Strauss ‘90 discusses sea level rise in Environmental Speaker Series

Naomi Yaeger and Malachai Abbott

Chief Scientist and CEO of the organization Climate Central Dr. Benjamin Strauss ‘90, discussed the scientific causes and effects of sea level rise at the second installment of the Environmental Issues Speaker Series on Tuesday night. Lauren B. Kim (11) and Brandon Pae (12) co-moderated the event along with faculty moderators and Upper Division science teachers Camilla Nivison and Oleg Zvezdin.

Strauss’ nonprofit organization pairs journalists and scientists to share research on climate change with the public and with policy makers, according to the speaker series website. Climate Central has two main initiatives: providing data and graphics that illustrate climate change’s effects on weather to US meteorologists and providing maps of sea levels to identify populations at risk of flooding. While Climate Central publishes on all of climate change, the organization’s main focus is sea level rise. 

During the event, Strauss spoke about the different factors driving sea level rise. Strauss said that 90% of the world’s excess heat is absorbed by the oceans. Because water expands when it gets warmer, this has been the cause of most of the sea level rise in the 20th century. Additionally, warming temperatures cause ice to melt, he said. As the melting takes time, a lot of the effects of sea level rise have already been put into motion, he said. “Even if we stopped polluting tomorrow, the seas will continue to rise, probably for centuries,” he said.

In the event, Strauss also discussed the historical evidence for floods 10,000 to 20,000 years ago within the context of flood myths from the Abrahamic religions and the Aborigine peoples. Zvezdin enjoyed hearing about historical examples of changes in climate, he said. “We’ve had periods of low seas and very high seas in the past, and I found it very interesting to tie all of those together, if you will, from mythical, biblical stories of floods to sea level rise and climate change,” he said.

Ashley Coburn (10) also found the historical examples of climate change engaging, she said. “The most interesting part for me was when he connected climate change and sea level rise back to Noah’s Ark and all of these ancestral stories,” she said. A consistent theme running through all of these stories was that the rise in sea levels was meant to punish a community for some wrong-doing, Coburn said. However, Strauss pointed out that this time humans can stop the seas from rising. 

Kim’s favorite part of the event was when Strauss discussed how he addresses climate skeptics, she said. “I really liked his response of how he does not really pay attention to those who are really skeptical about it, but rather focuses on those who are just midway between wanting to help and not wanting to help,” Kim said. “Those are the people that I think we can most focus on and who we have the best chance of getting to help preserve the environment and fight climate change.”

Another interesting part of the series was when Strauss explained the man-made causes of Hurricane Sandy, Isa Melián (10) said. “15% of the damage from the storm was completely caused by human-caused climate change,” she said. Strauss went on to illustrate the disproportionate amount of attention that richer neighborhoods get from flooding in proportion to less wealthy communities, Melián said. When a storm hits Miami Beach, everyone pays attention, but when areas such as Atlantic City flood, the media is noticeably absent, she said. 

Beyond illustrating the urgent problems that climate change poses, Stauss also discussed potential solutions, Nivison said. “I was struck by his response that, of the problems of the world, climate change would be the easiest to solve,” she said. “He compared it to injustice, where there’s much more nuance. But this is something where we have the science, and we know what needs to be done.”

Zvezdin was also interested in Strauss’ claim that climate change could have already been solved. “The reality is right, we have the technology to move away from carbon now in a lot of ways,” he said. “I do think that with a surge of funding and capital, we could transition to completely renewable, completely carbon free electricity production.”

Kim chose to moderate the event because she cares about preserving the environment and wanted to help students learn more about climate change, she said. “It’s an opportunity that I really didn’t get anywhere else, and to be able to serve as a connection between the audience and the speaker was a really valuable opportunity for me,” she said.

To keep the event running smoothly, the moderators had to sort through all of the student questions to figure out which they should ask next, Zvezdin said. “There’s a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes,” he said. “We’re all in communication, trying to figure out what the next question is going to be, if it’s going to lead to something else or to some other interesting point.”

As a general strategy, the moderators tried to ask more general questions leading into more specific ones, Pae said. To make the large number of questions more manageable, the moderators asked questions that focused around Strauss’ work in sea level, which eventually led into questions about how people could be inspired to take action, he said.

Coming away from the event, Nivison hopes that students learned about the logistics of sea level rise, she said. “I hope that students that didn’t know as much about it were able to learn what’s causing sea level rise and where sea level rise is affecting people now,” Nivison said. “It’s important to think about who’s been contributing to climate change and who’s been affected because it’s often not the same.”

Pae found the event to be very meaningful, he said. “Connecting with someone who’s a professional in this field, like how Strauss was, is the most valuable experience,” Pae said. “I’m definitely feeling more inspired now to start tackling climate change and specifically rising sea level.”