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Youth Voices and Involvement

Editor’s Note: When thinking about solving worldwide problems, we often look to adults to determine a course of action. But at COP24, our fellows were pleased to see organizations recognize the youth voice as equally important. The blogs below discuss the significance of considering youth in these negotiations.  

 

Power with the (Young) People – Nikki Pirtel

Postcards for Change – Kayleigh Granville

Carrying the COP24 Experience Back Home – Leann McLaren

 

Power with the (Young) People

Nikki Pirtel – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science

The shortcomings of COP took the center stage due to its location and events happening at the venue, but this was overshadowed in my mind by the presence of young people, both inside the conference itself and outside in the Climate Hub, where events for and hosted by youth were in great supply. More well-known figures such as Greta Thunberg from Sweden and Toby Thorpe from Australia had significant roles in the conference, controlling the charge for climate change regulations and calling out government officials from all countries on their inabilities to be adults and lead on this topic.

A particularly inspiring event I attended outside of the conference was “The People’s Open Climate and Human Rights Event: How to hold your government accountable for its climate ‘inaction.’” This presentation refreshingly included an all-women panel from five different countries throughout Europe, including an activist from a small island off the northern coast of Germany and a reindeer farmer from Norway. All these women had vastly different experiences, but the same ambition to do something about the inadequacy of climate action in their country.

Six years after the establishment of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the UNFCC and three years after the Paris Agreement, there has been little to no global progress being made towards reducing emissions. These women had had enough of the inaction and began suing their governments for violating their human rights. Climate change has been negatively impacting their livelihoods for years and this was the only way to make their politicians pay attention to the issues that matter the most.

Although the UConn@COP24 delegation returned to campus after the first week of the conference (for final exams), I watched a fascinating interview that occurred during the second week with Greta Thunberg and her father. She described her experiences learning about climate change, why she came to care so much about the issue and what she decided to do with her newfound knowledge of it. Her father explained her transition from his perspective: how she had fallen into a deep depression, realizing that no one cared enough about the issue of climate change, but later felt that she could actually do something positive about the problem by changing herself and starting a worldwide phenomenon. Every Friday, instead of attending school, Greta would sit in front of the Stockholm Parliament building with a simple sign reading: “Skolstrejk för Klimatet (School Strike for Climate).” This eventually caught the attention of the media and would later cause a movement by students around the world. She says that without doing something about climate change now, many people will not survive in the future and this problem, therefore, should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Although I’m a student who studies the science of climate change and how it has affected, and will affect, the functioning of both natural and human ecosystems, I have never been much of a climate activist and am not familiar with the policy side of the environment. However, participating in COP24 taught me not only about how international climate policy is governed, but also how to be a better climate activist. I realize now the importance of advocating for real change on a national level, because the United States has a lot of influence on international politics, especially with climate change… and despite the current administration’s announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in 2020.

I truly believe the power of the youth will be able to overcome any delay, deregulation and backsliding on climate mitigation goals and make a significant difference for a better world, now and in the future.

 

Postcards for Change

Kayleigh Granville – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science

Switzerland’s glaciers have recently become the site of several climate change projects. We learned about these projects when we visited the Utopia International Association, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to promote sustainability in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual and connected. Utopia had set up one of the many side events related to the COP that were located outside of the actual conference venue but within the city of Katowice, and were therefore accessible to people without conference passes.

Their exhibit displayed huge pictures of Switzerland’s glaciers that had been covered in white sheets. The sheets were meant to make the glaciers, which are currently melting, look like tents in a refugee camp. The campaign aimed to illustrate how, like refugees, the disappearance of the world’s glaciers is another unintended consequence of human-induced climate change.

The sheets on one of Switzerland’s glaciers had been covered by yet another display: thousands of postcards written by young people from around the world. All of these postcards have messages about climate change, and the organizations involved in the project are hoping to raise awareness about the effects of climate change by breaking the Guinness World Record for the most number of postcards displayed in one place at one time.

Utopia had also collected hundreds of postcards from students around Europe, which they were exhibiting at their booth in Katowice and would later send to the glacier in Switzerland for a shot at the world record. Utopia’s representatives explained that they were presenting within the COP24 venue during the second week of the conference, and had created this side event to raise awareness about the glacier project during the first week of the COP.

The postcards that other students had written were powerful because they clearly showed how climate change is viewed as a prominent issue by our generation. Other messages, which were written by elementary to secondary school students, showed how even young children understand and worry about the consequences of climate change, with thoughts like “one touch of nature makes the whole world kind,” “we need a safe environment,” “save water, save earth,” and “you may know the differences, but the little creatures won’t: say no to plastic.”

