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On the Environment

Thursday, October 24, 2013
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Maxine Burkett and the “Ex-Situ Nation” as a New Home for Climate Refugees

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
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Introduction to Metering: Spotlight on Chile

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. [1][2]

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.


[2] http://www2.udec.cl/~mquirog/OECD%20Water%201.pdf

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.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
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Climate Law Expert and Climate Justice Champion to Speak at Yale Law School

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
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Flipping the Script: Women’s Labor as Central in the Global Drive for Sustainable Food

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.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Thursday, October 10, 2013
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At Yale, Arctic Leader Speaks on the Greatest Global Threat of Our Time

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

We don’t often talk about American communities falling into the ocean, what it means for an entire ocean to lose 75 percent of its summer sea-ice volume, or of extreme weather events like super-storm Sandy becoming the norm. Yet on September 24, in front of a crowd of over one hundred Yale students, faculty, and members of the public, Fran Ulmer, the chair of the US Arctic Research Commission, addressed these issues as the new reality in a changing world.

Fran Ulmer’s talk launched the fall speaker series From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. In her lecture, “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic,” the former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill explained her current work for the US Arctic Research Commission. The Commission is a federal agency created in 1984 by Congress to help protect this remote and mysterious region by directing and coordinating Arctic research. (Photo: Danielle Lehle)

Ulmer explained that Alaskan communities have already experienced warmer weather. Many schools, homes, and other infrastructure have already suffered from the impacts of thawing permafrost. The loss of sea-ice that usually protects Arctic villages against the cruel waves of the open ocean has also increased coastal erosion, putting seaside communities at risk. Arctic sea-ice has gotten so low, she said, that the Arctic has lost 75 percent of its entire volume of summer-sea ice since 1980.

One of the consequences from this loss of volume is a change in the atmospheric jet stream that regulates weather. The alteration of the jet stream is likely to cause more intense storms and extreme events in places around the world, including the US East Coast. What happens in the Arctic truly doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Ulmer highlighted the importance and relevance of the Arctic to Americans from all climates, reminding the audience that the US is an Arctic nation – whether or not it understands itself as such. Ms. Ulmer said that this lack of understanding means research projects in the Arctic are insufficiently funded.

Funding to help Arctic communities adapt to a changing world is even more lacking, and it affects the millions of people and wildlife living in the Arctic.  Ms. Ulmer’s speech underscored the fact that Alaskans like myself have already suffered the impacts of climate change, and we need proper research and preparation to reduce the threats climate change poses to our communities in Alaska.  While I was in high school, as part of a group called Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), I was moved by the experience of my peers, who told stories about how their villages and towns were experiencing changes. I knew that it was the youth of Alaska who were going to be most affected by climate change in the future, and as the leaders of tomorrow we had to take action. As a result, AYEA started a climate change educational initiative directed at our peers throughout the state, and a corresponding petition to our elected officials demanding that they also take action on climate change. We got over 5,000 Alaska high school students from over 105 Alaskan communities to sign the petition and as a result, our elected officials vowed to take action. Some went from naysayers of climate change to co-sponsoring legislation to help with the adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

I continued my outreach and activism on climate change while in college as a presenter with the Climate Project, and during my professional career at the World Wildlife Fund in Alaska. After years of doing this work, it is humbling to know that leaders like Ms. Ulmer understand the important research needs for the adaptation and mitigation of climate change and are advocating this to federal agencies.

Adapting physically to a changing climate is only one of the challenges. Our research, priorities, and regulations must also evolve to address the challenges this new reality brings. Ms. Ulmer urged the US to catch up with the other seven Arctic nations and develop a comprehensive climate action plan for America’s Arctic. For example, many nations in Europe have already adopted comprehensive plans for adaptation to climate change. A website by the European Environment Agency is a useful tool that shows what initiatives each country have taken or will take for climate adaptation. For example, Finland adopted a comprehensive plan that includes resources for its citizens to obtain climate change information, and a step-by-step guide to support adaptation and mitigation strategies from the municipal level to the small business level.

