On the eve of Earth Day, Brown climate scientist outlines solutions for a warming world

Kim Cobb, a Brown University professor and director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, spoke about the need to act on climate change, urging that action must be taken collaboratively and equitably.

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.”

Cobb detailed her years of research experience, defining different types of climate solution efforts and framing them in terms of justice and equity. Throughout the event, she not only stressed the importance and difficulty of combating climate change but explained how it can be addressed by stakeholders working together in ways that are scalable, replicable, durable and effective.

Cobb said this is especially critical now that many leading higher education institutions are launching climate change efforts, threatening to make the field too crowded and competitive to accomplish real change.

“We're not all going to get it right, but we also don't need to reinvent the wheel at every single institution and wait 10 decades to see how it adds up,” Cobb said. “Because we don't have 10 decades.”

Helping to flesh out what solutions can look like, Cobb outlined efforts happening at Brown and beyond. She talked about an IBES and Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences project called Breathe Providence, which installs low-cost air-quality sensors in Providence to monitor air quality. She explained how the Climate Social Science Network, housed at Brown, researches sources of disinformation on climate change.  She pointed to a project she’s involved with in Georgia where a team is deploying water level sensors in Savannah for flood prediction, emergency planning and future infrastructure planning. During a Q&A, she fielded queries ranging from her experiences with carbon offsets to public opinion on climate change.

And Cobb ended with a call to action.

“We are living in one of the most critical decades in human history,” she said. “This could be the most pivotal decade in human history if it is the one where we turn that corner on emissions… and decide that the buck stops right here with us right now. We're in the process of coming together as a species and trying to get that done. It's every action. It’s every person. It's every portion of a gigaton [of carbon] that we're fighting for right now.”

A series of Earth Week events at Brown

Held in the Salomon Center for Teaching, the discussion with Cobb drew students and members of the Brown community both in-person and online. It served as the keynote lecture for this year’s Earth Week events at Brown, which offer opportunities to engage, learn and advocate for sustainability on campus and in local and global communities.

“Earth Week at Brown serves as a reminder of how critical protection of our planet is to the survival and well-being of people and other living beings,” said Jessica Berry, assistant vice president for the Office of Sustainability and Resiliency, which organizes Earth Week events at Brown. “It honors the achievements of Earth pioneers, present and past, who dedicate their lives to protecting our planet, and aims to inspire others to engage and advocate for planet health.”

Other events this week included a Sustainability Fair in Sayles Hall where dozens of students learned about how they could get involved with sustainability efforts happening on campus. On Wednesday, students went behind the scenes with Brown Dining to learn about reducing food waste and composting. More Earth Week events are scheduled for Friday and Saturday, including a community climate panel and garden planting sessions.