by Charlie Jiang
I’m a 2015-2016 Co-Director of SSS and a current U.S. youth delegate to the United Nations climate conference, COP23, with SustainUS. On Monday, the Trump Administration tried to promote coal as a solution to climate change in their only public event here in Bonn, Germany.
Here’s why we shut it down.
We will likely remember 2017 as the year climate change truly reared its ugly head, far sooner than I imagined. Millions in Puerto Rico are still without power, more than 50 days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Vulnerable communities from Houston to the Virgin Islands have all suffered from storms made stronger by warming temperatures.
Yet still, global pledges to reduce emissions to tackle climate change remain woefully inadequate. So-called “Nationally Determined Contributions” under the Paris Agreement are projected to take us beyond 3°C of warming — far exceeding the 1.5°C target vulnerable island nations need to survive. The United States’ contribution in particular falls far short of our obligations given the vast resources at our disposal, not to mention our historical contributions to the climate crisis. The inadequacy of our response to climate disaster was evident even before Trump came to power. Now, by seeking to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has made clear its complete disregard for the lives of everyday people.
These are the global stakes I carried as I arrived in Germany for COP23—the first UN climate conference under President Trump. Our SustainUS delegation arrived to mobilize, to further isolate Trump and demonstrate that millions of Americans and people around the world are moving ahead.
The day I arrived in Germany, The New York Times published a blockbuster: “Trump Team to Promote Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power at Bonn Climate Talks.” The headline said enough: we knew this was our moment. We know that coal is no solution to climate change. There is no place for a dirty energy source that kills thousands each year through air pollution, poisoned water, and climate disaster.
So over a week, we planned. We reached out to partners, from Indigenous organizers and students from the U.S., to youth delegations from Brazil, the U.K., New Zealand, and other countries spanning the globe. We developed contingencies for every possible way our action could go wrong. We wrote a song.
On Monday, hundreds of people lined up to get inside the event. It seemed every reporter in the conference had eyes and cameras trained on this moment. The stakes for us had never been higher. Our outreach paid off with huge dividends: 150 allies managed to fill 70 percent of the room, while 250 more massed outside the doors. As the panel got underway, we could hear our friends outside chanting: “Climate Justice Now!” Twenty minutes in, as the fossil fuel lobbyist headlining the White House’s event extolled the virtues of coal as an energy source, we started to sing.
“So you claim to be an American / but we see right through your greed. / It’s killing all around the world / for that coal money. / So we proudly stand up / until you keep it in the ground. / We the people of the world unite / And we are here to stay.”
With hands on hearts, we sang for the humanity and futures of millions of people whose lives the fossil fuel industry is threatening. We sang to the tune of “God Bless the USA” because we know we represent the true values of the United States. After all, seven in 10 Americans want the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement. After 10 minutes we walked out of the room, leaving the coal lobbyists talking to themselves while we staged a People’s Panel in the hallway outside. At the People’s Panel, hundreds cheered to the powerful stories of Indigenous leaders, young organizers, and Pacific Climate Warriors who embodied the beautiful world for which we fight.
Our disruption was not a one-time action, but rather the latest powerful moment in a years-long effort to build the power we need to safeguard our futures. The fossil fuel industry has a stranglehold on our politics. For decades, they have spent millions to stymie efforts to combat climate change, and now an ExxonMobil CEO runs the U.S. State Department. At the same time, we’ve seen incredible leadership from communities at the forefront of this crisis, from the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, to the powerful and ongoing battle against Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, to SSS’s own work to leverage Stanford’s resources to address the Bay Area’s housing crisis with the SCoPE coalition.
This past year has taught me we cannot realize our vision of a just and sustainable future without simultaneously organizing for thriving communities and political victories. It’s time we build a stronger, smarter movement that can bridge the local and global, and that can bring together mass mobilization, community organizing, smart policy, and electoral politics into a coordinated effort to stabilize our climate and achieve a just transition to a clean future.
As SSS Co-Director in 2015-2016, I worked to help us recognize our role, as Stanford students, in building better lives for struggling families across the Bay Area — and the world. At this historic crossroads, our responsibility as a Stanford community is greater than ever. I hope the bravery and dignity hundreds of delegates displayed by taking action here in Bonn on Monday inspires thousands more to do the same back home. For as we sang to the fossil fuel lobbyists that seek to bring us down: We the people of the world unite, and we are here to stay.
by Jazzy Kerber '20
Today is Election Day, so let’s talk environmental policy. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “environmental policy”? Al Gore? The EPA? Regulations? Democrats? Maybe you don’t think of these particular words, but there’s a good chance that if you live in the United States, you associate environmentalism with the political Left.
Why? Why can’t we accept that no matter how we cast our votes, we all share a planet? Why can’t we trust climate scientists and see that data doesn’t lie? Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
First of all, although 7.6 billion of us “share” the Earth, we don’t all share the same ideas about what nature means, we don’t all experience the same weather patterns, and we don’t all have the same viewpoints and values. Someone living on the beach and someone residing in a city center, a devoutly religious person and an atheist, a financial advisor and a scuba diver will likely perceive the world and its most pressing issues very differently from each other.
