Looking out of the Ford Environmental Science and Technology building on a freshly green Georgia Tech Campus, Kim Cobb’s office is furnished with 2 bikes, a sleek Apple computer toting some complex data and a bamboo mouse that speak volumes about her modern approach to sustainability. Dr. Cobb studies coral to learn about ocean temperatures and climate change, but she is doing so much more than just publishing papers; she is making a real difference with what she knows. As soon as we started talking, I could tell how excited the Georgia Power Faculty Scholar was to share her thoughts on something so close to home for her and so relevant to everyone in the Georgia Tech community.
J: How would you define sustainability?
K: My own personal view on sustainability is that it starts and ends with climate change. For one, that is my disciplinary expertise, but also it is the boundary condition for life on this planet. The way we approach the problems of sustainability now will dictate what our planet will look like for millions of years. Our decisions in the next 100 years will dictate life and the appearance of our planet from space for years to come. So for me it is about climate change. That is a bias that I wear on my sleeve and people can trust that I bring that to the table.
J: How do we work towards that vision of sustainability?
K: The way we work towards vision is stabilizing emissions and ultimately drawing down carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. The task is monumental and might take 50 to 100 years but we are well on our way. When I say that we are on our way I mean that we have made some important near term headway such as keeping global emissions steady for 3 years in a row. That’s huge progress when you think about how those levels had been going up continuously for the last decade or so. To see those stabilize is really incredible and that is the first step in turning them around and lowering emissions. There have been a lot of policy wins that show us by making thoughtful, aggressive, innovative policies at state levels, multi-state levels, national levels and even international levels we can chip away at lowering emissions. We don’t have to make a trade off because we can grow our economy while stabilizing and actually drawing down our emissions to negative slopes. That is a major improvement resulting from some experimental policies that have been implemented in the last 5 years.
J: Does the scientific community have a responsibility to communicate what they know with the public?
K: Obviously what this election has taught us what can go horribly awry when scientists fail to communicate their results and their value. The result is we have a large portion of the American public that doesn’t understand the value of what we do and views science with suspicion. There is a whole world of alternative facts mapped out to support people’s world view. That is exhibit A that we really need to be communicating our work and with our own voices more frequently than we ever have.
J: Obviously you are not afraid to make your voice heard. How have you been engaging people with these ideas?
K: This has been a very new year for me as a scientist because scientists have been forced to realize that we need to be doing much more than we have been doing in terms of getting our voices out there and conquering this fear of being an advocate. We are all human and we are all stakeholders in the future of this country. It’s not all about science funding which is what many people think it is about. It’s about my future, my children’s future, your future, the future of all Americans and the choices that are endangering that future.
Being a scientist doesn’t take away my voice at all. In fact, I can leverage my scientific knowledge to focus on certain facts that I think are more important. I can tell stories and put those into context for people in a way that can engage them in a different view of science with a voice that they have probably never encountered before. This new year involves speaking as a woman in science. Women do not typically lend their voices in these spheres. Even though that’s not an elected position, there are typically spokespeople for science which usually ends up being senior white men. As a woman in science and especially as a mother there is so much at stake in the future of my children’s environment. I feel my voice belongs right in the mix with everybody else.
I have gotten involved in a couple new organizations in 2017 that are going to allow me to use their voices in mass towards certain ends. 500 Women Scientists is a group I am really passionate about; it was born after the election results when we realized that women and scientists have a lot of stake in this administration. We have a unique and resonant voice for science advocacy and women’s advocacy, so we take fact based approaches and inform policy choices that have an impact on women in science. They are the front lines in protecting women’s rights and the future of our children, as well as the landscape for research and science infrastructure in this country.
J: What can Georgia Tech and our community do better to help the environmental cause?
K: Every day you have to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. With 4 kids and a big job I can bike to work and a lot of other people can do it too.
Georgia Tech can find ways to champion the awesomeness that is going on in isolated pockets on this campus. Fortunately, we have a lot of inertia in celebrating new patents and new multimillion dollar research grants and new Science and Nature publications. That is the culture where we have been. We can have a bike to work GT initiative. We can work with local communities to change biking infrastructure. It’s all about creating this information ecosystem where stuff that is going to help our planet, our campus, and our city should be going viral. We need to start championing it like we would a patent or research proposal. The inertia on this campus is clearly towards that direction. The question is how can we sprinkle some key resources or change the key ways we do business especially in terms of communications and social media. As I talk to more people it makes me feel like I’m doing something that is bigger than me and it makes me feel I’m challenging people to think about the way they do business every day. So when you do something, talk about it.
J: Do you have something that you have done and want to talk about?
K: One thing I want to talk about is my undergraduate energy class where I run the carbon reduction challenge. This shows how awesome and impactful GT students can be. When someone shows them a problem, they are really good at finding solutions and creating teams and strategies to get stuff done. There are no rules and you choose your own adventure. This year we are on track to reduce 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide which is about equivalent to erasing the entire class’ carbon footprint for a year. So this is not small change. It teaches them carbon literacy and that when you do something awesome, you should talk about it. At the end of the semester we take them down to capitol hill and show them this awesome student project. They made their stake holder money, learned real world solutions, and gained carbon literacy.
Some important questions to ask the GT community to really start good conversations:
How can professors begin to empower students? We do a lot of equipping with tools and skill sets, but how do we empower people?