Tonight, President Obama will give his sixth State of the Union address before a televised joint session of Congress. Among the special guests will be one climate scientist, Nicole Hernandez Hammer, whose specialty is sea level rise.
I had a chance to speak to her about her research and her work with Moms Clean Air Force to “mobilize the Latino community to understand and address the devastating effects that disproportionately affect the health of Hispanics and their families.”
Certainly the state of the climate is not good. And in a year filled with worrisome climate reports, the most alarming news was that the West Antarctic ice sheet and Greenland were far less stable than previously thought, which means we are headed towards the higher level projections for sea level rise — a few feet or more this century — especially if we don’t sharply curtail carbon pollution ASAP. As the New York Times warned, that would mean that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned.”
I asked Hammer how she became interested in climate science and specifically sea level rise. In part it was her upbringing. She was born in Guatemala. Her parents instilled in her a love of the natural world. When she was 4, her family immigrated to South Florida, where sea level rise and flooding affects everyone. Then, in 1992, when she was 16, her family lived through the devastating Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, when “our house fell apart around us — literally.”
“I have felt the power of Nature and I know what it can do and how it can transform a community,” she explained. Because she also knows the threat posed by climate change and sea level rise, she felt an obligation to share that knowledge, especially with parents. As a mother, she was drawn to Moms Clean Air Force, whose work Climate Progress has often featured.
Hammer has spent a lot of time mapping the most endangered low-lying areas in southeast Florida and learned that many Latino communities are especially threatened. She takes political leaders, scientists, and the media to visit some of the most at-risk areas during high tide, where people can see them flood even on cloudless days. In 2013, Grist wrote up one of those trips with Hammer, who was then assistant director for research at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies.
What are people’s responses to these tours? “People are stunned how much investment is going into areas that are already flooding,” she told me. “Even researchers in climate change are stunned.” And since Southeast Florida rests on porous limestone, you can’t protect it from sea level rise the way you can protect many other places in the world. That’s why, as many leading experts have pointed out, parts of southeast Florida may simply be unsaveable, especially if we don’t cut carbon pollution sharply ASAP.
This painful scientific reality “makes me really sad,” she explained, but it also has motivated her to leave academia to focus on her work with Moms Clean Air Force (and the Union of Concerned Scientists) helping the Latino community understand the disproportionate danger posed to them by carbon pollution and climate change:
“I left academia because I spent years working with my colleagues to settle the debate on climate change. The debate is settled, our climate is changing, our seas are rising. Now is the time for action. I worked to confirm that the climate is changing and now I am working on behalf of my son for action — we need to fight climate change today.”
Her goal is to educate people on the risk, and to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy and adaptation. Kudos to the First Lady for bringing attention to this inspirational scientist.
One addendum for cinema fanboys and girls. Yes, her brother is Oscar Isaac [Hernandez], star of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Most Violent Year” — who will be seen in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Quite a family!