That’s not to say I believe every opinion is justified, but one or more sides may have been misled—or even deliberately deceived. And sometimes, data does lie. It’s possible to misuse the scientific method. In this next section, I’m going to draw on some ideas from Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is not a book review and I don’t intend to endorse or summarize all of Oreskes and Conway’s ideas, but they provide some great food for thought.
Oreskes and Conway, both academic historians, begin their story with a small group of scientists and an organization called the George C. Marshall Institute. Several physicists including Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg initially established the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against pushback from other groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps fueled in part by this early work, they feared communism and socialism. They also honed their skills in arguing against other scientists and asking TV stations to invite them to debates.
Even before founding the George C. Marshall Institute, Seitz had practiced using his brand of contrarian science to support the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. When scientists first began uncovering links between cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1950s, the industry panicked and sought research that could produce counter-evidence. Of course, Frederick Seitz was a physicist without experience working on health issues, but he had a PhD and for the industry, that would be enough. The tobacco industry’s paid scientists didn’t need to objectively analyze the smoking-cancer link, anyway. “Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive himself wrote in a 1969 company memo. The longer people weren’t sure smoking caused cancer, the longer cigarette companies could be certain they’d enjoy high sales. As a result, cigarette companies paid researchers to produce studies demonstrating how many other factors besides cigarettes might cause cancer and obsessing over small degrees of statistical uncertainty in reports from the anti-smoking side.
With a solid background in manufactured doubt, Frederick Seitz and others went on to use the same uncertainty tactics they’d relied on during the fight for tobacco to publish papers questioning whether people could trust climate change data. Again, the papers’ authors had been trained in completely different fields from environmental science, but they had PhD’s and funding. And like tobacco companies, oil companies had plenty of money and a product many people were reluctant to give up. Doubt would be enough.
Types of climate change doubt vary, ranging from “Have temperatures really risen?” to “Would it be that bad if the Earth got warmer?” to “Sure, the Earth is getting warmer, but are humans causing the change?” Sometimes, people who do believe human actions cause global warming also ask whether the costs of environmental regulations could outweigh their benefits. Perhaps part of the struggle to convince voters to support environmentally friendly policies lies in the fact that some people aren’t sure whether the planet is warming at all while others voting for the same candidate are merely skeptical of regulations in general.
The Republican Change of Heart
Republican candidates who prioritize climate action may be having an increasingly hard time. It was actually a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who established the EPA in 1970. Under our current Republican administration, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doubts that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and sued the EPA at least fourteen times before assuming his current post as the head of the agency. Essentially, he’s an anti-EPA EPA Administrator. What happened over the past forty-seven years to cause this change?
Merchants of Doubt came out in 2010, well before anyone could foresee where American environmental policy would be headed today, but Pruitt appears to deny climate change using similar logic to that which Oreskes and Conway describe. He says we need to “continue to debate” how humans affect the environment because “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” Pruitt has close ties to oil and gas executives, so his “doubt” can help their businesses.
In 2008, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich sat side-by-side and made a commercial stating that we (presumably Democrats and Republicans) can solve climate change together. In 2011, however, Gingrich called the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years” and told reporters he doesn’t know whether global warming is really happening, partly because the Earth’s temperatures have always varied from year to year. He too turned to doubt. I’m not 100% sure why Gingrich changed his stance, but perhaps it was to win more Republican votes.
It’s hard to sell environmentalism to a broad Republican audience. For instance, Bob Inglis served as U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 4th district, a distinctly conservative region, from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011. He lost the 2010 race after reversing his position on climate change when scientists he talked to convinced him he’d been wrong to deny warming. When Inglis accepted evidence for climate change and advocated for a carbon tax, he became an unelectable Republican in his district. Inglis feels Republicans are hesitant to change their lifestyles. He probably makes a good point, but other dynamics are at work as well.
Capitalism vs. “The Watermelons”
Some conservatives worry that American environmentalists want to shift the country toward socialism. That might sound crazy if you haven’t heard it before, but it’s well-documented. Fearful conservatives have called environmentalists “watermelons”—green on the outside, but red on the inside. And we should remember that producers of climate change denial material like the George C. Marshall institute specifically feared communism.
The United States has no major history of socialism aside from a few figures like Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom won their presidential races in the end. I say this just to suggest that we take our capitalist history into account when thinking about environmental policy. Strategies that work in Denmark may not work in the United States. This might mean focusing on health in America—a less divisive issue than values or even temperature change—when advocating for sufficient environmental regulations. After all, health concerns convinced a Republican administration to found the EPA in the first place.
We can also emphasize the economic reasoning behind environmental policy. Logical economists do not oppose all regulations. My current econ professor, John Taylor, has worked for the previous four Republican administrations and talks to us about how cap-and-trade policies reduce carbon emissions via efficient bargaining. Other economists recommend carbon taxes, which also generate government revenue. Given this type of reasoning, Scott Pruitt’s general stance against environmental regulations is illogical.
Countries with communist vs. democratic socialist vs. more purely capitalist backgrounds shouldn’t need different environmental regulations (after all, air and water work the same everywhere). Still, the way to enact regulations will have to vary in countries with different political histories. I personally believe the end result—improving people’s health and preserving the Earth for future generations—is most important.
