Kim Cobb and Translating Data to Action

Show Notes

This episode, part of our new season about the often unexpected stories behind climate data, features a conversation with Dr. Kim Cobb, who turned a heartbreaking experience in the field into a new purpose not just for her own life, but for the lives of many around her.

You can get more information about Dr. Kim Cobb and her work on her personal page and her Lab page. You can also find her on Twitter. You can also find out more about Georgia Tech’s Carbon Reduction Challenge program.

Inspired by the data story shared by Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttmann? You can learn more about her work on the effects of climate change on pollinator ecosystems at her website.

Find us on the web and on social media:
Web: www.WarmRegardsPodcast.com
Twitter: @ourwarmregards
Facebook: www.facebook.com/WarmRegardsPodcast

See below for a complete transcript of the episode.

Episode Transcript

[music]

Jacquelyn Gill
In this season of Warm Regards, we’re exploring stories about the unexpected side of data: from how we use it to make choices about a warming world, to what it means when you suddenly find that a graph has become your life.

There are a lot of stereotypes that come to mind when you hear the word “data”: that it’s all numbers (which it’s not). That it represents the objective truth (tackling that could be its own season). I asked my husband to tell me the first thing that came to mind when he heard the word, and the first thing he said was Star Trek — referencing of course the beloved character from The Next Generation. In the show, Data is a fully aware artificial intelligence — an android with a human-like body, who in the early seasons has trouble understanding human emotions, often for comedic effect. What I love so much about Data-the-character is that it’s his drive to have real emotional experiences that makes him so relatable. He serves as a sort of mirror to our own experiences. There are so many unwritten rules that we all assume everyone else knows, and that are often be confusing, frustrating, or mysterious. I feel like anyone who has ever gone through adolescence can relate to this: it’s not just the rules of adulthood that are challenging, it’s the experiences that we have to live through to learn them. You can’t just download an update. Learning how to be a fully functioning adult human? That process changes us.

Which brings me back to climate change. In the climate conversation, we often talk about how we should “just listen to experts,” or that “the data are clear.” Historically, in these representations, scientists are kind of depicted like androids — focused on the facts, not our emotional responses. We’re supposed to be objective experts, relaying our findings like a little kid depositing a collection of shells into your lap at the beach. And for a long time, that’s what we were trained to do — what we were allowed to do. The message that I got as a young scientist was to just “stick to the facts.” We don’t editorialize, we don’t get emotional — especially if you’re a woman — and we are not activists. Those were the rules.

Thankfully, all of that has changed in the last few years. Or, I should say, the scientists themselves haven’t changed, but we finally have room to be complete human beings — we didn’t get “emotion chips” installed, like Data’s creator gave him — we just finally have the breathing room to express our feelings publicly. We’ve always been inspired to pick up a beaker or learn to code because of the things we care about — the places we love, the people who matter to us. But so much of that was hidden behind the numbers. Being in the field, visiting the same places year after year? Getting to know your study system intimately? It all changes you. You grow attached. Think of the places you come back to, over and over: a childhood treehouse, a family cabin, a familiar mountaintop. Our field sites are like that. In the novel Red Mars, Ann, a geologist, argues that if we are to be the consciousness of the universe, we should “worship it with our attention.”

This attention — this relationship of gathering data about our planet — can change you. Now imagine that the subject of your research is itself also changing. So many of us who work in the natural world are watching climate change unfold in our systems in real time, and it’s changing who we are — as scientists, as advocates, and as people.

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Ramesh Laungani
Welcome to Warm Regards, I’m Ramesh Laungani, a plant ecologist from Doane University in Nebraska.

Jacquelyn
I’m Jacquelyn Gill, an ice age ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maine.

Ramesh
In our last episode, a part of the conversation that we didn’t have time to unpack was that people experienced climate change in a variety of ways. For some, it might be increasingly powerful and frequent extreme weather year after year. For others like myself, I experience climate change through the data that I collect and read about in the scientific literature. But while certain pieces of data have had and continue to have a profound impact on my understanding of climate change, that data hasn’t necessarily caused me to spin on my axis. It hasn’t resulted in a gut punch. This is not to say that I don’t have an emotional reaction to seeing the new data about climate change, but I often experience those emotions through the lens of my role as a scientist. What about you Jacquelyn? Have you ever had one of these climate change gut punches?

Jacquelyn
You know, it’s, it’s interesting. I haven’t because as a scientist, I, all of the climate change stories and in my study system have already been told on some level. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have to keep doing that research, but rather we know that we went from a cold ice age to a warm interglacial. The details here and there are still need to be worked out. And how all of the different species we work with responded to that still needs to be sussed out. But fundamentally there won’t be a lot of surprises for me. The woolly mammoths are dead, right. I’m not going to go out into Siberia one day and discover that the organism that I’ve come to know intimately,, is fundamentally different than what I expected, right?

Ramesh
Yeah. Yeah.

Jacquelyn
And in my personal life, you know, I live in temperate Northern latitudes, not in the Arctic. We experience some extreme events from time to time, but it’s not a very wildfire prone place. It’s not a place that’s especially prone to catastrophic flooding. You know, we’ve had a couple of hurricanes, but you know, other than that, I can’t really say that there’s been a moment where I’ve personally experienced climate change or climate data in a way that has just shaken my foundations or my understanding of myself. Which isn’t to say that it’s not important, that it’s not real, that it’s not true.

