University of Guelph geography professor Barry Smit, a pioneer and world leader in research on the human impacts of climate change, is the 2013 winner of SSHRC’s highest research honour, the Gold Medal.
Smit is humble about his latest prize, despite amassing many prestigious awards for his work—including the Order of Ontario, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the Award for Scholarly Distinction in Geography from the Canadian Association of Geographers.
“There are many people in Canada doing work of this kind who, in my view, would be equally worthy of such recognition,” said Smit. “I see this award as affirmation for the field and the discipline in which I work.”
In 1980, Smit was one of a handful of researchers studying climate change. He admits that, at the time, even he didn’t realize the magnitude of the issue. His team was modeling the effects of climate change on agriculture when he was approached by two deputy ministers.
“They were saying, ‘This climate change thing looks serious. We want to know what it might mean for the Canadian economy, particularly sectors that seem to be affected,’” said Smit. “We were one of the first research groups to investigate the impacts of climate change on economic sectors and communities.”
Those analyses were the first of many. Smit has been a leader in developing the science and practice of adaptation to environmental change. His work has taken him to 68 countries and dozens of towns and villages in some of the most remote regions of the globe.
Today, Smit’s concepts are widely used by researchers, governments and development organizations across Canada and around the world.
As Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change, Smit has been a forceful advocate for social science in the climate-change field. His work has involved collaborations with climatologists, economists, ecologists, political scientists, oceanographers and sociologists. Smit was one of the lead authors of the 2007 climate-change report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That same year, the panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former United States Vice-President Al Gore.
While the climate change issue is complex, Smit believes that research findings can be communicated in plain language to businesses, policy-makers and the public. “If I can explain it to my elderly aunt, then I’m successful. If I can’t, I need to work harder to make it understandable,” he said.
An effective presenter, he is known to sing and play guitar at conferences to highlight his message.
“Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is a social, economic, environmental, technological and political issue. Our scholarship should be able to address these synergies, and our public policies need to recognize them,” he said.