logo: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Section Image

On the Environment

Friday, December 19, 2014
| Share

Q&A with New Urban Research Fellow

By Susanne Stahl

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy is pleased to introduce Alisa Zomer as its inaugural Urban Research Fellow.

Alisa is a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) where she studied urban sustainability with a particular focus on governance and climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities. Prior to Yale, she worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, on issues related to access to information, participation, and justice in environmental decision-making.

She joined the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) team after graduation and is working on a number of projects, including a review of urban sustainability metrics, a sub-national environmental performance index for Viet Nam, and a civic science colloquium.


YCELP: Your work has focused primarily on environmental governance, and you've worked on a number of issues from extractive resources to rights-based environmental approaches. How did you come to focus on urban sustainability?

Alisa: Right now the environmental movement has a fetish for cities. Cities are being branded as the biggest challenges for environmental degradation and also the biggest opportunities to promote sustainable development, and even mitigate climate change. Current obsession with sustainable cities aside, my interest in cities goes back and is closely wrapped up with issues of justice (or injustice) related to driving forces of urban change and demographic shifts.

Two specific examples come to mind: 1) redlining and blockbusting in the early nineteenth century, and 2) school bussing programs that came out of the civil rights movement. The former a discriminatory practice and driver of segregation; and, the latter a band-aid approach to addressing historical inequities. I grew up outside Boston where both these practices are part of the urban fabric and history of the city. My mother recalls my grandfather taking her to Dorchester to witness the poor state of inner-city schools and demonstrate for civil rights – it was the same neighborhood in Boston where my grandfather, the son of immigrants, grew up.

It is these complex narratives of urban change and inequity linked to my family history that piqued my interest in cities. The “environmental” part came later when I learned about resource rights and governance from incredible mentors (Filipina, Jamaican, Sri Lankan) at the World Resources Institute. Applying an environmental lens to look at justice and governance in cities was a natural intersection of my past and present.   

YCELP: What are the key considerations in developing — and implementing — next generation frameworks and indicators?

Alisa: Much of the urban sustainability movement is driven by top-down processes, either through mayors or international actors. A key consideration is how to meaningfully involve urban inhabitants in decision-making. We know that how people live in cities – their consumption and travel patterns –impacts resource use well beyond city borders. One emerging approach is using civic (or citizen) science to engage and empower city dwellers in urban planning decisions. Information technology communication along with low-cost environmental sensors allow people to take a direct role in monitoring environmental quality in their cities – such as air, water, waste, and even traffic. I’m working now to see how crowd-sourced data in cities engage city inhabitants and impact environmental policy.

Developing indicators and tools to promote good urban governance, is likely the biggest challenge to long-term urban sustainability planning. This is because governance is hard to measure and harder to change. That said, people en masse are taking to city streets around the world (Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, New York to name a few) calling for change, so there is a real opportunity to develop ways to channel that energy for improving the quality of life in cities.      

YCELP: Of the places you've traveled and lived, what features stand out as essential to a sustainable city?

Alisa: Transportation makes or breaks a city, both in terms of sustainability and livability. Last spring I traveled to Medellin, Colombia, for the World Urban Forum and got to ride the metrocable, which has literally transformed the city – a single trip up to the hillside neighborhoods now takes 30 minutes instead of 2.5 hours by bus. At first the city’s transformation appears to be a well-glossed party line, but informal conversations with people on the street proved that the changes are real and deep. Making sure urban inhabitants, especially the poor, have safe, sustainable transport that is reasonably priced and timely is essential to the long-term sustainability of any city.  

YCELP: There is often a disconnect between science and policy, but your work has you navigating both. How can we improve communication between scientists and policymakers?

Alisa: Communication is important, but understanding how power dynamics and institutional structures influence decision-making is paramount. For example, even the most proactive mayor championing urban sustainability is still restricted by election cycles and term limits. This is one reason I’m excited to work with the EPI team to see how we can best bring together environmental data and political realities. Fortunately, the EPI has an amazing team of designers, programmers, researchers, and writers to make the data come to life, so these key environmental issues can reach a broader audience.  

YCELP: As a recent graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), what advice would you give to students interested in environmental policy?

Alisa: The environmental community tends to cluster together like-minded thinkers, but to actually take on super wicked environmental problems, we need to think beyond the environment. Recently Gus Speth questioned us “What is an environmental issue? It should be anything that has an impact on the environment.” Which is basically everything.