Ramesh
Right.

Jacquelyn
But I think it just underscores this idea that our experiences of climate change will be so highly personal and so highly variable and that they are affecting all of us across the planet at different rates in different ways.

Ramesh
Yeah, you know, I work in a mitigation framework and sort of like you, the details of how we’re going to solve climate change, how we’re going to get carbon from out of the atmosphere into a more stable place, that doesn’t change. The details change, right? Whether, you know, if you’re talking to me, I’m going to be yammering on about biochar. If you talk to other people, they’ll be talking about other things. But the fundamental question is there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. How do we get it out of the atmosphere? And so climate change is very much like a technical problem to me. And like you, I live, you know, in Nebraska is known for some extremes, you know, it’s highly variable temperatures and climate, but I’m not experiencing climate change in this really visceral way. Right? My home has not been washed away by a rising sea. So like I said, I keep experiencing climate change through the data, which allows me to remain a bit separate from the emotions of climate change.

Jacquelyn
Right, I mean, it’s one thing to know because we can see all of the data in front of us and we can hear the testimonies and listen to the experiences of the people we know. It’s one thing to know that that climate change is a problem. And I think that’s something that both you and I know in a very deep and profound way, but it’s not necessarily a very personal way. We don’t have you know these personal climate stories where we can say, yes, this is a moment where climate change just walked up to me on the street and punched me in the stomach. When you had asked that question, the first person that I thought of, someone who I know has an incredibly profound climate story that changed them as a person is our guest today, Dr. Kim Cobb. She’s based in Atlanta, she teaches at Georgia Tech. She is actually a paleoclimatologist by training and is the director of Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program. She has this incredibly powerful story of having an unexpected up close and personal experience of climate change that changed her life in so many ways that, in that moment, I don’t think she fully understood until much later.

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Kim Cobb
This story really starts 20 years ago when I was a baby graduate student on my first expedition to the middle of the tropical Pacific. And I was there to look at El Niño events, which are a natural climate extreme that comes and goes and may be changing in response to anthropogenic climate change. And my whole career, 20 years thereafter was really spent chasing down these events in coral archives. The coral records that we use to look at climate extremes are laid down by coral reefs, you know, in the deep tropics. And every year they lay down a layer of calcium carbonate. And that archive grows through time to be, you know, sometimes a century or even several centuries long. We take a core down that time capsule. We bring it back to our lab at Georgia Tech, and we analyze it millimeter by millimeter. And that turns out to generate a month by month record of past ocean temperatures. And that helps us place the current temperature extremes that are going on today into the context of past temperature extremes. And of course that helps us understand where we’re going with respect to the response of this particular system to greenhouse gases and climate change. And so I had been building this archive of corals for so long, and it came upon 2014 when the climate community projections showed that we were expecting a fairly large El Niño event to materialize in the next year or so.

And I pulled together, um, a bunch of other folks to conduct a series of expeditions down to the equator where we were going to kind of chase this event in real time and collect tons and tons of data about the ocean temperatures and the ocean chemistry, how the corals were faring both chemically and, um, with respect to their ecology and diversity in health, of course, as we expected that to be impacted. And so about three quarters of the way through this really exhausting series of expeditions chasing this event in real time, we’re watching this from the seats at Georgia Tech, kind of watching this El Nino event ramp up to its peak. And we had long planned an expedition to the equator for that period of time. And so kind of got in the airplane and were so excited to go down and bear witness to this event as it reached its peak, and try to capture all of the different things that were unusual about our research site during that very huge extreme. It really was, I thought, the opportunity of a lifetime. It was definitely my long standing goal as a scientist to actually witness that and capture everything about it in as many data streams as I could.

And so we got down there and indeed the water temperatures were extremely warm, but everything looked kind of the same. It was a little more rainy. The villagers were experiencing some flooding, sea levels were higher, which is all consistent. And the first expedition morning, we went out into the boat and we got all our scuba gear in there and we loaded up, everything was normal. We did our safety checks. And we went out to our first site and the water was crystal blue, everything looked stunning day for diving, just like glassed off perfect. And we jumped in the water and looked down. And what had happened over the previous 10 months of warming ocean waters, which were at that point about three degrees Celsius, almost six degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual, had really taken a toll on that reef. And what had been a steady march of kind of more visible coral bleaching every expedition we went down there, at that point culminated in a mass mortality event. What we were looking at as we bobbed on the surface looking down, was this blanket of red brown algae covering the entire reef. There was no color, there was no shape left. It was just completely covered. And of course, you know, it was a gut punch in the sense that as a scientist I know that that’s the sign of a very recently dead reef. And that I would have to spend the next couple weeks coming to grips with that, understanding its severity across the entire island and really trying to collect all the data that we could about the deep impacts that were underway. And of course that was just the beginning of my own journey, reflecting on where we were with climate change and, you know, how much we had squandered our opportunities to get in front of this train wreck and how for this particular site it was too late.

Ramesh
So that’s, I mean, I can’t even, so I’m a plant ecologist, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to do all that diving and see what you’re seeing, but you described as a “gut punch.” So what did that feel like? You know, you’ve been going out to this place for all this for all these years and you have this sort of expectation and, and then that expectation wasn’t fulfilled. What was that gut punch like?

