Adapting Chile: An Interview with Dr. Sebastian Vicuña, Executive Director of the Global Change Research Center at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

The Global Change Research Center was established at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (UC) in 2008 to address large-scale biophysical, community/ecosystem and socioeconomic transformations impacting the planet. Located in Santiago, it is an important resource for examining and responding to how global changes affect Latin America and, in particular, Chile. The center offers a variety of services including measurement and analysis tools as well as strategy and policy development.

The Global Change Research Center’s mission is to “promote (national and international) academic collaboration to investigate the phenomena related to global change, fully addressing the biophysical and human dimensions.” To that end, they strive to: 

  • Generate knowledge for strengthening national (and regional) capacity to address Global Change
  • Establish close links with the public and private sectors to effectively contribute to sustainable development of the country
  • Communicate and disseminate the results, raising awareness of individual and collective responsibilities in mitigating and adapting to global change.

 In this interview, Dr. Sebastian Vicuña, Executive Director of the Global Change Research Center, discusses how the center was established, its growing multisectoral partnerships and a current project examining the adaptation of the Maipo River Basin in central Chile to climate change.

 Q: How was the Global Change Research Center for Global Change at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile formed? 

A: The Global Change Research Center started in 2008 as a way to join efforts happening in isolation within different schools at the University – Agriculture and Forestry, Biological Sciences, Engineering and Economics. The professors in those schools were working on climate change issues and wanted to get together and do something bigger than what they were doing on their own. They got approval from the central administrative office at the University and received seed funding. I was hired at that point to be the first Executive Director. We also have an Academic Council and a President governing the actions of the Center.

Two years ago, we added the School of Geography to the group and we now represent five schools in total at the University. In 2008, when we were formed, was when the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the large international climate change conference – in Copenhagen was on the horizon and it was also right after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its Fourth Assessment Report; it was an intense time in terms of everyone trying to understand issues in terms of commitments to mitigation. We played a key role within Chile and worked on several countrywide projects trying to understand the positions that were made during the negotiation processes. The first year was productive and we have continued to work with the national government as we move forward.

It is also important to note that the name of our center is the Global Change Research Center, not the Global Climate Change Research Center, because we intentionally wanted to have a broad perspective on global transformations. Climate change is a key global change issue along with urbanization and biodiversity, among others. In practice, we have ended up doing mostly climate change-related work.

Q: What does the Center’s research focus on? 

 A: Since our formation, we have done a lot of applied research and public policy strategy. We work with industry and civil society as well as the public sector and some multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and divisions of the United Nations.

We have been very active in filling the niche of understanding climate change implications in the country. We work both in the mitigation and adaptation spaces though we have had more salient experiences with adaptation. We know how to deal with climate models and, although we are not climatologists, we have the tools to interpret and analyze climate change scenarios. That, in a nutshell, has been our experience over the past seven years.

Now, we are very involved in two critical things: First, we are in the process of figuring out how to make robust decisions in many sectors – We are not that interested in long-term impacts and threatening people – We prefer to work with people on the ground to implement strategies. Second, we also work on mitigation through long-term planning and scenarios. In this area, we delve into economic instruments like cap and trade and carbon taxes.

Q: Do you partner with other groups to do your work? 

A: We have other universities as partners. Some of these universities are regional and, whenever we do a local project, we try to get other local universities on board. That has been a very successful strategy for moving forward with our agendas for some projects. We also have international partners. Abroad, some of our collaborators include Columbia University, the University of Arizona and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). I am a Researcher at SEI and started working with them when I was doing my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to collaborating with universities, we work with both industry and the public sector. Please follow this link for a complete list of our partners, both local and international.

It has been critical for us to work across sectors. The possibility of having these broad perspectives defines and is critical to our work.

Q: What is the center’s relationship to local government?

A: We work with local governments, especially on water issues. For example, with water, the irrigation of green space is usually the responsibility of local government. We absolutely acknowledge that perspective and include it in our work. It is a big focus of what we do. We are a bridge organization bringing science to many aspects of decision making whether it involves local government or the private sector and industry.

