Coasting on the still waters of a clear-as-glass lake in northwestern Wisconsin, a young Jeremy Hoffman, lies in wait aboard a bass boat filled with fishing line and bait. He peers out at a mammoth boulder in the lake's center, using its waterline as a tool to predict the likelihood he'll catch fish, like northern pike or walleye, on this annual family trip.
Such was Hoffman's first taste of the scientific method.
"Out on that lake, I became involved in environmentalism, in a sense, without knowing it," says the geologist and climate science communicator. "Every year when we went fishing, my dad and I would look at how much rain had fallen, the temperature over the last few weeks, and start to actually form scientific predictions."
As a teen, Hoffman spent his days outside biking, fishing, and hiking. Having always felt drawn to the outdoors, he enrolled in an unforgettable two-week geology trip to study rocks in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska just before starting his first year at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
"[That experience] unlocked this huge, unknown world to me," says Hoffman. "And the best part was that I realized I could combine my love of hiking and being in the mountains with learning and science."
Today, Hoffman is a newly elected AAAS Fellow and the David and Jane Cohn Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia. An affiliate faculty member in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, he studies present-day distributed climate risk in urban environments. In other words, he looks at how people are disproportionately affected by climate change to foreshadow the investments governments will need to make to offset those effects in the future.
Not everyone in a city feels the impacts of climate change in the same way, says Hoffman. Often, marginalized communities of color are the most impacted. They generally make up most of the population living in urban areas that are hotter and less climate-change resilient, due to policies decided on by a small number of people. People of color in Richmond, for example, experience higher rates of ambulance visits for heat-related illnesses.
This work dovetails with his other research interest: understanding what makes a person want to plant a tree in their backyard or turn off their air conditioner in the name of the planet. Increasing environmental literacy — getting people who maybe don't self-identify as environmentalists to change their behavior to become more climate-resilient — is a challenge that the geologist has been trying to solve for years.
Examining and learning from the myriad misconceptions that people have about their changing climate comes with the territory. When Hoffman asks people how they're preparing for a future world shaped by climate change, the biggest misconception he encounters is one of time and space.
"We continually run into the idea that climate change isn't happening here, and it's not happening now. People underestimate the severity of the impacts of climate change today and where they disproportionately occur," he says.
People also tend to underestimate the degree to which urban planning decisions — the way that human environments and landscapes are designed — contribute to or amplify climate change. Hoffman says that Virginia's transportation system accounts for the largest share of the state's climate-altering carbon emissions. But it's not planes, trains, or freight trucks that are emitting the most carbon — it's single-occupancy vehicles. Namely, the cars Virginians use to drive to work in the mornings or pick up their kids from soccer practice.
"Getting people to recognize the relationship between development patterns, their carbon emissions, our collective carbon emissions, and then how that relates to the way forward and the benefits of taking climate actions based on that information… that's the goal."
While research is a big part of Hoffman's job, so is knowing how to effectively communicate with his audience—people who will bear the brunt of climate change's effects. Hoffman's strategy? — connecting people with the changing planet through community programs and immersive exhibits. His own creative communication style, which he's developed from years of delivering stand-up comedy to crowds in dim college basements and even the odd roller derby, is something else he relies on. Publications ranging from The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR) to STEM Jobs Magazine and UPWORTHY have covered the climate communicator’s work.
"I want to live in a world where your zip code no longer determines your life expectancy," says Hoffman. "And climate change adaptation, mitigation and action can help us realize that world."