Lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 Report
By Suzanne Forcese
“Every day I ask myself what is going to be my life’s impact on the planet...I’m just reaching for those levers and pulling as hard as I can.- Dr. Kim Cobb, Professor (Georgia Institute of Technology) & Lead Author IPCC Report 2022
Climate Scientist, Oceanographer, Paleoclimatologist, Geochemist, Dr. Kim Cobb, is a Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Director for the Global Change Program.
WT: You are a very inspiring model of strength, determination, and focus in your mission. And yet, your purpose is laced with inclusive compassion and caring not only for the planet but also for your students. Where did your journey begin? What magnetized you to a career in oceanography and a climate science advocacy mission?
Cobb: I grew up in western Massachusetts and every summer our family would go to Cape Cod for one magical week. I remember I was absolutely drawn to the ocean. My father was a medical doctor and growing up I always thought I would follow in his footsteps but in high school, I had a life-changing experience.
A teacher recommended me for an ocean research project based out of Cape Cod with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Even now I cannot believe my good fortune. I had the opportunity at age 17 to be on the flagship of one of the main oceanographic institutes of the world. I was able to use the library, go to seminars and actually hang out with ocean scientists doing my research on the salt marshes and beaches of Cape Cod. It blew my mind that there was a whole career opportunity of ocean study.
In my heart, I wanted to do this – not medicine. And by the way, our world is in a mess. I began to connect the dots and I knew I could make a difference in oceanography. It was a very easy and quick decision when I came to that awareness.
WT: Your research has been on coral reefs - a place that you have called home, a place that you have stated you love. How and why, did you become involved in your oceanography research on Christmas Island (in the Indian Ocean) and what have you observed over the past 25 years due to marine warming.
Cobb: My first ever cruise was in 1997 so yes it has been almost 25 years.
As a grad student with a fascination with El Nino oscillations – the warming of the ocean surface-- I wanted to do more work around what the phenomenon had done in the past and I wanted to understand more about how climate change was impacting or not impacting how that system works. I came into Scripps (Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California) with that goal as research target and that landed me an opportunity to piggyback on a yacht owned by the Prince of Saudi Arabia.
He had an interest in the phenomenon himself, approached Scripps, put out a broad call and I was chosen. The boat was for transport only. There were no workings of an oceanography vessel -- no labs or equipment. Our purpose was to scout the islands affected by El Nino and examine the corals. In that first year, we surveyed 5 islands in total and brought back our samples. We have been back a dozen times to deepen our work on the reconstruction of coral events with technology to predict future events.
Coral is an animal that exists in symbiosis with photosynthetic algae. The algae provide food for the coral but when the water gets too warm the algae die off and are chemically destructive to the coral. Bleaching occurs when the coral spits out the algae. Eventually, the coral dies without a food source. If the water temperature would come back down, the coral would welcome the algae. Photo courtesy Kim Cobb
WT: Over the years of your research, you have witnessed first-hand many changes to the coral reefs – a result of climate change and the El Nino effects of marine warming. You have said that witnessing the bleaching of the coral reefs was like losing one of your own children. What has it meant for you mentally and emotionally to know that something you love is gone forever?
Cobb: It was certainly something that I always knew in our future, but I certainly was not ready for it. I had the fortune-- or misfortune—of witnessing the massive record-breaking killing of 85% of the coral reefs in 2016.
As a scientist, I had to look at it as my work but I was not equipped for what I saw in that 2016 trip. Seeing the carnage first hand in slow-mo and witnessing it repeatedly has taken its toll. It certainly was a time of reckoning for me. We’re so much more out of time than I thought. What I imagined to be in the 2050’s world was now in the 2016 world. My site had almost fully succumbed.
Tears were shed. It was a major reckoning, a crisis. I had to do some deep soul searching to redefine and re-align my roles as a mother, a teacher, and a researcher to be a more active part of the climate solution. It will be a life-long journey.
WT: Do you ever feel that you were born to be in this moment, that you are here now to make a difference?
I think all of us have the gift to be alive right now. I feel that every day and that many other people do as well. Every day I ask myself what is going to be my life impact on the planet. I think about how I am contributing to the climate crisis – which is unavoidable right now. How can we make sure that whatever we are doing is in a meaningful net way? I’m just reaching for those levers and pulling as hard as I can.
WT: Has this soul-searching propelled you to advocate climate science and climate change awareness?
Cobb: The bigger question is how prepared am I to be labeled an advocate as a scientist. I have answered that for myself and I am not afraid. My advocacy has unleashed new levels of engagement and opportunity in conversation that I would not have felt comfortable with before.
I have had to develop a thick skin with criticism within academia about the way I position myself and my work and also outside of academia because of the denial of climate change which tends to undercut my advocacy. I have had to learn to stand in defense of the science and realize that the talking points are futile with the deniers.