It will be interesting to see if our leaders in the US heed the advice of policy experts such as Ms. Ulmer and others in the near future. Organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan policy think-tank, have come up with specific recommendations for the US, including adopting the United National Convention on Law of the Sea Treaty, appointing an Arctic Ambassador, and improving interagency cooperation on the Arctic. In 2015, the US will take the reigns as chair of the Arctic Council, an international forum between all eight Arctic nations with a mission to help foster a dialogue on Arctic issues. Ms. Ulmer and the CSIS argue that in order for the US to be more credible as chair of the Arctic Council, it should adopt these recommendations.

Further, international figures, including President Obama, are hoping to enact a big global climate change agreement in 2015 to strengthen efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What leadership role will the US play during these two global opportunities? As Ms. Ulmer said in her speech, Americans should think about what our responsibility is as an Arctic Nation.  President Obama, the leader of the second largest carbon-dioxide-emitting country in the world, has stated that climate change is the greatest global threat of our time, and that a great deal of work remains to solve this problem. It will be interesting to see if actions will speak louder than words within the next two years.

For more information on the US Arctic Research Commission and updates on the latest Arctic research, you can subscribe to the US Arctic Research Commission’s daily Arctic Update newsletter at www.arctic.gov. The newsletter covers Arctic updates from around the world, including news from places such as Russia and Greenland. The Research Commission’s site also includes an Arctic Science Portal, a tool on research projects in the Arctic, and facilitates networking among those doing related work in this region. These are small, important steps to help make a difference on climate change impacts to the Arctic.

For more from Fran Ulmer, listen to her podcasts interviews here and here

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.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013
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From Metrics to Metronomes: UN Leaders Get Hip

By Guest Author, Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

What do headliner musicians like Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayer and Stevie Wonder have to do with the United Nations? Before the annual Global Citizen Festival, which took place in Central Park on September 28th to raise awareness about the global Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, I wouldn’t have made the connection. Nonetheless, I found myself rocking out to music alongside 75,000 other attendees—ranging from academics to hipster youth—who were supporting an end to extreme poverty even though they may not all have classified themselves as being socially minded.

The concert was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, and it was cleverly punctuated with special guests who talked about the importance of building a movement around poverty reduction. A recurring festival that travels the globe, it’s put together by the Global Poverty Project and the Cotton On Foundation, both international advocacy organizations that use new media to raise support for social issues.  

As an awareness-raising tactic, concert attendees had to do a series of online learning activities to be eligible for a ticket to the concert. Users racked up points by exploring the website for the Global Poverty Project and answering quiz questions based on, for instance, issue briefings and through watching videos and re-posting articles to their own blogs. Once a user accumulated 10 points, he or she was eligible to be in a drawing for tickets. It’s an interesting business model, and while I’m not sure everyone paid attention to the finer details of the games, I'm sure that some people did learn something new.

Much of the audience was young people and social media was a key feature of the show. The hashtag of the concert, #GlobalCitizen, was popular on Twitter and real-time tweets were displayed on the jumbo screens while the concert was rolling. Instagram was also littered with New York youth showing off their end-of-the-summer outing. It’s a clear sign that the ideas of the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nations are percolating down to “non-expert” demographics, broadening the reach so that perhaps the next generation will take up the cause.

At one point, while I was waiting in line to purchase the healthy food, the profits of which were to go toward alleviating poverty, I looked over to the stage and saw that Jeffrey Sachs--the famous professor of economics at Columbia and Director of the Earth Institute--was on stage. He was soon joined by the actress Olivia Wilde, and together they were commenting on ways to reduce extreme poverty. And if this duo didn’t already represent worlds colliding, Sachs brought onto the stage other special guests, including the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda.

That’s about when I was informed that the food ran out. The festival had not, it turns out, been prepared for the scale of its own success. It was a slight disappointment to those waiting in line, but showed how popular the event was.

Later in the night, former Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am took the stage and proclaimed his vast admiration for recycling, which I thought was valuable because he showed that sustainability can be a mainstream thing. He challenged the audience to make use of the recycling bins (dubbed “Ekocycle” bins) so that next year, he could wear a jacket made entirely of the recycled plastic gathered from this concert.

I left the concert early, a bit hungry from having missed out on the healthy food options. But while I was eating the notably less sustainable burger-and-fries option later, I soon regretted ducking out after I heard (through social media) that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself was on stage with Stevie Wonder, to offer one more exhortation to action before the closing performance.

