Sea Grant Law Fellow Shifts Career from Science to Policy

Former Sea Grant Law Fellow John Ryan-Henry didn’t originally set out to be a lawyer. Now a dual J.D./Masters of Marine Affairs student, he spent his undergraduate career majoring in geology at Brown University.

“I thought that I was on the way to becoming a scientist,” he says. “I loved learning about how the earth works as a set of interrelated systems… I felt like it was important.”

ryan_henryRyan-Henry soon found himself drawn to climate science, and especially the study of climate systems on a human timescale. “The more I learned about it, the more I understood climate change as a relevant problem.” This fascination with the physical science of climate change naturally led to a curiosity about the social science. “I started to learn why people don’t buy into it as a problem; what’s complicated about it.”

“[Climate change] is a big challenge that we will end up dealing with,” he explains. “But no one knows how we’re going to deal with it.” The urgency of this challenge was what motivated his eventual decision to pursue a degree in law.  “I realized that I would be most useful not generating new scientific information about climate change but instead being part of the social and government response to climate change.”

As it was an oceanography class that had originally ignited Ryan-Henry’s love of geology as an undergraduate, he decided that the joint-degree program of Roger Williams University (RWU) and the University of Rhode Island, in which students earn a law degree and a master’s of marine affairs, would be a perfect fit for him.

As a law student at RWU, Ryan-Henry also had an opportunity to become a Rhode Island Sea Grant Law Fellow, a program in which students get hands-on experience performing legal research for community groups, government agencies, environmental organizations, and businesses.

As a law fellow, Ryan-Henry worked with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), which regulates land use and environmental protection for coastal areas. He helped with the development of the Shoreline Erosion Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP), a document that outlines Rhode Island’s plans for dealing with climate change-related impacts of sea level rise and increased storms.

Most recently, he has done legal research on flood insurance reform. With rising sea levels and more frequent and intense storms elevating the risk of flooding for many coastal communities, the question of who will cover the costs if and when damages occur is looming.  “We have a tremendous amount of our housing stock in the country in floodplains and in areas that are exposed to hazards already, and those hazard areas are going to grow as sea level rises,” he explains.

“You learn in law school that insurance rules the world,” he laughs. Insurance policy affects things like where buildings are built and what kinds of safety regulations they have to comply with – both important components of adaptation to climate change along the coast. Ryan-Henry hopes that insurance policy reform can help to reduce future damages and increase the safety of coastal communities in the face of hazards like storms and flooding.

Climate change adaptation is a complicated problem, but it is one that Ryan-Henry hopes to work towards solving using the knowledge and experience that he’s gained, both as a student and as a law fellow at the CRMC, which he plans to bring to Washington, D.C., early next year when he is slated to begin John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in the executive or legislative branch of the federal government through the National Sea Grant College Program. He hopes to eventually work in state or federal government and contribute to policy that will better prepare coastal communities for the hazards associated with climate change.

Ryan-Henry says he is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to work on Rhode Island policy while still in school. “Rhode Island is a great place to study this because it’s innovative,” he says. “[Decision-makers] use management techniques that integrate science into the decision-making process effectively. ” As a former scientist himself, Ryan-Henry especially can appreciate the importance of this approach.

Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Intern

Rhode Island Sea Grant, located at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, is one of 33 Sea Grant programs nationwide that support research, outreach, and education programs designed to foster vibrant coastal communities and marine environments that are resilient in the face of change.