Q: What do you think could help improve that relationship between academia and local government?

 A: Being present and humble during the research process and being a good listener to the needs of other organizations is key. At the same time, interacting with local government requires interest on the part of the researchers (and it’s not necessary for all researchers to be interested in this).

One thing you always find is that local government does not like uncertainty while researchers do not like not acknowledging that uncertainty.

Q: Can you describe one of the projects that you are currently working on?

A: We are engaged in a project, which we call MAPA, about producing a climate change adaptation plan for the Maipo Basin in Chile. It is important to note that the City of Santiago is located in the Maipo Basin and that it is a highly urbanized area. Therefore, all urban issues are key and very important – though there are also many other issues. This project is also very much about the rural urban interface. We received funding for the work from the Canadian International Development Research Center and we are in our third and final year. We are currently trying to secure funding to continue the work and it looks like we will be successful with this and we can move towards MAPA 2.0.

Project Context

Many different types of users live in and share the resources of the Maipo Basin. The City of Santiago is located the heart of the basin as well occupying a relatively large amount of space and growing. Currently, Santiago is home to over 6 million people. There are also a variety of impacts on the Basin coming from agriculture, industry, mining, hydropower, tourism, ecosystems and recreation. All of these actions together create a context where water is scarce.

In terms of demographics, the average family income is not homogenous; we can see that there are wealthy areas both in the Basin and the city. Overall, there is a trend for the urban areas to be wealthier and rural areas to be poorer. Looking at a map of the Basin, you will notice, although the City of Santiago is at the center, there is no central governance in the same way that there is in many U.S. cities (though not all of them).

In this way, we are a bit like Los Angeles; a large City surrounded by many governments – a large county with many smaller entities that are still considered part of Los Angeles. This is, for example, very different from New York City. This set-up also makes it an interesting and difficult challenge to implement policies related to regional systems like transportation or urban growth.

In terms of climate change, we have collected data from a station near downtown Santiago and can tell that there is a statistically significant trend of temperature increase.

Another trend shows an overall reduction in precipitation and, over the last six years, we have not seen even one year reaching average annual precipitation. Over time, we know that we alternate between wet and dry years, but six years with below-average annual precipitation is unprecedented. It also means that drought is an issue right now and is a concern for many of the stakeholders in the Basin. Other extreme events are also an issue. For example, a little while ago, high precipitation in the mountains led to sediment being deposited in a major river and an urban utility company was unable to take water from the river for its customers. This led to four million people not having access to water for a coup of days – a very dramatic situation. So you have the drought on one hand, but also short-term and sporadic events (that can have more of an impact than a structural drought).

To sum up the context, we know with certainty how the City of Santiago has been growing over the last decades with satellite information – it can be inferred that the city doubled its size in the last 40 years. It is unclear how much it will grow in the future, but we know that the population will grow and the trends now indicate that there will be densification of the inner neighborhoods of the city. This is because, in the past, the city has encroached on the agricultural land as well as the natural ecosystems in the mountains, which is problematic.


With that context, we formulated some of the key questions that guide this project. First, we started with the notion that nothing was known – we are starting from scratch because we wanted to see if there was a need for adaptation at all. In other words, we needed to understand future scenarios and impacts based on those scenarios. Not just for climate, but also for land use and agriculture, for example. Next, if that adapt was needed, we wanted to know who could and should adapt. We also wanted to know how much it would cost and how the adaptation would be funded. These were the research questions that guided the process.

Our main objectives are trying to articulate adaptation from respective climate change impacts on the basin, but also to understand the type of users. We need to understand vulnerability and resilience today in terms of current climate conditions. We also wanted to weight understanding of these issues that the stakeholders had.

Water Security

One of the main focuses of this project is water security. It is related to ecosystem services, but it doesn’t completely encompass the idea. For example, with our work, we can talk about the economic viability of a farmer and whether or not he needs climate insurance. On that topic it is harder to draw the line to ecosystem services.

