By Mari Megias
October 28, 2019
Rising sea levels. Devastating storms. Catastrophic flooding. The effects of global warming are real, and they’re getting worse. Those on the southeastern coasts of the United States are particularly vulnerable to the impact of glacial melting and severe hurricanes.
For people living in poverty, climate change is especially perilous while awareness of climate change policy is low. But Albert George MPP 2001, HKSEE 2004 aims to change this by bringing the conversation about climate change to some of the most marginalized populations in South Carolina and Georgia.
“How do you educate the people not only from cities but rural poor?” he asks. As the first director of conservation for the South Carolina Aquarium, George is well positioned to take on this challenge. He also understands the people he is trying to reach. “To say my family and my roots are in small-town America is an understatement,” he says.
He hails from the “low country,” a coastal plain that runs from the Sandhills in South Carolina to Georgia. George was 13 when his single mother passed away. He was then raised by his grandmother in Savannah. “My grandmother was of the era where you had to overcome major barriers to get an education,” says George, whose forebears were brought from West Africa to work as slaves in the low country’s rice plantations. “For her, having access to education was the paramount thing you can do in your lifetime.”
With his grandmother’s urging, George accepted a scholarship to attend Savannah State University, where he studied marine biology. From there, he received fellowships to attend Yale University and Harvard Kennedy School.
“I wanted to come to the Kennedy School because of issues around equity and access to science and technology,” he says. While he was at HKS, the spring exercise was on climate change. “This was the first moment where I felt my marine science background could be melded with science and technology policy. HKS brought all the threads together.”
His education in marine biology, climate change, and public policy has now come full circle through RICE, a program he designed for the South Carolina Aquarium. RICE, which stands for Resilience Initiative for Coastal Education, helps people understand how they can prepare for climate change and rising sea levels.
“It dawned on me that we cannot just think about mitigation,” says George. “We have to get people prepared for the current state of affairs.” Named in honor of the slaves who were brought to South Carolina to work in the rice industry, RICE allows policymakers to understand the challenges that residents are facing, such as the higher frequency of more intense storms and flooding without rain due to higher tidal cycles, which are occurring at records levels in the southeastern U.S. corridor.
RICE included more than 20 town halls, a documentary film, and a data visualization tool. The South Carolina Aquarium also received a federal grant in summer 2019 to partner with Virginia Institute of Marine Science, part of William & Mary, to develop a sophisticated 3D Inundation Supercomputer Modelling Tool that will help predict and mitigate the risks of future floods and storm surges.
“The people who live in the communities every day are seeing the change more than we who sit in our policy domes,” says Albert. “We are coming to the community to partner with them, and we can learn from them, we can have them participate in the data acquisition, then plan and introduce the data sets to the people doing the risk mitigation.”
He says he wants to empower the community to hold the “flame of knowledge.” And once they are empowered, he says they can serve as their own best advocates, “not only to the people in the community but the people working on policy.”