By Becca Nelson '20
The drop is dizzying. Steep sandstone cliffs plunge hundreds of feet down to the desert below. I perch on top of the rimrocks, looking down at the baked desert. I am breathless from hiking in the Arizona sun. Heat shimmers. Sun shards cut the cliffs. The sky is too blue and piercing. Vertigo grips me. The desert is blurry, heat-warped, disorienting.
It’s been years since I took that hike, but a similar sense of vertigo has overwhelmed me recently. It’s a deep, visceral feeling that unbalances me as I sit writing at my desk. This time, it’s not Arizona’s stark beauty that spins my thoughts, but the task at hand: writing about climate change in a polarized America. How can I make a gradual and often distant crisis seem palpable and urgent?
I was forcing climate change into the traditional paradigm of environmental communication. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio going up in flames in 1969 due to pollution. The corpses of DDT-affected birds littering the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Smog-filled sunsets coloring Los Angeles. These powerful images saturated environmental action in the 1970s, shoving people into action. Yet water pollution, pesticide overuse, and air pollution were tangible, localized issues compared to the challenge and scope of global climate change today. It’s difficult to communicate what global warming will look like when the nuances of its localized impacts are uncertain.
This difficulty gave me a sweeping sense of vertigo, as I walked into the Roble seminar room for the final lecture of my Hard Earth class. The class, Earth 126X, was a one-unit course that consisted of a mix of lectures on tough environmental dilemmas given by Stanford graduate researchers. The final lecturer, however, was not a grad student, but journalist and Stanford Law School lecturer Jeff Ball. He also happens to be the Resident Fellow in Roble.
Walking into the coffee-scented seminar room, I felt tense yet excited about the lecture’s topic: the election and climate change. Mr. Ball began the lecture in a way that surprised me. He talked about how regardless of what we thought about Trump or climate change, he was going to burst our “bubbles”, the comfortable ideological paradigms with which we insulated ourselves.
I’ll confess I was a little smug about my personal bubble bursting. I’m planning on pursuing a career in conservation biology. I already know a lot about climate change. What it is. How it works. Why it’s a huge problem. Why people may or may not believe in it. What actions have been proposed to mitigate it. How could my “ideological bubble” be popped? My preconceived notions were all too comfortable, like the big cushy chair I reclined in as I listened to the lecture.
Several of Mr. Ball’s points unsettled and dislodged my beliefs. For the past several weeks, I had been dreading what climate policy would look under President-elect Trump, who nominated climate skeptic Scott Pruitt to be head of the EPA. Mr. Ball showed a projected graph of rising carbon emissions by different regions of the world. The United States only appeared as a slight increase on the graph. The huge projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions is for developing parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. This made my prior concerns seem small from a broader global perspective; the way the saguaros seemed toy-sized from that mountaintop I hiked up years ago. I realized that despite my awareness of climate change, I still struggle to grasp its vastness. I think Mr. Ball is very correct in arguing that global warming is the most difficult environmental issue the world has faced.
He also asserted that the behavior of climate skeptics is more rational than it appears. From the comfortable and largely liberal confines of the Stanford bubble, I struggled to understand climate deniers and people who didn’t see climate change as a priority. Mr. Ball explained how this lack of climate action and empathy is due to a lack of incentive for changing individual behavior. Hypothetically, if I cut my individual carbon footprint to near zero by living self-sufficiently in the Sierra Nevadas, building a tent, gathering all my food, and avoiding cars and planes, my actions would have no tangible impact on net climate trends. This lack of individual efficacy in shaping the climate crisis undermines personal action by creating cognitive dissonance. It’s anguishing to walk around dreading climate change but feeling like you can’t take concrete action to stop its effects.
Instead, Mr. Ball said that advances in renewable energy technology could create economic incentives that pull people toward climate mitigation behaviors. This technological shift would accompany a global change in environmental policy and lifestyle. During the lecture, we discussed implicit subsidies for carbon emissions through frequent plane travel, highway building, suburban sprawl, and globalization.
Mr. Ball ultimately argued that it is ineffective to focus on changing individual behavior instead of shaping technological and policy on climate change. He also mentioned that they often use scare tactics that alienate people or employ visuals of distant glaciers melting and remote tides rising. These images only scratch the surface of a complex, intangible process. Paradoxically, when the local effects of global warming are clearly palpable for the average American, it will be too late for mitigation.
This lecture stirred something inside me. It shifted the paradigm at which I approach climate change communication. Sitting in the seminar, I felt a flame spark within me, melting the ideological bubble of writing about climate change in the same way I would write about more physically tangible environmental issues like pollution and DDT. I tried to write climate change into a sexy and urgent issue when in reality, it is gradual and complex; a revolution in slow motion. Dramatizing climate change into a Hollywood-style crisis oversimplifies the real drama that crawls slowly and obscurely behind the scenes of our daily lives.