Kim
I mean, I think it was just a collision between my intellectual self as a scientist and having kept some aspects of my deepest fears quite far from me as a scientist, You’re trained to be objective and this place is so far away from my daily life. And so I get on the plane and I kind of transform into field scientist and I’m all in the moment and it overwhelms me while I’m in the field and then I kind of tuck it away. And I think when I was diving those first dives, it was completely crashing down that wall between my heart and my mind and who I was, and my identity and this place that I had come to love so profoundly. I don’t even know that I loved it fully until that moment. And then to realize that, you know, I was part of the stewardship of this place, as a human, as a scientist. And, you know, what did that mean to me was a question that just kept on gaining steam in my head at that moment.

Jacquelyn
It’s interesting, so much of what you’re describing sounds like the process of grief that we go through when we lose someone, this, this idea of really appreciating what we have only when it’s gone. And I’m just wondering, what was the long tail process of that like for you, thinking about what it’s like to lose someone you love, or a place or a person, you know, anything that you love. Were there terms like climate grief at that time, or did you feel like you had a community of people who would understand what you were going through?

Kim
Not really. I hadn’t purposely built that. I’m sure it was out there at the time. I was just, I think, kind of optimistic at that moment. And you have to kind of go back to where we were in 2016 when this happened to me, and my entire group, by the way, and all the other groups that were reeling through this with us as collaborators. We were really hoping for a very different page to turn on our position with climate change as a country. In the hopes of putting somebody in the White House who would really be a champion for this work. And I think when you’re faced with such odds and such potential outcomes, we just kind of run to the optimistic side and we think that, of course it’s going to be okay, kind of always kind of okay, isn’t it? Maybe? And it really wasn’t okay in 2016. It wasn’t okay for that reef. And then six months later, it wasn’t okay for our country and it wasn’t okay for the climate system. And so I think there has been a collective awakening since then, Jacquelyn, about what we all have to come to grips with, but at the time, I did feel somewhat isolated as a climate scientist, kind of having to wake up to this whole pile of facts called “it’s way too little, it’s way too late.” I have not been playing enough of a role in fixing this and I’ve been placing way too many eggs in that basket called, you know, Washington D.C. and federal policy, that what if it never comes to be, then what?

Jacquelyn
Yeah, it’s I remember I was then still an early career scientist when in 2016 and, um, sort of midway on the process to getting tenure, and I remember feeling all these existential emotions about what was even the point of what I’m doing, right? Like when we have people in office who don’t even believe that the work that we do is real, you know, what does it mean to be meaningful at that time? And I know for me at least it was, it was really depressing. I was really depressed for a very long time and it took me a long time to kind of find some sense of agency through those feelings of loss and grief. So, I’d love to hear from you, and I think a lot of our listeners would too, what made you not give up? What was it that helped carry you through? And we’ll ask you about some of these changes, but you, you know,, I think you came through that process, it seems like almost a different person in a lot of ways. So what helped you through that process?

Kim
I mean, I share all of what you said is what I went through in terms of, you know, pretty significant bout with depression. Really finding it hard to add up my professional role as a climate scientist anymore. All of that was kind of late 2016. It was a kind of dark blur, frankly. And this was, you know, I was out in the field when the election took place. And so I kind of missed the national mourning, the acute phase, I think and had to go through myself some weeks later, you know, having been steeled to the task of keeping my research team safe out at the site during the election itself. And so I think after that, I was just kind of spinning in the dark and I was just, you know, grasping at straws basically. And I had no idea how it would all work out and how I could get out of the bed in the morning and go to work every day and find meaning and purpose.

And it was really, you know, I think New Year’s Day 2017 when I got up and I said, well, you know, today is as good as day as any to try something new. It’s the birthday of my identical twins and I really don’t want to spend it in bed. I don’t want to just sit here and sob and wonder what could have been in all those last years, I don’t want to do that. And so I got up and I got on Twitter and I made a climate resolution that I was going to walk my kids to school twice a week and bike to work twice a week. And I had no idea at the time, I would be lying if I said so, that that would be the first step on a path that would end up to bring new meaning and new purpose.

Ramesh
So beyond that first Tweet where you committed to those two changes in your life, walking your kids to school and riding your bike to work, what other things helped you come out of that post-election depression?

Kim
I think that what happened in early 2017 was that I started to gain some kind of personal momentum and some spark of joy in my life for turning over this new puzzle in my hands, climate solutions. Ooh, this is kind of fun. And it’s, it’s complex and it’s nubbly, and it has a lot to explore. And I don’t know anything about this. I know kind of textbooks and Twitter posts, but I really don’t know what it means to me. And as you guys are interested in data, I always have been obsessed with data. You know, we always talk about data based policies, leveraging data in decision making, and of course permeating all of our work collectively as scientists. And so what I started was a spreadsheet.

Ramesh
No, I mean, what would you do without a spreadsheet, right?

Jacquelyn
How else do people make decisions?

Kim
It was this really crappy spreadsheet, you might like pull up for like some back of the envelope, quick thing you want to explore. And it never has evolved since really it’s still a crappy spreadsheet. Um, but you know, it does contain all of the inventory of my direct emissions.

Ramesh
Oh wow.

