On the Environment
Energy & Climate
Monday, October 28, 2013
By Guest Author, Verner Wilson III, Yale F&ES '15
A changing climate will mean big changes in our agriculture and forestry systems that will affect every American, and that’s why the US Department of Agriculture has an office devoted specifically to analyzing and taking action to minimize the negative impacts of climate change. Bill Hohenstein, director of USDA’s Climate Change Office, will discuss how USDA approaches that mission Tuesday, October 29. His talk, which begins at 6:00 PM in Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium, is free and open to the public.
Earlier this year, under Mr. Hohenstein’s leadership, the USDA released a report that underscored the negative effects that climate changewill bring to US food systems. While USDA says that changes must be assessed at a regional and local scale, the changes will be felt throughout the US. For example, in an interview with US News in April, Mr. Hohenstein said that a changing climate will cause more “miserable days” for farmers and ranchers in the Southwest US. That’s because an increase in the misery index, which is a combination of temperature and humidity, will mean hotter temperatures that can kill crops and livestock dependent on cooler temperatures. Miserable days also will mean higher prices for food that consumers buy at the grocery store.
Mr. Hohenstein serves as a liaison to thirteen federal agencies, serves as a US representative during international climate negotiations, and provides recommendations to America’s top leaders on climate change adaptation and mitigation. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute are pleased to host him during as part of their fall 2013 speaker series: From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change.
Verner Wilson, III, is a first-year 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.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
By Guest Author, Amy Weinfurter, Yale F&ES '15
During a recent presentation at Yale Law School, Maxine Burkett noted that her scholarship often focuses “on the edge of what is possible.” Professor Burkett, Associate Professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, and the former director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP), visited campus Friday, October 18, as part of the fall speaker series From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change speaker series, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. Her scholarship tackles a problem that indeed seems unimaginable, but increasingly threatens island and coastal communities across the world: how states might continue to exist, even after climate change has made their physical territories uninhabitable.
For island and coastal nations, rising sea levels pose an urgent threat. Saltwater intrusion can damage water supplies, and ruin soil’s ability to support agriculture. More frequent and intense storms can damage infrastructure, and accelerate coastal erosion, a phenomenon creating tough decisions for coastal Alaskan communities. For island nations, such as Tuvalu, the threat is so complete that it is difficult to truly comprehend; rising sea levels are likely to completely flood low-lying countries, creating scores of climate refugees.
The toll of climate change on communities is already heavy, though the many people do not always recognize the link between migration and global warming. Professor Burkett noted that in the continental United States – an area that might not seem to be at risk for climate-change-driven migration – Hurricane Katrina temporarily or permanently displaced 1.1 million people from communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. In addition to the impact of extreme weather events, like hurricanes, a more subtle and long-term exodus is also underway. Many residents of Pacific islands have begun what Professor Burkett terms a “slow-moving migration,” leaving now in anticipation of the future threat of rising seas. This process threatens to create “empty states,” by draining communities of skills and tax revenue even before the full physical impacts of climate change hit.
This migration poses challenges that existing legal tools cannot easily meet. As a closely watched court case in New Zealand demonstrates, human rights laws do not account or make provisions for victims of climate change. In New Zealand, as in most states, the “legal concept of a refugee is someone who is being persecuted, which requires human interaction.” Climate change, which depends on so many different decisions and decisionmakers, is difficult to fit into this framework, despite the clear threat it poses to the future of vulnerable communities. Additionally, in countries like the United States, the political difficulty of accepting the presence of global warming may prevent conversations about climate refugees.
Professor Burkett argues that the unique threat climate change poses to vulnerable communities – and the current legal system’s inability to tackle it – requires a radical rethinking of the definition of a nation. The current legal framework for a state requires a permanent population, defined territory, functioning government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Professor Burkett envisions a new type of “ex-situ state” that could operate without a physical territory. These nations would use virtual networks to maintain a sense of culture and identity among a citizenry spread across the globe. They would also act as important intermediaries and advocates for citizens who have immigrated to – but not yet received full citizenship in – other countries. Her proposal draws on current alternative models of the state, such as the Tibetan Government-in-exile; the Sovereign Order of Malta, which operates out of Rome after losing access to its island territory; dual citizenship models; and the networks that link post-colonial diaspora populations to their home countries.
Professor Burkett’s talk highlights the environmental injustice inherent in climate change; a major brunt of its impacts will be born by island nations with tiny carbon footprints. While adaptation strategies often call to mind engineering or urban planning initiatives, climate change also has the potential to radically alter political framework and boundaries. Professor Burkett’s work eloquently illustrates the need to more fully plan for the human and sociopolitical impacts of climate change, and the moral imperative to invest in mitigation strategies, to make such drastic measures less necessary.
Amy Weinfurter is a first-year Masters of Environmental Management (MEM '15) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing on the intersection between environmental communication and policy. Before arriving at Yale, she studied English and environmental science at Colby College, and worked with non-profit organizations in Colorado and Washington, D.C., on communication, watershed management, and community outreach and engagement initiatives.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
By Guest Author, Rachel Lipstein, Yale College '15
Superstorms and costal flooding may grab headlines, but water scarcity is emerging as our most immediate environmental concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment highlights the increasing risk of water scarcity in this age of climate extremes and skyrocketing populations. Another recent study finds that if, by the end of the century, 500 million people are subjected to water scarcity, it will be the result of an optimistic warming scenario. Even now, the droughts plaguing many of the world’s most arid regions—including parts of western United States—are contributing to economic fragility and social unrest.