Several of us students from the UConn@COP delegation wrote our own postcards for Utopia’s display in Katowice, ultimately to be sent to Switzerland. It was inspiring to see that Utopia was giving young people around the world, and students at the COP24 conference, a platform for their voices to be heard. Their presence outside of the conference venue showed the importance of having COP events that are accessible to the public. More information about Utopia’s projects can be found on their website: https://utopia-international.org/en/cop24/.

 

 

Carrying the COP24 Experience Back Home

Leanne McLaren – Senior, B.S. Political Science

Since my time spent at the COP24 Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, I have tried to integrate the lessons I learned into my everyday life and future career aspirations. From this trip, I learned that climate change, although seemingly an abstract phenomenon, is real and affects the current and future lives of everyone on this earth.

Although it may seem that putting off the necessary changes to improve sustainability are feasible, the need for change is indeed crucial. With this, I try to be cognizant of how I can reduce the waste I produce. Simple habits, such as using plastic water bottles or even driving separate cars to the same destination, no longer feel moral to me and I encourage others to think the same.

In the future, I hope to carry these convictions as I strive to earn a PhD in political science, become a professor and mentor students. As a COP24 participant, I feel responsible for connecting these issues into my research. I’d like to delve into a research topic like “the intersectional effects of climate change in America as compared to other countries.” I also hope to develop a project that contributes to our knowledge of environmental politics within minority communities, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

As a former congressional intern in the US House of Representatives, I recognize the importance of disseminating credible information and advocating for policy issues. I hope the work I accomplish in my career, given my experience participating in COP24, will help advance climate action and improve the lives of future generations.

 

Unlikely Connections

Editor’s note: Many similar themes were discussed at the COP, but some of our fellows took note of less talked about topics. Climate change has links to so many different disciplines, and the blogs below serve as a reminder to consider how deeply the environment is integrated into our lives.

 

Preserving His Creation: The Church and Climate Change – Charlotte Rhodes

Feeling the Effects of Climate Change – Emily Kaufman

 

Preserving His Creation: The Church and Climate Change

Charlotte Rhodes, Junior B.A. Environmental Studies

The daily Breakfast Club sessions hosted during COP gave everyone involved an opportunity to reflect on, and talk through, their experiences as a group. A number of topics frequently made their way into the conversations, but I didn’t expect religion to be one of them. It only made a short appearance in the discussions, but it prompted me to consider a new aspect of climate change.

I was raised in the church, but I never considered its role in climate change. During one of our morning discussion group sessions, referred to as the Breakfast Club, some expressed their views of Christianity as “scary” or “worrisome.” It’s true. The media fills our news with stories of religious zealots protesting human rights issues and rejecting sound science. But this is not a fair representation of the church. For most, church is a place where individuals can gather to express their gratitude, find comfort during times of trouble, and help others in need. I spent the one hour bus ride from our hotel in Krakow to the COP24 venue pondering all these ideas, desperately trying to put together one clear thought.

One of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is humanitarian work. While each church has its own specific goals, all efforts are based in service and compassion for others. This is where we find our link between science and faith. Science is scary, and climate change is an abstract topic. But as the Earth continues to warm and the effects of climate change take hold, lives will be at risk, and humanitarian action will be more important than ever.

Upon arrival at the venue, I decided to explore and ended up running into the Episcopal delegation. It was as if it were divine intervention. As a member of the Episcopal Church, I was excited to learn that my denomination has sent a delegation to the COP since 2014. They, along with other religious institutions, are steadfast in their dedication to the environment and its people. Representatives attend these conferences in the hopes of staying informed and learning what can be done to support the efforts against climate change. They understand how complex the issues are, but remain focused on outreach. It makes me proud to see my church, amongst others, participating in international discussions on climate change. But there are still a number of religious groups who haven’t made the link between climate change and the humanitarian mission of Christianity.

My hope is to see more communities of faith embracing climate science. But even if they don’t, I hope that they continue to service those in need. You don’t have to understand the science in order to recognize the need. At the end of the day, people are going to be affected by climate change and I’m excited to see the intersection between its effects and the church’s humanitarian work further develop.

Writers note: I do not mean to speak for other members of the Christian faith. These views are my personal beliefs, influenced by my knowledge and experience.

 

Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

Emily Kaufman – Sophomore, B.A. Environmental Studies and Sociology

In the beginning of the week at COP24, I attended the Climate Hub side events. These events were much more intimate than the actual conference and open to the public. Unlike the official COP, with thousands of people streaming in and out of concurrent panel discussions, negotiating sessions and countless national pavilions or NGO-sponsored exhibits and booths, the Climate Hub held just one workshop, presentation or panel discussion on the hour. At first, I was worried that I would not be able to reap the same benefits from participating in this kind of side event as I would from attending the official events inside the conference venue. However, though different, I got an equally fulfilling experience that pushed me outside of my comfort zone in ways the COP events wouldn’t have.