After the lecture, I asked Mr. Ball about his writing approach and he told me strives for the “gray areas instead of the black-and-white”, the full complexity of climate change and the technological and policy shifts it is fostering. In my writing, I was struggling to simplify global warming into something easily approachable when really it’s not. Debates about whether global warming exists, whether climate change is important or not are intellectually flat. They create friction through polarized sides that lose the issue’s complexity.
Biking home from the lecture, I was gripped with a rush of exhilaration. The spindly treetops, the light off the rain-washed pavement, the half-moon flashed by me sharp and vivid as I pedaled. I felt a dizzying restlessness inside, a churning and evolving of ideas. The vertigo I felt about climate writing wasn’t something to simplify and flinch away from. It was something to embrace with curiosity and joy.
Standing on that rimrock elicited a dizzying, almost painful joy within me. The wind tossing my hair, I gazed down at the desert below me. The sheer view revealed to me the beauty and vastness of the desert from a new perspective. And now, as I lean back at my desk, I smile with excitement at the task before me. I let the preconceived and oversimplified bubble roll away like scraps of sandstone churning down a cliff. I open my mind to climate change’s beautiful and dizzying complexity.
By Jasmine Kerber '20
The title “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” caught my eye this summer as I browsed options for Intro Seminar classes. “How close are we to the edge?” the course inquired, and I wanted to know the answer. 97% of scientists agree that humans have harmed the environment, but there are still plenty of climate change deniers in the general public. Even those who agree that we face a climate problem are often uncertain about the details and severity of the situation. Are we talking about an approaching apocalypse or some minor inconveniences? I decided to take the class to find out.
My introsem professor, Elizabeth Hadly, works in the biology department and is also the Faculty Director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. In addition to her academic accomplishments, she brings guest researchers, her dog, and baked goods to class. Professor Hadly and her husband, Anthony Barnosky (also a Stanford professor), published their book “Tipping Point for Planet Earth” in 2015 as a compilation of their years of fieldwork and research, and as a call to action for governments and citizens. Signing up for this course has been one of the best decisions I’ve made at Stanford so far. Through our discussions, I’ve realized that many of the world’s most pressing problems are linked to climate change.
I’ve understood for a while that humans have enormous power over Earth’s fate, but this course helped me see that we can influence the world in both positive and negative ways. If we continue to deplete our resources at the current rate, we will permanently harm the planet. However, we can also change the world for the better if we’re willing to recognize the issues we face, work to change bad policies, and cooperate with each other.
One of the most important things I’ve realized is how climate change affects humans on many levels. When our actions push the planet into imbalance, people will suffer just as much as animals and plants. Natural resources, for instance, are inextricably tied to global conflict. During a recent class, we discussed how wars over the control of natural resources are growing more common. The oil-rich Middle East provides clear examples. Syria, for instance, has large crude oil stores, which interests the U.S. government. As a result, when Syria’s president Assad allied himself with Russia instead of the United States, the U.S. government had an incentive to try to depose him at the expense of his country’s stability. The war that followed led to large-scale emigration that further complicated international relations. It’s terrible but amazing to realize that oil played an important role in this multi-faceted conflict. If we continue to consume natural resources at the current rate, we’re bound to see similar situations arise. On the flipside, smarter energy solutions might decrease international conflicts. I had not thought about the problem this way before coming to Stanford.
Climate change will also affect access to food and water, both of which are constrained by the Earth’s growing population. For example, much of Asia relies on gradual, seasonal runoff from melting glaciers for their water supply. If these glaciers disappear, the world’s most populous continent will lose one of its most important water sources. This point from Professor Hadly’s book struck me because the glacier problem is rarely presented this way. Many people have seen photos of polar bears stranded on floating chunks of ice, but how often do we link these images to water shortages on land? Those who see drought, forest fires, and other water-related problems firsthand know that this is a serious issue, including here in California.
I absolutely believe that endangered species, decreased biodiversity, and other frequently-discussed environmental issues are incredibly important. However, we cannot forget that people are in danger too. I found myself thinking that if all citizens could take my class, they’d each find at least one reason to care about climate change. This not only an issue for certain segments of the population. It is not just a problem for hipsters, for vegans, or for polar bears. Climate change is a problem for everyone, and we all need to be part of the solution. Luckily, if we recognize the common dangers we face, we can do so.
Note: These conclusions are my own, but Professor Hadly’s class provided me with interesting information and got me thinking about new topics.
If you’d like to learn more about environmental issues, try an introsem! If you want to satisfy WAYS requirements while doing so, visit https://iearth.stanford.edu
By Deirdre Francks '20
Before I arrived at Stanford, I was warned about the Stanford bubble; a phenomenon where people on campus feel removed from the outside world. Though I haven’t been a student here for long, I can confirm; the bubble is real. Although it’s great to feel comfortable and at home on campus, I want to make a conscious effort to engage with the outside world and with neighboring communities in the Bay Area during my time at Stanford.