Water meters, small devices that track water usage, could play a key role in helping people understand the reality of water as a limited resource. Because they allow utilities to bill by volume, meters encourage customers to conserve—often with dramatic results. In the upcoming series, we will examine metering's effect on water consumption, its intersection with cultural norms and individual rights, and its impact on communities.
In urban areas of Chile, people know exactly how much water they use. The country’s regulatory agency pegged average usage in 2009 at 44.9 gallons per capita per day, nearly half the United States’ average consumption. They know with such a high degree of certainty because 96 percent of households across the country—100 percent in urban areas—have water meters, small devices that track consumption. Meters allow for volumetric billing, charging consumers for the water they actually use, which encourages them to pay attention to how long they run the tap.
Outside of Chile, where meters are sparse or nonexistent, households pay for water at a flat rate, which encourages users to ignore how long they run the tap. With flat rates, lower-volume users subsidize higher-volume users, and neither has an incentive to curb consumption.
Urban Chileans pay for water by the cubic meter. The more they use, the more they pay. Poor Chileans are protected by a direct subsidy that has money going directly into citizens’ pockets to help pay the bills. To maintain fairness and equity, and to ensure that utilities charge a fair rate, tariffs are set by an independent regulatory body.
Despite success stories like the one in Chile, many countries have been slow to accept meters. Chile has a remarkable degree of meter coverage, particularly for Latin America (according to the World Bank). For the sake of comparison, Ireland hovers just above 0 percent. For most countries without a history of utility centralization and regulation, such as the United States, metering policy may vary widely from region to region. It seems high levels of development or GDP are no indicator of coverage.
Chile’s exceptional performance is a result of a series of transitions that began with a 1974 military coup headed by Augusto Pinochet. As a component of sweeping centralization, Pinochet implemented a national public water and sanitation company, extending coverage dramatically through the 1970s and 1980s. Meters were installed in most new connections, paving the way for a mandatory metering policy.
After the 1988 transition to democracy, Chile adopted a spate of laws that divided the national company into several public and private corporations. Mandatory metering was implemented, and a powerful state regulatory agency was established to oversee it all. New progressive policies ensured that no household spent more than 5 percent of its average monthly income on water and sanitation. While customers have an incentive to conserve water, no one is denied access due to price. Utilities are incentivized to maintain good quality water and reliable systems.
Chile, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported, has created the perfect public-private model. Privatization has increased in recent years, accompanied by a private service provision that maximizes efficiency and quality. Meanwhile, an autonomous public regulator ensures fair prices and equitable service. , 
Bolivia is a counterpoint to Chile’s success. In 1997 and 1999, the government awarded two major contracts to foreign private utilities, granting them the right to provide water in La Paz and Cochabamba. These contracts resulted in skyrocketing prices and water cut-offs, along with mandatory meters. Multi-city riots ensued in a conflict known as the Cochabamba water wars. Thousands took to the streets, erected roadblocks, and defied police. Within the span of three days in April 2000, several protesters were killed, including a 17-year-old boy. Then-president Hugo Banzer declared martial law. The government finally agreed to grant water control to the grassroots coalition of protesters with the promise of dissolving the private contract.
The memory of that conflict remains in the hearts of many Bolivians. “In a lot of Latin America, there is a hesitancy to talk about metering due to its association with the water wars,” said Kim Lemme, of the international non-profit, Water for People. The mention of metering, she said, often elicits murmurs of “Bechtel,” one of the despised private water companies. “Being able to get people used to the idea of metering,” she concluded, “is powerful.”
Bolivians are still adjusting to the idea of meters. However because of innovative funding plans and the example set by model projects, several communities have already made the switch. According to Kate Fogelberg at Water for People, over 120 rural communities in Bolivia now have metering systems. While Chileans enjoy 96 percent metering, they still face challenges in their water sector, particularly in the over-allocation of rural water rights that leaves remote, arid, downstream households dry.
A progressive metering policy, accompanied by careful regulation, has made Chilean cities standout sites of clean, affordable water in Latin America. Because of its broad implications, water metering can act as an indicator of both water conservation policy and practice. However, spotty data coverage may hamper the development of a metric to assess how much water consumption is metered in countries, mainly because information is self-reported by the utilities themselves and only in selected countries. Representing the status of water resources, describing systems, and guiding policy meaningfully is an Augean task, one in which metering will play a part.
This post is the first in a series on water metering. The next installment will look at residential metering in the United States and other developed countries.
Rachel Lipstein is a junior at Yale College majoring in English major with a concentration in Writing. She is interested in sustainable agriculture and enjoys spending time on farms. Previously, she worked on the 108-foot sloop, Clearwater, which is dedicated to protecting the Hudson River through education, advocacy, and celebration.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15
In the vast Pacific Ocean lie thousands of islands with rich cultures and histories. One of them is the country of Tuvalu. The country, with a population of about 12,000 people, is the fourth least-populated nation in the world. Tuvaluans have called their island home for thousands of years and depend on fishing as well as their islands for food and livelihoods. As an Alaska Native I can relate to their culture. It shares a tradition of hunting and fishing for survival, as well as a deep connection to the sea. This island and my own home face a similar threat from the impacts of climate change.
Tuvalu and many other Pacific Island nations are low-lying. The tallest point in Tuvalu is fourteen feet above sea-level. This is problematic, since studies show sea levels will continue to rise as a result our changing climate. In late September, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) released its fifth assessment on the impacts of climate change, and their report predicted that oceans would rise by at least a foot or two this century. This is a larger increase than predicted in the IPCC’s previous report, and raises the stakes for small island-nations such as Tuvalu.
