PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Kim Cobb, a leading climate scientist and educator who directs the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, the turning point in her career came in 2016.
Cobb was part of a research group working deep in the tropical Pacific Ocean. She’d spent over 20 years diving into those very waters, analyzing coral reefs to study ocean temperature. But that year, a record breaking El Niño event — which helped shatter the previous record for Earth’s hottest year — brought 10 straight months of extreme ocean temperatures. When the team went back to the site in April 2016, they returned to near total devastation. Almost 90% of the coral reefs had been killed due to the heat.
The experience spurred a paradigm shift in how Cobb approached climate science.
“For me, it was a very impactful personal experience to be diving on the reef through this sequence of events and forced me to a reckoning of how I’m positioning myself, both personally and professionally, in the space of climate solutions during this critical decade that we find ourselves in,” Cobb said. “After that, I did a kind of wholesale pivot into a different space, asking myself to deploy my disciplinary expertise in more targeted ways in the solution space.”
In other words, the experience led her to shift from studying specific climate science phenomena as an oceanographer — her primary field of expertise — to trying to help solve climate-related problems broadly.
Cobb shared that anecdote at Brown University on Thursday, April 20, during a wide-ranging conversation titled “Climate Solutions for a Warming World: University Edition.” Cobb — who served among the lead authors of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2021 and earlier this year was named to President Joe Biden’s Intelligence Advisory Board — offered obligatory warnings of global warming and its affects, but mainly focused on solutions that can be taken across higher education institutions, including at Brown.
On the eve of Earth Day, she kicked off with sobering statistics, speaking about increasing global temperatures, rising carbon dioxide emissions and data on how the Earth’s most vulnerable populations will be affected.
“The poor are already paying the highest price for the climate extremes that our planet is suffering right now,” Cobb said. “We see crushing statistics of mortality 15 times higher in more vulnerable regions of the planet relative to less vulnerable regions… [It] illustrates how this is going to play out — which is wealthy countries grappling with the emissions trends and arguing over their responsibilities in this space, but the [impacts] raining down already on those who have had historically nothing to do with the current warming levels.”