Just weeks into fall quarter, I had the opportunity to interact with an organization in East Palo Alto called Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) that strives for social and environmental justice on a local level. Founded in 1994, YUCA is a grassroots organization that has been heavily involved in local issues of environmental regulation. Their programs focus on teaching leadership skills to local adolescents and empowering them to be engaged with the social, political, and environmental issues in their community. One Friday afternoon in October, YUCA gave me and other members of SSS’s Environmental Justice team a “Toxic Tour” of East Palo Alto.
YUCA led us to various sites with a history of environmental injustice, including the site of a formerly-operating hazardous waste facility called Romic. I was appalled to learn that located just steps from EPA homes, Romic operated without a permit for years, committing countless health and safety violations. The adult leaders of YUCA recounted with great pride the story of their 14-year campaign to shut down the facility, culminating with its closure in 2007.
Their campaign drew attention to the pollution coming from the plant, both in the air and in the soil surrounding the facility. YUCA demonstrated that the rates of both asthma and cancer in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the plant were much higher than those of the rest of San Mateo County. They also pointed to numerous safety violations including two cases of tragedy; one man was severely burned while working with a tank of highly flammable liquid and his manager refused to call 911 for hours. Another man suffers from permanent brain damage due to oxygen deprivation caused by wearing a safety suit that had been repaired with duct tape. It was heartbreaking to learn about these workers in the EPA community, devastatingly affected by the carelessness of a single company.
Romic’s continuous display of negligence and incompetence affected not only their workers, but also the community at large. In one case, a chemical leak from the plant created a vapor that one of the YUCA leaders described as a “bright green cloud” surrounding the facility. Furthermore, occupants of nearby houses are still advised to not eat anything grown in their yards due to soil contamination from Romic nearly ten years after its closure.
The hazardous operation at the Romic facility is a textbook example of environmental racism, a term used to describe “the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments” (Eligon). Unfortunately, many marginalized communities in the Silicon Valley area are all-too-familiar with this kind of environmental racism and injustice. Many of the hazardous materials dealt with at Romic, for example, were byproducts of the tech industry and yet, the communities that have the least access to these technologies are those that bear the burden of their creation. What’s more, regulation is often ignored in these locations.
My time spent with YUCA was not only informational but inspiring as well, and took me beyond the Stanford bubble. The “Toxic Tour” brought to my attention the environmental challenges faced by just one community, and I can only imagine how many communities face similar struggles here in the U.S. and around the world. How can we end this kind of environmental injustice on a global scale? As demonstrated by YUCA, it can begin on a local level, with the voices of youth who demand change for their communities.
To learn more about YUCA: http://youthunited.net/
Eligon, John. "A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Jayadev, Raj. "Uproar over Romic's East Palo Alto Plant." News & Culture in San Jose, CA | Uproar over Romic's East Palo Alto Plant. Metro Newspapers, 03 Jan. 2007. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
By Becca Nelson '20
The light is streaming gold through the oaks as I walk around Stanford’s Lake Lag. I stare up at the piercing blue sky and watch a pair of White-tailed Kites hovering over the brittle grasses. The White-tailed Kites are sleek, snowy-plumed raptors with deep red eyes. They hover with a slight flap as they scan for prey—a motion ornithologists (bird biologists) call kiting.
When I get back to my dorm, I post my sighting of the kites as well as the 10 other species of birds I find on eBird, a website where any birdwatcher anywhere in the world can record bird sightings. On eBird, you can include detailed descriptions of migratory location, breeding information, and photo and audio, which provide a wealth of information to ornithologists. I’ve been uploading my field observations on eBird for the past four years as a citizen scientist.
The term “citizen science” hasn’t fully made its way into the general vernacular. I had already been submitting my data on eBird for over a year, when I first heard of it. I was reading an article about the growing contributions of citizen scientists and I realized it was exactly what I was doing. Citizen science describes the contributions in data collection or analysis by non-scientists to collaborate with ongoing scientific research across all fields. Citizen scientists can work directly with researchers (for instance, on biodiversity surveys) or upload their data to portals such as eBird. Citizen science connects academic researchers to the general public, increasing scientific literacy and involvement outside of academia. It includes more people in the scientific process in several ways:
Way 1: Citizen Science Is Very Inclusive
Citizen science has the potential to increase people’s knowledge and concern regarding sustainability and environmental issues by connecting disenfranchised stakeholders and communities historically marginalized from STEM fields to the research process. For example, during the Flint, Michigan water crisis, researchers from Virginia Tech collaborated with local Flint residents on a citizen science project called the Flint Water Study. The residents had been largely excluded from the decision-making process that led to toxic lead levels in the first place. The researchers gave these residents water quality test kits, which they used to collect data on their home water quality. The study found that lead levels were 10 times above the EPA limit. Citizens of Flint were empowered through playing a role in the citizen science that helped expose one of the greatest environmental injustices in recent years. Citizens could take action, even if they weren’t part of the scientific and governmental forces at hand.