One or two feet may not seem like much, but in Tuvalu the average elevation is just about six feet above sea level. That means that infrastructure – homes, schools, workplaces – will be compromised. When this happens, Tuvaluans may be among the first nations forced to completely desert their homeland, creating a state of climate refugees. In Alaska, Shishmaref is facing a similar fate. The small Arctic village is located on a barrier reef. When I visited the Alaskan island last year, while working for the World Wildlife Fund, many people told me how reduced sea ice and increased storms had already carried away one home in their village. It struck me to hear of their experience and plea for action.
Stories like this illustrate the importance of Maxine Burkett’s work. Professor Burkett is an Associate Professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, and the former director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP). She is an expert on climate change law and policy, and her previous work includes advising Pacific Island nations like Tuvalu on how to move forward. Her lecture, titled “Climate Refugees and the Challenge of Statehood: Defining the Problem, Identifying Solutions,” is on Thursday, October 17, at 12:30 PM in Yale Law School's Room 121. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute are honored to host her while she explores the issue of climate justice and regional adaptation and mitigation measures in the Pacific. All are welcome to be a part of this important discussion.
By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15
In her October 2 webinar, “Gender, Food and Agriculture,” Maria Trumpler, Director of the Office LGBTQ Resources at Yale, spoke about the centrality of women’s labor and expertise in agriculture around the world and highlighted the ways in which interdisciplinarity can illuminate conventionally delineated topics such as agriculture and gender studies. In doing this, she helped listeners find connections between agriculture, international development, cooking, gender, women’s voting rights, and the simple (or socially complex) act of eating.
This approach reveals that women are critical drivers behind the sustainable production of food globally, particularly in many developing countries where women provide 43 percent of agricultural labor. The recent report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes the “gender gap” in agricultural production. That is, recent data reveals that despite their large contribution of labor, women own less land, fewer livestock, and have less access to machinery, credit, or extension education. Ameliorating this gap could increase a locale’s food production and help reduce food shortages.
From a women’s history perspective, this report reflects an important historic trend, the acknowledgement of women’s labor as independent of men’s. The inclusion of gender studies in agriculture does much to dismantle the invisibility of women’s work in the fields and in the home, an all-too-familiar historic narrative.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women run 14 percent of farms (as opposed to 5 percent in 1978) and are increasingly interested in small-scale farming ventures. By 2007, in fact, small or “tiny” farms represented 31 percent of all U.S. farms (as opposed to 11 percent in 1982). Women play an important role in the local agriculture movement that is gaining momentum across the US. Local farms and community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) are becoming important sources of organic produce, dairy, and meat in regional markets. Groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are pressing for federal action to support small farms as drivers of local economies. Such efforts are creating a national platform for re-thinking food production and distribution.
Women’s support of small farms may boost regional economic systems, but may also be a source of biological and cultural revitalization. In this sense, perhaps, local women farmers are both reclaiming and redefining their roles as members of their communities. As the loss of crop diversity globally becomes a greater threat to food security, the task of protecting native and heirloom varieties becomes ever more important.
Indeed, the protection of crop diversity is both biologically and culturally relevant as these carefully selected plants are, in many ways, embedded in a cultural milieu. Crops such as lacinato kale, beets, or cabbage bind cultivators and consumers to the land and to each other through economic and social ties. These plants often represent seasonal traditions in celebration of the spring planting or fall harvest, or may be a central component of how communities express social values like sharing or cooperation.
Increased involvement with growing food locally may allow women to build not only a more robust economy but create a stronger community-driven and cooperative relationship to the land.
If you weren’t able to join us for Maria’s webinar but are interested in exploring this topic more, a recording of Maria Trumpler’s webinar is available here.
Please join us November 6 at 11:00 AM EST for our next webinar in the series. Jason Foscolo of the Food Law Firm will join us to launch “A Legal Framework for the New Food Movement,” the second part of our yearlong webinar series on Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. Registration details are forthcoming. For more information about the series and to register for upcoming webinars, visit our webinar page.
Avana Andrade is a first year 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.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
By Guest Author, Jena Clarke, Yale F&ES '15
Tanya Fields Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK in New York joined the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Tuesday, September 17, to launch the 2013/14 webinar series, Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. Tanya’s talk, “The Road We Travel: From Fare Food to Fair Food,” considered how we link theory and practice in food justice as she addressed the complicated and often sensitive issues of justice and racial inequality in the food system. She framed issues of urban food justice in a historic and geographic context, but also discussed the inherently personal link between her own life experiences and food.
For Tanya, any progressive conversation on altering the food supply system must begin by considering how racism has become institutionalized into the very fabric of our culture and reinforced through the structures and policies of the food system. This inherent racism, she said, biases supply, access and quality -- creating not only food deserts but also food apartheid for low-income residents of marginalized communities like the South Bronx.
Food apartheid refers to situations where the availability of fresh, nutritious food is delineated by racial and economic neighborhood boundaries. This form of racism has also been referred to as “retail redlining,” or denying financing and loans to people of color based on their geographic location. A recent Huffington Post article notes the same phenomenon in South L.A., where grocery stores and other corporations are leaving the neighborhood despite consumer demand.
This link between nutrition and geography is as striking as it is entrenched. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit focused on American health, recently published a series of infographics visually depicting the difference in life expectancy for neighborhoods in several major American cities; the neighborhoods are separated by only a few short miles, but wide divisions in socioeconomic status. The Foundation found that babies born in inner-city DC live as many as seven years less than those born a few metro stops away.
This structural racism is further captured in the interactive Food Environment Atlas put out by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. The map reveals that the Bronx, which had New York City’s highest percentage of both Blacks and Hispanics in 2010, has more than 10,000 people with low access to food stores.