One workshop that occurred at the side event involved engaging in art and creativity. Each participant was given a large sheet of paper and was instructed to have someone trace the outline of our silhouette. We were then asked to draw out our emotions on our drawn bodies to a series of questions such as: How are you feeling right now?  How do you feel when you are angry? How do you feel when you are happy? and How do you feel about climate change? This activity was something I was not used to. I have rarely been asked to draw, much less draw my emotions, since elementary school. You could tell that many people were taken slightly off guard – especially us Americans – about being asked to do an activity that seemed so “vacuous.”

However, as we kept drawing, I began to appreciate the benefits of this activity. As someone who has always been passionate about environmental issues, I rarely think about how the destruction of the environment actually affects my body and makes me feel. Drawing out my emotions, I was forced to think about these unsettling feelings and internalize them. I started getting emotional myself – as I expressed these feelings, I found that it relieved a lot of internal stress about the environment that I was holding onto.

We ended the activity by holding hands and having a brief meditation where we were encouraged to think about climate justice and how connecting with each other and our bodies is vital to creating climate change solutions. This moment was extremely powerful.  People from across the world joined together and embraced the fact that we are all affected by climate issues and that we can use our emotions as fuel to make sustainable change.

Though all of us in the Climate Hub were from different places, the similarities that we felt were eye-opening. What I originally thought would be a mindless activity opened me up and inspired me to follow my passion to make change.

 

Searching for Hope at COP24

Editor’s Note: During the conference, some of our fellows found themselves overwhelmed by climate change. But despite the feeling of hopelessness, countries have banded together to mitigate the problem. This worldwide cooperation inspires hope for the future and has acted as a source of empowerment for many of our COP fellows. The following blogs detail the emotional journey that many of our fellows experienced.

 

Finding the Good Among the Bad – Kat Konon

Hypocrisy and Hope at COP24 – Adrienne Nguyen

Out of Frustration Arises Empowerment – Jon Ursillo

 

Finding the Good Among the Bad

 Kat Konon – Junior, B.S. Chemical Engineering

The UConn@COP program takes students like me to the UN’s annual Climate Summit and Conference of the Parties (COP) with the expectation that we’ll share our experiences with others in the UConn community and beyond. It’s great for us fellows to have witnessed the conference in action, but we magnify the value of our participation in the COP by communicating what we experienced with as many people as possible upon returning home.

I wanted to come home with some motivational and insightful comments about what we can do to slow down climate change. I took notes and intended to distill one week of meetings, speeches, and demonstrations into just the highlights. When it comes to climate change, we have to emphasize the good or else we risk being overwhelmed by all of the bad news.

Unfortunately, I unintentionally ended up sharing too many lowlights.  These were some of the harsh realities I learned about the effects of climate change and a few of the ironies I observed about where COP24 was being held and how it was being run. I didn’t even realize how negative my recap of the trip had been until my friend, who was beside me more often than not when I shared my COP experience with others, decided to field the “So, how was Poland?” question for me. Her summary went something like this:

“It was depressing! They started off with a trip to Auschwitz which sparked a conversation about climate genocide. With that on her mind, Kat then listened to indigenous peoples at the COP talk about how climate change is ruining their lives. Umm… usually she starts crying right about now. Anyway, she was really interested in the renewable energy initiatives, but those were undermined by the coal fired power plants she saw outside the venue every day (Poland’s electricity generation is 80% coal-based). Not to mention that the conference itself was co-sponsored by coal companies. Also, she was excited by a talk on plant-based diets but one of those speakers pointed out that many of the conference meals were unsustainable because of the high meat content. So, it’s ironic that people at the conference were calling for change but they’re not even serving more sustainable food, which is an effective way to reduce your personal carbon footprint! And so now she feels really guilty but also so lucky to be an American.”

After re-evaluating how I communicated about my experience with friends, I realized that there were also several parts of COP24 that gave me hope.

Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old activist from Sweden, is inspiring young people to speak up. Every Friday, she skips school to protest outside of the Swedish Parliament. Her initial goal was for Sweden to reduce its emissions to be in line with the Paris Agreement, but COP24 gave her a platform to call for global action to limit the planet’s warming.

NGOs were well-represented, which stresses the idea we don’t have to rely solely on our national governments to implement change.  Groups interested in energy, human rights, religion, law, rainforest preservation, and much more, championed their causes. Interacting with representatives from all of these different NGOs showed me that if you’re passionate about something, there’s a way to link it to the environment. Climate change is everyone’s problem.

During the last panel I attended, a speaker asked, “If we can’t change small things, how will we change big things?” That was a perfect note to end on because, on the way home, we reflected on the conference and talked about how UConn is still committed to achieving aggressive climate goals for the campus, despite the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The University aims to be a carbon neutral campus by 2050, and factors such as energy efficiency projects and LEED-certified buildings are helping us stay on track for our 2020 interim goal of a 20% reduction in carbon emissions from a 2007 baseline. We aren’t sustainable yet, but we are a leader among college campuses and I am so proud to be part of that.