Way 2: Citizen Science Introduces Kids to STEM
Citizen science can also play an important role in getting kids interested in science at an early age. When I was learning about birds for the first time in seventh grade, I explored my backyard with a camera, photographing the different species I encountered. I walked through the ankle-high grass, starting intently at the tops of the oaks and walnuts. The first time I saw a White-Breasted Nuthatch, a common backyard bird, I felt a thrill of excitement pass through me. I watched the nuthatch clamber against the rough contours of the walnut bark, pecking at the wood with its narrow beak. I was shocked that such a small, fascinating bird had been living in my backyard. Recording my backyard bird sightings on eBird as a kid sparked within me a deep passion for ecology. This passion eventually influenced my decision to pursue a career in ecological research. Submitting my data on eBird empowered me by teaching me how to think like a researcher and gave me the confidence to pursue ecological research in high school.
Way 3: Changing Public Opinion
There is a huge gap in knowledge between the public and scientific communities on many issues, and citizen science can help bridge this gap. For example, while the vast majority of the scientific community accepts anthropogenic climate change as a fact, the American public is much more ambivalent about it. Even many people who believe in global warming don’t see it as an urgent issue because its effects are more gradual than the natural disasters that typically occupy the news. About a year ago, I talked to a classmate at my high school about climate change after we sat through a lecture on it. She poked fun at teacher for exaggerating how catastrophic the effects of unmitigated climate change would be. It’s not really that big a deal—at least not until the far future, she told me.
Her attitude toward climate change is understandable. Growing up within the bubble of suburban Illinois, the effects of climate change seemed distanced from my community. I was not living on a developing island nation, having to cope directly with rising sea levels or on the tundra where the permafrost is melting. Yet, participating in citizen science made me more aware that climate change is affecting the forest and prairie ecosystems of my home. The signs are more subtle than receding glaciers and rising waves. One 2012 study analyzed eBird data from 2000-2010 on the arrival times of migratory birds. The species in the study were some of my favorite backyard birds, such as the vivid indigo bunting with its glossy blue feathers. The study found that the birds were arriving on average 0.8 days earlier for each degree Celsius of warming, with some species arriving up to 3 to 6 days earlier. As the planet warms due to climate change, migratory birds will be arriving earlier to their breeding sites, posing potential challenges for breeding, due to fluctuations in their food supply. Beyond watching birds, increased citizen science projects have the ability to help people see the effects of climate change on a variety of organisms.
How Can I Get Involved in Citizen Science at Stanford?
Stanford provides opportunities to engage citizen scientists in its research. For example, in the spring there is a Bioblitz survey in which students and community members monitor campus biodiversity. Stanford also has a docent program at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve open to both students and the public. This program involves its participants in educational outreach and research projects at Jasper Ridge.
Participating in a citizen science project for the first time can be a little intimidating. I’ve often worried about what happens when I make a mistake such as misidentifying a bird species. Most citizen science programs have checks to ensure that the data is accurate and thus useable for scientific studies. In programs where you work directly with scientists, they will train you on how to collect the data and double-check your work. For programs like eBird where you upload your data to a computer, there are reviewers who double-check your data. For instance, one time I reported what I thought was a rare Northern Goshawk. Since it was rare, an eBird reviewer emailed me and asked for photo documentation. After discussing the photo with him, it turned out to be a much more common Cooper’s Hawk. I changed the species on my list, and the issue was fixed. So don’t feel barred from participating because you’re worried about making mistakes or feel you are lacking in experience. Part of citizen science is the fun is in the learning process itself. Ultimately, citizen science is important in promoting inclusivity, engaging the next generation of scientists, and helping people better understand environmental issues.
"Citizen Science." Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. https://jrbp.stanford.edu/education/citizen-science
Hurlbert, Allen H., and Zhongfei Liang. "Spatiotemporal Variation in Avian Migration Phenology: Citizen Science Reveals Effects of Climate Change." PLOS One. PlOS One Journal, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0031662#abstract0
Maynard, Andrew. "Can Citizen Science Empower Disenfranchised Communities?" The Conversation. The Conversation, 27 Jan. 2016. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. https://theconversation.com/can-citizen-science-empower-disenfranchised-communities-53625
Flint Water Study. Web. 8 Nov. 2016 http://flintwaterstudy.org/
E-Bird. Web. 8 Nov. 2016 http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
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.