That’s also privilege talking. I think when one is younger there is so much more on the line. Young scientists may be afraid to speak out for fear of losing their job. In fact, many senior scientists will tell them not to speak out. As a tenured professor, I have a very special place to exercise my academic freedom and that is all the more reason why I have to push myself beyond my comfort zone of yester-year and yester-decade. I recognize there will always be critique against scientists – they're not strong enough, they’re not old enough, they have the wrong message, they don’t look the right way. ... So, it’s important to always adapt my voice to the present moment.
WT: You have served as lead author in the latest IPCC Report. How did you become engaged in this very important work?
Cobb: I have no idea! As these things go in the upper echelons of science fabulous things happen for no apparent reason.
The entire global scientific community is allowed to be part of the process. Of all the years of throwing my hat in the ring with no one to catch it ...this was definitely a shock. There were 160 people from around the world that worked on the part of the report that I was involved with. There are also hundreds of authors at large on other volumes that have not yet been released. It is a monumental effort that takes place every decade. In this particular case, it took about three years to complete. Some of our meetings were in person and some virtual because of the pandemic. My chapter team of 15 scientists had bi-weekly meetings moving forward on figure drafting, revisions, and of course coordination with the other chapter teams. It is just a herculean effort. I have never been involved with anything quite so ambitious.
WT: And it’s all volunteer work. How did you manage the time with all your other responsibilities – teaching, lab work, family?
Cobb: It’s all extreme overload. I can’t say that it did not impact the sanity of my family nor can I say it did not impact the productivity of my own lab. I had to weigh whether that kind of sacrifice is worth moving forward with something that is meaningful. I do hope that in the future scholars will be given some compensation for their time and that the institutions they work for would make accommodation and allowances for the time commitment in those critical years... something I did not have.
WT: Would you do it again knowing what you now know.
Cobb: Yes! Of course! It is a life-changing experience, but I would counsel anyone who is thinking of doing it to make sure they have the flexibility and sustainable space because it is soul-sucking.
WT: What were the main takeaways of the report itself?
It’s a huge report and there is a lot of information for various stakeholders across the world. Most people don’t realize the level of care the IPCC takes to look at the world region by region. It is science built for decision-makers and policymakers to make the best decisions in each geographically specific location.
Human influence has a critical impact on climate. Our ability to trace that human influence has increased since the last report so we now know the tropical storms, the ecological and agricultural droughts, the wildfires, and the effects on wildlife are happening every year now. All because of human influence.
The biggest takeaway for me is that we have not yet squandered all hope. But it’s very critically urgent that action is taken immediately to bring emissions into line.
WT: As a full-time professor you are to be admired for the inspiration you impart to your students. You have a very interesting “Carbon Reduction Challenge Assignment” where student teams partner with a large organization. Your students are required to identify a large energy “knob” and tweak it lower. Teachers teach of course but they are always on the upward trajectory of learning. What have you learned from your students?
Cobb: I love teaching. I have students in the classroom, students in my lab and then I also work with former students all over the globe who are doing very important research. I'm equally passionate about all of them. For the purposes of this question, I will speak about my classroom students because this is the easiest route for me to teach what is meaningful to me.
I started the carbon reduction assignment 15 years ago and over the years the students have set their sights higher and higher. They have also taught me so much because there are really no limits in the challenge. Through their inspiration, I have made significant changes in my own energy usage. I stopped eating red meat because of one of my student’s projects; I switched all the light fixtures in my house to LED; I even changed my feminine products because of one of my student's research.
There is really a profound range to shape my world because of my interactions with students and engaging them in real-world solutions. It is a real joy to me and it’s really encouraging to see their passion and what they are capable of because the state of the planet is going down on their watch. What my students are doing in the classroom eclipses any choices I have made.
WT: How are you able to manage all your professional roles and still find quality time for yourself and your family? What is the water/climate change conversation in your household?
Cobb: I have a huge support system both at work - with a personal assistant - and at home with a nanny and health manager. I am also blessed with a husband who is not bound by gender-specific roles.
I enjoy spending time with my husband and our four children (ages 12-15). We go on hikes and cycle together. Biking is very important to me. I bike for transport not recreation although it does provide me with recreation, fitness, and mental health. I cycle everywhere on my daily schedule – even around town doing my errands. It keeps me grounded.
My ultimate happiness is downhill skiing.
My husband is also an oceanographer, so the conversation topics dictate our daily lives in how we go about the way we do things that we need to do for a more sustainable life. It’s also interesting to watch our children because they are now at a stage where they are starting to make their own choices. As teenagers, they’re not just along for our ride. But it has been important for me to give them that foundation. It’s like a language you learn when you are growing up...and it will be there when they need it. Although it may not be cool for them now, they will know how to navigate a world of dwindling resources.
WT: Can you give our viewers one last nugget of advice on what we can do to save us from ourselves?
Cobb: Vote. Tell everyone you know and everyone you don’t know to vote. We have some very critical election years coming up that will largely decide the warming level of our planet. Vote with your time. Vote with your money. But just please vote. The planet needs you.
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