Kim
To me, it was important that I reflect for myself what I call on policymakers to do collectively. We know what policymakers need to do to meet the targets of the 1.5 degrees Celsius ideal warming level put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. We know what that path looks like, but what does my path look like? What does my data look like? I had no idea, frankly, and that, that didn’t sit well. And so I started inventorying the gas I was putting in my car. I started inventorying the flights I was taking. I started inventorying the bills as they were coming in for electricity and natural gas. And I had this, you know, really exhaustive, now multi-year crappy spreadsheet. I’m happy to send that to any anybody, by the way, anybody wants to check that out. I can send it to you and you can puzzle through this crappy spreadsheet too. But that’s where it started. And I started that in early 2017 when I kind of thought, well, you know, let’s look at the data, right? Let’s see what they say.

Ramesh
Right, yeah.

Kim
And there’s been some aspects of my path that have been guided by that data. Most notably, uh, the flying piece of that puzzle became, it became obvious that was very, very large. And to me, it started to look like a, an important piece to tackle and to turn over. And it’s very wildly complex. It’s rich, it’s intricate, it’s nuanced and I gravitate to it for those reasons as much as I do for the large carbon footprint that was revealed on my spreadsheet. But there were many other things I was driven to do as well. Crank down my energy demand in my house. And I had, you know, I got a little game going with myself, right? You start to play these games when you have the data. If you have a goal, then it becomes fun to see the changes play out in the data month by month by month. And it became, you know, kind of an obsession. And so that’s another thing that I did in 2017, which was turned out to be important in some ways, from an individual perspective as somebody who’s obsessed with data, but there are many, many things I did in 2017 that were not at that scale, that we’re focused squarely on thinking about the collective scale and my responsibility to speak up whenever I could in defense of science, which was, and is under attack from partisan-fueled ideological spheres mostly. And I also got involved with my neighborhood and my city governance mechanisms around what we could do at that scale to begin to shift cultural norms and advocate for certain policies. So I kind of had these experiments going at the individual level, at the kind of neighborhood city level and an experiment at the engaging at the larger scale as well, federally.

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Jacquelyn
One thing that’s kind of coming to me as we have this conversation is, you know, in the climate conversation, at least on Twitter and some other spheres, there’s often this tension between whether personal actions matter or whether we need sort of top down changes at the large scale, big sweeping structural change versus our sort of individual responsibility. And there’s so many things we could talk about in terms of that narrative and, and how that’s in a lot of ways, just a very American sort of like rugged individualism versus the collective. But what’s interesting to me is that you and your story are embodying how the data have led you to make these kinds of changes at multiple scales. And you hinted at that a little bit, but I’m wondering if you could talk about that from the perspective of, you know, so many people want to know that what they do matters. And so how have you found a way through, by looking at your own, by looking at your own emissions, by looking at sort of the collective pathways that we all need to take to get to where we need to go, where do you, where do you fall in terms of the, the importance of sort of personal action versus collective or institutional action?

Kim
Well, I really don’t draw any boundaries. I don’t make any judgments or even assessments that would make your question easily answerable, Jacquelyn. Because to me it’s just a, a blurry continuum and that would imply a linear space, which I don’t think it is, either. I actually think it’s just this like big overlapping circles and spheres that mash up together. And I try to recognize that everybody has a role to play that is unique to them, and what matters to them is going to be different than what matters to me. And what they see and what they gain energy from and what they’re empowered by is going to be unique to them. And so what I’m trying to do in this space is make room for however people would like to engage and champion what matters to them if it matters to them, and not tear down the ways that they choose to engage.

And one of the most profound lessons that I think I can bring that I hope to bring when I speak with the public, for example, is the idea that where you start is not where you end. The most important thing you do is start and lift each other up and, and walk the path together. And then we’ll look at the other person’s path and say, that’s an awesome fun path. I’m going to walk on that path with you for a bit. I’m going to do it a little differently, and that’s okay. And that’s such a critical thing. It’s not one and done. You don’t get to check a box. None of us get to check a box and say, well, I did my climate solution of the day. No way. This is a long haul structural slog, and the most important thing is taking that first step in setting the intention to be part of that path for the rest of your life.

Jacquelyn
So it sounds like this there’s this, false binary of, you know, because I often see like, Oh, you know, nothing, we do matters. And unless we have new people in office or, you know, nothing we do as individuals matters, it’s all the big oil executives, but it sounds like that’s really a false binary. And you know, I think often people get caught up in that false binary and they feel they feel disempowered. And I think it sounds like for you, that just kind of chucking that whole framework of thinking out the window opens up a lot of space for people to think about all the ways in which we can be impactful in ways that are meaningful for us and, and accessible for us.

Kim
Yeah, that’s right. And you know, I didn’t invent this, uh, philosophy and then live it. I found it by doing. It’s something that came to me when I realized kind of with shock, frankly, that walking my kids to school was such a gift, such a profound gift. I could not imagine I’d spent 14 years in the car previously. And driving to work the same. What a gift it was to bike. I knew I’d never go back and I became a daily walker and a daily biker and an all weather biker. And I thought, Oh my God, all those things that look like sacrifice before. And I think I’m doing this for the carbon, but I’m not, I’m doing this for me. And what else is out there that I’ve been missing out on, what the heck?! And so questioning all these assumptions that we take for granted, because of course you drive to work, of course you spend 15 minutes of your life idling in a queue of a hundred cars on the way to drop your kid off a mile from your home. This is how we’ve come to live. And it doesn’t have to be that way. And it’s quite beautiful when you invent a different way.