At the beginning, I noted that environmental issues can be inherently political. When voters feel the influence of a policy, whether that’s in terms of tax rate or health risks, we’re bound to see people take sides. Still, when it comes to environmental issues, I believe we need first and foremost to reduce pollution. We need to try to make climate issues less polarizing because the United States has a two-party political system, and the majority must agree (or at least compromise) in order to achieving lasting change.
This is no easy task. Not only does the environmental opposition have money and “science,” but the American political climate does not prime our country to embrace regulations. But ultimately, if our policies help give everyone a cleaner, safer place to live, it won’t matter much who did or didn’t embrace “environmentalism” as a movement.
by John Zhao, '18
Recently, Stanford University announced its decision on prison divestment. The decision made is insufficient and Stanford remains invested in the prison industrial complex, a system of institutions that surveil, police, imprison, and exploit people. Perhaps you are wondering why this is relevant to this blog on sustainability. That is because this is relevant. The prison system - beyond the violations of human rights and dignity - is also a matter of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice manifests in multiple ways within the prison industrial complex.
Prisons often are built on environmentally toxic sites, exposing incarcerated people to environmental hazards. This summer, the EPA updated its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool to be able to overlay prisons with other sites, such as Superfund sites. One such analysis of prison siting found that “at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site [...] with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.” Thus, incarcerated people are often trapped in facilities that expose them to serious environmental hazards without consent.
The case of valley fever in California prisons also compounds the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration inflicts on people of color, as highlighted in this article by Mother Jones. The fungi that causes valley fever is found mostly in the Central Valley, where 16 of 33 prisons in California are located. Moreover, people of color are more at risk of contracting life-threatening cases of valley fever compared to white people. As a result, the justice system is not only disproportionately incarcerating people of color but also exposing them to life threatening conditions.
Moreover, the prison system often fails to comply with health and safety regulations and subject incarcerated people, surrounding communities, and ecosystems to dire circumstances. Since 2000, 8 of California’s state prisons have been cited for polluting waterways with sewage. Similar cases can be found across the nation. It is not just the prison facilities themselves that are violating these standards; companies that provide services to prisons have also grossly mistreated inmates. Food service companies often prepare highly processed, unhealthy food that fails to provide sufficient nutrition for inmates. Beyond this, companies such as Aramark Correctional Services are notorious for serving unsafe food that have been infested with maggots and rats. This is a violation of incarcerated people’s right to clean and healthy food.
The solution is not to simply make prisons environmentally friendly and safe. Various prisons have made attempts to rebrand themselves as ecologically sustainable. These reforms may improve operations related to energy and water; some even incorporate “green-collar” work and training programs to reduce recidivism. Outside the context of prisons, I would support such initiatives to build up sustainable infrastructure and a green workforce. However, the use of these facilities to imprison people in inhumane conditions should not be ignored; greenwashed prisons are still prisons. That felons can be denied jobs should not be ignored. Incarceration tears people away from familiar environments, throws them into dangerous environments, and - if they do get out- releases them back into society struggling to assimilate. From the perspective of social sustainability, the prison industrial complex pulls people away from families, making it difficult to build sustainable communities.
Prison labor is perhaps the biggest driver of the prison industrial complex. In many cases, the government and private corporations rely on incarceration for a source of cheap labor. Prisoners are often paid far less than minimum wage, often at rates less than $1/hour. The State of California relies heavily on prison labor in order to fight fires in its conservation camps under Cal Fire, saving the state $90-100 million a year. In 2014, when California federal judges ordered a program to release more prisoners early, “lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
The link between prisons and environmental justice is clear. Environmental injustices compound the damage already inflicted on incarcerate people, through relocation to toxic sites, health and safety violations, and labor exploitation. Environmental injustice will fuel incentive for perpetuating the prison industrial complex and exploitable prison labor. It is hard to imagine that a world that follows the Principles of Environmental Justice would include the prison industrial complex.
Stanford: you do not get to claim to be a leader in sustainability if you remain invested in the prison industrial complex. Listen to SU Prison Divest and divest from private prison corporation stakeholders, prison support industries, and prison labor beneficiaries.
Organization (Bay Area): Critical Resistance http://criticalresistance.org/
Organization: Prison Ecology Project https://nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology/
Infographic: Prison and Climate Change https://floodthesystem.net/infographic-prison-and-climate-change/
Readings: Prison Abolition Syllabus http://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus/
by Becca Nelson, '20
This summer, my parents woke up to find a news crew standing in our driveway. We live in a quiet little suburb of Chicago, where this kind of thing never happens. The scene was eerie. The night before, torrential rains had flooded our neighborhood, turning our street into a channel of murky brown water, filled with litter and broken branches. The lights from the cameras flashed off the water, creating jagged shadows. The Des Plaines River, which runs through our neighborhood reached a record high. A couple streets down from where I live, my neighbors were forced to evacuate their homes. Kids floated down the streets in inflatable rafts, laughing and playing, despite the health warnings about entering the water. My neighborhood sits on a floodplain, but this was the second one hundred year flood we had in the last few years. Normally, hundred year floods have a 1 in 100 chance of happening, but their frequency is increasing with climate change.
