study for the Office of Technology Assessment, the agency that used to provide independent science advice to Congress. (Newt Gingrich led the campaign to close that office in 1995.)

Those first two grants helped launch the Pacific Institute. While his two co-founders returned to academia, Gleick stayed the course and hasn’t looked back. He continues to serve as the institute's president and director of its water program. Throughout the years, his work has led him to the top of the environmental science field and in 2006 Gleick was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The Pacific Institute, meanwhile, has grown to 20 employees and is now recognized around the world for producing some of the most authoritative and valued research and policy work on a very broad range of water issues, from the local to the global levels.

Today, Gleick is heralded as a one of the world’s experts on water, “arguably the world’s leading expert on water,” as the San Francisco Chronicle put it. Beyond the impacts of climate change on water resources and security, he has studied conflicts over water resources, the human right to water, and the problems of the billions of people globally who do not have access to safe, affordable, reliable water and sanitary conditions. In 2003, he was awarded one of the no-strings-attached MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants for his work on water resources.

While Gleick’s siblings took their literary skills into the world—James launched the weekly newspaper, Metropolis, in Minneapolis during the late 1970s, then moved on to the New York Times before becoming an internationally best-selling author in 1987 with Chaos: Making A New Science; and younger sister Elizabeth became an editor and is currently the executive editor at People magazine—Peter has taken his literary skills to the world of science.

The author of The World’s Water (Island Press), the biennial series on the state of the world's precious resource, Peter Gleick has published more than 100 journal articles, studies, and book chapters on water. He regularly testifies before the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, informing them of his findings and policy recommendations. He also serves as a major source of information on water issues for the media and has been featured in various documentary films, including Earth2100, Running Dry, and Flow: For Love of Water, which screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Gleick has taken his work home with him enough over the years that his family is ahead of the current green curve and already dialed into the new, “soft pathway” of thinking about the environment. He and Nicki, his wife of 26 years—who helps elementary school teachers teach science at a non-profit she helped start—have raised two sons, Daniel, 20, and Jeremy, 17, and together they have reduced the family’s water use, as well as its carbon footprint. They started simply, by being more efficient.

“One of the important points about water efficiency is that you don’t have to alter ‘lifestyle’ to reduce water use,” Gleick points out. “Outdoor landscaping often uses a lot of water. But you can have a wonderful garden that uses very little water and you don’t have to have a lawn. We just took out the last piece of lawn, put in nice paths, native plants, and a quiet seating area and we still have a beautiful garden.” The Gleick family has also installed a highly efficient washing machine and toilets, reducing their individual water use to “less than half” that of the average Californian.

While the forecast for water quality—and in some areas access to clean water—portends storms and rough seas as the world moves into the future, Gleick maintains the ballast with optimism. “If I let the problems overwhelm me, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do,” he says. “I take solace in small victories and pleasure in bigger ones.”

The last biggest victory was the passing of the National Water Research and Development Initiative, or HR 1145, by a vote of 413 to 10. “That's an indication of how important water has become and how non-partisan it is,” he says. “As for the failures—well, that just gives me more to do.”

In 1999 Gleick was elected an Academician of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway. He was named a “visionary on the environment” by the BBC in 2001 in its Essential Guide to the 21st Century and two years later received a MacArthur Fellow “genius” award from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Water Resources Association.

He currently serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security; the Committee on Climate, Energy, and National Security at the NAS; the Expert Group on Policy Relevance of the World Water Assessment Program, United Nations; the Human Impacts of Climate Change Advisory Committee for the EPA; the Climate Advisory Group for the California Academy of Sciences; the Climate Change Technical Advisory Group, State of California; Advisory Board, Environmental Research Letters; Editorial Board, Water Policy; and Editorial Board, Climatic Change.

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance science writer based in Malibu, Calif. She has written on assignment for a variety of magazines, including Air & Space, Astronomy, Discover, Reader’s Digest, and Smithsonian, as well as online ventures including the Planetary Society’s website, http//