News & Ideas

Amid Climate Disaster, a Ray of Hope

Portrait of Rob Verchick leaning against a handrail.
Photo by Tony Rinaldo

After experiencing Hurricane Katrina’s devastation firsthand, Rob Verchick devotes himself to promoting climate adaptation.

The sun was shining down on a restful Radcliffe campus last fall as Robert Verchick described an invisible hurricane scouring the ocean floors and adding to the unimpeded rise of global warming.

The deadly force isn’t an act of nature, he explained, it’s a man-made environmental nightmare swirling in the ocean depths: a roiling column of seawater and sand caused by the mining of black rocks about the size of a russet potato called polymetallic nodules. Filled with lithium, cobalt, and nickel, these valuable rocks contain the key ingredients that power our phones, electric cars, and more.

“It’s affecting the light and the oxygen and all the things that animals and plants need,” said Verchick, Radcliffe’s 2023–2024 Frances B. Cashin Fellow. “These massive clouds are even contributing to greenhouse gases because they send carbon trapped in calcium deposits up to the ocean’s surface, where it’s released back into the atmosphere.”

Fortunately, Verchick is here to help.

A leading scholar in disaster and climate change law, a professor, a podcaster, and an author, Verchick has spent most of his career trying to save the planet and encouraging others to do the same. At Radcliffe, he is working on his latest book, “Nemo’s Fever,” which examines a range of human-fueled disasters facing the world’s oceans—such as mining, overfishing, acidification, and rising tides and temperatures. He is also exploring how scientists, politicians, and the general public can help—his latest effort to highlight the importance of climate resilience, which he describes as “preparing for the problems climate change will inevitably bring so we can buy ourselves time to slow carbon pollution.”

An Early Love of the Landscape

Becoming an environmental crusader wasn’t a given for the Las Vegas native. Most of the adults he knew worked in casinos, except for his grandfather, an artist who liked to paint in nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, often taking his grandson along. It was on those outings that a young Verchick learned to love the desert through his grandfather’s eyes. “Seeing an adult care so much about beauty and the outdoors made a big impression on me,” Verchick said, as did his favorite show at the time, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

The first from his family to attend college, Verchick studied English at Stanford. He applied to law school because he liked the “philosophy behind the discipline” and because he wanted to keep reading. “Being an English major was all about the close readings of text, telling and understanding stories, and considering the alternate meanings of every word,” said Verchick, “and that’s what lawyers do.”

He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989 and worked for a Seattle firm, specializing in family and environmental law. But Verchick had long favored the idea of a classroom over a courtroom and soon took a job as a professor of law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Today, he is the Guathier-St. Martin Eminent Scholar and Chair in Environmental Law at Loyola University New Orleans. The author of numerous academic works and articles focused on environmental disaster law and policy reform, Verchick shifted to writing for the widest audience possible, he told a Radcliffe crowd recently, because the climate crisis is “too urgent.” His book The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience (Columbia University Press, 2023) is for nonexperts, whom he takes on a tour of Louisiana’s bayous, a refuge for Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, and coral reefs off Key Largo. He also walks readers through the steps they can take to adapt to the climate crisis and sees his Radcliffe project as an extension of that work.

Photo by Tony Rinaldo

Saving the Deep Blue Sea

Verchick’s interest in the oceans is nothing new. During his earlier research, he studied coral restoration along the Florida coast and traveled to French Polynesia, where he met a scientist trying to gauge how fish react to different temperatures. The water off a little island in the South Pacific where she studied was “too warm,” she told him, “and it’s not going to cool down anytime soon.”

Her comment got Verchick thinking about how doctors treating patients with fevers will offer nourishment and space to recover when they can’t cool them down right away. “That’s really what climate adaptation is mostly about,” said Verchick. “It’s taking away the stressors that you can control, because you’ve got other stressors that you can’t.”

In his new book, he plans to outline how relieving certain controllable stressors on coral, kelp, or fisheries will allow the ocean to use its “extra fighting power to respond to the heat.

“It’s like telling cancer patients they need to stop smoking,” said Verchick. “That’s job number one.” He is particularly interested in how to mitigate overfishing, a man-made strain that’s devastating the oceans’ vital ecosystems. One possible answer is to create alternating no-fishing zones in marine protected areas with the support of the fishing industry. He also sees promise in the US presidential power to establish national monuments. George W. Bush used the authority in 2006 to create the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii. Ten years later, Barak Obama used the same power to expand the sanctuary’s boundaries.

“We need to be thinking about how we can use laws to protect those ocean areas” while also instituting broad-scale reforms, said Verchick. He points to Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, an 842-square-mile section of ocean off the coast of Massachusetts designated a protected marine area in 1992 as part of the reauthorization of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. Today, Stellwagen is a prime feeding ground for humpback whales. But in 20 or 30 years, it’s possible that the whales will have moved further north because the water is going to be too warm. Yet the sanctuary will remain in the exact same place because it’s based on geography, not need. That’s the kind of thing Verchick wants to change.