 

Hypocrisy and Hope at COP24

Adrienne Nguyen – Junior, B.S. Pathobiology and Molecular and Cell Biology 

I would describe my experience at COP24 in three words: insightful, frustrating, and hopeful.

I was able to attend the plenary session for the Talanoa Dialogue which had representatives from all of the countries, providing their remarks in support for the new platform. Across all of the 2-5 minute statements, every country stressed that the IPCC 1.5˚ report must be at the heart of these discussions because of its emphasis on the need for urgent and ambitious action. The underlying message was that we had enough discussions three years after the Paris Agreement. It is time to commit to action because we’re on a catastrophic trajectory towards a global warming of 3.0˚C.

While our UConn cohort was only present during the first week of COP, as the policy making decisions happened the following week, I left the conference feeling frustrated. COP’s events schedule was filled with panels discussing critical issues such as the intersection of gender, feminism, poverty, and climate change and bringing in representatives from indigenous populations to speak. However, these events were only considered “side events”. It seems odd that even though COP24’s theme was to promote storytelling, these voices were not a part of formal negotiations. On one of the bus rides, I met a Portuguese conference attendee who said that Poland heightened its security in preparation for the conference and subjected all protestors to jail if they started any unapproved riots.

Poland’s law basically negates the meaning of the Talanoa Dialogue. At one of our pre-trip meetings back at UConn, we watched a video of protestors disrupting Trump’s “Coal for Climate” meeting at COP23. But COP24 didn’t allow for these diverse and plural voices to be heard. In fact, the Young Feminist for Climate Justice group had to get permission to host and schedule a march during the conference. How are we supposed to make change if the conference is censoring protests? This essentially creates yet another barrier for the voices of activists and non-governmental organizations to actually be included in climate negotiations.

The headlines that I have read about the results of COP24 focus on the “insufficient action” and “morally unacceptable” outcomes which were “totally inadequate.” The guidelines didn’t propose any immediate action towards getting on a low-carbon pathway by 2020.

I’m unsatisfied with the outcome of COP24 but I haven’t lost hope.

I met someone at the Climate Hub, who was a member of the Conference of Youth, and we discussed the US’s recent political climate. When I told him how dismayed I am about how rapidly our country’s politics are regressing, he mentioned that it is almost better to have the person in our current administration because it sparked a surge of diverse voices who want to spearhead change. This is analogous to COP24’s outcomes and the fight for climate change. The lack of action only lights the fire for young climate activists to hold the government accountable for avoiding a climate catastrophe. Greta Thunberg, the feisty 15 year-old Swedish climate activist, sure is not going to stop calling out political leaders for failing to make climate change higher on their agenda. People are not going to stop telling their stories but rather they’ll just raise their voices.

In the words of the Fiji Climate Champion for COP23, Minister Inia Seruiratu, “Are we like the people dancing on the titanic while the ship was sinking? We should not be so patient.” At COP24, I learned that we can no longer leave climate change in the hands of the government. It’s everyone’s responsibility to start demanding and taking ambitious action.

 

Out of Frustration Arises Empowerment

Jon Ursillo – Junior B.S. Environmental Science and Economics

COP24 yielded immense frustration with the status of global climate action.  The current course of climate change mitigation, if continued, is on pace to put the 2 degree Celsius warming goal from Paris out of reach by 2030.  The United States conducted a side event promoting coal and other fossil fuels and also partnered with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to blunt the acceptance of the alarming new IPCC report, detailing action required to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.  Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, coordinator of the Association of Native Peul Women of Chad, pleaded for climate action on behalf of her people’s lives, but was given few tangible results.  The host venue offered a meat-laden dining menu and lined its walls with plastic cups and jugs of water, juxtaposing the purpose of the conference with blatantly unsustainable practices.

Despite the exhaustive list of reasons for despair, I left the COP24 hopeful and empowered.  In the midst of uncertainty regarding U.S. climate action, Joseph Robertson, Global Strategy Director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, highlighted bipartisan support for a new carbon dividend bill, which would put a price on carbon in the United States and return 100 percent of the money back to the American people.  Moreover, I witnessed Germany pledge 1.5 billion Euros to finance climate action across the world, particularly assisting developing nations adapt to a changing climate that they largely had no hand in changing.  Additionally, I received powerful encouragement from Dr. Maria Neira, Director of Public Health, Environmental Health, and Social Determinants of Health for the World Health Organization, who implored Sahil Laul, another UConn student at COP24, and me to “Remember that you are politicians…you are politicians with a big P.”