Ramesh
Yeah, it’s really amazing to hear how this sort of discovery, because right, as scientists, we love discovering unexpected things.

Kim
Right!

Ramesh
And we love seeing, um, you know, unexpected things in our data. So, you know, I’m curious to know how, you know, to go back to the point you were saying about how important it is to start. It sounded like, or it sounds like from what you’re describing, that the data caused you to start. Did the data help you turn those things into habits or did it just immediately, soon as you started walking your kids to school, you were like, Oh yeah, forget the carbon. This is just awesome.

Kim
Yeah. I mean, it’s both. I mean, I’d be lying if I said the carbon didn’t matter. But it’s actually quite a bit bigger than that now. So, I mean, carbon literacy is something I’m quite obsessed with, obviously, especially with all of my spreadsheeting, all of my teaching as well, right? So I taught a course for 10 years at Georgia Tech where I conduct a project called the carbon reduction challenge. And it’s basically like a competition that at its root will drive carbon literacy home to you for the rest of your life in ways you’ll never forget.

Ramesh
Right, right.

Kim
So come for the friendly competition with your teammates, but you know, stay for the carbon literacy. So as I kind of boned up through my own data, I’m ever looking for ways to kind of drive that number down in an effort to align myself with my goal of reducing my own consumption of carbon, but at the same time what has been, again, this amazing feedback loop is to recognize that, you know, when I moved to talk to my husband about solar panels, right through like a nuanced set of conversations, cause he’s not a carbon obsessive, even though he’s a climate scientist. You know, he through a series of conversations, kind of talking about cost and benefits, as we moved to get those panels and sharing that conversation with my broader peer group, with my students, with Twitter, other people were like, Hey, you know, that, that could be me, like that conversation could sound pretty familiar. And all of a sudden there are these kind of ripple effects and these network effects that start kind of resonating pretty strongly. And again, that was not my goal in starting to talk about solar panels with my husband, but lo and behold,here I am and five of my friends have gotten solar panels last year. So I’m not an evangelist for solar panels by any means, but yet people are interested in how they can be part of this. And that brings me to my last point. You know, I actually have carbon patients, like I’m actually a carbon therapist. I should really get paid for that.

Ramesh
Business cards, business cards, that’s what you need.

Kim
I really need to print some cards. That would be a great next step for my small business. But you know, I have these carbon patients and they write to me, uh, and they say, you know, “Kim, you’ve crunched all these numbers. You’re a scientist and you know carbon, you know, these how seeped into my life. So can you help me reduce my carbon footprint?” And I say, sure, let’s, let’s, let’s have some conversations, right? And so we look at some of their data and we start to think about would be impactful in their life. What would be meaningful for them? What do they care about? How does that overlap on some of the knobs they have access to? And so this kind of quickly becomes a way of engagement at a sphere that is like not individual, not family, but like, I don’t know, like neighborhood-y or, you know, near network-y not be discounted. I think it’s really important. I think the data will continue to show that that is a lever for change that most people don’t think about when they think about individual action and that it spans the individual to collective space in really interesting and quick ways.

Jacquelyn
Yeah. So it’s sort of, not even so much peer pressure as it is just empowerment that people see, Oh, that this is something that was accessible to Kim and maybe it’s accessible to me. It’s sort of norm and normalizing these kinds of behaviors. It doesn’t have to be about shaming it can actually just be about celebrating and empowering. Yeah, I really like that.

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Justin Schell
This is Justin Schell, the producer for Warm Regards. As part of this season on climate data, we’re featuring data stories that come from you, our listeners. Today’s story comes from Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttmann, who works with data from flowers and bees in order to better understand the effects of climate change.

Nicole Miller-Struttmann
I am Nicole Miller-Struttmann and I am an evolutionary ecologist. I study plant pollinator interactions. A lot of times I am working with bees these days, so learning about their behavior and learning about how their traits evolve through their interactions with plants. I use all kinds of data. I use data that was collected by scientists 50 years ago for other purposes that had nothing to do with climate change and nothing to do with the effects of climate change on plant pollinator interactions. But it’s through those historical data that we’re able to test how long term changes in climate influence plant pollinator interactions and their evolution. I also use data that we collect now, of course, that we can compare back to those historical data. And that includes collecting plants and pressing them or collecting bumblebees and releasing them. And then for either of those we might take measurements on them. So a really important trait for plant pollinator interactions is body size and also tongue length. And so we measure those traits in our bees, body size and tongue length. We also have to use climate data, data that is collected in order to track our weather and our climate on a regular basis in order to make connections between our bees, the behaviors that they’re exhibiting, the plants that they’re visiting, and the climate, particularly long-term changes in those relationships. A ton of additional data that I’m not even talking about, we use a lot of data to try to understand, and different kinds of data, to try to understand how these large scale climatic changes are influencing interactions.

In my career, I have looked at changes in flowering time in plants, in response to either warming or potentially restoration. We simply go out and we observe whether or not a plant is flowering and we count how many flowers. And then we can test whether or not the climate is influencing that flowering, either the timing or the number of flowers. And one of the things that we have found is that when we see lower abundances of flowers, so there’s just fewer flowers out there, bees have to visit flowers that in the past they never visited. So these are flower species that were there, but these bees didn’t prefer to visit them. And so they never did. And now what we’re seeing is they’re much more generalized. They’re visiting whatever flowers they possibly can. And that has led to a change in selection and actually evolution in this species, where we are seeing fewer bees that have long tongues. Climate, by driving changes in the plants has actually influenced the bumblebees that visit them. This has really important implications for how good of a pollinator that bee is for the plants. These relationships are incredibly important for the long term viability of the plants as well as our pollination systems.