In the end, this concert made me think that this kind of messaging and outreach campaign can be more effective in reaching the public than some of the academically oriented reporting that’s aimed at influencing the UN process. The presence of so many celebrities alongside leaders from the global South, where poverty is a pervasive problem, at this place in New York City led me to think that perhaps academics and policymakers might be finally understanding how to “get hip” with the new generation who will the global citizens that affect change in the future.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013
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Food Sovereignty and US Food Movements

By Guest Author, Jena Clarke, Yale F&ES '15

Alison Alkon and Teresa Mares join us this week on our webinar series Frontiers in Food and Agriculture as we continue our conversation about linking theory and practice in food justice. Dr. Alkon will be joining us online from the University of the Pacific in California where she is an associate professor in and chair of the sociology department. Dr. Mares is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont. Their talk this week will center on their shared interest in race, inequality and neoliberalism in the food justice movement.

Alison Alkon is a 2008 PhD recipient from UC Davis. Her dissertation, which in 2012 was expanded into the book Black, White and Green: A Study of Farmers' Markets, focused on two farmers' markets located in Bay Area neighborhoods that were racially and economically distinct. She examined the limitations of sustainable ideals within each and considered the way in which the dimensions of race and class in these spaces reinforced inequalities. She continues to be involved in research and participation in the sociopolitical issues of food systems. This has included papers on local organic food, food politics and nutrition, and sustainable agriculture in Latin America, just to name a few. She has also been actively engaged in community-based research in California's Central Valley.

Teresa Mares received her PhD from the University of Washington in 2010. Like Dr. Alkon, her work deals with inequality and food, focusing primarily on issues relating to the Latino/a migrant community. Her dissertation We Are Made of Our Food: Latino/a Immigration and the Practices and Politics of Eating, examined Latino/a food justice, security and access in Seattle. Her work incorporates the wider concepts of citizenship, transnationalism and identity and their relationship to food.

Together, Drs. Alkon and Mares have co-written two papers; Food Sovereignty in US Food Movements: Radical Visions and Neoliberal Constraints and Mapping the Food Movement: Inequality and Neoliberalism in Four Food Discourses, both published in 2012. We look forward to continuing this line of inquiry with both of them on Tuesday, October 8th at 3:30 pm EDT. To join the webinar, please register at https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/498446839

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.

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Monday, September 30, 2013
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Maria Trumpler To Present Webinar On Gender, and Feminism in Food and Agriculture

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

Maria Trumpler is a fitting contributor to YCELP’s webinar series Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. Here at Yale, she is the Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources, and her teaching interests include gender and science, feminist critiques of science, scientific studies of sexuality, and food studies. During this workshop, Trumpler will address the impact of gender on agriculture as a practice, and she’ll discuss gendered discourses surrounding the consumption of food. Her expertise helps us explore the interconnections between theory and practice in food justice.

In 1991, Trumpler received her PhD from Yale in History of Medicine and Life Science. After completing her PhD, Trumpler spent eight years teaching at Middlebury, Harvard, and Wesleyan, but left the academic scene to experiment with artisanal cheesemaking in Vermont. Through this work, Trumpler began to relate her interests in feminism, and food and agriculture. Eventually, she returned to Yale in the Women’s Studies Department and currently teaches a lecture course on “Women, Food and Culture” and a seminar on the “History of Sexuality.” 

This expertise and these unique experiences will be an excellent addition to the third annual Policy Workshop Webinar Series: Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. You can register for Maria Trumpler's webinar by following this link: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/402736559

Co-sponsored by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, the Yale Sustainable Food Project and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, this third annual webinar series highlights emerging issues in food and agriculture policy. The series is designed for academic and policy communities as well as the general public and is available to everyone online. The webinar format enables interested parties to access and participate in these presentations from anywhere in the world. The series is free and open to the public; presentation recordings are available online approximately one week after they air live. Find out more about the entire series here: Frontiers in Food and Agriculture.

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
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The Road We Travel: From Fare Food to Fair Food

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 susanne.stahl@yale.edu. 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.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Monday, September 23, 2013
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Policy Expert to Speak on Arctic Climate Adaptation Strategies

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

Many scientists note that the poles, including the Arctic, offer a preview of climate change’s expected global impacts. Studies indicate that temperature rises and climate change at the poles will be much faster and more dramatic compared with the rest of the world, giving us an ability to see the future.