We are facilitators, developers of information and tools, but we also believe that any plan should be conceived of and implemented by the users themselves. We don’t promise a plan, we promise the articulation of a plan. We have been responsible in that regard. That could change though if we had, for example, local funding. We could expand our capacity to do this planning work.

Scientific Coproduction Process

Another guiding concept has been the scientific coproduction process. By the moment we recognized that the issue was understanding the vulnerabilities of the users themselves, we also understood that any plan or policy as a result of our work would have to be implemented at the end by the stakeholders. We don’t do anything before we form a group of representative stakeholders; we make them part of this research from the beginning. That’s how we ended up constructing this group called the scenario building team. We have many stakeholders representing the public sector, the private sector and civil society all coming from different perspectives: mining, agriculture, city development, housing, water resources. For the most party, our civil society members represent environmental issues. We wanted to include someone representing water consumers, for example, but we couldn’t find anyone. We also have international involvement with The Nature Conservancy, an international mining company and ECLAC.

We agreed with this group to work on four main pillars of the project through a schematic developed by RAND – the XLRM approach. It is a generic framework for robust decision making. The key is the metrics of success, or, what we are aiming for. Different stakeholders will have different perspectives on what they value. There are also uncertainties and threats for all of the scenarios generated. The models allow us to go from these scenarios to the metrics for success. The final stage is when a metric is unsatisfactory today and in the future – we call on an adaptation measure to help fill this gaps. Climate variability can also be included in the process. This sets up the agenda for how we develop the different components of the project – we have spent the most time understanding these metrics of success.

Constructing Indicators

In terms of constructing indicators, we have to keep in mind that this is an ongoing process with stakeholders at different stages. We are currently working with them on constructing indicators and we have spent a year and a half on this. We started the conversation with one question: What is your vision for the basin in the future? What is your desired vision? We asked this question during an open process called open space, which is a specific methodology.

At first, we tried to connect the stakeholders to the concept of water security, a concept that drew in their experiences. Although this was our starting point, we went back to them and asked what they would infer was relevant form the concept of water security in terms of their own perspectives and the fact that they come from a variety of sectors. Beyond water security, another connection that needed to be made with the stakeholders was moving towards joining the concept of water security with the concept of human wellbeing. For example, water for socioeconomic development. That can mean water for irrigating a crop that is sold in America and that produces a couple of levels of wellbeing: someone who consumes the product and economic activity that allows someone else to have a livelihood. The final conceptual connection for the stakeholders was to tie these two previous concepts, water security and human wellbeing, to ecosystem services.

Our scope may seem limited because, although this is a basin with many functions, we were focused on water. However, we made the connection with ecosystem services including terrestrial ecosystem services as well. For example, the provision of water will be mediated by these terrestrial ecosystems. It is clear that many of adaptation measures will happen in relationship to terrestrial ecosystems.

Overall, those were the basic concepts that we worked on with the stakeholders from scratch. We moved them to think about some of these high-level concepts, but, in the end, everyone has bought into the process.

For more information about MAPA, click here.

Thank you, Sebastian!

image002About the Interviewee: 
 Dr. Sebastian Vicuña is Executive Director of the UC Global Change Center, a research center at the Universidad Católica de Chile. His research interests are related to climate change, water resources, hydrologic modeling and integrated watershed management. Related to his research interests, Sebastian is Lead Author of the 5th Report of the IPCC in the chapter on Climate Change Impacts in Central and South America and Coordinating Lead Author of the Second Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities (ARC3-2) in the chapter on Water and Sanitation Systems and was a Review Editor for the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Extreme Events in the chapter impacts. Sebastian is an Environmental Engineer from the Universidad Católica de Chile, in 2004 he earned a Masters in Public Policy and a Masters in Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and in 2007 he obtained a PhD in Environmental Engineering from the same university.