In the weeks following the flood, I realized how lucky I was. I watched news footage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria pounding the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The hurricanes disrupted the lives of millions of people, including some of my friends and family. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico due to rising global temperature exacerbates the frequency of hurricanes. These natural disasters with their profound social and ecological consequences create an opening for starting a dialogue on climate change. Yet having a thoughtful discussion that catalyzes collaboration and action can be difficult in America’s polarized climate. This summer, I conducted a literature review on how to most effectively communicate and teach about climate change as a part of environmental education research I was doing in Dr. Nicole Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab. After reading through pages of peer-reviewed journal articles, I learned the following tips about how to more effectively discuss climate change.
Foremost, optimism is far more effective than alarmism in inspiring people to take action. When the effects of climate change are portrayed as inevitable and apocalyptic, people tend to either lose their sense of efficacy in addressing the issue or roll their eyes at what they see as over exaggerated paranoia. I often get overwhelmed watching documentaries that provoke alarm without discussing solutions, thinking about how large my own carbon footprint is and how limited my agency is in tackling climate change. In contrast, messages that focus on how communities have the ability to adapt by adopting concrete actions can instill a sense of hope and urgency.
Besides the tone of the discussion, whether climate change is discussed as a social or scientific problem can also greatly influence people’s response to it. Environmental education researcher K. C. Busch researched how social and scientific portrayals of climate change were presented in the classroom. The scientific discussion of climate change appears to be much more common in schools and emphasizes empirical evidence for climate change and how it will impact the environment globally. Social discussions, however, that portray its negative effects on our society at the local scale are underemphasized in the classroom even though people tend to be more influenced by climate change’s social consequences.
Psychological distance of climate change can also affect people’s level of concern. In other words, people who believe that climate change will threaten their community or similar communities in the near future are more likely to see climate change as an important issue than people who believe that climate change will happen far in the future and far away from where they live. Discussing how climate change will affect people and places at local level can raise more concern than using vague and global terms. For example, the research I did this summer looked at how redwoods can educate visitors at California State Parks about the local impacts of climate change. The devastation from the recent hurricanes hits much closer to home for some Americans than images of polar bears stranded on melting ice floes.
Public perceptions and barriers to feeling concerned about climate change vary demographically throughout the United States. It’s important to understand what perspectives your audience comes from. For example, people in some cases distrust experts who come from outside their community. So imposing a message about climate change on a community rather than fostering an open dialogue can be ineffective. Collective action toward climate change can arise organically from within communities through networks of concerned individuals that spread in a decentralized manner. Stanford biology professor Dr. Deborah Gordon started an online initiative called Land Talk that seeks to empower people all over the world to document changes in weather and land within their own community. The website features stories in which a younger community member interviews an older member about changes within an area based on their personal observations. If you are interested in hearing their stories or sharing your own, you can learn more here.
Ultimately, how we talk about climate change influences the actions we take from lifestyle changes to environmental policy. Watching news footage of my flooded neighborhood was a wake up call for me.
References and Further Reading
Jones, C., Hine, D. W., & Marks, A. D. (2017). The future is now: reducing psychological distance to increase public engagement with climate change. Risk Analysis, 37(2), 331-341.
Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2013). Personally relevant climate change: The role of place attachment and local versus global message framing in engagement. Environment and Behavior,45(1), 60–85.
Busch, K. C. (2016). Polar Bears or People? Exploring Ways in Which Teachers Frame Climate Change in the Classroom. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(2), 137-165.
Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Mertz, C. K. (2011). Identifying like-minded audiences for global warming public engagement campaigns: An audience segmentation analysis.
Leiserowitz, A. A. (2005). American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous?. Risk analysis, 25(6), 1433-1442.
Koepfler, J. A., Heimlich, J. E., & Yocco, V. S. (2010). Communicating climate change to visitors of informal science environments. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 9(4), 233-242. and tool development. PloS one, 6(3), e17571.
Experiential knowledge paired with trustworthy information necessary for local legitimacy of wind power
by Kira Smiley
The local implications of wind energy are a hotly debated topic worldwide. It seems to be easy to promote wind energy on a grand scale, envisioning the potential it has to generate emission-free energy and mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, all too often arguments sour when talk of wind turbine construction hits close to home. Doubts about how appropriate the construction sites are, along with fears of both personal impacts mixed with those concerning the environment and local wildlife, particularly birds.
These concerns motivated my study of local permanent and seasonal inhabitants in the Finnish archipelago. Funded by the Volpert Scholars grant, I worked as a visiting researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute based in Helsinki, Finland, acting much more responsible and put-together than I felt. After doing a broad ecological survey of the white-tailed eagle nearby wind turbines, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews on one island with wind turbines and on two without them. The interviews focused on the participants’ perceptions about the impacts of wind turbines on the white-tailed eagle in the Turku archipelago. Not only is the white-tailed eagle a locally important species recognized to interact with wind turbines, but these large and charismatic birds are a point of interest for wind power development throughout Europe.
My findings indicated that experience, or lack of it, strongly affected how participants formed perceptions of wind turbines and their impacts. Additionally, when searching for new information, local residents found it challenging to distinguish trustworthy sources. For instance, if a company or entity publishing or funding an informational article stood to gain from the results, readers were less likely to trust it, regardless of whether they agreed with the message. However, they did tend to show confirmation bias and evaluate sources they did agree with as more trustworthy.
Although often the impact of turbines on birds have been politicized as a key argument against wind turbines, my interviews indicated that perceived bird impacts had no real effect on participants’ views. Instead, concerns centered almost exclusively on personally experienced impacts. Many residents on the island without wind turbines voiced concerns that property values would drop due to view and sound disturbance. However, residents on the island with wind turbines directly contradicted this and said that property values had risen and the sound was noticeable only on very windy days. It was also interesting that despite engagement with the wind-power companies and local authorities taking place, several participants felt their views were not ultimately accounted for in the wind turbine decision-making process.
The results illustrated that misconceptions can often occur due to lack of experience or information, strengthening the need for increased knowledge exchange. We clearly have much to gain from sharing experiences and distributing research-based reliable information. For example, a concise packet of studies on wind turbines including personal experiences might be an effective way to communicate wind turbine impacts to communities that are considering or facing wind turbine construction. Moreover, platforms where locals could share views and communicate with scientists and authorities would reduce biases and support informed development of perceptions from reliable sources. This way, citizens can inform their views with reliable and diverse knowledge bases.
In terms of the experience itself, it was an engaging and amazing opportunity to be able to design, shape, and execute my own research and consult top wind power and eagle experts in both Finland and Denmark. I was able to improve my Finnish environmental and research jargon, and even pick up some Swedish (“I. understand. Little. But. No. speak. Swedish…and I like ping pong and dogs”). Overall, this work was very relevant to the changing wind power situation in Northern Europe, and addressed many of the current concerns people had about fake news. I am excited to continue to foster the relationships that formed this summer and continue to develop my research!
by Jazzy Kerber, '20
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Donald Trump declared in his speech, announcing that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. In reality, Pittsburgh went blue in the presidential election and quickly responded that their city government does, in fact, support the Paris agreement. Aside from these facts, however, the above statement ignores the 195 countries that adopted the accord. In December 2015, representatives of 196 nations met in Paris to negotiate and adopt the agreement by consensus. Before President Trump’s recent announcement, Syria and Nicaragua were the only two countries in the world that did not sign on.
Both Trump’s decision and his announcement of it are more story than substance. “Donald Trump versus almost all other world leaders” is a difficult position to support, but “Pittsburg versus Paris” is an easier pill to swallow (it’s even an alliteration!). President Trump uses narratives like this one to justify choices that make little logical or economic sense. By withdrawing from the global climate agreement, Trump proposes that the United States is immune to the consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, “America first” doesn’t make sense in relation to atmospheric science. We cannot force droughts and storms to the other side of the globe, after all. Nevertheless, President Trump attempts to show that he values America’s economy above all else.
But does withdrawing actually make economic sense? The key goal outlined in the Paris Agreement is “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels,” but participating nations determine their own mechanisms for decreasing emissions. The agreement was designed to be flexible in order to accommodate individual countries’ needs. (In fact, a relatively common criticism says the agreement is too flexible.)
What about jobs? To echo a position many economists have already taken, coal is a declining industry, while clean energy production is on the rise. Natural gas has displaced a fair amount of coal demand in recent years. (To clarify, natural gas is not clean energy, but I mention it because Trump often focuses specifically on coal jobs.) Moreover, recent publications show that solar and wind energies are now less expensive than coal power. I would argue that the best way to both preserve jobs and lower emissions might be a plan, similar to the one Germany successfully implemented starting about a decade ago, that retrains large numbers of coal miners for jobs in growing industries. Of course, Donald Trump would probably disapprove of this strategy since it would require a government program.
It is difficult to predict what changes we’ll actually see as a result of President Trump’s decision. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a three-year process, plus we face one year of delays, so the United States won’t officially be out until the end of this presidential term. If at that point Donald Trump is not re-elected, his successor could reverse course and immediately add the U.S. back to the agreement. Additionally, Trump so far has not withdrawn from UN climate agreements like the UNFCCC, and individual states and corporations can choose to continue abiding by emissions standards that align with the Paris Agreement. So far, eleven states as well as Washington, DC and Puerto Rico have declared they will uphold commitments to the Paris Agreement.
Perhaps Trump’s recent action is most harmful to environmental initiatives in a symbolic sense. His executive orders and changes to the EPA have already dialed back the United States’ work against climate change, and by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, he clarifies this intent to the world.
 Hal Harvey, “Economics are Transitioning America From Coal To Clean,” Forbes, March 2, 2017.
 Joshua Zaffos, “Can we learn from Europe’s approach to laid-off coal miners?” High Country News, April 27, 2016.
 Leanna Garfield and Skye Gould, “This map shows which states are vowing to defy Trump and uphold the US’ Paris Agreement goals,” Business Insider, June 9, 2017.
by Miranda Vogt '19
There are two types of people in this world, those that make conscious decisions to alter their diets for the benefit of the environment, and those that say “Screw it, I just want my God-damn burger”. This is the way it has been for a long time, and the way it still is now, but some people argue that by the year 2050, these two groups will not be mutually exclusive. I am extremely interested in researching this intersection of the carnivore and the environmentalist as it occurs in lab grown meat, a promising but somewhat problematic new technology.
But why do we have to change the way we eat? A 2006 report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 18 percent of Greenhouse Gas Emissions comes from the meat and dairy industry, compared to the 13 percent emitted by the entire transportation sector. Recent reports, however, show that the true percentage could be higher still. Through a scientific lens, we’re taking a really inefficient route to get the energy and nutrients we need to live. We’re putting vegetable protein into a biochemical reactor called a cow (or chicken, duck, whatever) and then it puts off a lot of heat and methane and finally the reaction is done and we eat our hamburger. Added on to the greenhouse gas emissions and wastefulness of meat is the space that it takes to grow it. 30% of non-ice covered land is dedicated to raising livestock and the food that we feed it. Every day huge portions of land get cleared to make room for our gigantic appetite for meat. And every day, our population grows and our situation becomes more and more dire.
Even with all the facts, I have struggled with how to eat ethically. I’ve looked in to various ways to reduce my carbon footprint at the dinner table, including veganism and entomophogy (eating insects), but always end up coming back to omnivory. It’s just easier to get protein, and easier overall. You don’t have to ask for substitutions at restaurants or be difficult at family dinners. And unless you’re cooking for yourself, it is usually a lot more expensive to only get the healthy, veggie things (places catering to vegans are often organic and pricey). Plus, I like meat.
But now there’s an intriguing new voice in this conversation—the cultured meat side, promising to end all our problems with animal stem cells and a petri dish. Ideally, the process goes as follows: animal stem cells are taken from a living organism (without killing it) and allowed to divide for months in a bioreactor with plant-based growth culture. Then the cells are made to differentiate into muscle cells and begin the process of “bulking up”, through electronic stimulation.
In studies about the environmental impact of cultured meat (also referred to as “lab-grown meat” and “clean meat”), it was estimated that it would involve approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use, 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventionally produced meat products in Europe. Not only that, but ideally, meat produced in a lab setting could be enjoyed guilt-free, as the animal who so willingly donated the cells could still be alive and kicking.
Where’s the catch, then? If lab-grown meat is environmentally in the green and guilt-free, why is it we don’t see these products in our stores already? One reason is the astronomical price-tag on cultured meat. A lab in the Netherlands was able to produce the first completely lab-grown burger, but it cost approximately $330,000—a little out of budget for our average supermarket shopper. Not only that, but when served without condiments to a board of taste-testers that were chosen for their willingness to embrace the technology, the lab-grown burger fetched such rave reviews as “edible, but not delectable”.
Here’s the crux of the issue. Yes, prices are dropping. Cultured meat producers like Memphis Meats here in the Bay Area say that it will be on our shelves and price competitive with conventionally produced meat in as few as 5-10 years. But will we ever be able to accept cultured meat into our lives and refrigerators when we raise such a big stink over harmless GMOs? Is lab-grown meat our silver bullet or our Frankenstein’s monster?
“Are Livestock Responsible for 51% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” TerraPass. N.p., 10 Nov. 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Bartholet, Jeffrey. “Inside the Meat Lab.” Scientific American 304.6 (2011): 64–69. www.nature.com. Web.
“FAO - News Article: Key Facts and Findings.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
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by Spencer Robinson '20
Think fast. Think new. Think smart. Think powerful. Think technology. Here at Stanford, a leading research university in the Digital Age, a large majority of the students are focused on development, design and implementation of new tools to solve real world problems. Being a part of the development of ‘the next’ phone application or ‘the next’ computing software is, likely, the dream of many students. At least in my experience, students genuinely have faith in the power of technology to solve the world’s issues— including environmental problems. Indeed, there is merit in this view—the whole science of predicting the effects of climate change, for example, depends heavily upon the use of computer models. However, more education and deeper conversations about the relationship of the tech-industry’s relationship to the environment is well warranted.
Before we admire technology for its ability to solve problems of energy and resource use, we should first consider the tech-industry’s own significant energy and resource demand. A 2013 report released by Northwestern University Faculty Fellow Mark Mills, The Cloud Begins With Coal, states that Information Communications Technology uses approximately 10% of global electricity. A large portion of this is used by data centers which allows for storage and instant access to information. Of course, the Internet is a key part of the global economy today, but the infrastructure of the internet has an impact on the environment that isn’t negligible nor beneficial. It may be convenient to think of “The Cloud” as some abstract, nebulous entity. In reality, however, “The Cloud” is a network of data centers (massive rooms full of energy hungry computers) that take electricity to run, need water for cooling, and require a whole industry of resource-intensive electronics manufacturing to develop. Similarly, although the annual release of new smart phones seems to be a hallmark of technological development and progress, the smart phone industry involves a great network of exploitative and environmentally taxing operations. For example, Apple has over 200 suppliers worldwide that produce the components of its products—the touch ID sensors are from Taiwan, the batteries from South Korea and China, the accelerometer made in Germany, and the gyroscope produced in Italy and France. Despite the carbon intensive process of manufacturing, transporting and assembling devices such as smart phones they are readily thrown away and new ones produced. In 2014, the world generated 42 million tons of these toxic materials with over 80% not properly recycled. Perhaps it’s not a software designer’s responsibility to know about the manufacturing system for the product they are working with, but I still feel like there needs to be more discussion about the technological tools we develop, and their resource and energy costs.