In the presentation, Tanya spoke about her own struggles with access to high quality food as she raised a child with food allergies and respiratory issues, which she found to be related and connected both to the quality of her family’s living environment and the quality of the food they ate. She highlighted the challenges of travelling long distances with children in tow and trying to stretch a meager income and SNAP benefits while paying a premium for organic produce at grocery stores targeting high income consumers.
SNAP is the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program, “SNAP is designed to reduce food insecurity – reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns in a household due to lack of money or other resources.” In August the Service released its findings from an official assessment on the effectiveness of the program. “Participating in SNAP for 6 months,” the study found “was associated with a decrease in food insecurity by about 5 to 10 percentage points, including households with food insecurity among children.”
Tanya’s personal anecdotes and the findings of the USDA study are made all the more relevant by the House of Representative’s recent majority vote to make substantial cuts to the SNAP program. The bill aims to cut $40 billion from the program in the space of the next 10 years and also seeks to restrict eligibility to the program. These changes are bound to have a material impact on communities like the South Bronx: 15.2 percent of the Bronx population, according to the USDA Atlas, participated in SNAP in 2011. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the changes will result in a reduction in participation in the program by about 30 percent.
A recording of Tanya’s webinar is available at http://vimeo.com/75242749. For more information on this or other webinars in the series, please email Susanne Stahl at email@example.com. The next webinar in the series is Wednesday, October 2 from 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EDT. Maria Trumpler, director of the Yale Office of LGBTQ Resources, will discuss gender and agriculture. Registration is available at https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/402736559.
Jena Clarke is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.S. in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis in 2009. She is interested in agricultural policy, especially relating to livestock production and rangeland management. Her background is in cattle ranching in the US and Australia, where she worked as a cowgirl and later as a business analyst for a corporate agricultural funds manager.
Tuesday, September 03, 2013
By Guest Author, Halley Epstein, Yale Law School '14
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draft report—leaked late last month—warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century. As analysts, including climate deniers, pore over various aspects of the report, island nations continue to wonder: is it too late to avoid catastrophic damage caused by climate change?
For people in low-lying nations, a sea level rise of three feet would wreak havoc on their ecosystems, territories, and ways of life. The New York Times notes that rising sea levels could affect “the world’s great cities,” including New York, New Orleans, Shanghai, Venice, and London. But the Times does not mention how rising seas are already affecting low-lying cities and nations not on their list – including the Republic of Palau.
Palau, and many others, are frustrated by the lack of binding international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This ongoing political impasse inspired Palau, along with a multistate coalition, to draw attention to climate change on a different international stage. The coalition initiated an international campaign to secure an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on assigning responsibility for causing climate change. At the ICJ, all interested nations, regardless of political influence in international climate negotiations, would have the opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter.
Last fall, a group of Yale graduate and professional students worked directly on this campaign with some of the coalition’s organizers, including Palau’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Stuart Beck, YLS ’71. “At its core the Palau campaign simply seeks to bring the rule of law to the problem of global climate change,” said Professor Douglas Kysar, the Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law at Yale Law School and one of the course instructors. “So for us, it offers an ideal pedagogical opportunity to study the power of law in an age of despairing politics.”
Our goal was to assemble the legal, political, and scientific justifications for the coalition’s request and detail why the ICJ should issue an opinion on state responsibility for transboundary harm caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Together with Ambassador Beck, Aaron Korman -- Palau’s legal adviser -- and Professor Kysar, we compiled our findings in a new report, Climate Change & the International Court of Justice.
Drawing on climate science, international and domestic legal authorities, and the international legal principles of transboundary harm, the rule of law, and human rights, we conclude that supporting an ICJ opinion on climate change responsibility is in all states’ interest.
As the campaign progresses, Korman said, "we hope others will find this report useful for its overview of the international legal principles and arguments that support the ICJ campaign and that it will serve to build broad support for the advisory opinion request, as well as for decisive action on climate change."
While an ICJ advisory opinion remains just that—advisory—a ruling on states’ rights and obligations under international law could shape international norms and influence future UNFCCC negotiations. Some industrialized nations oppose the campaign because of potential impacts on international negotiations. For island nations, though, the ability to obtain a ruling on international legal responsibility outside of the UNFCCC process is the most realistic way to fight for their right to exist.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
By Guest Author, Nora Hawkins, F&ES '14
If you say coal in my home state of Washington, more likely than not, people will assume you are talking about coal exports. The terminals currently proposed in Washington and Oregon would enable coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to be shipped to China. This new export avenue would provide a market for American coal, which is becoming less and less economically competitive in the US given the expansion of hydraulic fracturing and decreasing natural gas prices.
In a region proud of its efforts to be more sustainable, coal exports are a galvanizing issue. Participation in public meetings has been staggering with thousands showing up to comment on the proposed environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in northern Washington. (To learn more about this complex issue, check out PBS’s recent documentary.)
Coal Free PSE
This summer I returned to the Pacific Northwest to work on coal and climate change, but I had the interesting challenge of not focusing my efforts on the export issues that have taken center stage. Instead, I worked on the Sierra Club’s Coal Free PSE campaign, which aims to encourage, and ultimately convince, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to transition entirely off coal.
For decades Washington’s abundant hydropower has made the state a national leader in using less greenhouse-gas-intensive electricity, and just a few years ago, an environmental campaign succeeded in securing a retirement date for the last coal-fired power plant in the state. PSE is the main investor-owned utility for residents on the east side of the Puget Sound in western Washington, providing electricity for over one million Washingtonians. While PSE is respected for its effective customer service and is widely regarded as a green utility – it is the second largest wind developer in the country and has made notable efforts on energy conservation– it still relies on coal for approximately 30 percent of its electricity generation.