Justin
Want to share your data story with us? We’d love to hear it. You can leave us a 90 second voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com. Make sure to say who you are and where you’re from. We’ll be featuring these stories throughout the season.

[music]

Jacquelyn
So this makes me think has anything kind of come out that you didn’t expect from this process?

Kim
Well, definitely when I added up the carbon of biking to work, it’s about 900 pounds per year.

Ramesh
Wow.

Kim
Does that sound like a lot to y’all?

Ramesh
No, that’s a big number.

Kim
Really, you think so? So when I run one cohort of 30 students over the course of 10 weeks this summer for the carbon reduction challenge that I’m conducting right now, they’re probably going to be avoiding the emissions of about 10 million pounds of carbon dioxide through their work.

Jacquelyn
Wow.

Ramesh
That’s awesome.

Jacquelyn
These are projects your students are coming up with that are having a cumulative impact of millions, of tens of millions, of pounds of carbon.

Kim
That’s correct. So those are some data that, you know, kind of smack me upside the head every once in a while, and remind me about where the opportunities really are. And you know, how my biking to work is really frankly no longer for the carbon. And I can’t pretend that it is, speaking of data. So those are some numbers that I tried to share with my students at the top of these cohorts of undergraduates. And I promise them that they really are changing the world. And then my biking to work really isn’t, and we all had a good chuckle.

Jacquelyn
So what can I ask as a follow up? Like what’s their secret? What are the sorts of things that they’re coming up with that are, you know, because I’m always interested in this question too, because often what people think is important and what is actually important are very, very separate. And there are, there are often these sort of hidden pools of carbon or hidden activities that we engage in versus the ones that have these like high optics values, right? Like, the biking to work.

Kim
Right.

Jacquelyn
And so often people will check the box and then think, okay, I’m set. But yeah, like what are, what are these solutions your students are coming up with and where are they finding these hidden pools of carbon that we can stop emitting?

Kim
Oh my God, everywhere. Well, you know, this is especially true in the Southeastern US. And we are fairly wasteful with energy down here, because energy has historically been pretty inexpensive compared to other places. And of course we haven’t had the benefit of some of the policymaking that has gone on, particularly in the Northeast and California, around energy efficiency. And so the kind of projects that the students are finding are really large scale energy efficiency projects. And, you know, Jacquelyn you talk about like, where is all this carbon hiding in plain sight? Well, there’s a lot of money where that comes from hiding in plain sight and that’s the trick. And so these students are working in partnership with usually fairly large organizations and they are developing, refining, and basically ultimately implementing wherever they can, pretty large scale energy efficiency projects that are trimming the carbon budgets of these very large organizations and saving them money. And so I try to tell the students that the visual that I have for what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to find a really, really big knob and they’re trying to change it just a fraction of an inch, a little lower. And that turns out to be huge in many cases.

Kim
So there’s an example I’ll share from one of our previous winners, from SunTrust. And they were, uh, looking into the car rentals, which are a very large number of car rentals for big organization like that per year. And they realized that the software that was written in, I don’t know, like probably the 1990s had a default of intermediate size car rental and they proposed to change it to economy size. And they did some surveys to understand, you know, how many people would opt back into intermediate versus be quite happy with the economy size. And so they proposed to the CEO to make this change. It was saving the company tens of thousands of dollars a year, of course, as well. And it was done the same day, like one line of code in a software package for a corporation like that and it was done. And so that’s the kind of thing that is just so pervasive across these large organizations. And, you know, we can’t except our own universities from this. We know from walking around our institutions that they’re incredibly wasteful and that we don’t really, aren’t quite mindful about how we use energy and what could we could be doing better. And so of course, you know, I would call the universities in the room as an important partner in this. And in fact, Georgia Tech has been partnering for the winning team about, you know, a third of the time, a student works with Georgia Tech to win the challenge.

Ramesh
That’s awesome.

Jacquelyn
Wow. Yeah, I remember hearing sort of first being aware of this work of yours when you were talking about just how much energy a single fume hood in a lab can emit by not lowering the sash. Which is like way more like, so the, the fume hood in my lab that we use, you know, not even every week of the year, I can have a bigger impact on, I guess if you could call it my personal budget by lowering that sash, then like any other personal choices that I could make combined.

Kim
Oh yes! That’s the ridiculous thing about this is that we are, we move through institutions and we move through large groups of people at our workplace or our kids schools, um, even at our churches or synagogues or mosques, etc, where we interact with energy systems in a way that we don’t question and we actually know nothing about. And so we hold ourselves kind of personally accountable to be mindful of these things, but really, we are missing some levers that are at our fingertips that are much, much bigger.