At Yale, the classes I took at the law school and school of architecture helped me to think about cities and policy from different viewpoints. My advice is to go beyond the environment and redefine the boundaries of how humans impact natural systems and vice versa. Justice issues, as demonstrated by the Peoples Climate March, will be the crux of building the future “environmental” movement and the most important allies will be people that you have yet to meet.  

Contact Alisa (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) and follow her on twitter @azomer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Tuesday, December 02, 2014
| Share

Nature’s Rights in Practice: Envisioning Sustainable Communities and Economies

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

In her October 20 webinar,Nature’s Rights in Practice,’ Linda Sheehan made it painfully clear that environmental laws in the US are founded on outmoded principles: Most of them still embody the concept that nature is separate from – and exists in order to serve – human needs. Appalling cases of recent environmental degradation indicate how unequipped our legal tools have been in addressing persistent and systemic social and ecological injustices. Laws that emerged in the 1970s in response to egregious cases of environmental disasters still assume that infinite growth is possible and desirable.

But academics and civic institutions are raising questions about both of these once-inviolable concepts. Their work shows how environmental and social problems are interlinked and outlining howand why we must alter our legal and economic paradigms. Progressive legal causes such as the Rights of Nature and the Pluralist Commonwealth model contribute to a wider conversation about how legal and economic frameworks could re-imagine their relationship to social and environmental challenges.

The Rights of Nature is unique in its endeavor to grant Earth’s living communities legal standing conventionally reserved for humans. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, and The Future We Want (that emerged from the UN+20 Earth Summit), use language that positions nature as deserving of common protection under the law. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth describes “the peoples and nations of Earth [as] an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny.” The preamble avers that “it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth.”

At the local level in the US, a few towns and counties include the Rights of Nature in their ordinances. Linda Sheehan highlighted Santa Monica, California, for its Sustainability Rights Ordinance. Passed in April, 2013, the ordinance calls attention to the inadequacy of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the California Environmental Quality Act. The document asserts that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish in the City Of Santa Monica.” This language, unlike any other legal premise at the local, state, or federal level, contends that natural communities ought to thrive alongside human communities, not at the latter’s expense.

In 2013, Mora County, New Mexico, passed a Community Rights Ordinance that uses the rights of nature concept to protect the community from oil and natural gas industries. In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also passed an ordinance that both banned natural gas drilling in the city and recognized the “legally binding rights of nature” in its stand against the natural gas industry.

The Rights of Nature movement reflects a wide-spread scholarly attempt to draw attention to the interconnected nature of our environmental and social problems. Responses that fall within this call for integrated—and sometimes radical—change range from altering how businesses are structured to transforming our economic model. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change, Naomi Klein describes that she “started to see signs—new coalitions and fresh arguments—hinting at how, if these various connections were more widely understood, the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”

Linda Sheehan reminded listeners that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, known for his belief in rational self-interest and competition, also described an economic system that emphasized relationships and community. He theorized that well-being is achieved, in part, by exercising responsibility toward the community. This idea seems entirely out of synch with modern economic rationale. Sheehan argues that it’s precisely this engrained, conventional logic that has been so troublesome. But, she says, alternate forms of legal, economic, and social relationships are possible.

Community-level ideas like public banking and employee-owned companies are beginning to gain legitimacy far beyond any initial novelty factor. New Belgium Brewing, for example, is now 100 percent employee owned as well as a certified benefit corporation. As a “B Corporation,” New Belgium bases many of its decisions on social and environmental factors rather than just profit. The result is not only an independent company but also a high-quality work environment driven by an unprecedented level of investment from its employees.

Gar Alperovits, founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is particularly outspoken in this realm. He’s developed a systemic model, the Pluralist Commonwealth that endeavors to “resolve theoretical and practical problems associated with both traditional corporate capitalism and traditional state socialism.” The main argument behind his work is that democratizing the way wealth is owned and managed is crucial in addressing chronically unstable socio-economic institutions. Alperovits claims that even employee-owned companies may “develop narrow interests that are not necessarily the same as those of society as a whole.” In response to competition on the free market, for instance, the company may still be pushed to pollute local streams and air. The Pluralist Commonwealth model is based on altering “larger patterns of distribution and power,” nurturing a broad culture that embodies inclusive rather than profit-minded goals, and redefining what constitutes a community.

Perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge—at the heart of our warming climate and exhausted ecosystems—is this: creating an inclusive “culture of community accountability” out of which just and equitable legal and policy responses can flow.

A recording of the webinar is available at https://vimeo.com/113417655.

Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

Posted in:
Monday, December 01, 2014
| Share

Climate Change Vet Cameron Explains How He’s Learned from Failure

By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15

In 1988, I was two years old in rural Alaska. I didn’t know what was happening in the world, let alone what was occurring in its atmosphere. Twice in the prior decade, in 1973 and 1979, the world experienced an energy crisis that saw fuel prices skyrocket. In his famous 1979 speech President Jimmy Carter said the country was experiencing a “Crisis of Confidence” and urged Americans to adopt energy conservation strategies. At the time, a few Middle Eastern nations, rich in fossil fuels, dictated the supply and price of the important commodity. President Carter, and later President Reagan, vowed to make greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels more affordable for everyone.

And so cheaper fuel ballooned.

In the midst of this, in 1988 when James Cameron – now director of Climate Change Capital – was a law student. Greenpeace asked for his help on a research project. Could the US be sued in an international court of law for not acting on a newfound environmental problem largely caused by fossil fuels: climate change?

Cameron delved into the research and, after a few months, came to believe that since every country was contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, every country would do what it could to protect the one earth we call home. Once science fell in line, the world’s leaders would unite to protect future generations.

Speaking at Yale nearly three decades later, he begged to differ with his younger self.

At his lecture at FES on Wednesday, November 12, he recalled working on the Kyoto Protocol, an international top-down treaty that many nations adopted. He was excited when US President Bill Clinton signed it, but the US Senate defeated any effort to make it the law of the land. Thus, the most powerful, influential, and highest carbon-emitting state in the world did not legally promise to take the steps necessary to reduce its impacts of climate change. Years later, Kyoto’s efforts were deemed null, and many nations either pulled out altogether or failed to meet their obligations. The ideal international path forward, for which Cameron and his colleagues had worked, was dead in its tracks.

In 2009, leaders had high expectations for the same top-down approach in Copenhagen, but the world again failed to agree on a comprehensive solution, disappointing any hopes for progress. While many in the environmental community still hold out hope for progress at the annual convention in Paris in 2015, Cameron said he has largely “moved on” from the top-down approach.

Today, he argues for something much different: a bottom-up, grassroots-style climate solution. If not entire nations, then perhaps entire regions, states, territories, cities, industries, corporations or individual businesses will step up to the plate and make a difference collectively.

This bottom-up strategy may be complimentary to new international efforts at top-down actions.  In Brisbane, Australia, during the annual November 2014 G20 Summit, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a joint-effort to reduce carbon emissions. President Obama promised US carbon reductions through efforts such as the recent proposed EPA regulations of power plants. China has promised to increase its renewable energy usage and to decrease its carbon emissions beginning in 2030.

But after the midterm elections, President Obama’s initiatives face a hostile Congress, arguably worse than in 1992 when the Clinton Administration tried to implement the Kyoto Protocol.  Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who will be the new Chair of the US Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, has laughed off climate change and even called the science a hoax. House Republicans have repeatedly passed bills to defund EPA in an effort to combat regulations to fight climate change.  Further, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is doing all he can to “get the EPA reigned in.”  That has caused China to question if the US is serious on climate negotiations. And it means that bottom-up action from cities, states/provinces, civil society, and companies are still critically important.

Whatever happens, it will affect me personally. My family’s fish camp warehouse eroded to the point where we had to take it down or watch it literally fall into the sea. Cities and villages throughout Alaska are facing not just coastal erosion from warmer temperatures, but also invasive species that threaten our subsistence food resources. Melting permafrost has damaged our pipeline and infrastructure. While many people may think warmer temperatures are good for Alaska, in many cases it’s not.  That’s why I have hope in my elders like James Cameron, who dedicated their lives to solve our climate crisis and are still thinking of fresh and encouraging ways forward.

Perhaps learning from failure is the most effective way to learn after all.

Verner Wilson, III, is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.

Posted in:

Page 1 of 1 pages

Blog Home

2007-2015 Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy