logo: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

YCELP News Feed

Section Image

On the Environment

Tuesday, March 04, 2014
| Share

Todd Wilkinson, Ted Turner, and the “Radical Middle”

By Guest Author, Amy Weinfurter, Yale F&ES '15

“Capitalism isn’t the problem, it’s how we’ve been practicing capitalism.” This quote, from Ted Turner, reverberates through Todd Wilkinson portrait of the media mogul’s life in Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. In the book, Wilkinson traces Turner’s path, from his days as the outspoken founder of CNN, to his equally controversial and pioneering presence in environmental conservation and philanthropy. As the book explores Turners’ ability to disrupt business as usual, it also considers the new possibilities and questions that emerge when then line between environmental conservation and capitalism thins. 

Wilkinson sees Turner’s journey as a study in “how places can transform people.” For Turner, the connection with nature started early. The swamps of North Carolina provided a refuge from a troubled childhood, and bison captured his imagination; he began to think of them as his totem animal. This connection to wildlife and wild places would bubble up throughout Turner’s career, from his work pioneering environmental programming at CNN, to his attempted reintroduction of wildlife onto a Florida plantation. Eventually, his love for the outdoors led him to purchase Montana’s Flying D ranch. The transaction, which started as a way to fuel Turner’s passion for fly-fishing, became a watershed moment for its new owner, the community around him, and the field of re-wilding and environmental conservation.

The quest to restore the Flying D ranch led Turner to an unusual solution, an approach in the “radical middle,” between typical land conservation strategies, on one hand, and traditional ranching efforts, on the other.  He replaced cattle with bison, and founded a sustainably managed restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill, to promote them as an alternative to beef. Many laud Turner’s approach as a much-needed integration of economic and environmental principles, that factors people and the planet, as well as profits, into its bottom line. However, his approach also generates controversy. Environmentalists worry about the potential domestication of Turner’s bison herds, especially in light of collaborations between state wildlife agencies and Turner Enterprises. Ranchers often object to Turner’s reintroduction of bison and prairie dogs to Western landscapes, worrying that these creatures will threaten their livestock through competition or disease

Wilksinon’s profile suggests that, for his part, Turner sees his approach as a way to leverage to environmental efforts as far as possible. Making conservation economically feasible, he argues, is key to making it more widely adopted. By managing bison to mimic their historic role in maintaining healthy grasslands, Turner also improves the land’s ability to sustain other kinds of wildlife. In addition to an estimated 55,000 bison, “populations of mule deer, white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Rocky Mountain gray wolf, Shiras moose, pronghorn antelope, black bear, mountain lions and badgers, among others,” roam his ranches. Wilkinson likens Turner’s approach to conservation to a conservationist’s Noah’s ark; protecting a keystone species creates a refuge for a whole host of other creatures. Similarly, Turner’s championing of prairie dogsprotects more that 150,000 of these animals, but also preservesa host of other creatures, including the endangered black-footed ferret and burrowing owl, that rely on them for as a source of prey and habitat creation. 

Turner’s work promoting peace parks also leverages conversation, but from a different angle; it extends the benefits of conservation as a tool to address global conflict. In his presentation, Wilkinson cites Turner’s realization that “deep down, almost everyone cares deeply about wildlife,” as a guiding principle in his championing of peace parks. These trans-boundary protected areas focus on the common affinity that animals create, to provide neutral spaces, as well as eco-tourism and revenue-generating opportunities, for both sides of conflict-ridden borders. Turner has promoted the creation of a park to protect the biodiversity in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and to foster dialogue between the two countries. In this arena, and in his work promoting the role of the United Nations in conflict resolution and global governance, nuclear disarmament, and women’s rights, Turner has a knack for seeing new ways for getting things done.

Wilkinson paints this technology-disrupting identity as the common link across Turner’s philanthropic work and media background. Whether pioneering the 24-hour news cycle, or re-imaging re-wilding, his greatest successes involve challenges to the status quo. His recent foray into clean energy is no exception: by partnering with one of the largest coal-burners in the U.Sto create asolar energy project, he has formed a renewable energy “odd couple.”  As the project develops, it’s likely he will continue redraw business models that make enterprise work for the planet.   

Todd Wilkinson’s presentation was co-sponsored by YCELP and YCEI, as part of the Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series. The series features new publications by renowned environmental policy thinkers including Brian Keane, Mary Wood, and Tom Kizzia. 

A podcast interview with Todd Wilkinson is availble on SoundCloud.

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.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Lehle, Yale F&ES '15.

Posted in:
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
| Share

Brian Keane Kicks off Bookshelf Series with Discussion of Renewable and Efficiency Solutions

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

On Wednesday, February 12, SmartPower President Brian Keane kicked off Yale’s Climate and Energy Bookshelf spring 2014 speaker series. Mr. Keane is president of SmartPower, a company dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and author of the recent Green is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit from Clean Energy. His lecture at Yale F&ES, titled “50 Shades of Green” outlined strategies to help increase the use of renewable energy, to encourage behavior changes toward energy efficiency and other relevant public education initiatives to fight climate change. 

Mr. Keane uses a multi-prong approach in his advocacy to tackle climate change. In the book, Mr. Keane outlines why adopting green technology is not only good for the environment, but can increase savings for individuals, businesses and society. His book shows that using renewables like solar energy is much easier than many people realize, and it is more acceptable to use in today’s society. It is becoming a norm for people who once consumed old greenhouse gas emitting technologies to make the switch toward greener technologies. For example, the US Department of Energy has also made it easier for Americans to achieve this goal, outlining other ways to save money and to find rebates and tax credits in individual states

As president of SmartPower, Mr. Keane explained the approaches that his company uses to achieve their goals. SmartPower uses a form of community-based campaigning to encourage behavior change over the long term, and shows people that they truly can be part of the ‘50 shades of green’ movement as part of their efforts to reduce emissions. The main approach is called COR. It stands for efforts on Community outreach, Online platforms and social marketing (person to person outreach) and Rewards and Incentives. One example is SmartPower’s role in Solarize Connecticut, a partnership between Keane’s organization, the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and the John Mercke Fund, to increase the use of solar panels by homeowners, businesses and others in Connecticut. The organization provides countless workshops and other tools to help people understand the benefits and logistics of using solar energy. It keeps in touch with clients regularly and provides online assistance to encourage collaboration.

SmartPower is not looking at energy solutions in Connecticut alone. During the lecture, Mr. Keane discussed the Arizona Solar Challenge, which is an effort that seeks to increase the number of owner occupied homes using solar energy to at least 5 percent in sunny Arizona by 2015. If 5 percent of the total homes in a community reach this goal, SmartPower calls it an “Arizona Solar Community." So far, six communities throughout the state have been award this title, and a handful of others are heading that way. If the trend continues, it will mean a higher renewable energy profile for the whole state of Arizona. The Energy Information Agency ranks each state in terms amount of renewable energy capacity and generation, and partly by the efforts of SmartPower and others, Arizona already ranks in the top ten for renewable energy capacity. Everyone can check renewable energy usage statistics on their state here.

Renewable energy won’t be enough to reduce emissions though.  Mr. Keane pointed out that despite living in homes and having infrastructure that is more energy efficient compared to the past, we are all still using more energy than we ever did before.  Humans have to do more.  Behavior changes at both the individual level and on the societal level will be key if we are ever to get serious about climate change.  One of the behavior changes is to ensure that we understand why we are using more. 

In his book and lecture, Mr. Keane called on consumers to become more “energy smart” and to reduce energy waste. One of the wastes that he wants to tackle is called “phantom load”. It is wasted energy by everyday household items such as microwaves that use more electricity by just sitting in the house and idly being plugged into an outlet. That means more energy is used to power the microwave clock than for the purpose of actually heating food. The Carbon Fund, a 501(c) 3 non-profit also dedicated to reducing emissions, has plenty of tips on how to reduce your individual energy waste including reducing phantom load. It also lists practical steps to reduce emissions, such ways to lessen the amount of junk mail sent to you which would reduce paper use and mail distribution costs.

All of this highlights a debate on what is the most effective way to combat climate change. It is a question of whether to work towards more command and control regulations, or to focus on voluntary measures such as encouraging more energy efficient industrial and consumer behavior. Here in the US, the EPA is confronting a new Supreme Court challenge from industry groups that say EPA is overstepping its authority on regulating greenhouse gas emissions. This new case will test whether or not the EPA has the authority on a new rule that would only permit expanding new industrial energy facilities if companies also come up with ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. If the EPA wins, Mr. Keane’s efforts to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy use will become all the more important. It will require one of the largest greenhouse gas emitting nations and its citizens to look at the efforts of businesses such as SmartPower before bringing more energy on the line. If that were the case, it would be a win-win situation for both Mr. Keane and the world on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorInnovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, February 24, 2014
| Share

The View Without Supermarket Vision: Thomas Berry and the “Great Work”

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

Right after high school graduation my friend Emily and I took a road trip to Taos, New Mexico. We were on our way to a friend’s bed and breakfast to stay and enjoy the desert sun before facing the rest of our lives. We stopped at the Rio Grand Gorge Bridge and, as we left the car to admire the gorge, a homeless man pushed a cart across the bridge, gestured toward us and, from under a beard and baseball cap, called us “supermarket girls.” I grew up working for the family gardening business and, having grown many of my own vegetables and plants, I resented his comment and thought, “I am NOT a supermarket girl!” Although hardly the type of comment to raise one’s defenses, I have never forgotten his words. For some reason, that phrase has taken on new meaning over the years.

What was this man commenting on? He was, perhaps, pointing to some truth about where Emily and I were coming from, and what kind of life we had presumably led. Along our road trip in Colorado and New Mexico, Emily and I came face to face with expressions of our national agricultural production in the West: vast irrigation systems, dams, highways, satellite towns propped up by a fossil fuel economy, and drought-prone landscapes heavily irrigated or roamed by cattle. Indeed, despite both of our families’ humble origins, Emily and I were accustomed to going to the grocery store and unquestioningly buying produce for our families without any conception of how the system really functioned. So maybe we were, in a way, “supermarket girls.” I have never been comfortable with the phrase and am now exploring the implications of being part of a “supermarket society.” Of course, beneath the supermarket façade is the story behind the polished apples, shiny peppers, and perfect potatoes—this story is as illuminating as it is alarming. The tons of topsoil rushing downriver, the nationwide bee colony collapse, the already vanished forms of plant and animal life call for a better way or, as Thomas Berry calls it, the “Great Work.”

In his February 12 talk, “Creating a New Food Future,” Andrew Kimbrell highlighted the ways in which industrial agriculture exhausts our soils, imperils our pollinators (the critical key to fertility), and eradicates our rich history in seed biodiversity. We are now reckoning with a system that undercuts the very foundations upon which it rests. The specter of drought across the West reveals the unfortunate fact that our water law is based on data from an unusual wet spell. Now climate change will likely reduce the Colorado River’s flow even further, the source of all that is green in much of the West and Southwest, leaving regional planners and farmers clamoring for solutions. The current water crisis in California and the likely reality of a long-term drought, points to the need to re-align our agricultural regime.

The water crisis that threatens agriculture in states like California, Arizona, and Colorado is but one of many problems embedded in an agricultural system that exhausts farmland and natural resources without replenishing them. This system, as Kimbrell reminds us, is completely unregenerative and the consumers’ “supermarket vision,” or disconnection with their own food sources, is one of its symptoms. 

According to Kimbrell, as we begin to realize the vulnerability and danger involved in industrial agriculture, we should see the organic movement in the United States as the starting point, our conceptual baseline from which a greater transformation of American agriculture can occur. That is, the organic movement cannot, by itself, solve all of the problems associated with the food system as it is, but it is a worthy and necessary launch pad. Part of this change is certainly related to policy, technology, and consumer habits, to name a few, but it also has to do with the way that Americans view nature.

Many social scientists have long examined American attitudes towards nature. Thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Lynn White Jr., and Thomas Berry have all observed and decried a disjointed and extractive relationship with the natural world. This, in turn, shapes the manner in which we use nature for sustenance. Historically, westerners have understood nature to be a wilderness in need of taming, unsanitary and dangerous, or a static source of goods that exist to serve humankind. People have paid too little attention the long-term effects and viability of monocropping, mass chemical and pesticide use, or cotton farming in the desert. The industrial form of agriculture and of modern life has devastated the healthy functioning of ecosystems around the globe and academics have anticipated the need not only for economic and legal change but for a far more fundamental change in perception. The historian Thomas Berry has referred to the next significant human movement as the “Great Work,” or the “transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner” (The Great Work: Our Way into the Future). Berry asserts that we must begin to recognize and reclaim our responsibility not as commanders and takers of natural resources but as members in a community that we depend on and depends on us. Americans have little sense of reciprocity between nature and their communities, and this is borne out in exhaustive forms of modern agriculture.

Perhaps, to some this may sound either bizarre or unrealistic, but the evidential need for a change in attitudes is compelling. We are losing topsoil up to forty times faster than the land is regenerating it, we continue to massively overdraw 20 percent of the world’s aquifers, we’ve already lost 75 percent of crop biodiversity, and we’ve seen a 50-percent decline in pollinator populations in a single year. We must consider the underlying reasons for this trend.

Values, it would seem, are as much of our common heritage as the land. The Great Work that Berry articulates so clearly, and which others like Rachel Carson, have made movements toward, expand our cultural view to recognize that "in reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human” (The Great Work: Our Way into the Future). Our intellectual, emotional, and economic capacity for a sense of relatedness will be a central component in our response to a faltering food system and as we learn more about our launching pad, the organic movement. Kimbrell’s talk was practical and illuminating as he highlighted both the promise and limitations of the organic movement in confronting industrial agriculture—it cannot solve everything—but it is our first step out of the trench we’ve collectively dug. 

A recording of Andrew Kimbrell’s webinar, “Creating a New Food Future,” is available at https://vimeo.com/87359019

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorEnvironmental Law & Governance
Monday, February 17, 2014
| Share

Ted Turner and the Triple Bottom Line

By Guest Author, Amy Weinfurter, Yale F&ES '15

In the public imagination, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and one of Forbes’ richest people in America tends to be synonymous with 24-hour new cycles, rather than with bison ranching and conscientious capitalism. However, the media mogul is building an environmental legacy as formidable as his media empire. In his recently released book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, Todd Wilkinson explores Turner’s turn back toward the natural landscapes that inspired him as a child. He also considers how Turner’s business acumen and environmental values influence each other. Can capitalism, often framed as the driving force behind environmental degradation, offer a way to reverse its collateral damage to the natural world? 

With approximately two million acres of personal and ranch land, Turner is the second largest individual landowner in North America. His ranches have played a key role in reintroducing bison to the landscape. Turner Enterprises manages over 55,000 bison – the largest herd ever maintained by one person – across the various Turner properties. State agencies often partner with his ranches, in order to take advantage of their expertise and resources in bison research and management. However, Turner’s efforts also breed controversy. His initial attempts at reintroduction involved the release of one live cougar and three Nebraska black bears, and triggered a threat of misdemeanor charges from the state of Florida.

While his work to return large bison herds to the American West has taken a scientific approach, grounded in careful management, it still raises questions and ruffles feathers. The cattle industry “is generally no big fan of Mr. Turner’s,” worrying that bison populations may introduce diseases to livestock or compete with them for grazing on federal lands. On the other hand, Turner’s involvement with genetically wild herds has some environmental groups concerned about thinning lines between wild and domestic bison. A 2010 lawsuit argued that the state of Montana’s collaboration with Turner facilitated “bison’s passage from wild to owned,” countering the mission to manage wildlife for the public benefit.

Turner, in turn, counters that buffalo herds provide a healthier alternative to beef. He points out that since they have evolved along with the Western landscape, they are hardier in the face of its challenges, and, if managed carefully, able to fill a historical role in maintaining healthy grasslands. While his founding of Ted’s Montana Grill, which operated 44 restaurants in 16 states as of November 2013, raises concerns about the potential for the domestication of wild bison, Turner’s approach highlights the need to make ecological sustainability financially feasible. 

This focus on the alignment of environmental and business benefits extends to his interest and sponsorship of clean energy. Turner Enterprises currently holds five solar power installations. The largest of these, the Campo Verde Solar Facility, can produce 139 megawatts of energy, enough to power nearly 48,000 homes. Clean energy sources also fuel many of Ted Montana Grill’s restaurants and Turner ranch properties. Whether with bison or with energy, Turner blurs the lines between enterprise and idealism, and between public and private accomplishment. His approach to restoring the American West raises challenging, promising questions about  environmentalism’s own frontier.  

A nationally acclaimed journalist, Wilkinson brings 25 years of environmental reporting to bear on Turner’s ambitious and sometimes controversial efforts to repair degraded landscapes. His book explores the questions raised by Turner’s pioneering mix of public, private, and environmental enterprise. It also considers the motivations behind philanthropy, along with the personal history that led Turner to become such an iconic figure in environmental conservation. 

His talk, co-sponsored by YCELP and YCEI, is part of the Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series featuring new publications by renowned environmental policy thinkers including Brian Keane, Mary Wood, and Tom Kizzia. It begins at 5:30 PM, on Tuesday, February 18th, in Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium (195 Prospect Street). The talk is free and open to the public.  

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: Energy & Climate
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
| Share

BMPs for Shale Gas Development. A Path Forward

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

Note: This post was originally published here, by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

Handing down its decision in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put Pennsylvania’s municipalities back in charge of regulating the land use impacts of shale gas development. Whether or not the court’s decision is sound, and whether or not municipal governance is desirable, substantial authority again lies with Pennsylvania’s municipalities, as it does in most other states. The pressing question, therefore, is what happens now.

Several months ago, researchers at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, and the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School, with support from the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, began asking this very question, anticipating the state of governance that now prevails in Pennsylvania. Regardless of opinions on the pros and cons of “fracking”, it is undeniably a central part of America’s energy sector. Consequently it is important to understand fracking’s positive and negative local impacts and how local governments will capitalize on and manage those impacts.

Federal and state laws are well situated to address many risks of shale gas exploration, including, for example, climate impacts, some air and water pollution risks, contract terms, and royalties. However, federal and state laws do not cover other issues that are uniquely local in nature such as traffic, public safety, visual blight, reduction of property values, noise pollution, and the integrity of the land use plan. Likewise, the benefits of gas exploration—increased municipal revenue, economic development, and potential energy impacts, for instance—require local control to ensure that net benefits result.

Our research is finding interesting examples of local control of fracking.  Apart from the hundreds of localities that are banning the practice, others are regulating where it can be located within their borders and controlling uniquely local impacts. Peters Township, Pa., for example, adopted a zoning regulation that permits drilling on parcels 40 acres in size or larger and requires seismic testing prior to drilling. Longmont, Co. adopted an ordinance that excludes oil and gas operations in hazard areas and residential zoning districts, which includes planned unit development districts and mixed use zoning districts. A local law adopted in Oklahoma City, Ok. creates an oil and gas zone, defines permitted uses for the zone, requires permits for drilling, requires the drillers be insured, regulates the location of wells, has enforcement provisions, and regulates fencing, screening, landscaping, equipment, storage tanks, noise, and other nuisance effects. Finally, Santa Fe, N.M. established an oil and gas overlay district governing oil and gas exploration, drilling, production, transportation, abandonment, and remediation. It prohibits any oil or gas facility in the county as of right and requires the owner to apply for and obtain an Oil and Gas Overlay Zoning District Classification, a Special Use and Development Permit, Grading and Building Permit, and a Certificate of Completion, which may require other local, state, and federal development approvals.

In his dissenting opinion in the Robinson case, Justice Saylor wrote that natural gas is “essential the Commonwealth’s economic longevity and growth.” Conversely, Chief Justice Castille stated that removing local authority overfracking, and permitting the practice in any part of a community “compels exposure of otherwise protected areas to environmental and habitability costs associated with this particular industrial use: air, water, and soil pollution; persistent noise, lighting, and heavy vehicle traffic; and the building of facilities incongruous with the surrounding landscape.”

Our research is premised on the idea that fracking will proceed more safely, more efficiently, and with more actualization of benefits if local leaders are trained to confront the complexity, and address it in a way that best suits their constituents. To that end, Robinson is a positive development because it has returned authority to local governments. Both New York and Ohio are dealing with similar legal proceedings to determine the division of responsibility for local impacts. This state of play makes the empowerment and preparation of local decisionmakers even more important.  Regardless of one’s position on shale gas exploration and the best level of governmental control, there is no question that local leaders cannot promote benefits nor manage costs without preparation, and preparing local leaders is exactly what the Yale-Pace research team aims to do.

Our research began with a simple hypothesis that federal and state actions related to hydraulic fracturing would leave a local-governance gap. In December 2013 we hosted an expert workshop and panel in White Plains, New York. With representatives of industry, academics, environmental groups, and local government, we reached a consensus that this gap does, in fact, exist. With that assurance, we are preparing a second workshop in New Haven for March 28, 2014. At this workshop we will begin collecting best practices for governing fracking at the local level. Our expectation is that we can identify best practices that involve regulation, but also non-regulatory ideas that promote opening dialogues between communities and industry, establish community benefit agreements, or other flexible options that allow localities to identify and manage negative impacts while capturing the positive outcomes of new industry and a new energy option.

Based on the information we gather at these two expert events, we will develop model planning documents, non-regulatory templates, and ordinances to help us offer a robust training program to equip local leaders, and the professionals who serve them, to deal confidently with the growing role of hydraulic fracturing.

In his opinion in Robinson, Chief Justice Castille wrote: “By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.” On the other hand, Justice Eakin dissented, stating: “our unique shale resource can benefit all citizens; indeed the resource already has resurrected many local economies, though not without cost.” We agree with both of these perspectives, and the best way to rectify them is to train those who are most impacted to make informed decisions based on complete information.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
| Share

GM and GE Foods Decoded: Federal Regulation and the (expired) Monsanto Rider

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

Images of innocent tomatoes pierced by a needle, biohazard signs next to corn fields, or some mixed animal-fruit or animal-human species circulate in the popular media. These images reflect widespread public concern about the implications of GMOs for future agriculture production and for human health. The popular debate about genetically modified organisms or GMOs is, as one could expect, polarized and often lacking a nuanced understanding of what GMOs are, and how the US federal government handles the manipulation of genetic material. As the journalist Nathanael Johnson reminds us, the topic of GMOs is immediately charged because they are symbols: for proponents, GMOs represent the human ability to end hunger and poverty through technological advances, while for opponents, GMOs embody all that is evil about corporate control in the country’s food systems.

Beneath the hype, however, lies an issue that many Americans are overlooking or do not care to observe. In her talk, “The [In]significance of the Monsanto Rider to the Farm Bill”on January 28, Professor Beyranevand argued that while much attention was paid to the Monsanto Rider – which would have allowed farmers to keep using biotech seeds even if they were under court review –its inclusion in the Farm Bill would not have substantively changed the current regulatory regime or mitigated the perceived threat of GMOs. In order to more fully convey the weight of Beyranevand’s claim, this blog is devoted to contextualizing the GMO debate and providing a glimpse into why superficial attacks on GMOs can be so misleading.

To be clear, the term GMO makes a broad reference to plants that have undergone traditional hybridization techniques, a practice that humankind has been engaged in for many years, as well as those that have been genetically engineered (GE). Genetically engineered organisms, more specifically, garner far greater public attention. With GE organisms, scientists add foreign genes from an unrelated plant or animal to the chosen crop’s genetic structure to alter key traits, such as growing rate, taste, or resistance to pests.

American citizens have expressed great concern about the effect of GE food crops and, in particular, the main company that produces bioengineered seeds, Monsanto. Recently, protestors gathered outside a shareholder meeting at Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, decrying the company’s “corporate greed” and its “mutant seeds.” Similarly, the 2013 film GMO OMG, poses the question, “is this the end of real food?” The filmmakers express not only grave concern with the corporate control over the world’s food supply but air widespread worry about the uncertainty surrounding the potential or unknown human health impacts of GE products.

Although much of the debate revolves around labeling regulation, concerned groups such as the Non GMO Project, endeavor to raise awareness about what genetically modified foods are, which food sources may contain GE ingredients, and potential health risks associated with them. Other groups point to observed or unforeseen ecological impacts of GMOs such as the inadvertent creation of increasingly resistant pests, the elimination of wild and rare plant species (i.e. permanent loss of biodiversity), and collateral impacts to beneficial organisms. Another criticism levied against Monsanto, is the unequal distribution of profits associated with their sale and the subsequent corporate ownership of genetic material in the farmers’ fields. In other words, the issue is a socio-economic and ethical one too. Collectively, skeptical organizations doubt whether the purported benefits of GMO and GE crops (greater productivity, less insecticide needed etc.) are worth the potential ecological harm they represent. While some citizens wonder if the debate matters at all, concerned local leaders and politicians, as in Hawaii, face serious backlash from their own constituents for remotely entertaining the idea of permitting GMO crops or considering their benefits.

However, for the lay person not tuned into the debate, news reports state that the Food and Drug administration regulates GMO and GE foods “the same as any other foods,” a statement intended to convey trust in existing federal regulation. For some, including Professor Beyranevand, this is the problem.

While public debates continue about labeling and potential health impacts of GE foods, little public attention is paid to the limitations of the existing systemto adequately regulate bioengineered seeds and crops. The coordination between federal agencies, overlapping jurisdiction, and potentially inadequate statutory authority are among the more prominent points of criticism of the existing federal regulatory framework.

Federal regulation of biotechnology is executed through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the US Department of Agriculture, and depends on the stage of the seed, crop, or final product in the market. The EPA regulates biopesticides (pesticides derived from animals, plants, bacteria, or minerals), some of which are not necessary genetically engineered or toxic. For example, one common household item that is classified as a biopesticide is canola oil. The EPA regulates and defines the conditions under which canola oil, and other plant-based oils, can be used to control agricultural pests. Nevertheless, the EPA controls pesticides through two federal laws, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA). In order for a pesticide, including biopesticides, to be marketed in the US, the EPA is required to determine whether the substance does not pose “unreasonable risk of harm to human health or the environment.” In accordance with this FIFRA requirement, the EPA requires the submission of data that describes a pesticide’s chemical composition, assesses the long-term fate of the substance in the environment, and analyzes its toxicity and effect on human and environmental health.

The EPA divides biopesticides into three main categories, microbial pesticides, plant pesticides, and biochemical pesticides. Microbial pesticides are microorganisms such as bacterium, fungus or virus, and are used to target a variety of agricultural pests. Different kinds of fungi, for example, can control certain weeds and insects. Plant pesticides are those generated within a plant as a result of added genes. The gene for a commonly used pesticidal protein, Bt, for example, can be inserted into a plant’s genetic material and effectively eliminate pests that attempt to consume the plant. The EPA regulates the protein and its enabling genes, but not the plant. Biochemical pesticides are “naturally occurring substances” such as insect sex pheromones or a scented plant extract, both of which alter a potential pest’s behavior.

The FDA presides over GM crops that human and/or animals consume and manages them according to their “substantial equivalence” (their essential “sameness”) in comparison to non-GM plants. The FDA regulates the inclusion of GE plants into human and animal food sources through a voluntary consultation process with GE plant developers. These consultationsinvolve a developer entering into discussion about the safety, nutritional, and regulatory issues associated with a GE food item. The developer submits summaries of scientific analyses of its product, which the FDA evaluates and determines whether unresolved problems persist, or if all safety and regulatory facets are adequately addressed, thereby granting or denying permission to enter the US food market. An “unresolved issue” in these proceedings might entail the reduced concentration of important nutrients, new allergens, or the presence of an unapproved additive. In general, foods that contain corn, soybean and/or cotton oil are foods which likely contain genetically engineered plant ingredients, which the FDA tracks and controls, but for which currently does not require labeling.

The USDA regulates GE crops through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) according to the Plant Protection Act of 2000. The USDA regulates GM plants under a permit or notification process. For simple field testing, the USDA requires a notification process, typically a formality, which involves a company giving APHIS notice of the trial while consenting to follow USDA rules. For crops that produce pharmaceutical or industrial chemicals, the USDA requires a more extensive permit process, along with field trials and an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. Once a company can commercialize a crop and produce sellable seed for farmers, it then petitions APHIS for “deregulated status” and submits comprehensive risk-assessment data. Monsanto, for example, continuously develops new GE corn and wheat seeds, among many other crops. In order to market these seeds to farmers, the company must first demonstrate to the USDA that these crops do not pose significant threats to human or environmental health. The USDA system, however, does not guarantee in-depth environmental impact statements; its confinement measures for field tests may not reliably prevent migration of GM crop genes, and understaffing can lead to self-regulation on behalf of the private biotechnology companies.

A 2003 PEW Initiative on Food and Biotechnology report, Post-Market Oversight of Biotech Foods, calls attention to similar systemic issues within the USDA. The report highlights APHIS’ powerlessness in imposing conditions on the use or environmental impact of a GM crop after deregulation. The PEW report also cites a 2002 National Resource Council publication, Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants, which focuses on problems associated with the notification, permit, and deregulation processes, also citing the need for more robust post-commercialization and environmental testing. The National Resource Council report grounds its assessment in the “inherent scientific difficulty and uncertainty of predicting system ecological effects on the basis of field trials that are necessarily small relative to the commercial scale.”

The issue of genetic containment has caught media attention in recent events, which may lead to more calls for greater federal oversight. In Oregon, for example, a strain of Monsanto’s GM wheat mysteriously found its way into the field of a farmer who had not purchased or intentionally planted the product. The investigation linking the “rogue” seeds to Monsanto’s research site hasn’t produced a plausible answer, but it brings to light the difficulty inherent in tightly controlling the global distribution of GM or GE seeds.

Professor Beyranevand argues that even if the Monsanto Rider had made its way into the final Farm Bill, it would not have substantively changed the way the federal government regulates GM and GE seeds, crops, and products. Public skepticism about GMOs is, perhaps, warranted given the surreptitious inclusion of the Monsanto Rider. However, in focusing on this facet of the bill, the public may be missing an opportunity to address fundamental issues in how the American government ensures food that is beneficial for its citizens and the environment.

A link to the recording of Professor Beyranevand’s talk can be found here: https://vimeo.com/86143076.

For further reading:

GMO and GE Defined

World Health Organization: 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

Farm Bill and the Monsanto Rider

Monsanto Rider’ in Farm Bill Allows Planting of Genetically Modified Crops without Environmental Impact Studies

‘Monsanto’ Rider Ridiculed by Both Sides, But Is it as Bad as it Looks

Federal GMO Regulation

Federation of American Scientists: US Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops

Council on Foreign Relations: The Regulation of GMOs in Europe and the United States 

PEW Trusts Report: Post-Market Oversight of Biotech Foods

Berkeley Technology Law: Issues in the Regulation of Bioengineered Food

Cornell University: The Role of Government in the Labeling of GM Food      

FDA Regulation and Consultation Procedures

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:
Monday, February 10, 2014
| Share

Author of “Green Is Good” to kick off Yale Climate Change Book Shelf Series

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

This Wednesday, February 12, SmartPower President Brian Keane will kick off Yale’s Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series featuring new publications by renowned environmental policy thinkers including Todd Wilkinson, Mary Wood, and Tom Kizzia.

Mr. Keane will discuss his new book, Green is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit from Clean Energy, which offers a guide for individuals in making clean energy and energy efficiency a part of daily life. His talk begins at 5:30 PM in Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium (195 Prospect Street); it is free and open to the public.

Green Is Good promotes clean, renewable energy as well as energy efficiency.  It is a useful guidebook for businesses and consumers alike on how to reduce their carbon emissions by using clean energy. Mr. Keane and his company SmartPower have been recognized with numerous awards from the EPA, and Department of Energy and the State of Connecticut.

Mr. Keane provided an example to the Huffington Post of what clean energy solutions could look like.  In the 2012 article before the release of Green Is Good, Keane talked about Solarize Connecticut, a partnership between his company, the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and the John Mercke Fund to increase the use of solar panels by homeowners, businesses and others in the state. Over two years later, Solarize Connecticut is still providing countless workshops and other tools to help people understand the benefits and logistics of using solar energy. 

Mr. Keane’s trip to Yale will come during the same week that French President Francois Holland visits the US to have meetings with President Barack Obama and others about the lead-up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. This week, both presidents wrote an article in the Washington Post stating that in 2015 they expect an ambitious agreement to address climate change. The leaders wrote:  “We can expand the clean energy partnerships that create jobs and move us toward low-carbon growth…we can do more to help developing countries shift to low-carbon energy as well, and deal with rising seas and more intense storms.” It will undoubtedly be local grassroots efforts like that of Mr. Keane’s that will help the world’s leaders achieve this important global goal.

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.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorInnovation & EnvironmentEnergy & Climate
| Share

Andrew Kimbrell to Discuss Moving Beyond Industrial Agriculture

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

On Wednesday, February 12, Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, will discuss genetically engineered crops as the latest iteration of industrial agriculture. His talk, “Creating a New Food Future,” continues Part III of the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar series, which focuses on genetically modified food and intellectual property in the American food system. Kimbrell’s talk will place the conversation about GM and GE food within the larger context of modern farming, and examine how the future of food really can move beyond industrial agriculture.

As Beyrenevand’s webinar on the Monsanto Rider in the Farm Bill indicated, GE foods raise nationwide and global controversy about the technology’s unknown ecological or human health effects. These concerns are often raised in conjunction with discomfort and anger about the corporatization of the food industry. Repeated legal battles between Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, and farmers demonstrates how the company’s ownership of patented seeds can pose significant challenges for American farmers by making them patent “infringers,” and “dependent on the grace of a single company to avoid liability.” The company, which makes $14.7 billion in annual revenue, continually seeks ways to prevent farmers from saving seeds grown from Monsanto’s stock and is generating wide-spread resentment about its growing “seed oligarchy.”

As Kimbrell will demonstrate, GM and GE foods are one symptom of an increasingly industrialized agriculture drawing wide-ranging criticism from the American public. In the long run, the organic movement may gain greater momentum as a result of an industrial and corporate food system that offers little transparency and yields to consumer demand only after great pain and labor.

Andrew Kimbrell is an author and activist promoting sustainable forms of agriculture. His most recent book, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food (2006) tackles the current controversial issues of GE foods and the vital need for a more just and healthy food system. Kimbrell is also an international figure in his role as a public interest attorney, and the senior attorney and policy director for the Foundation for Economic Trends. In all of these roles, Kimbrell works to protect the environment and the public from threats posed by global industrial agriculture and faulty governmental policies. Utne Reader recognized Kimbrell as among the world's leading 100 visionaries, and The Guardian recognized him in 2008 as one of the 50 people who could save the planet.

Registration for the event can be found here: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/650444167.

To see YCELP’s complete event calendar, including more details about upcoming webinars, follow this link: http://envirocenter.yale.edu/events.

Our final speaker in Part III is Lauren Handel, Counsel at the Food Law Firm, and her talk, “GMO Labeling Laws: Constitutaional Considerations.” Please join us on Thursday, February 27 at 12:00 PM EST for this final webinar before we launch into our fourth and final topic of the series, which focuses on the Farm Bill and the future of farming. Registration for Lauren Handel’s talk can be found here: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/804265159.

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:
Sunday, January 26, 2014
| Share

Professor Beyranevand to Speak on GMOs, the Farm Bill, and Monsanto

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, FES '15

On Tuesday January 28th, Professor Laurie Beyranevand will begin Part III of the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar series with her talk, “The [In]significance of the Monsanto Rider to the Farm Bill.” Speakers in our third webinar topicwill focus on GMOs, or genetically modified organisms and intellectual property, and will explore how these topics relate to our broader conversation on transforming food systems in the US.

Professor Beyranevand is the Associate Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and an Associate Professor of Law at Vermont Law School, where she teaches Food Regulation and Policy, Public Law, Communications, Advocacy and Leadership, Interviews, Counseling and Negotiation, and Advanced Writing for Dispute Resolution.

Professor Beyranevand’s talk on Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically modified seeds, is driven by her research and scholarship, which focuses on the connections between food and health, and specifically considers issues arising from food safety and regulation. On Tuesday, January 28th, Beyranevand will address the “Monsanto Rider” to the 2013 Farm Bill, which would have extended legal protection to the companyin producing and distributing genetically modified seeds to farmers. Although the rider expired last year, it fanned the flames of an already heated nation-wide conversation about genetically engineered foods. Beyranevand will focus on the text of this controversial provision, its potential consequences, and its significance within the larger regulatory scheme that governs genetically modified foods in the US.

Her talk is particularly relevant given the controversy surrounding the 2013 Farm Bill as well as increasing public concern about the use of bio-engineered seedsand consumer’s potentially unwitting consumption of genetically modified food. Furthermore, the regulatory terrain is less than straightforwardsince there is no one regulatory agency governing biotechnology and since relevent laws were written well before biotechnology emerged. Therefore, Beyranevand’s webinar will be instrumental in clarifying the role of federal regulation in modern, “high-tech” agriculture.

To register for Professor Beyranevand’s talk please see the following link: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/458356783.

For more detailed information on each webinar see YCELP’s calendar of upcoming events: http://envirocenter.yale.edu/events.

To register for the rest of the webinar’s in Part III please see the following links:

Creating a New Food Future

Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | 12:00 PM EST

Registration: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/650444167.

 

GMO Labeling Laws: Constitutional Considerations

Lauren Handel, counsel in the firm of Jason Foscolo LLP

Thursday, February 27, 2014 | 12:00 PM EST

Registration: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/804265159.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Monday, December 30, 2013
| Share

The Fractured State of Shale Gas Development Regulation

By Guest Author, Eric Ellman, Comm. Dir., Yale Climate and Energy Institute
 
Five years into a prolonged recession the economic benefits of shale gas development are compelling.  American shale gas reserves have buoyed the U.S. economy, reduced reliance on foreign oil and helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012 alone shale gas and tight oil put $74BB into state and federal coffers and created 2.1 million jobs.(1) A broad-based shift from coal to natural gas has had the unforeseen effect of allowing the United States to reduce its CO2 emissions to Kyoto Protocol levels without even being party to the convention.(2)
 
At the local level, however, the potential negatives associated with development are less clear.  Lacking that clarity, and without federal or state regulations to control the many adverse local impacts ranging from depleted groundwater to contamination, deteriorated roads and rising crime,(3) communities have responded the only way they know how, by passing moratoriums on development of the resource.  And because local ability to use police and zoning laws originates with the State, there is a constant fear that courts will preempt the local action, allowing development to proceed and disregarding local concerns.
 
[The recent] 12th annual Land Use and Sustainable Development conference at Pace Law School included a YCEI-sponsored panel discussion developed with Yale Center for Law and Environmental Policy (YCELP) students and staff.  YCELP identified 36 potential local impacts from gas shale development identified by communities around the nation not addressed by higher levels of government.  The list and the workshop were intended to help communities develop planning and regulatory practices that protect them while allowing safe development of what could be a critical bridge fuel that lets the world meet its energy needs while minimizing atmospheric build-up of carbon dioxide.
 
At a pre-panel workshop to discuss that challenge, conference organizer Professor John Nolon suggested an ideal outcome: a model ordinance that financially strapped communities could use as the basis for safe and reasonable regulation, protecting them from impacts that are beyond the scope of state and federal regulations.
 
“A model ordinance would have made my job a lot easier,” responded panelist Stephen Ross, County Attorney from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where residents had urged a moratorium to prohibit fracking in the scenic Galisteo Basis.  Now the framework for drilling in Santa Fe County is established, and both residents and drillers know what to expect.  For some, the new law is effectively the same as a ban:  The company whose plans to drill had prompted passage of the Santa Fe Land and Gas Amendment to the Santa Fe County Land Development Code chose to explore for oil and gas elsewhere. For others the law may create new opportunities.
 
Santa Fe was enjoying the benefit of a strong economy at the time of their skirmish over hydrocarbons.  That’s not the case in New York towns that could be the scene of a land rush if and when the state lifts its fracking moratorium.  “Many local governments have limited professional staff, few resources”, was a common refrain among participants.  Consequently, it’s easy to imagine small communities embracing fracking when they see it’s near-term benefits.  While it’s not a universal refrain, Dan Raimi, a researcher with Duke University’s Energy Initiative quotes a local official telling him, “I wish we had a well on every road because the roads are so much better.”
 
That echoes the experience of Joe Greenberg, co-founder with Todd Mitchell of Alta Resources, one of the first companies to find the sweet spots of key shales including the Marcellus and applied good engineering and hydraulic fracturing to develop them.  In Joe’s experience, it’s communities that don’t stand to benefit where opposition is strongest.  Those likely to benefit from the resource, and those in states like Oklahoma and Texas where drilling is part of life’s fabric, are least likely to have objections and most likely to have an efficient and centralized regulatory structure.
 
Others are less sanguine.  Cornell Professor Susan Christopherson cited her survey showing that 67% of New York residents had low to no confidence that New York State officials will protect the economic and social stability of their communities.(4)  Kate Hudson, Watershed Manager for River Keeper, a non-profit dedicated to safeguarding the Hudson River and its tributaries, is concerned about the nation’s distribution network for gas shale products.  Albany, New York has already become a major transshipment center for trains carrying North Dakota’s Bakken oil to refineries on the Eastern Seaboard.  Last December the Stenna Primorsk, an oil tanker carrying about the same 12,000,000 gallons of crude as the Exxon Valdez, ran aground en route to its destination of New Brunswick, Canada.  Thanks to the double-hull design that became a requirement after the Valdez spill, no oil escaped.  But, says Hudson, the accident revealed that despite the surge in tanker traffic no emergency management plan for responding to such an event on the Hudson currently exists.(5)
 
Panelist Jim Saiers, a Yale University hydrologist and expert on fracking offered the opinion that the most frequently vocalized concerns about water quality impacts from hydraulic fracturing can be addressed by appropriate regulations such as those conference organizers envision.  A bigger question, he suggested, relates to the potential escape of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, during the drilling and production process.
 
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences summarizing data from 12,700 atmospheric samples collected over the United States in 2007-08 found methane levels 1.5 times higher than previously assumed by the EPA.(6)  Levels over Texas and Oklahoma were up to 2.7 times higher with livestock and the oil and gas industry identified as primary contributors. Five years later, however, a joint study by the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas indicates that companies following proposed new EPA “green completion” strategies reduce methane escape from natural gas wells by up to 99%.(7) 
 
Successful reduction of fugitive methane – critical to capitalizing on natural gas’s potential to satisfy energy demands with minimum contributions to greenhouse warming – is an example of how good regulations can reconcile the needs of the nation with local concerns.  With climate change an issue for every community, a comprehensive model ordinance to help regulate gas shale development might include measures to assure compliance with methane management too.
 
***
 
 
***
 
1.     America’s Unexpected Jobs Boom.  Daniel Yergin.  http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2013/09/05/energy-us-jobs/
 
2.     Rise in U.S. gas production fuels unexpected plunge in emissions. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324763404578430751849503848.
 
3.     Controlling the local impacts of hydrofracking. Facilitated Discussion Outline. Yale Center for Law and Environmental Policy
 
4.     Confronting an uncertain future.  How US communities are responding to shale gas and oil development.  Susan Christopherson and Ned Righter.  National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center Brief 18, November 2013
 
5.     Kate Hudson, personal communication
 
6.     Emissions of methane in US exceed estimates study finds.  Michael Wines.  New York Times. November 11, 2013.
 
7.     Study delivers good, bad news on climate impacting methane gas. Lisa Song and Jim Harris.  Center for Public Integrity.  September 13, 2013.
Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
| Share

After Warsaw Climate Negotiations, Individual Nations Must Lead the Way on Climate Change

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

It was my first time attending the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This 19th COP was held in Warsaw this year from November 11 to 23. As a Yup’ik Eskimo from Alaska whose family has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand, it was an honor to attend this international convention on behalf of Yale University. I learned about the process of international negotiations, and heard what the world leaders who populate the COP are planning to do to address climate change.

The outcome of the COP will affect my family and my future personally.  In my home state of Alaska, my village of Dillingham is one of nearly two hundred Alaskan Native villages at risk of coastal erosion from lower sea-ice levels and rising seas.  My family’s salmon fish camp has lost a warehouse to erosion already. We’ve seen invasive species invading our forests and infecting our salmon because warmer temperatures are allowing them to survive in Alaska. People have fallen through the abnormally thin ice on the rivers, lakes and oceans we use for transportation during the winter, because the ice has not been thick enough for us to do traditional ice fishing and hunting. Warmer temperatures are changing our way of life in a way that our elders say they have not seen before.

So I went to Warsaw with a personal stake. I was both heartened and taken aback to learn that many other people around the world have similar concerns and also have seen changes to their livelihoods. While at the COP, I worked with the Red Cross Climate Center, whose efforts help ensure that vulnerable communities become more prepared to adapt to a changing climate, and face reduced risks from climate disasters such as deadly hurricanes and severe drought. I helped with the Center’s Development and Climate Days (D&C Days) side event, which invited policymakers and other leaders from around the world to a two-day conference to learn more about climate change and how to prepare for it.

I was also involved in the deliberations of Arctic peoples and states, the Indigenous Caucus, the US delegation, and the younger generation’s caucus, or “YOUNGO.” They all had a similar message: our leaders must produce strong mitigation and adaptation measures to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Some highlights include meeting with former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who is a strong advocate for helping people vulnerable to climate change.  I was also able to meet some youth delegates from the Arctic and the Caribbean Islands, who had a side event called “Portraits of Resilience” to show their own pictures and stories of how climate change is affecting their communities and their future. I witnessed a walkout protest by non-governmental organizations that said the COP delegates were not doing enough to take strong measures against climate change. I was involved with both the YOUNGO and Indigenous Caucus while they passed resolutions urging leaders to address the threats of climate change. And I was able to chat and ask questions with top US delegate officials while attending their high-level negotiation events.

I was at COP for its second week, when the high-level negotiations between the nations occur. This year’s COP was supposed to lay the groundwork for a groundbreaking 2015 COP in Paris, which is expected to achieve big results in emissions reductions. While some believed that the negotiations did not achieve this, nations did agree to finish making plans for their  “contributions” to reduce climate change emissions by the 2015 conference, to the best of their ability. The “contributions” language was weaker than what  the US delegation wanted. The US asked nations to make firm “commitments” on how much they would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Since it will be up to the nations themselves to come up with this “contribution” level, I went to the side events and negotiations of the US delegation as much as I could, to see what our leaders were saying. At one of the side events, I was able to meet with Council for Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, who is a top environmental advisor to President Obama. The US delegation stated that the US is on target to reduce their greenhouse emissions by at least 17 percent by 2020.

Since it is unlikely that the US will institute new emissions rules by passing legislation through Congress, it will be up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control emissions through new regulations. The US Supreme Court handed the EPA a victory in 2007 when it ruled that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants. Now, new EPA rules on emissions may be central for the US to achieve its greenhouse reduction goals. In October, I was able to go to the first of 11 listening sessions across the US by the EPA on proposed rules to reduce emissions from power plants. This effort could cut emissions and help with America’s commitments, since power plants contributed 40 percent of the US carbon emissions in 2012. The new set of proposed rules will be subject to a forthcoming ruling by the Supreme Court though, which will determine how much authority the EPA has to regulate certain emissions.

Moving forward, it will be important for US officials to better understand the emissions science in order to achieve our emissions reductions goals. A new study released in late November found that methane emissions are perhaps 50 percent higher than the EPA had anticipated. Methane is emitted from agriculture sources and from fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, and though it does not remain in the atmosphere as long, it is four times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Emissions of methane may increase due to large finds in hard-rock natural gas deposits in the U.S. The increased use of fracking may pose a challenge to America’s ability to achieve its emissions goals as stated in Warsaw.

It will be interesting to watch what regulations the Obama Administration will propose moving forward. With the new study on methane, as well as another study released this week that says Arctic methane is leaking into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, a reduction in carbon emissions cannot be the only answer.  One thing is certain: a legal framework by the US and individual nations must lead the way to reduce climate emissions, as nations agreed to in Warsaw.

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.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, December 09, 2013
| Share

From Adaptation to Resilience: Climate Change in Megacities

By Guest Author, Amy Weinfurter, Yale F&ES '15

At first it sounds like the set-up of a joke or a riddle: “What has 8 percent of the world’s population, a GDP the size of China’s, and the potential to take a billion-ton bite out of the world’s carbon emissions?” These statistics characterize the 63 cities of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which brings mayors from around the world together to share strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Rit Aggarwala, the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City, serves as special advisor to Michael Bloomberg in his role as chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. During his November 21 visit to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Dr. Aggarwala discussed some of the driving forces behind cities’ leadership on climate change, and explored the ways different cities apply adaptation strategies to fit local needs and resources. 

The success of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group reflects urban areas’ growing leadership in climate change adaptation. A number of factors have spurred and enabled cities to act on climate change. To start, urban dwellers are more likely to see global warming as a real issue; 90 percent of cities stand near coasts, and city residents tend to be more dependent on the infrastructure that climate change threatens. For instance, an urban resident who relies on an elevator to leave his apartment or on public transit to commute to work may be especially affected by a blackout. Mayors typically face fewer political roadblocks than state and federal politicians, and the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a city provide both the tools and the practice for implementing pragmatic solutions. 

Dr. Aggarwala highlighted heat and drought; sea level rise and flooding; storms and extreme precipitation; and changes in the geographic distribution of disease as five key themes driving cities’ preparations. As cities implement policies to protect their citizens and their infrastructure, they face a diverse and sometime counter-intuitive array of challenges. For instance, London, a city close to the coast, and famous for its rain, is actually more concerned about heat than water. A sea wall currently keeps flooding at bay, while buildings and public transportation often lack air conditioners, fans, and other means to deal with hot weather. While rising sea levels and flooding do threaten Vietnam’s Ho Chi Ming City buildings, a sea wall here would pose significant financial challenges. So, instead of trying to keep water out, the city is experimenting with strategies to minimize the damage water causes when it comes in. 

Identifying the right solution is often far easier than figuring out how to implement the fix on a megacity scale.  For instance, a SmartCity partnership between IBM and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, uses microclimate data to predict landslides up to an hour before they occur. Landslides jeopardize some of the city’s most vulnerable communities, and as storms and precipitation increase, landslides are expected to become more frequent as well. By altering community leaders of danger via text messages, IBM’s technology saves lives. However, Dr. Aggarwala noted, its success ultimately depends on strong community networks, effective community leaders, and safe evacuation routes and centers. In responding to climate change, technology only makes up half the battle.  Effective management plays an equally important role. 

Sometimes, the best solution does not rest on innovative technology, but on new applications for something as simple as a water fountain. That’s the approach London used to help address rising rates of heat stroke on its subway platforms. Similarly, New York City plans to explore the use of window screens to help combat expected increases in insect-borne illnesses. Dr. Aggarwala pointed to examples like these as he distinguished climate change adaptation from resiliency.  He worries that the framework of climate change adaptation can narrow cities’ efforts, by focusing on new challenges and tools. In contrast, resiliency involves both preparing for new threats, such as rising sea levels, and responding to new levels of severity in existing challenges, like extreme storms and heat.

Dr. Aggarwala’s presentation concluded a semester-long speaker series, From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change. The series, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, highlighted regional and local approaches to climate adaptation, and how those strategies fit within the larger context of climate change mitigation. His final remarks, in response to an audience question about the future of urban adaptation, offer a fitting end to this semester-long conversation.  As populations trends continue and “everything becomes urban,” Dr. Aggarwala suggested that urban adaptation will become less of a hot topic, and more of an integrated part of city’s management frameworks.

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: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Thursday, December 05, 2013
| Share

Giving Thanks Through CSAs: Building Relationships Between Farmers + Consumers in Fort Collins

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

In light of Rachel Armstrong’s webinar, “Business as Unusual: Building the New Food Movement with Business Law,” Thanksgiving seemed an especially appropriate moment to consider the role Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements play in their communities. I spent the holiday home in Fort Collins, Colorado—a perfect place to highlight how CSAs engage with their community, and how the legal guidance Rachel Armstrong outlined in her webinar can equip local farms with staying power in similar towns across the country.

Arriving home, my stepmom, Tonya proudly showed me her homemade yogurt (amazingly creamy!), fermented cabbage, grown on a nearby farm, and kombucha (her latest experiment). She dreamt of having chickens and finally making a go at a vegetable garden in the spring. The next day, my mom, Aimee, opened her storage freezer to show me their “harvested” chickens that she was planning to use in a stew. As much as she might like to have goats in the backyard, and despite her insistence that my stepdad wouldn’t have to mow the lawn anymore, Jeff is not so keen on the idea. Tonya is religious in her CSA memberships every summer and Aimee is the most doting mother chickens could possibly have (up until the moment they are “harvested” that is). They are both reflections of their Fort Collins community.

If not oriented toward meeting the needs of a single household, Fort Collins local farms take the form of community-supported agriculture or CSA. The CSA format is both a marketing and philosophical approach in which customers make a non-refundable payment ahead of the season’s harvest, for regular deliveries of produce. This way, the farmer does not carry all the production risk, and the producer and consumer build a more direct and reciprocal relationship, something Fort Collins residents like my parents are coming to appreciate.

Nestled at the foot of the Rockies, Fort Collins residents have access to some of the country’s cleanest water, abundant sunshine, and to numerous sources of locally grown produce. Over the last decade, the city has seen urban farms sprout up in backyards throughout Old Town and small farms emerge at the city’s edge. These farms are a part of a local scene that supports and embraces local producers. The city, in fact, recently adopted a revised city code that allows residents to scale their chicken flocks according to property size, raise ducks, keep bees, and tend dwarf or pygmy goats for household milk production. These new rules allow more citizens to engage in urban agriculture, and they help create markets in more areas for farmers. More than that, however, they are an indication of increased collaborationbetween the city and the farming community.

The local university, Colorado State University, historically an agricultural school (Go Aggies!), also supports urban agriculture through the Extension Office, which offers a wide variety of programs and services for new farmers. CSU manages the 2014 Building Urban Farmers Program, maintains an urban “land-for-lease” list that connects landowners to farmers, and catalogues urban farming internships and volunteer opportunities. CSU students are also becoming more involved in the CSA scene. Though the up-front cost is hard for some students to meet, the cost per pound of food is less than grocery store prices. One farmer, Justin Norton, a CSU student and owner of Donoma Farms, offers a 15-week winter share (from December through March) of salad greens grown in raised beds under greenhouses in his backyard. A share costs students just $55.                

Fort Collins and the Be Local Northern Colorado organization host local farmers markets throughout the year, including the winter months, and provide farmers and artisans regular opportunities to market their goods to local consumers. Such markets, along with local and state-wide directories of CSAs and blogs dedicated to bringing farmers of “the Fort” together, lend greater access and transparency to the movement as farmers find more ways to reach consumers.

Local farms such as Jodar Farms, which specializes in free range poultry, eggs, and pork, Native Hill Farm, Cresset Farm, Garden Sweet Farm, and Happy Heart Farm provide the Fort Collins community with organic and, in some cases, biodynamic, produce. Some farms, such as Happy Heart and Native Hill offer working shares, and volunteer or internship opportunities that reduce the cost of a member’s share and engage the individual more directly in the processes of food production.

Recently, however, the CSA community in the area has been prompted to consider what community-supported agriculture is and how large such farming enterprises can be while still adhering to the intent and philosophy behind the concept. During the summer of 2013, a particularly large CSA, Grant Family Farms, which had a membership of more than 5,000 members, declared bankruptcy. Grant Family Farms struggled with many of the same challenges Armstrong described in her recent webinar: large debt burdens, managing volunteers, and giving choice produce to grocery stores, where they can demand higher prices, rather than to CSA members. Grant Family Farms distributed produce throughout Colorado’s Front Range, and though the reason for its closure might not have been related to its size, others in the farming community are left wondering: can a CSA get toobig? Some farmers seem to think so; for others, the critical issue is the integrity of the relationship with customers. According to one biodynamic farm owner, Jean-Paul Courtens in New York, “When size becomes a factor in dehumanizing the whole transaction, yes, you are too big…Where is that? I don’t know.”

Fort Collins farmers and CSA farmers across the country are, in fact, confronting the “tricky business” of figuring out how to communicate to customers the risks inherent in farming each year, and balancing the distribution of produce to local markets, restaurants, and members. They are tasked with finding the right size to meet demand while not inviting disaster if a bad weather year drives away customers, disappointed and unfamiliar with the risk-sharing concept. Scaling up a CSA farm, though tempting, can pose significant legal and financial challenges and the stakes, a farm’s reputation for example, are high. Farmers looking to grow may be faced with a lack of data about what can work financially and economically, though this picture is slowly changing nationally. In this light, as Rachel Armstrong explained, legal advice becomes an equally vital component in giving small farms the support and guidance they need to maintain strong relationships with their customers while still protecting their investments.

Although the legal measures Armstrong proposes for the farming community may seem alien or, perhaps, impersonal, they touch on highly relevant topics for farms even in my own home town. In Fort Collins, the issues Armstrong brings into focus are as apparent as anywhere else in the country. As vibrant as this farming community may seem, and as thankful as residents may be for it, local farms are still vulnerable to the capriciousness of weather, insects, and even customers. Armstrong’s pioneering work in re-formulating the legal apparatus to work forfarmers and protect the fruits of their labor may, in fact, go a long way in preserving that all-important relationship between farmers and customers, and building more resilient local farming businesses.

A link to a recording of Armstrong’s webinar can be found here: https://vimeo.com/80411482

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
Monday, December 02, 2013
| Share

Legal Structures for Just and Sustainable Food Systems

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

This week, the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar series features Janelle Orsi, who will conclude our segment on the Legal Framework for the New Food Movement. To participate, register here and then join us online at 3:00 pm EST on Wednesday, December 4. Janelle’s presentation will be followed by a moderated discussion of audience questions.

Janelle Orsi is an attorney, author and the executive director of the Oakland, CA-based Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). SELC is a nonprofit organization that works to promote just and resilient economies through legal tools that include education, research, advice, advocacy. The Center uses unconventional and innovative approaches to foster local communities and practices that promote sharing and sustainability. The work is diverse, with programs that focus on shared housing, local investment, and food systems, to name just a few. 

In the food space, SELC is actively involved with grassroots promotion of community-based urban agriculture, and also with policy advocacy supporting local and community interests. Recently, SELC provided commentary on the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to voice concern that the proposed rules will excessively burden small food and farming businesses. SELC is also advocating for the California Neighborhood Food Act, a law that will support small, local producers and remove undue legal and policy barriers created by cities, counties and homeowners associations.

In addition to her work with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, she also runs the Law Office of Janelle Orsi, a law and mediation practice that provides services for shared housing, nonprofits, cooperatives, social enterprises and individuals. She is a self-described “sharing lawyer” and has written extensively on the legal and communal aspects of sharing. She is the author of Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, co-author of How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community, and a frequent blogger on Shareable.net. She has been widely praised for her creative approach to social issues, including being recognized by the American Bar Association as a “Legal Rebel” and being named by The (En)Rich List as one of 100 people “whose contributions enrich paths to sustainable futures.”

On Wednesday, Janelle will speak about the “Legal Structures for Just and Sustainable Food Systems.” In her presentation, she will explore the potential contributions of the legal system to create a more just and sustainable food system. In particular, she will address the key legal principles underlying cooperatives and common pool resources, highlighting the primary legal barriers inhibiting the transition of the food system and looking at how these barriers might be overcome and transformed through policy change.                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Janelle’s presentation will concludes the second segment of the Frontiers in Food and Agriculture webinar and marks the conclusion of our 2013 program. On January 28, 2014, Laurie Beyranevand, the Assistant Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School will kick off the third part of our series, “GMOs and Intellectual Property.” We encourage you to check back in January to register for this and other presentations on the future of food and agriculture.

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
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
| Share

Where’s the Law?

By Guest Author, Jennifer Skene, Yale Law School '14

“Where’s The Finance (WTF)?” That was the question posed repeatedly the past two weeks during the UNFCCC’s 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Warsaw. But this simply leads to another question: “Where’s the Law?”

In other cases of environmental damage for the past seventy years, under international law the question of “Where’s the Finance?” has been comparatively easy to answer—it lies with the countries to blame for the harms caused. This is known as the polluter pays principle (PPP), and it is now a widely recognized tenet of international law. Yet the PPP has yet to materialize in any UNFCCC agreements, meaning that developing countries, which are the hardest hit by climate change, are left with minimal financial assistance.

Ironically, it was a case brought by the United States that provided the initial foundation for the PPP. In the 1941 Trail Smelter decision the United States won a dispute against Canada for compensation for pollution damages caused to the U.S. by a Canadian smelter.

With climate change, however, the U.S. and other developed countries are successfully keeping compensation out of the picture, and this COP in Warsaw was no different.  The “Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage (IMLD)” is the compromise States reached during their overtime negotiations on Saturday, November 23. Despite the calls of developing nations to create a separate loss and damage mechanism, the IMLD will be housed under the existing adaptation mechanisms. Essentially this means that funding provided by developed nations, if and when it should materialize, will come in the form of financial assistance, not compensation for harm caused by greenhouse gas emissions. And this financial assistance will almost certainly be far from adequate.

It may be up to other international legal institutions to bring compensation into the picture. In 2011 and 2012 the island nation of Palau sought an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on whether the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters are responsible for harm caused to developing countries. While an advisory opinion would not be binding, it could offer sufficient legal support to compel States to create a loss and damage mechanism based on compensation. However, developed countries, led by the United States, stymied Palau’s campaign, and it is, for now, dead in the water.

So Where’s The Finance? Until we answer the question of “Where’s the Law?” finance may remain elusive. As the latest COP further demonstrates, answering the question of “Where’s the Law” may take the authority of a body outside the UNFCCC altogether—like the ICJ. Until the entire international community understands compensation to be a legally binding obligation that they cannot negotiate away, developing countries will likely be left asking “WTF?”

Jennifer Skene is a third-year law student at Yale from Tallahassee, FL. She is the chair of the Native American Law Students Association, a board member for the Yale Environmental Law Association, and a Features Editor on the Yale Journal of International Law. Jennifer is active in Yale's Environmental Protection Clinic, and this past summer she received a Ford Fellowship to work at the Center for International Environmental Law. 

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

Page 2 of 18 pages  <  1 2 3 4 >  Last »

Blog Home



2007-2010 Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy | Contact Us | Website by Asirastudio LLC