Above all, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of my experience was engaging with the other UConn students on the trip.  The passion, knowledge, and diverse perspectives that each student expressed were remarkable.  I sincerely believe that I learned more from my peers during the week at COP24 than I have learned in all of my classes combined this past semester.  Not only was I enlightened, but I was also injected with renewed hope and purpose that other students shared my desire for action.  Further, the caliber of students from the UConn contingent gave me trust that the fight for the future of humanity will relentlessly persist.  I am confident that the UConn students who attended COP24 will actualize Greta Thunberg’s vision for the world’s youth.  The 15 year-old climate activist from Sweden spoke for all of us when she asserted, “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

Technological Methods for Addressing Climate Change

Editors Note: COP fellows had the opportunity to visit numerous pavilions sponsored by individual countries which highlighted their unique commitments to addressing climate change. While most countries showcased goals and projects related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, some countries discussed other technological solutions. The following blog discusses one such technological solution to mitigating climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems.

CCell – One Innovation Among Many @COP24 – Sophie MacDonald

 

CCell – One Innovation Among Many @COP24

Sophie MacDonald – Junior, B.S. Mechanical Engineering

Technology alone is not going to stop climate change. The success of any large-scale movement is contingent on backing from the hearts and minds of the people it is affecting. In the case of climate change, this essentially means that everyone across the globe, or at least those people with direct access to policy (who in turn are backed by constituents… so really, it needs to be everyone) needs to be convinced of the importance of environmental stewardship and of using sustainable technology in the first place.

All of this in mind, the tech industry meanwhile is doing some pretty incredible things. One especially promising technology featured at the United Kingdom pavilion at COP24 is that of CCell, a device that harnesses wave energy in order to ultimately generate electricity and grow coral reefs to protect coastal areas and maintain marine biodiversity. The system consists of just a few key components, making the technology comparatively cheap, and the basic process is as follows:

  • A carbon fiber shell floats at wave height and harnesses the motion-based energy of waves.
  • This mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy inside a compact element featuring a hydraulic piston as the driving mechanism (I do not fully understand how this works, but it sounds very cool!)
  • Electrical energy is used for electrolysis (current-driven chemical reaction) in order to create a layer of limestone over a steel structure – any steel structure, you could throw a bike in the ocean and hook this device up – that has been placed underwater
  • This limestone attracts marine wildlife, and coral reefs in particular grow 2-5 times as quickly and are allegedly 20 times more resilient than a typical reef on this newly formed rock
  • The excess electricity not used in the electrolysis process (which requires just a low, safe voltage) may be returned to shore for use on land
CCell System
CCell system connected to an on-land electrical grid. Source

The last item on the list is a goal for the immediate future of the device, but the conversion of wave energy to coral reefs has been tested and implemented with success.

Like all novel technologies, it is important to take all of the above information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and I was initially tempted to chalk this technology up to a flashy sideshow with no real application. After talking with an engineer on the project, though, and doing plenty of individual research, I am quite hopeful for this project’s future.

First, the technology they are employing for limestone creation is not new; it is backed by 30 years of research, refinement, and implementation, and is a patented process under a company called BioRock. CCell’s addition to this process is that of off-shore harnessing of wave energy to produce the necessary electricity, and the two technologies work in tandem better than they ever could separately. CCell provides BioRock with electricity on the open ocean, enabling BioRock to have a wider range of applicability, and BioRock gives CCell a secure place to ground their device.

CCell technology seems to be about as invasive as a large buoy. It is also quite robust and degrades minimally over time, so concerns about harm to marine life appear to be mitigable.  Looking at CCell’s twitter page, they also seem to really care about environmental stewardship, and as a start-up company in renewable energy, are definitely not in it solely for the money.

Overall, this technology seems to have a lot of potential on a small scale, and specifically has promise as an energy source and means of coastal protection for smaller island communities. These communities are going to be the most affected by climate change – despite typically contributing minimally to its causes – due to sea level rise, so I have high hopes for CCell. While it will definitely never remotely reach the scale necessary to prevent global warming on its own, my guess is that in the small number of places it reaches, it will have a real, positive impact.

For more information, go to http://www.globalcoral.org/ccell-energy-save-coral/ or refer directly to CCell’s website and social media.

 

 

 

 

Country Criticism

Editor’s Note: At the conference, fellows were excited to learn about the environmental concerns in other countries and get a more holistic view of the issues at hand. Unfortunately, not all nations prioritize the environment. Without effort from each country, climate action is hindered. The blogs below take a look at the importance of international involvement and a few of the countries responsible for delaying action.

 

Jair Bolsonaro: The Trump of the Tropics – Charlotte Rhodes

Who should have a say in climate negotiations? – Kayleigh Granville

A Climate Conference in Coal Country – Nikki Pirtel

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce? – Risa Lewis

 

Jair Bolsonaro: The Trump of the Tropics

Charlotte Rhodes – Junior, B.A. Environmental Studies

Walking into COP24, I was immediately struck by the Brazil Pavilion. Decorated with bright colors and large displays, the pavilion is a demonstration of the immense biodiversity and vital ecosystems housed in the region. But after my initial excitement set in, I was reminded that the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, has decided to take all of this away from the world.

Bolsonaro has rebuffed climate change and promised during his campaign to rollback protections on the Amazon rain forest for economic gain. This plan is toxic and because of the significant influence the Amazon has over the environment, will have a rippling effect throughout the environmental community.

The Amazon rain forest is a significant carbon sink and one of our most valuable resources against climate change. It can sequester millions of tons of carbon, successfully removing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. This is such an important resource and if Bolsonaro goes through with his plans for clear-cutting the Amazon, more action will be required by everyone else to meet the 1.5 degree goal.

Following the announcement that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, many were worried that it would encourage other countries to pull out as well. Luckily that wasn’t the case, but these sentiments have now resurfaced with Bolsonaro’s election. The extent to which Brazil may influence other countries decisions remains to be seen, but without Brazil’s support, attaining global climate goals is going to be an even bigger challenge.

As I’ve been walking around the COP24 venue, I’ve had the chance to talk with a number of representatives from Brazil’s delegation. The sentiment among the Brazilian people certainly seems determined to protect the environment. Even if their president decided not to. Coupled with deforestation being the dominant topic at the side events hosted in Brazil’s pavilion, hope for the future is certainly alive. But action needs to be taken now. With such a strong push back from the Brazil’s federal government, how much can actually be done?

Many environmental non-governmental organizations (NGO) that service the Amazon have expressed concerns about their efforts being blocked by Brazil’s federal government. Environmental needs aside, the Amazon is home to a number of indigenous communities. These people are extremely vulnerable to climate change and without help and advocacy from NGO’s, will likely suffer the consequences.

Jair Bolsonaro, like Donald Trump, is a danger to the environmental movement and will likely hinder climate action progress. With such control over the Amazon rain forest, the ball is in his court. Based on my conversations at COP24, I’m confident that the Brazilian public and the global community will do all they can to preserve the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean that I can rely on others to block his policy. While Bolsonaro is in office, there’s always going to be environmental threat and it’s critically important that we all stay informed.

 

Who should have a say in climate negotiations?

Kayleigh Granville – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science

On the first day of the COP 24 conference in Katowice, Poland, I attended a panel discussion on global climate action. The panelists were Patricia Espinoza, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Michal Kurtyka, the COP 24 President, Arnold Schwarzenegger, American actor and former Governor of California, and Hindou Ibrahim, an indigenous leader from Chad. All of the panelists spoke about what needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming below 1.5 ℃. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered solutions that sounded familiar to me as a citizen of the United States: drive electric cars, turn off the lights when you leave a room, reduce your meat consumption, and use LED lightbulbs. He sees climate change as an issue that world leaders and the UN cannot fix without the help of the common citizen, an idea that people in the developed world are generally in agreement with.

To my surprise, Hindou Ibrahim did not agree with him. In response, she explained how people from Chad and other developing nations are already suffering because of the effects of climate change, even though their countries did not contribute to the excessive carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. Her opinion was that real, meaningful change needs to come from governments and policymakers. She used the California wildfires as an example. During the panel, Arnold Schwarzenegger had talked about how California was fortunate to have assistance in fighting the fires from surrounding states as well as Canada. Hindou Ibrahim pointed out that, had a similar climate-related disaster happened in Chad, they would have had no additional resources and no outside help. Rebuilding their community and re-establishing their culture without the resources available to California would be nearly impossible.

After the panel, several other UConn students and I had the opportunity to talk to Hindou Ibrahim. She was very kind and willing to talk to us, because she believes that it is critical for young people like us to be involved in climate policy. When we asked her what she thought could be done to decrease the impact of climate change on developing nations, she explained that policymakers should not be searching for climate solutions without consulting countries like Chad, where the impacts of climate change are different and usually more severe. Hindou Ibrahim wants indigenous leaders like her to have a bigger platform to speak from and negotiate, because, unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, she believes that the solutions need to come from world leaders.

The difference in viewpoints between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hindou Ibrahim was an eye-opening example of how people from developing and developed nations approach climate change differently. In nations like Chad, climate change can be life-threatening and yet there is not much the average person can do to curb it, especially because carbon emissions are usually already low. In nations like the United States, where carbon emissions are high, we often turn to solutions like Arnold Schwarzenegger posed in hopes that we can make a difference. Through the personal stories that Hindou shared, I understood that people in the developing world need to rely on their leaders to advocate for them. Hindou’s presence on this panel made me hopeful that the UNFCCC has also realized that developing nations need to be more involved in climate negotiations, and that we will see better solutions for these countries throughout the rest of the COP 24 conference.

 

A Climate Conference in Coal Country

Nikki Pirtel – Senior, B.S. Environmental Science

The location of the climate conference this year may have been a surprise to many people, as the country is not known for its climate action. Katowice, Poland was once a place where coal was mined and shipped to nearby power plants to burn for energy. This legacy of a post-industrial coal operation is still evident in the city and in Poland in general. On the bus to the conference between Krakow and Katowice, billowing clouds of smoke and particulate matter from the combustion of coal can be witnessed, horizons are smudged by smog and the smell of combustion extends cities away.

In the conference itself, the theme of coal is promoted, with selling of coal soap and displays of coal within the Katowice pavilion, causing great disbelief. Poland delegates here defended the coal usage of their country, questioning, “the United States burns coal too, doesn’t it?” as a means of justifying the action. This kind of attitude is not shared by all generations of Polish people. After asking a Polish master’s student at a networking event about coal, he acknowledged that most of the energy in his country is derived from the dirty fossil fuel and progress towards the NDCs and cleaner sources of energy (solar panels, thermal heaters, electric vehicles, etc.) is too slow for his liking.

The issue of coal burning and making insufficient progress towards Nationally Determined Contributions, however, is not so simple. The woman at the Katowice pavilion was partially right: other developed countries, especially the U.S, cannot point blame at certain nations that burn coal (the worst in terms of CO2 emitted) while also burning coal themselves. We all need to hold each other responsible, and especially citizens with their own governments. Additionally, the coal industry in Poland employs tens of thousands of people and therefore has a lot of power as well as support of many citizens. This situation makes large scale change difficult, especially if those changes are affecting peoples’ livelihoods.

What we need is a phasing out of fossil fuels, letting the older fossil fuel workers retire, make renewables more accessible and economically viable and retraining the younger employees in a greener energy sector. This, combined with a kind of mandated program in a carbon tax or dividend form, would be most effective for real change.

 

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce?

Risa Lewis – Junior, B.S. Agricultural and Resource Economics

With the contrasting sentiments of heartening passion and bleak hopelessness fighting for dominance as takeaways from COP24, I’ve found myself searching for the solutions that are making headway where policy and international agreements are not. The new “rulebook” for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which recently passed at the end of COP 24, is a good start, but it does not provide the type of legally binding and stringent structure necessary to reduce emissions in order to avoid drastic consequences for the earth and people living on it.

For example, the market mechanism section of the Paris Agreement rulebook text could not be resolved and has been pushed to next year’s COP25 in Chile. One of the integral parts of this hang-up was agreement on voluntary carbon markets – the trading of emissions reduced beyond each country’s climate pledge – and their use as credits by other countries that cannot meet their pledges (or, from an economic efficiency standpoint, by countries that have higher costs to society of emissions reduction).

I attended a side event at COP24 on how to fix the problem of double accounting of carbon emission reductions. It was relatively technical, but it became fairly clear that solutions were possible, known, and agreed upon across disciplines and countries. And yet, Brazil has been blamed by many for the postponement of what appeared to otherwise be a logical fix to the double counting issue. This delay has a negative ripple effect, impacting various trading schemes and initiatives that use language dependent on Article 6.4, which was expected to replace the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.

So, if agreement on important policy is moving too slowly, what steps can be taken sooner to ignite reliable, continuous change? More research in energy efficiency? Greater efforts to recycle?

Regarding the latter, a recent episode of “60 Minutes” on CBS cast doubt on the reality of recycling plastic—possibly 2/3 of American recycled plastic is sent overseas (until recently to China), where its ultimate fate – landfilling or recycling – has been and remains difficult to ascertain. CBS also detailed a 3 million dollar project to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a project that has been compared to “mopping up a flooded bathroom but leaving the tap on.” To put this in perspective, COP24 handed out plastic reusable water bottles and other “swag bag” items with plastic packaging. Other popular movements such as banning plastic straws are important steps on the way to behavioral change, but are ultimately miniscule shifts compared to the change necessary to prevent climate catastrophe. Like most social, politics and economics issues, reversing climate change requires nothing less than a complete shift in our social system. And activists are not the only ones who recognize this – the scientifically advised reductions in global carbon emissions reflect a dismantling of consumption culture (the very existence of “swag bags”).

The reality is that the kind of lifestyle promoted as the norm in America, and coveted by many across the globe due to the United States’ global influence, is not only impossible for other countries to attain, but also unsustainable for the planet. As the effects of climate change continue to accelerate sea level rise and exacerbate extreme weather events they will also disrupt the systems that prop up the American story of consumption. How soon this will happen is relatively uncertain, but indigenous populations that have existed far longer than ours are already being destroyed due to the unjust way climate change more severely impacts those with lifestyles that have contributed least to the problem.