Growing up in Alaska, I saw this first hand. My family and I have experienced hotter temperatures, watched as new invasive species infest our forests and deplete our salmon, and we know of entire villages eroding into the ocean because of lost sea-ice. We’ve already experienced the dramatic impacts of climate change.

When I was a high school student in 2002, I heard Fran Ulmer, then Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor, speak about climate change. While I did not fully understand many of the issues she raised during her speech, I was struck by the eloquence, deep passion, and care she had for Alaska and the Arctic.

Eleven years later, as a first-year Masters of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies – and someone who is also deeply concerned about the Arctic – I am pleased to introduce her as she comes to Yale to share her insight into US government research on Arctic climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Her speech, titled “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic,” will take place Tuesday, September 24 from 6:00 – 7:00 PM in Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium.

Ms. Ulmer is now the chair of the US Arctic Research Commission, a body that Congress created to help government agencies direct research funding and management efforts to answer questions about the mysterious Arctic. Her impressive resume includes serving in numerous elected positions, as President Obama’s appointee to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and as chancellor of the University of Alaska.

Fran Ulmer’s talk launches the fall speaker series From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Changeco-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.Other speakers include Professor Maxine Burkett of the University of Hawaii, an expert in Pacific island adaptation and relocation (October 17), William Hohenstein, Director of the Climate Change Program Office for US Department of Agriculture (October 29), and Rohit Aggarwala, former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City and currently special advisor to Michael Bloomberg in his role as chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.  To learn more about the series, please visit http://envirocenter.yale.edu/events.

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.

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Monday, September 16, 2013
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Tanya Fields, Executive Director of The BLKProjek, to Launch Webinar Series

By Guest Author, Jena Clarke, Yale F&ES '15

Tanya Fields is a mother, activist and entrepreneur in the South Bronx. She is the Executive Director of The BLK ProjeK, a non-profit organization that works to create a better food system for marginalized neighborhoods and demographics, especially underserved women and youth of color. And she will be the first presenter in this year’s Policy Workshop Webinar series on the subject Frontiers in Food and Agriculture, which starts on Tuesday, September 17 at 12:00 PM EDT.  

A young woman of color herself, Tanya feels that she came to her work as an activist out of necessity.  As a single mother living in a low-income community and putting herself through school, she was intimately familiar with the struggles and stresses faced by families without the resources to access healthy food and environments. The challenges she faced in her own life inspired her to take action, working first with on issues of environmental justice for organizations including Mothers on the Move, Sustainable South Bronx and the Majora Carter Group. This work, and the networks, knowledge and experience she gained, led her to create the BLK ProjeK in 2009 as a means of embodying her ethic through “real, tangible, effective action.”

The BLK ProjeK’s current initiatives include the South Bronx Mobile Market, a converted school bus that makes fresh, local, and organic vegetables available to communities in the South Bronx. The ProjeK organizes the Bronx Grub Meal Series, a quarterly community dinner that serves a sustainable low cost or free meal, while encouraging civic engagement and dialogue. The BLK ProjeK has an on-going initiative called Libertad Urban Farm, a movement that seeks to reclaim underdeveloped land to put to use as community gardens. Although the BLK ProjeK’s work is rooted in food issues, its impact extends much wider: by working at the intersection of race, class and gender, it is actively engaged in issues of community growth and development, representation and empowerment, public and mental health, and environmental stewardship. 

To learn more about Tanya Fields, the BLK ProjeK, and food justice in urban communities, tune into Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s webinar “Frontiers in Food and Agriculture: A Conversation with Tanya Fields” on Tuesday, September 17 at 12:00 pm EDT. To register, visit www4.gotomeeting.com/register/941997655. Tanya’s presentation will be followed by an interactive Q&A session with the audience.

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, September 03, 2013
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Climate Change and the ICJ: Seeking an Advisory Opinion on Transboundary Harm

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.  


Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Sunday, August 25, 2013
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Beyond Coal: Working on the Sierra Club’s PSE Campaign

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.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Friday, August 09, 2013
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Carbon storage in CA Tidal Marshes: the Role of Tidal Marsh Restoration in Carbon Credit Programs

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.

Contact: kevin.sherrill@yale.edu

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Monday, August 05, 2013
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Off Alaska’s North Slope: To drill or not to drill?

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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