Of particular concern to the Sierra Club and the members of the coalition is the Colstrip Generating Plant in Eastern Montana. PSE is the single largest owner of this large, aging coal-fired power plant. The EPA consistently ranks Colstrip as one of the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions west of the Mississippi, and the plant faces numerous other environmental and public health liabilities.
Many advocacy groups feel compelled to choose between persuading decisionmakers to select a particular course of action and demanding public accountability, especially since holding decisionmakers responsible for their choices could jeopardize the relationships through which these advocacy groups exercise influence. As I witnessed firsthand this summer, there is a way to do both: the Sierra Club relies on an extremely effective blend of the politics of persuasion and the politics of pressure.
Assessing PSE’s Resource Mix
My initial project was to translate and streamline the Sierra Club’s robust, technical analysis of Puget Sound Energy’s 1,000-page Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) in a way that would be accessible and palatable to a broader audience. In an electric IRP, a utility analyzes the various resources it could rely on to provide power to its ratepayers and determines what resource mix is most economically feasible going forward. New IRPs are issued every two years, and the planning process is a critical time for a utility to make sure its resource investments are not leading it down a slippery slope of ever increasing costs.
As an investor-owned utility, PSE is regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). The UTC regularly reviews utilities’ proposed rate increases and issues an order allowing for recovery of costs and setting a rate of return. The UTC does not approve the IRPs, but the commissioners can note areas of risk in their comments on the IRP. If that happens, the subject utility likely will reevaluate its plan since it creates uncertainty about whether the UTC will approve proposed rate increases in the coming year.
Starting with the analysis summary, my work with the Sierra Club focused on finding ways to succinctly describe the fundamental flaws we found in PSE’s IRP, specifically in its evaluation of the economics of the Colstrip plant. Throughout the plan, PSE either ignored or vastly underestimated the significant public and environmental health costs that the vintage coal plant faces. PSE’s IRP ultimately dismissed the fact that, while the aging Colstrip plant may be able to be maintained somewhat cheaply in the short term, the plant will likely require increasingly costly investments in coming years to comply with new regulations. Much of my internship centered on communicating these oversights to “grasstops” – elected officials, academic experts, and community leaders – and encouraging them to submit comments to the UTC, expressing their concerns about the IRP.
Lake Washington Rally
In contrast to our efforts to engage influential individuals, my second week on the job I assisted with a rally during which we barged a large inflatable coal plant around one of the bridges of a main interstate highway at rush hour, with a sign urging PSE to move beyond coal. Several subject matter experts spoke at the event, and a group of citizen activists demonstrated their support.
While I wondered if our rally might be conflated with coal exports by the casual observer, I learned that earned media is often the true testament to a successful public event. (Check out the news stories on our event here and here and here.) This type of coverage reaches people in their homes and empowers them as ratepayers to call on their utility to provide them with electricity that won’t result in ever-increasing costs or cause environmental harm. The impact of Colstrip’s pollution on local ranchers in Montana is a particularly compelling rallying point in the Coal Free PSE campaign, the emotionality of which is captured in this documentary.
The official public comment period on PSE’s IRP ended August 16. When I return to FES this fall, I look forward to staying engaged with the campaign. Sooner rather than later, I believe Washington State will finally be able to say that it is 100 percent coal free. This victory will be won both through technical arguments and appeals to emotion, and it will give Washingtonians even more justification for opposing the transport of coal across our state.
Nora Hawkins is a Master of Environmental Management candidate. She graduated from Whitman College in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in chemistry. Prior to commencing her studies at Yale, Nora worked as a paralegal in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. At F&ES she is focused on environmental policy and is committed to building a richer, more genuine dialogue between scientists and policymakers.
Friday, August 09, 2013
By Guest Author, Kevin Sherrill, Yale F&ES '14
Five years ago – the last time I walked through the Giacomini Wetlands -- I was working to rescue 12 leopard sharks that had stranded themselves in a pasture after a levee broke, just six months shy of its scheduled removal. This is just one of the many interesting land-sea conflicts that arise in a state that has seen 91 percent wetland loss, well above the estimated 53 percent national average for the lower 48.
The 560-acre area at the southern end of Tomales Bay was leveed and drained in the 1940s to make room for expanding dairy farms and roads in west Marin County, California, cutting off the Lagunitas Creek watershed’s connection with its flood plain and increasing pollutant loading to the bay. Thankfully, a lot has changed since the 2008 restoration project effectively doubled the size of tidal marshes.
Following the restoration Tomales Bay has seen improvements in water quality, native plant recolonization, along with a rise in wildlife abundance and diversity. Aside from the more obvious improvements to the Bay’s health, tidal marsh restoration or conservation projects also have a huge potential to store carbon, an appealing prospect for those seeking to mitigate climate change.
Intact marshes that can keep pace with relative sea-level rise are usually sinks for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and sources of methane and nitrous oxide. Emission rates of the latter are much smaller in magnitude; however, they have 25- and 298-times, respectively, the global warming potential of carbon dioxide on a 100-year time horizon. While marshes play a vital role in carbon sequestration rates, it is essential to quantify how greenhouse gas emission rates vary across marsh complexes – especially with more large-scale restoration projects for the San Francisco Bay area on the horizon.