Perhaps more directly relevant to students who seek to design and produce software is the environmental impact that online on-demand services create themselves. Today’s online platforms now have begun to determine how people use transportation and how they buy goods. This has led them to significantly alter consumer behavior and the collective environmental impact of people in our society. The arrival of these online platforms has provided people with the privileges of having consumer goods delivered to their doorstep and taking chauffeured car rides with the click of a button. These developments have made it is easy to say that technology has allowed for greater efficiency— for example, the reduced carbon impact of one van delivering several goods instead of many people driving to shops in their own cars. However, such a priori assumptions cannot always be made about technology. What about how people are buying goods impulsively on amazon? What about people who order products everyday delivered separately? What about the impact of packaging? One research paper entitled Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping by Dmitri Weidli at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics concludes that that though online shopping on the whole has reduced the carbon footprint of most shopping behaviors, not all consumer behaviors that utilize online shopping reduce carbon footprint. There are lots of factors to be considered. For example, shoppers that use public transportation to shop may have lower carbon footprints. Additionally, online shoppers have higher product return rates.
In a world of finite resources where human collective behavior determines the health of our world as a whole, software engineers need to recognize their agency in shaping how resources are used. What are your priorities? Is it to allow your company to satisfy demand in a profitable way? Or could your program influence consumer dynamics and lower the resources use and energy consumption? Do these technological solutions take environmental impacts into account, and couldn’t minor changes in these priorities lead to a large reduction in environmental impact given millions of people are now dependent on these tools?
Rather than framing the development of technology as a consumerist evil, I would prefer for people to look at it as a powerful tool with the potential to help people find amazing solutions to problems of combating human development and poverty as well as issues of environmental importance. I think that the focus on technology as the silver bullet, however, should be taken with caution. Regardless of the power of the tool as a software engineer designs it, billions of other people who use the tool may not use it in the way the designer intended.
With technology at the center of much education here at Stanford, we should consider that although technological tools can be used to help people find efficient and sustainable solutions, they equally have the potential to change human behavior for the worse and intensify our resource and energy use. The tech-industry isn’t the most significant contributor to ocean pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and other environmental issues. But these issues are the result of the actions of billions of individuals. Technology products now currently connect, influence and empower billions of people worldwide, so those in the tech industry now have the best opportunity to influence the behavior of individuals on a global scale. They are best poised to solve the world’s toughest problems—helping billions of world citizens act in their best collective interest to ration our precious environmental resources in an efficient, equitable and innovative way.
by Jourdann Fraser '20
If I asked you to define sustainability, it would probably take you a couple of Google searches to get at the meaning in the context of environmentalism. However, if I mentioned the word climate change or greenhouse gases, you’d probably know what I was talking about. This is one of the main problems with environmentalism. The important issues we need to discuss take too much technical knowledge to understand, and as a result, people aren’t concerned with those issues. The communication problem is a part of a bigger problem in environmentalism: branding.
For the past eight weeks, I’ve been taking a class called the Language of Advertising. Last week we had a guest speaker, David Placek, the founder of Lexicon Branding Inc., talk to us about the importance of branding. Branding is important in the commercial sense because it creates a predisposition to buy a product in the consumer. However, for the purpose of this argument, we’ll modify this definition to be creating the predisposition to participate in environmentalism. One of the reasons for a problem in branding is a lack of communication between the general public and environmental scientists. When there are clear word associations between complex processes and simple phrases like global warming, it makes it easier for the general public to figure out what the problem is and what needs to be solved. Unfortunately, a lot of complex processes cannot be succinctly explained to people, and therefore, there needs to be more innovation in the words we use to communicate to the general public. One great example of this is the innovation of the black hole. It was not until scientists named their discovery a black hole that the news picked up the discovery and spread it like wildfire.
However, these words need to be clearly defined to the general public. A huge problem with the use of words like climate change and global warming is that a lot of people take these words to mean that if the entire world is warming up, then their specific location must be heating up as well. Using analogies further clarifies what these words actually mean in environmental science. Analogies make a clear picture of complex processes, improving the discussion on what the problems are and how we can fix them.
Another thing that needs rebranding in environmentalism is the feelings towards environmentalism. When people hear the phrases “reduce, reuse, recycle” or “beach clean up,” there is usually a negative connotation that comes with it in the sense that these are chores that need to be done. The feelings about the subject, environmentalism, are not much better. Many people associate environmentalism, with alarming, and pessimistic views about the future. Ultimately, we need to change the ways stories are told about environmentalism. Films like Tomorrow and How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change really inspire people to not look at environmentalism in such a bad light. Rather than warning people of the doom and gloom of the world, we need to tell them what they can do to make a small difference in their community, so that they associate environmentalism with a positive emotion.
Another way to change people’s feelings towards environmentalism would be to change the symbols associated with it. Humans tend to process information based on color, shape, and symbol first. The last thing that we process is text because it is the hardest to process. Therefore, symbolism plays an important role when it comes to what people associate with a product, idea, or campaign. One way to reignite the environmentalism brand and make it more of a brand that people are willing to comply with would be to make it more whimsical and joyful. A great example for change would be to create a symbol for composting in order to make it a more recognizable thing that people could easily do in order to help the environment. Think about how the “reduce, reuse, recycle” symbol has become a symbol for sorting waste. Stanford has a great version of this, in which the different types of waste are sorted by color association (brown for compost, blue for paper, and green for plastic and metals).
Finally, I think that environmentalism has to become more personalized and interactive. A huge problem with sustainability is getting people to care about the issues we face. A large percentage of the population may know about climate change and global warming, however, the way information is presented makes it seem as if the problem is not going to happen anytime soon. The problems the Earth will face is not a tangible part of their daily lives, making it more difficult for people to adopt sustainable practices. If we were to find ways to make information about environmentalism more personal to people’s lives, then people would be more likely to change their daily habits.
Environmentalism needs a new brand that is whimsical, hopeful, interactive, personalized, and easy to understand. Through this rebranding, we can not only reach new people with environmentalism, but we can also hopefully change everyone’s habits for the better.
by Becca Nelson '20
When I was a kid, I used to watch the scraggly trees along the highway rush by through the car window. I would try to imagine what was there hundreds of years ago. I dreamed that a vast forest blanketed where the subdivisions and strip malls now sprawled. A wilderness of thick, gnarled trees, seemingly devoid of people. Growing up, I used to think wilderness and people were separate. Wilderness was the moon-swept forests in Ansel Adams’s photographs, not the Chicago suburbs I called home. This conception of wilderness is perpetuated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which played a crucial role in protecting areas of biodiversity throughout the United States. The act defined wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. This definition overlooks the fact that diverse Native American cultures historically lived in these wilderness areas for hundreds of years before being driven off their land by American settlers.
I first realized the extent to which Native Americans historically shaped the landscape, the summer I interned in the Morton Arboretum's Forest Ecology Lab. I was investigating whether thinning the canopy by selectively removing trees was an effective way to regenerate oak seedlings. Oaks play a crucial role in maintaining forest biodiversity. They provide food and shelter for deer, migratory bird species, squirrels, and other animals. Oaks also provide important ecosystem services to people by sequestering carbon. Native Americans maintained the historical dominance of oak species by regularly burning large patches of forests. The oak seedlings are better able to resprout after fire than other tree species. Fire suppression post-European settlement contributed to the decline of oaks.
The goal of oak regeneration research was to restore the forest to a healthier, more natural state, yet these oak forests were originally maintained by people. The relationship between Native Americans and oak forests suggests that people and nature are intertwined with humans playing an integral role in the health of the ecosystems, we call wilderness. In Savage Dreams, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes a similar relationship in Yosemite National Park. The Miwok and Awahneechee peoples regularly burned portions of Yosemite and used horticultural practices to maintain a biodiverse mix of meadows, oak forests, and conifers in Yosemite valley. They relied on a variety of plants for food, shelter, and cultural reasons.
The vast expanses of incense cedars that currently fill Yosemite Valley resulted from European fire suppression practices. Hiking through Yosemite, the towering incense cedars gave me the deceptive impression of having stood for thousands of years without human influence. I walked past the sheer cliffs and roaring waterfalls. Ravens soared overhead, and the air tasted sweet with pine. As the steep granite switchbacks obscured other hikers from view, I couldn’t help but imagine Yosemite as remote and beyond human influence. This was an illusion, a mirage as shimmery as the foam from the waterfalls I passed by. Campgrounds, roads, trails, educational signs, streams full of nonnative trout, exoitc grasses, prescribed burns to regenerate oaks and sequoias, and efforts to reintroduce Bighorn sheep to Yosemite tell of an evolving relationship between people and land.
Asserting that wilderness is distant and separate from our daily lives comes at cost. We forget the importance of taking care of the land we live on. We forget how we are a part of the ecosystem, intertwined to the physical landscape and other organisms through complex relationships. Randolph Haluza-Delay, an environmental education researcher, conducted a study in which he took teenagers on a wilderness trip to investigate how the trip influenced their willingness to care for nature in their urban home. The teenagers enjoyed camping in the mountains of Banff National Park. They woke each morning to fresh cedar air and birdsong. At night, they watched the sky fill with stars instead of city lights. The experience gave them a sense of freedom and relaxation. The twelve day backpacking experience, however, did not inspire the teenagers to take environmental action at home, largely because they viewed the nature they experienced on the trip as being entirely separate from their home environment.
Conceptualizing wilderness as somewhere remote from our society disconnects people from engaging in conservation action. The Trump administration’s policy platform threatens the continued existence of diverse National Monuments that support a rich variety of ecosystems. Connecting people to wilderness is crucial to establishing continued support for these monuments and other wild places. Wilderness is not a place “untrammeled” by people. Wilderness is a home, a refuge, a place where land and people intersect. A place of exploration and inspiration.
Haluza-Delay, Randolph. "Nothing here to care about: Participant constructions of nature following a 12-day wilderness program." The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 43-48.
Solnit, Rebecca. Savage dreams: A journey into the hidden wars of the American West. Univ of California Press, 2014.
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.