“We have inherited a system that’s foreign, that shallow, that’s fixed. We need a system that’s engaging, that’s deep meaning, that’s dynamic, and that changes as needed.”

As part of his Radcliffe project, Verchick, working with a trio of student researchers, is scouring the Schlesinger Library’s archives and other places for strategies. He is reviewing the early speeches of the famous oceanographer and former Bunting fellow Sylvia Earle. Verchick, who has met with Earle in the past, likes to use her line “no blue, no green”—meaning no water, no lush vegetation on Earth’s surface—and supports her effort to develop a global network of marine protected areas. He is also reviewing the Schlesinger’s records of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, hoping to learn from their “good work” with Massachusetts fisheries. “They started out to protect the safety and the well-being of their husbands who were fisherman,” said Verchick. “And now they have an environmental mission to protect the fisheries themselves.”

Seeing Climate-Related Disaster Up Close

It’s one thing to study the effects of climate change and disaster policy. It’s another to live through a climate-related disaster. In early 2005, Verchick, his wife, and their three children relocated to New Orleans for his new job at Loyola. Nine months later, they had been displaced by a massive storm surge, fueled by Hurricane Katrina, that killed close to 1,400 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

With their house flooded, Verchick’s family temporarily moved to Washington state. He himself evacuated with the Loyola staff, students, and faculty to Houston, Texas, where he taught his classes for the rest of the year, returning to New Orleans on weekends to work on repairs. “I had fallen in love with the place,” he said, “and we all decided that we were going to stay and that we wanted to be a part of the recovery because we really felt like we were part of something.”

In the days and weeks that followed Katrina, Verchick found himself inundated with media calls. People wanted to know the facts from a disaster expert: “What comes next?” His days were filled with video interviews and with flights between Houston and Washington, DC, to meet with policy experts.

In the years after the storm, Verchick not only rebuilt his flooded house but also honed his professional focus. “From the moment Katrina hit,” he said, “I was certain I wanted to spend the rest of my career working on climate resilience.”

“From the moment Katrina hit, I was certain I wanted to spend the rest of my career working on climate resilience.”

Understanding Resilience

Although he had long understood the concept, Verchick said his efforts to define the idea of resilience truly took shape during his service with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2009, as a member of Obama’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, he found himself convincing high-level administrators that moving their labs from flood-prone areas wasn’t the only change they should be considering. Together, they began discussing wider measures, including creating stricter emissions standards to account for a warming planet and strengthening water-quality regulations in the face of increasing droughts.

“I really didn’t even have the language around resilience until I was with people at the EPA,” said Verchick, “and we started thinking about how we were going to protect people and the environment in the midst of climate change.”

Resilience also means thinking strategically when going green. He cites certain efforts at reducing pollution and waste that he considers anti-resilient, including thermal solar projects in the southwest that use reflective mirrors to concentrate heat onto a fluid that is boiled to make turbines run. “Thermal power generation requires cooling,” he said. “And most of the time when you need cooling, you use water. And if you’re in a place with water scarcity, that’s a problem.”

Deep-sea mining is another well-meaning attempt at sustainability, one Verchick believes is creating an ecological disaster. His answer is to direct the money and time spent on mining two miles down “toward figuring out how we substitute those minerals for use in batteries,” he said. “I’m happy to say that Tesla and Google and Apple and many other large companies that depend on those minerals are in favor of a moratorium on deep-sea mining because they are aware of consequences and that there’s a way to substitute these minerals with others.”

Finding Hope

Verchick is quick with a laugh and speaks with a kind of infectious enthusiasm one might not associate with a climate-disaster specialist. But he has seen positive change in action and believes in the future generation of committed activists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens eager for change.

Discussing his 2023 book with a group of college students last year, he assured them they were part of his core audience because of their knowledge, their ability, and their desire to make a difference. “I told them I wrote the book for people their age,” said Verchick, “because I think they have power, and I am not interested in talking to anybody who doesn’t have power.”

He encouraged the students to “find those people who share your interest and add climate into the mix so you can learn more about how wine or gardening or animals are affected by climate change.” By embracing that kind of approach “you aren’t doing anything new, you are just expanding the interest, and that’s a foothold,” Verchick said. “Then the climbing is one step at a time.”

To help keep his own spirits up when things seem bleak, Verchick takes solace in writing and teaching and in a shelf jammed with books on the subject of hope that he began compiling after Katrina.

He often finds himself returning to the words of the late South African bishop and human rights activist Desmond Tutu for inspiration. Despite living “through all kinds of terrifying and tragic history,” Verchick said, Tutu continued to believe in the power of hope and community, declaring that hope “means you think there is a chance that if people get together and work hard, you can turn something around, and that as long as there’s a chance, it’s our job to work for it.”

“For me,” said Verchick, “that’s enough.”

Colleen Walsh is a freelance writer.

 Listen to Rob Verchick talk about climate resilience in an episode of BornCurious.

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine home page.

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