I’ve spent the summer back in Giacomini Wetlands – much less wary of submerged drainage ditches and stray leopard sharks than I was in 2008. Instead, I’m using static soil chamber and gas chromatography techniques to see how greenhouse gas emissions rates vary across a number of variables including salinity gradients, vegetation communities, and restoration histories. My research should offer a more accurate portrayal of restored marshes’ net carbon-storage capacity, potentially elucidating the restoration strategies – for example, the re-vegetation palettes – that minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
Kevin Sherrill is a MESc candidate at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, YCELP Research Fellow, Carpenter-Sperry awardee, and Jubitz Family Endowment awardee. This summer he is working on quantifying carbon storage rates for restored and intact wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Monday, August 05, 2013
By Guest Author, Amy Mount, Yale F&ES '14
“This is good: now that we’ve got an adult with us, we can walk along the beach!” said the 9-year-old Inuit girl.
“Erm, why do you need an adult to walk along the beach?” I asked tentatively, wondering what I’d committed myself to when agreeing to hang out with the bunch of kids who’d been watching Nickelodeon in the cafe where I was eating lunch.
“In case there are polar bears,” she replied nonchalantly, slurping her garish blue Slush Puppie and flicking her hair behind her head.
We were in the tiny village of Wainwright, Alaska, roughly 70 miles from the northernmost city in the United States, perched on the coast where the great expanse of tundra that covers Alaska’s North Slope meets the chilly Arctic Ocean. The sea ice had begun its springtime melt and three or four whaling crews had towed their boats using snow-machines across the land-fast ice to the patch of dark blue water that had opened up a mile or so from the shore. The rest of the village’s inhabitants had tuned into channel 12 on the CB radio to listen for updates from the whalers, pausing in their work or play occasionally to scan the sea through their binoculars, looking for tell-tale spouts of water.
I couldn’t help gazing out to sea. I’d never seen an ice-covered ocean before and something about it fascinated me: the way it had grown a temporary topography during the dark winter, the frozen layer exhibiting a kind of plate-tectonic behaviour, pushed and pulled by currents and tides, leaving not a smooth landscape but one of ridges and fissures.
In the 19th century, whales were hunted in large numbers by non-indigenous commercial whaling boats, in what one Alaska Native described to me as the North Slope’s first “offshore oil rush.” The blubber was boiled to extract oil that, in turn, was burned in lamps. Commercial whaling (as distinguished from indigenous people’s subsistence whaling) has been illegal for some time now, but these days there is talk of a new offshore oil rush on the horizon. Decreasing Arctic sea-ice coverage and relatively high global energy prices have been drawing drillships northward in search of the fossilized hydrocarbons thought to lie beneath the sea bed.
I had been drawn north too, intrigued by the media narratives of an inevitable “opening up” of the Arctic. I was travelling around Alaska to research the decisionmaking process that determines whether or not drilling will happen in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas; to learn about who makes those decisions, whose views are considered, and which factors are seen to be important. I have so far interviewed more than 40 people from a variety of backgrounds: oil companies, the Alaska legislature, federal and state agencies, environmental organisations, and Alaska Native institutions.
Hours of analysis and writing await me in the coming academic year, so it would be rash of me to announce any conclusions just yet. I do, however, want to share one thought. The urban Alaskans from Anchorage and Juneau often alluded to the “bind” or difficult situation in which people up on the North Slope find themselves. Since oil began to flow from the onshore area around Prudhoe Bay in the 1970s, the villages dotting the Arctic coastline have become accustomed to a parallel flow of benefits in the form of greatly improved public services, infrastructure, and cash. Now that the onshore fields are producing less, some hope that offshore drilling could fill the gap and ensure the continued flow of cash to the local economy.
At the same time, there is great concern for the wellbeing of the bowhead whales that are seen as essential to those communities’ food security, social practices and cultural heritage. Whales might be harmed or pushed away by the noise of drilling, seismic testing, or perhaps the mess of an oil spill – not to mention the impacts of fossil-fuelled climate change on the region as a whole, which indeed were not often mentioned by many of my interviewees but which are increasingly documented in scientific literature.
No one seems to know a satisfactory way out of this apparent tension between the need for ecological integrity and the need for cash. People in the south sigh and shake their heads in pity at the situation of those in the north. Yet it seems to me that the tension on the North Slope is but an early indication of a condition that exists globally, in a world whose leaders declare their countries to be “addicted” to fossil fuels but whose security is undermined by the extraction and combustion of those very materials – due principally to global warming but also to more locally felt environmental impacts. Understanding the politics, policies and decisions that surround fossil fuel extraction is important not just for Arctic inhabitants but for us all.
Amy Mount, a joint-degree master’s of environmental management and international relations student, is studying the politics of offshore drilling in Alaska.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
By Guest Author, Josh Galperin, YCELP Associate Director
The problem with making predictions is that sometimes predictions are wrong. Over the past several months I made two predictions on this blog about two important environmental law cases. I ended up one-for-two.
That isn’t such a bad performance, but the consequences of being wrong are significant -- not just for my ego, but for the on-the-ground reality of environmental planning. Of course the consequences of being right are also important. This post addresses the good news. Stay tuned next week for the bad news.
In December I wrote about climate adaptation efforts in New Jersey. The town of Harvey Cedars, the State of New Jersey, and the federal government were cooperatively working to strengthen a dune system in order to protect against devastating storm surges like those associated with Hurricane Sandy. But bigger and better dunes can mean diminished views for some homeowners. Harvey and Phyllis Karan lost some of their view and a court initially awarded them $375,000 for the loss. Shortly afterward, Sandy came along and, because of the new dunes, didn’t destroy their home. So Mr. and Mrs. Karan had hundreds of thousands of dollars and an intact home thanks to the dune project.
I argued that this was an unreasonable result and if the law continues to require this sort of double-benefit whenever private property is hampered by climate adaptation projects, climate adaptation would become financially infeasible.
