UNC Asheville alumna Ko Barrett ’94 might be an anomaly in the sciences. She’s an interdisciplinary communicator among subject matter experts. She holds a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts university among a sea of Ph.D.s. And she’s a woman in the sciences, a position she advocates for as one of three vice chairs for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“With more women in IPCC leadership than ever before, we hope to work together to encourage more women to choose STEM careers that will be good for them and for their nations’ economic futures,” Barrett said in the 2015 announcement of the appointment. “I’m excited to serve on the executive committee and look forward to working with the world’s leading scientists to engage the wider scientific community and the public on the most important issue of our time.”
Since her election last October, Barrett has become one of the IPCC’s go-to facilitators for helping countries to reach consensus decisions. Barrett credits her early successes in this arena to her years of experience as a negotiator. “My many years of listening to countries’ positions and being quick with possible solutions serves me well in my role as vice-chair,” Barrett said.
In addition to her role at the IPCC, Barrett serves as deputy assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she supervises the agency’s research operations, which in addition to climate change, include ocean exploration and air quality. Prior to joining NOAA in 2005, she was the director of the Global Climate Change program at USAID and oversaw climate activities in over 40 countries.
Barrett began her work with USAID while in school, spending several months in Egypt with a USAID project that brought water to rural villages. She combined this intercontinental experience with an interdisciplinary education, transferring to UNC Asheville after beginning her studies at the University of Alabama on an athletic scholarship in 1979. She took time away from school to start a family before resuming her education at UNC Asheville in 1989.
At UNC Asheville she connected to the environmental studies program, with professors like Gary Miller and Rick Maas, who encouraged her to think across disciplines and gave her a sense of what was possible with a liberal arts education. After graduating, she moved to the Ukraine and managed a sustainable development program, again with USAID.
When she returned to the United States in 1997, Barrett shifted her focus from environmental policy to climate science. Her ability to distill complicated research findings and communicate their importance to society led to her first position with NOAA, where she served as lead negotiator and scientific advisor for the United States delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Those negotiations led to the Paris Agreement, a joint effort between 195 countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement entered into force in November.
“It is a huge challenge to communicate the findings in a way that is easily understandable by the average person,” Barrett said. “Scientists, in their desire to be careful and meticulous, don’t always convey the larger meaning and the strengths of the message because we are always offering all of the caveats.”
In 2007, Barrett’s efforts to communicate complex research were rewarded in a big way. She and her fellow IPCC scientists were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to disseminate knowledge about climate change. They shared the award with former vice president Al Gore.
Barrett comes back to Asheville often. She has collaborated with UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), producing a suite of indicators that offer visual displays of trends in climate change.
For four years, her visits included a stop on campus to see her daughter, Ellie, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in psychology.
“When Ellie decided to come to UNC Asheville, I was ecstatic,” Barrett says. “I knew that she would really thrive in a smaller, liberal arts college. And she loved it, just like I did.”
Barrett still gives credit to her bachelor’s degree. “The quality of the education I received at UNC Asheville was first-rate and on par or better than that at other, more expensive institutions,” Barrett says. “Even though I did not go on to pursue an advanced degree, I clearly was well prepared by UNC Asheville for the critical thinking required to address the challenges one encounters in a policy-relevant, scientific career.”
She’s taken on the challenges with a clear communication strategy, contributing to a paradigm shift around climate change and making a name for herself in the process.
“Life experience is often underrated in making someone successful in their career,” she says. “Some people advance because they dig deep into a topic or some narrow field of research. Others are connectors who understand the importance of that research in the context of other topics and how it relates to society. I fall into the second category.”