Date August 17, 2022
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Collaboration is key to solving the climate crisis, new IBES director says

Kim Cobb, who joined the University in July as director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, described how scholars and communities can work together to mitigate the effects of climate change.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Record-setting heat waves across Europe. Devastating floods in Kentucky and Eastern Australia. Historic droughts in Central Africa, Argentina and New England. 

This summer, extreme weather events rocked every continent on Earth, leaving very few people unaffected. Kim Cobb, a professor at Brown University, summed up the international mood well in a recent interview with the Washington Post: “This summer,” she said, “is just a horrorscape.”

Cobb saw the horror coming a mile away. As one of the lead authors of the landmark 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she played a principal role in documenting the “unprecedented” pace at which humans have altered the environment and warning of the devastation that lay ahead unless leaders made major policy changes.

As the new director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), Cobb has the opportunity to lead by example. Cobb, who stepped into her new role in July, said that many of her long-term plans for the institute revolve around finding real-world solutions to the looming climate crisis and equipping Brown students with the tools they’ll need to lead the fight in the decades to come.

“When it comes to addressing climate change, my generation so far has gotten a solid C,” she said. “Gen Z has got to ace this.”

After a month at the helm of IBES, Cobb answered questions about how her background prepared her for this role, her vision for the institute and what it will take to protect communities across the globe from the effects of extreme weather.

Q: What’s your scholarly background, and how does it align with the mission of IBES?

I have a degree in oceanography, and a large part of my research portfolio revolves around generating new records of climate change from corals. In 2016, which remains the planet’s warmest year on record, the coral reefs I had been studying for 20 years were decimated. For me, that really drove home the sweeping consequences of climate change. In that moment, I began to wonder what I could do to more squarely confront this issue and help develop solutions.

I challenged myself to reach beyond the walls of my own lab and disciplinary expertise. I started engaging with people from other disciplines and professions to find new ways to keep communities safe in extreme weather. I also worked with a large research team to move the needle on emissions reductions. 

I was attracted to this role at Brown because it allows me to be a researcher and a champion for solutions-oriented research and education. As a scholar, I can continue to find climate solutions in partnership with diverse colleagues and organizations, and as a leader, I can explore strategies to connect and support people in sustained partnerships that are focused on climate solutions.

When it comes to addressing climate change, my generation so far has gotten a solid C. Gen Z has got to ace this.

Kim Cobb Director, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society
headshot of Kim Cobb

Q: What about IBES attracted your attention?

In most places, university researchers have precious few opportunities to advance scholarship outside the boundaries of their discipline, because of the ways that academic departments, academic journals and grant funding are structured. 

IBES is a major exception to that rule. Cross-disciplinary collaboration isn’t a new priority at IBES; it’s already part of the fabric of the institute. There are so many long-running research projects here that cut across disciplines and extend beyond the University, and they’re informing policies at the local, national and international levels.

I think those collaborations and partnerships are going to be key to solving many of today’s most pressing challenges, including climate change. These problems require systems-level thinking about solutions, and they require people of all backgrounds and all professions to come together and contribute their diverse perspectives and tools. 

Q: How can collaboration across disciplines help solve some of the most pressing climate issues people face today?

I think every single extreme weather-related disaster event we’ve seen this summer — the floods in Kentucky, the fires in California, the record heat in Europe — is an example of a systems failure. Let’s be blunt about it: We’ve known for decades that these disasters would be coming to our doorstep, and we haven’t worked together in earnest to leverage that knowledge to keep communities safe. We’re now playing catch-up to reckon with our climate reality, which means that now, more than ever, we need all hands on deck to solve these problems.

Take urban heat waves, for example. Recently, the town of Starkville, Mississippi, recorded a heat index of 140 degrees Fahrenheit due to a combination of humidity, sun and lack of wind. These temperatures sound like science fiction, but they’re real, and tragically, they’re causing fatalities. 

What would it take to keep communities like Starkville safe? It would take revised emergency planning and response protocols, for one. It would take a deep dive into household-level data to find and protect people who are the most vulnerable in heat waves, including people who have no air conditioning, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions like cardiovascular disease. It would take partnerships between cities and community organizations to offer more public cooling centers, distribute air conditioning units to the most vulnerable, and make sure everyone knows how to stay safe during a heat emergency, including knowing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. 

And that’s only the beginning. We also need to think about how we can engineer our cities to stay cool with more green spaces, more tree canopy, more white roofs and fewer blacktops. We need to think about implementing energy systems that put less stress on the power grid in the summertime. We need to think about how to leverage new cooling technologies that can keep us comfortable while also shrinking our carbon footprint.

That one example illustrates how almost every department at Brown could be a part of the solution. We need designers, engineers, political scientists, urban planners, sociologists, doctors and public health experts — I could go on.

“ We’re now playing catch-up to reckon with our climate reality, which means that now, more than ever, we need all hands on deck to solve these problems. ”

Kim Cobb Director, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Q: What are your long-term plans for IBES?

One of my core goals for IBES is to create knowledge where we need it the most and translate that knowledge into impact. That will involve bringing together large teams of researchers and community partners to focus on identifying and filling knowledge gaps that can unlock durable, replicable solutions to the systems-level challenges of our time. Traditional research grants don’t typically allow for large-scale partnerships like this, so it’s my job to seek out a diverse range of funding channels, from private philanthropy to corporations and foundations to newly available opportunities with federal funding.

I’m also excited to get students from across Brown more involved in our educational offerings, our research and our partnerships. For years, students at IBES have worked side-by-side with faculty on research anchored in the environmental and social sciences. I want students to know that they don’t need to concentrate in environmental studies to be a part of our work — because, as with the urban heat example we just discussed, we need the contributions of people from all backgrounds and disciplines in order to solve this crisis. Students can play a crucial role in helping us tackle climate change-related issues in our own backyard like extreme heat, coastal flooding and sea level rise, or accelerating a just transition to low-carbon, resilient energy systems. That hands-on experience will, I hope, help students lead on climate wherever they land next, whether it’s in law, science, entrepreneurship or something else entirely. 

I’m also thinking about how to integrate more experiential learning into our curriculum. Learning by doing is both fun and important for students; they get to hone skills, network and learn from people outside of College Hill. I want to offer students more opportunities to do research projects with community partners in their classes, to connect with people from the greater Providence area and hear about their experiences, to connect students to a diverse set of internships and employment opportunities in the local area, where they can help move the needle across a broad landscape of climate solutions.

Finally, I want to stress that diversity, equity and justice will continue to be a fundamental part of all the work we do at IBES. To my mind, climate and environmental issues are also justice and equity issues – if proposed solutions to the climate challenge don’t support the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in our communities, they are not scalable and durable solutions. Brown has a venerable history of advancing diversity, equity and justice, and I hope to use its Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan to guide all that IBES does.