Luckily for the future of New Jersey’s beaches, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday, July 8, that the lower court was wrong when it awarded $375,000 to the Karans. The lower court did not allow the jury to consider the fact that the dune project would give the Karans a significant benefit (saving their home!), and it should have. According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the jury should consider the fair market value of the property before the governmental interference and compare that to the fair market value after the interference, including any potential increases resulting from the project.
This case now returns to the lower court where a new jury will consider how the home-saving benefits of dune replenishment will affect the value of the Karans’ home. Hurricane Sandy likely had some impact on the court’s decision in this case, even if only subconsciously. It is also likely that the memory of Sandy will influence the next jury to determine how much money the Karans should receive.
Sandy may or may not have a connection to climate change, but the storm is at least a demonstration of what climate change looks like. In my earlier post I suggested that the reality of climate change may drive changes to the strictures of property law, and this week’s decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court suggests this could be exactly what is happening.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
By Josh Galperin, Associate Director
I want to make a few points about the climate plan President Obama spoke about yesterday. It’s the kitchen sink of climate policy, so there is a lot to say – but I’ll keep it brief.
Overall, this is a step in the right direction simply because the President stood up and gave a speech completely dedicated to addressing climate change. Climate was absent from the campaign trail and has only received piecemeal attention from the White House otherwise. While I have some concerns about the details of the plan, its mere existence is a starting point for a dialouge. Unfortunately, it is a dialouge that should be much further along.
The President’s plan presents what he himself calls an “all of the above energy policy.” That’s a reassuring phrase. My concern is that one of the above—namely coal—is one of the top drivers of climate pollution. I am not suggesting that a better climate policy would require the immediate retirement of all the country’s coal plants; that is patently irresponsible. But a better climate policy would at least recognize that coal is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Specifically, the White House plan proposes to support “clean coal” through loan guarantees for technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and “advanced fossil energy projects,” which presumably includes technologies like coal gasification. The words “clean coal” peppered through this plan is worrisome. There is “cleaner” coal, which emits less carbon, less sulfur, or has other pollutant reductions, but no coal is clean in the sense that wind, solar, or energy efficiency is clean. Coal gasification can reduce pollutants and CCS can reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, but only if utilities can bring the technology to scale. But new technologies do not address the upstream impacts of coal, from mining to transportation, or the downstream waste storage problems.
Moreover, CCS may not ever be the technology that this plan envisions. When attached to a coal plant, CCS technology requires electricity to operate. That electricity comes directly from the coal plant to which it is attached, which means that CCS will reduce the amount of electricity that leaves the coal plant and goes to homes and businesses. Some estimate that CCS technology could require 40 percent of a coal plant’s electrical output. This means that a coal plant would need to increase its output by 40 percent to make up for the electricity that goes to the CCS process, thereby burning over 40 percent more coal.
The loan guarantee plan is a sort of fossil fuel subsidy, albeit a subsidy that will help reduce the cost of private borrowing for “advanced fossil energy projects” rather than offer direct payments to the industry. In fact, elsewhere in his plan the President promises to reduce direct subsidies. Coal is king because it is cheap, and it is cheap, in part, because it has had help from the government. Reducing subsidies will help alternative energy sources compete.
One of the most valuable subsidies that coal power receives is permission to emit greenhouse gases, creating a significant social cost but bearing almost none of that cost internally. The new climate plan promises to remove this subsidy as well and that is an important highlight: President Obama promises to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt carbon standards for new and existing power plants. The process is underway (albeit delayed) for new-plant standards but previous EPA statements indicated that the Agency would not address existing plants. Perhaps yesterday’s announcement will change that.
Everything I’ve so far discussed is aimed at reducing climate change. These issues, and many others, have been at the center of the climate change debate, in one form or another, since the beginning. Adaptation, however, has been mostly absent. Yet adaptation is critical. The climate ball is rolling and mitigation seeks to slow it. Adaptation helps us avoid getting flattened by it. Adaptation helps sure-up infrastructure and make society more resilient to change. Local governments have been working tirelessly to adapt and organizations such as Mayor Bloomberg’s C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have been supporting urban resilience efforts. But adaptation has not been a major part of the national dialouge.
With respect to mitigation, the President’s plan largely works at the margin. But with respect to adaptation, whether it is strengthening coastlines or protecting hospitals from floods, the President has finally raised its policy profile and that will likely be the biggest achievement of this plan.
Tuesday, June 04, 2013
By Guest Author, Kathryn Wright, MEM '13 and Lauren Sanchez, MEM '14 and 2013 YCELP Moran Environmental Fellow
In mid-March, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat launched the first comprehensive heat action plan in South Asia in collaboration with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and its partners. Now that the heat season is just around the corner for Gujarat,
the AMC will have the opportunity to put the heat action plan in motion. The heat action plan is composed of an early warning system and public awareness campaign about staying healthy during extreme temperatures and may be accessed online on the AMC’s website.
Climate scientists predict that extreme heat waves will increase in frequency due to climate change. A key component of NRDC's example materials and advertisements is to try and establish the link between extreme temperatures, health and climate change. NRDC, in partnership with the Indian Institute of Public Health
(IIPH), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and Georgia Institute of Technology, was able to develop public service announcements, recommendations and protocols for heat waves and extreme heat events.
Advertisements and print-distribution are already picking up around the city. Billboards, as pictured below, are being put up around the city providing heat prevention tips. In the coming months, key stakeholders will continue to meet, discuss and revise the early warning system.
