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An Earth Scientist's Urgent Mission Takes Shape at Rutgers

Robert Kopp builds a multidisciplinary response to climate change

Bob KoppJOHN CHADWICK/RUTGERS TODAY–Back in his student days, Robert Kopp was fascinated with astrobiology, a field that poses big questions about life on other planets.

But he increasingly found himself drawn to questions about life on this planet. Unsettling questions, like: Are humans reshaping climate in a way that could be catastrophic for civilization?

“I became interested in the Earth and how it evolved over time,” says the 32-year-old professor of earth and planetary sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences. “And it became clear to me that as a society we have critical challenges to deal with.”

One of Kopp’s principal research interests involves analyzing historical patterns of sea-level change to improve projections of future shifts. Last year he and several other geoscientists at Rutgers and Tufts universities warned that the sea-level rise will likely cause storms to bring historically unprecedented flooding to the Jersey Shore by the middle of the 21st century.

But Kopp’s engagement with climate change transcends any single area of study. He has become an influential public scholar, bringing together scientists from different fields, advising government officials on policy, and, in general, building a unified, multi-disciplinary response to climate change.

His determination to share knowledge beyond traditional academic audiences helped him get selected as a 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. He and 19 other mid-career academic environmental scientists will join a network of past fellows and program advisers who work with academic, business, government and nonprofit leaders to solve society’s pressing environmental and sustainability challenges.

He approaches his roles – whether as teacher, researcher, or policy adviser – with a strong sense of mission.

“Humanity has become one of the most powerful geological forces on the planet,” Kopp says. “We have to develop the decision-making capabilities appropriate for a planetary civilization, or we are going to end up making life unpleasant for ourselves and potentially untenable for our grandchildren.”

He recently served as lead scientist for the technical report underlying the Risky Business project organized by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, and the philanthropist and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

The report drew widespread media coverage with its prediction that unmitigated climate change would have a devastating impact on America’s economy, including large scale loss of coastal property, reduced labor productivity, and shifting crop yields and agricultural patterns.

For Kopp, one of the important parts of the experience was working alongside economists. Prior to coming to Rutgers, he was involved in similar collaborative efforts, including a stint as a fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy.

“What I learned in government is that science is just one of many inputs into policy making,” he said. “Learning how to talk to social scientists is an important part of getting science to inform policy.”

It’s no surprise Kopp is involved in policy. His mother is a former Maryland legislator and the current state treasurer. His father served for years as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I was raised in an environment saturated in policy discussions,” the Bethesda, Maryland, native says. “I grew up constantly thinking about national policy issues.”

At Rutgers, his course, “Building and Maintaining a Habitable Planet,” draws a broad cross-section of undergraduates with its examination of climate issues.

And as associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, he helps integrate the university’s expertise in science, engineering, economics, and public policy toward the goal of decarbonizing the global energy system. The abundance of scholars at Rutgers offers hope for the future, he said.

“You have a couple dozen faculty members whose work touches on coastal climate resilience, and dozens of others working on climate and energy systems.” he said. “I am not sure there are many institutions in the world where you have that many scholars stretching the entire research chain, from basic geoscience to urban design.”

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.