Jacquelyn
Yeah. And, and again, I don’t, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m saying, Oh, it doesn’t matter. We should, we should all have beef cheeseburgers every single day and, you know, go get them in our Hummers. But, it’s more that, cultivating carbon literacy as you’ve talked about is really powerful because when we have the sense of urgency and people, people often get really caught up in this anxiety over what it takes to, um, for political change or personal collective change, large scale social change when we may have so much low-hanging carbon fruit to pick. And just like these, like these knobs that you’ve talked about, you know, I feel like we’re all running around, we’re like ants running around trying to move a lot of these levers when there are some really big levers that, that, that you’ve identified just even in this conversation. I just think it’s a really powerful way of, you know, having some, some actual data about where these emissions come from, means that we could probably make more traction more quickly than we even realize, and we have more power to do that than is apparent to us. And that to me is incredibly inspiring. Like I feel very jazzed just by this conversation.

Kim
Well, I am glad, I’m so glad about that because of course, you know, my ultimate goal is to try to really help people understand, um, where some of this carbon lies, but also excite them to think about how could I, um, engage for change in ways that would give me more energy back than I put in. And so, you know, for me, it’s about the students. That’s a huge one for me. And when I get to look out over the cohort of students that have participated in the summer challenge, you know, and they’re all jazzed up and no matter where they came from as majors or years across campus, or what kind of corporation or company or single chair barbershop they intern for that summer, you know, they’re changed for life. That’s it for them, they’ll never forget the carbon literacy that they gained through the process. They never forget what it felt like to be an agent for change to champion innovation around sustainability, to make a business case to the C-suite for a change that is so glaringly obvious that they championed. They’ll never forget that. And, you know, I am grateful for all of their passion and purpose and I’m also, I feel so privileged to be along for that ride. And to me, you know, that’s what it means to be a professor at the end of the day. So when I get to have this like carbon mashup and this partnerships and these bright young people going out in the world, I’m just all fired up.

Ramesh
So Kim, I really like the analogy of knobs, because I think oftentimes in the conversation, and I’m curious what your experience has been with students. So I teach at a small undergraduate institution and oftentimes in conversations around climate change and climate solutions, students, no pun intended here, think of things like a light switch, right. I either stop doing it, turn the light switch off completely, or it’s on, there’s no in between. And so I’m wondering, like, what has that been like for your students to see and get access to knobs and realize that they can just turn things down a little bit and the impact that that’s having, and just the idea of what have you seen with your students around, Oh, I do have access to these knobs. What has that been like for you?

Kim
Well, you know, to me, they have taught me what’s achievable. They have taught me. So it’s my job to take the new cohort that we get. And they look at me like, you are crazy lady, if you think I’m going to achieve the things you’re talking about. And, you know, I say, okay, you know, I promise you, you actually will. The landscape is right for your success. You have what it takes. You have the support of your teammates as well. And you have these faculty mentors who are going to walk you down this process, but really what is most empowering about this process and watching them is just the richness of the initial ideas that they come to the table with. So I charge them to go brainstorm. I say, you know, open your eyes, look around, you can see wasteful practices and processes all around you. Bring a couple back, let’s talk about them and then pick the one that we think is going to be, you know, go the distance maybe, with some support and help. And the things they come back with are just like, Oh, you’re seriously like the most creative thing, I could never have come up with that. And you’re absolutely right. And I’d love to dig into that problem with you and support your calculations and help you make your pitch because this is a great idea.

Ramesh
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[music]

Jacquelyn
I would love to hear a little bit about what the reaction has been like from within the scientific community as your career and your work and your engagement and advocacy have evolved over time. I’m particularly thinking of, for example, you were turned down for, or an award was rescinded because of your choice not to receive it in person. Can you tell us a little bit about that or any other kinds of reactions that you’ve gotten from the community?

Kim
Yes. I mean, I think first, uh, you know, we’ve talked a lot about kind of the personal sphere, we’ve spoken about the carbon reduction challenge and kind of the student facing work. What we haven’t really talked about is the professional pivot into climate solutions that I’ve been undertaking since 2016 as well. And there is a lot of attention that people pay to flying less. And I would say like half of my media engagement is about flying less. People are just obsessed with flying and especially with like my flying choices, you know, and I love that we haven’t actually talked about that in this conversation so far. Because I hope it helps your listeners understand that the flying piece is a very small part of this puzzle and it tends to be the one that people gravitate towards because it’s like, people think it’s crazy or it’s obviously controversial. But, yes, it’s something that I’ve come to find deeply rewarding for me. And I also think it challenges structural and social norms in important ways.

But yes, there was some tension last year earlier this year, I guess when there was a plenary that was rescinded, because I wouldn’t go do that plenary in person. I was going to offer to appear remotely and to, you know, do a lot of other remote and virtual awesome things in support of my presence there at the meeting, but alas, um, it didn’t work out. And so some, some lectures and, um, some plenaries and some very fancy things have been rescinded because I chose not to be there in person as part of my new, new life, part of my new norms for myself. And that, that is very disappointing. But there are some really powerful accelerators that are in place right now to help individuals and institutions and professional societies move into alignment, uh, towards our low carbon future. How do we mindfully build something different to support, uh, the operation and all the fun and value of science when we’re not flying 150,000 miles a year per person.

Ramesh
So, you know, you talked about the sort of negative reaction, you know, with this award being rescinded. Have you seen your habits spreading, have you seen positive, and received support from your colleagues who said, yeah, you know what, I live five houses down from Kim. I can walk a mile .01 more with my kids to school as well, you know? Have you seen that sort of stuff?

Kim
Well, there definitely are some people who are biking, who never would have started biking, had I not started biking and expressed so much joy about it and can’t shut up about it. Because like I’m like that biker that’s just, I just love it. You talk about things you love, that’s why.

Ramesh
Right, right, yeah.

Kim
That’s why. But there are some changes that have kind of rippled out into that next sphere across all of the things that I’ve done, including the flying less, And, you know, I talk about that on Twitter. I try not to talk about it too much on Twitter, even though it is something I love and value about, you know, my own personal choices. I really find it incredibly enjoyable to stay on the ground. But I’ve noticed on Twitter that it’s kind of the younger generation of scientists is kind of like, Oh, curious and, Oh, that’s kind of neat. And I wonder if I could ever do that and like have a viable career, wouldn’t that be kind of neat.

Ramesh
Right.

Kim
Um, FYI, like I can’t right now Kim, um, which is absolutely the case. Um, and then there some people who are, um, I would say very caustic about that particular piece, it’s like the third rail. They view it as damaging to the movement and even, you know, talking about my biking passions is damaging. And so, you know, without recognizing the spectrum and the complexity of what we have unpacked today, um, and the ways in which I don’t view these things as, you know, binary choice, the way I see them reinforcing each other. All of those things are lost, unfortunately to the wolves on Twitter often. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s been, um, kind of fraught in those very specific and narrow ways, but I have to say in those general way, it’s been wonderful to see an entire global community of people dedicated to climate solutions, kind of be built from the ground up. Frankly, in desperation. And as we move to be more inclusive of each other as approaches, as we move away from the caustic rhetoric of it’s my way or the highway, and thee check boxes of this is how you be an effective climate solver. We will actually be more and more successful, which is something I feel growing as our desperation increases.

Jacquelyn
So I think, you know, we just have a few minutes left, but what I would love to hear a little bit about is, you know, you have this incredibly powerful, personal story of your journey through data. As a scientist who collected that data in the field and then had this up close and personal experience of seeing the impacts of your research affect your study system in real time. And then how that motivated you to all kinds of changes and empowered you to make changes and a pivot in your own career and in your life. So I actually have a couple of questions for you just to sort of wrap up the first is how do you, as an instructor, as an advocate, you know, you must also hear from people with a lot of anxiety and that who want to help. I know I certainly do, and I don’t do a fraction of what you do. So how do you sort of counsel or lead students or younger scientists or activists through dealing with their own feeling of being stuck? Like how do you help guide them out of that despair and into action?

Kim
Well, you know, I guess I, first just reflect on what I’ve talked about today, and I hope I’ve hammered home, which is, the way that I got out of my climate funk may look very different than your path. But here are some things that really, really, really helped me. And what I realized was staying in a corner, paralyzed by inaction, overwhelmed, angry, despairing, frustrated is the worst place to be. And so again, kind of outlining for yourself, this is a lifelong path. It’s a process. And I don’t know where I’m going yet, but I know the direction I’m pointed in, and here’s a step I’m going to take. And then know that as you go, you’re the one who gets the data back, what does the data look like? The data looks like, gee, I found that really meaningful. I found some community there that really helps me keep going. I gained more energy from that thing. Then I put in, that’s the data that helps you understand you’re on the right path. And those are the meaningful things you can grow. So that’s kind of what I talk to people about, and I try to help unpack my own journey in that light and help them understand just how many touch points there are. And there, I mean, goodness, when I give a public talk, I probably outline 20 or 30 just in unpacking my story, but hopefully there’s something there that sparks somebody to say, I don’t want to be stuck here anymore.

Jacquelyn
And then just finally, as someone who, as a scientist who made a pivot from, from generating earth science data to thinking about what we do with that information and how do we get to where we need to be? What do you think is the role of data going into the future? Are we done collecting data? Do we know what we need to know about the earth system? What role does data have to play in the climate crisis going forward?

Kim
Ooh, this is really an answer for times, I suppose, and it’s kind of where we are, but maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong sorts of data. And the data that I’m really interested in right now in my own work are the data that help me understand the depths of the crisis around climate justice, around racial justice, around structural inequities in my own backyards in Atlanta. And of course across the globe. Those are the data that I think are going to have to drive us into the new frontiers of climate research, frankly. And it is those data that are now keeping me up at night, you know, even more so than the data about the ongoing bleaching crisis across the Great Barrier Reef. These data have been there forever. They haven’t moved very much in the right direction, and if we don’t start paying attention to them and building research around them to solve those challenges, I think we’re going to be in a horrible place going forward with, with climate change in general,

Jacquelyn
That’s really, that’s incredibly powerful and I know I’ve been really motivated. I just want to thank you so much for, for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate hearing your story, and I feel really inspired by just you and your actions.

Kim
Thank you guys so much, and I’m so inspired by you having such an incredible spate of guests on, it’s a profound honor to be sharing my story with you today.

Jacquelyn
Well, thanks for being a part of it.

Ramesh
Thanks so much, Kim.

[music]

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions. You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice on our brand new website, WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people learn about our show is if you leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear what you think about our new season! You can reach us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com our find us on Twitter at @ourwarmregards.

This season of Warm Regards is made possible by our patrons on Patreon, including Auriel Fournier and Nicolas Cortes-Penfield. Their donations help pay our great team members Justin, Joe, and Katherine for all of their hard work. If you’re interested in supporting the show, you can go to patreon.com/warmregards. There’s also links to the page in our show notes and website. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

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