(Photo courtesy of Anjali Jaiswal, Director of the NRDC India Initiative)
This billboard and other heat action plan advertisements are directed at several unique groups, vulnerable to the effect of increased heat:
Young and elderly populations – development stages contribute to increased vulnerability due to challenges maintaining homeostasis. These populations are at-risk because of lack of control of their surrounding environments
Slum communities - typically lack access to cooling facilities, healthcare and other amenities to help combat the heat
Outdoor workers - physical exertion under the hot sun contributes to dehydration and susceptibility to other extreme heat illnesses
The heat action plan will be primarily disseminated throughout the city of Ahmedabad through public ads in a variety of media. The advertisements and publications were further tailored to address these unique groups. A separate easy-read version of the heat action plan was developed to reach a broader audience. There are also plans to place public service announcements on ambulances. Another exciting development is that the AMC printed health tip sheets for 6,000 school children to take home to their families!
In addition to the advertisements around the city, NRDC and its partners are also providing health fact sheets for medical workers and community outreach groups around the city. Through these dissemination strategies, Ahmedabad residents will be able to properly prepare for heat season, and will begin to think about the impacts associated with climate change.
(Diagram courtesy of NRDC and its project partners)
The heat action plan also involves coordination and cooperation between multiple different government responses to create an integrated emergency response system. The flowchart on the left details the coordinated action between government departments and other stakeholders. These agencies will work together to reach as many residents as possible. There are even plans to coordinate with key electric and water providers during the most extreme temperatures.
In the coming months, key stakeholders will continue to meet, discuss and revise the early warning system and the heat action plan. Keep an eye on the India Initiative website
Monday, May 20, 2013
By Guest Author, Eric Biber, Professor of Law, University of California Berkeley
I (Josh Galperin, Associate Director, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy) have two forthcoming publications that argue against the growing "eat the invaders" or "invasivore" movement. Invasive species are a serious ecological and economic problem. The invasivore movement supposes that we can control biological invasions with a fork and knife. My collaborators and I see several problems with this argument. One of the leading problems is that generating enough culinary interest in an invasive species to actually impact its population will lead to cultural endearment. There are examples of invasive species, despite manifest ecological and economic damage, becoming important cultural icons. Even though it has nothing to do with food, the eucalyptus tree in California is one such example.
How Eucalyptus Trees Are Connected to Denying Climate Change
Here on Legal Planet, we talk a lot about climate skeptics/deniers, and we’re highly critical of them (for good reason!). A lot of those climate skeptics/deniers are conservatives.
But there’s no monopoly on scientific ignorance on one end of the political spectrum. An example of that is close to home here at UC Berkeley.
Let me be clear here. Cutting down eucalyptus trees to reduce fire risk and restore native plants and ecosystems is generally an environmentally sensible thing to do. It will help native plants and animals do better. And it will keep people safer. Those who argue otherwise are ignoring a lot of fairly clear ecological evidence, primarily because of other prior commitments they have (such as, logging is bad, or chemicals are bad). Sounds a little like climate skeptics/deniers to me.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
By Bruce Ho
In the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s second annual Policy Workshop Webinar Series, we looked at “Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development” with the help of a distinguished group of experts from multiple sectors and fields. In case you missed any of our events this year, or would like to review a presentation, I have catalogued our shale gas webinars and interviews below, including links to summary blog posts and video recordings as well as additional readings, videos, and audio clips so that you can learn more about the issues that each of our speakers discussed.
The Policy Workshop Webinar Series will continue next academic year, 2013-2014, with an examination of environmental law and policy issues in the area of food and agriculture.
Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development
September 18, 2012: Economics and Risk Assessment (Interview): As a prelude to the webinar series, Sheila Olmstead, a Fellow at Resources for the Future, discussed some of the implications of the shale gas boom. Read more and watch this interview here.
October 10, 2012: Overview of Environmental Impacts: Dr. Jim Saiers, Professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, presented an overview of shale gas development and its implications for the environment. Read more and watch this webinar here.
November 8, 2012: Climate Impacts: Dr. Ramón Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) presented research from a paper he recently co-authored on natural gas use and its implications for climate change. Read more and watch this webinar here.
December 5, 2012: Overview of the Current U.S. Regulatory Framework: Florida State Law Professor Hannah Wiseman provided a comprehensive overview of the current legal regimes governing shale gas development, including state and federal statutes, local zoning, agency directives, and the common law. Read more and watch this webinar here.
January 23, 2013: An Industry Perspective: Mark Boling, President of V+ Development Solutions, a division of Southwestern Energy Company, presented on “Balancing Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts of Shale Gas Development Activities.” Read more and watch this webinar here.
Additional viewing: Mr. Boling’s presentation at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Texas.
February 12, 2013: Electricity Markets and Clean Energy: Jeffrey Logan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) presented on “Natural Gas and U.S. Electric Power Futures.” Read more and watch this webinar here.
March 5, 2013: Measuring Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Interview): Dr. Garvin Heath, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), discussed research that he recently completed on the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas produced from Texas’ Barnett Shale. Read more and watch this interview here.
March 7, 2013: A State Perspective: Tom Hunt from the Colorado Energy Office presented on “The Future of Oil and Gas Production in Colorado.” Read more and watch this webinar here.
March 29, 2013: Community Impacts: Susan Phillips from public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia discussed Marcellus Shale gas development in Pennsylvania. The stories that she presented were originally reported by Ms. Phillips and her colleagues as part of StateImpact Pennsylvania, an award-winning collaboration between WHYY, National Public Radio (NPR), and WITF in Harrisburg. Read more and watch this webinar here.
April 12, 2013: An Environmental Perspective: Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney and Deputy Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s New York Program, discussed fracking from the perspective of an environmental organization. Read more and watch this webinar here.