If there’s anything I can take away from this conference to fight the despair, it is that I need to live more realistically, in a way that reduces my consumption and encourages others to do the same. Changing a culture of consumption means change through education and outreach, especially focused on younger generations. Overall, making living a simpler life ‘popular’ could prove to be the most productive step towards change.

 “COP24: Key Outcomes Agreed at the UN Climate Talks in Katowice.” Carbon Brief, 16 Dec. 2018.

 

Technology’s Role in Removing Atmospheric Carbon

With the recent release of the IPCC’s report, reducing our carbon footprint has re-entered the spotlight and become more urgent than ever before. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the first step in achieving this goal, but the IPCC report makes it clear that years of nonrenewable energy use have made it necessary to go even further. One way to do this, as mentioned in the report, is to utilize carbon removal technologies. Carbon removal involves taking carbon that is being released to, or is already present in, the atmosphere and sequestering it underground or in storage. There are several different types of carbon removal methods, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

 

Direct Air Capture

One of the more common carbon removal technologies is direct air capture. Direct air capture uses a fan to intake air from the atmosphere, and then the air enters a closed loop system with water and energy and leaves the system as a stream of pure, compressed carbon dioxide. That stream of carbon dioxide can then be sequestered or turned into a fuel with ultra-low carbon intensity, meaning this fuel would produce less emissions and pollutants than traditional fuel. There are currently two leading companies in this technology, Carbon Engineering and Climeworks. Both these companies estimate that on a large scale, their technology can remove one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for about $100-150. Because of this high cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere, these companies have been selling the carbon they produce to fuel companies. This is counterproductive in the sense that the carbon just removed from the atmosphere is being sold to be released into the atmosphere again, but at the same time using recaptured carbon is better than using traditional fuel. If the cost of this technology could be reduced, then less of the recaptured carbon would have to be sold and more of it could be sequestered in the geosphere.

 

Biochar

The use of biochar is a second method of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Biochar is a high carbon material produced by burning organic material (such as trees, plants, etc.) in an oxygen free environment. Normally, burning organic material or just letting it decompose adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If this material is turned into biochar instead, the biochar can then be added to the soil and serve as an effective carbon sink. If biochar is implemented on a large scale, it is estimated that about 12% of carbon emissions will be offset. Biochar also increases both water retention and nutrient capacity of soils it is added to, giving it added benefits aside from being an effective carbon sink.

 

Enhanced Weathering

One of the cheaper methods of carbon removal is enhanced weathering. CarbFix is a project in Iceland that has been using enhanced weathering to sequester carbon dioxide since 2007. Their method involves taking highly carbonated water and injecting it into basaltic rocks. The carbon in the water then reacts to the minerals in the basalt and forms safe byproducts while taking the carbon out of the atmosphere. Using this method can remove about one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for $25, which is four times less expensive than direct air capture. The main downsides of this method are that basaltic rocks are required, meaning that this method can only be used in certain locations, and that injecting such a large amount of water into the ground can cause other environmental impacts such as earthquakes.

Carbon removal has potential to be a powerful method of reducing the effects of climate change, yet as of right now the technology is expensive and inconvenient to implement. For carbon removal to become an effective climate mitigation strategy, political and economic incentives would need to be offered to companies developing this technology in order to overcome these barriers.

The IPCC Report: Facing our Future

This October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that has shaken the global community. The IPCC was invited by the UN to report this year on the effects that we would experience if the global temperature warms 1.5℃ (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. They released a full report along with a technical summary and policymaker summary. The report contains scientific, technical, and socio-economic findings and has major ramifications across these disciplines. The contents of this report are grim, but give us a much more concrete vision of our future—something that is vital as the world makes plans to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Since civilization hit the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, humanity has been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air at an exponential rate. This has led to an increasing amount of sunlight and heat being trapped in our atmosphere, and consequently an increase in our planet’s average temperature. Even a slight increase in this global temperature has immense impacts on our climate and in turn the survival of life on Earth, including humans.

The IPCC report begins by defining what exactly the average global temperature was before humanity started to affect it. The IPCC defines pre-industrial levels as the average global temperature over the period of 1850-1900. The report then talks about where we are now. We have already caused a 1℃ rise in the average global temperature compared to pre-industrial levels. Effects from climate change are already happening, and at this point they are inevitable.

However, we still have control over how severe these effects become, and how long they will last. On our current global trajectory, we will reach a 2℃ increase by 2040. With the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world committed itself to changing this trajectory. Countries promised to keep the increase to under 2℃, and to strive to keep the increase near 1.5℃. In reality, the agreement has little binding power. Globally, we are struggling to reach the 2℃ goal, never mind 1.5℃, which is currently categorized as ‘above and beyond.’

The IPCC report focuses on the changes in our climate that will result if we curb the global temperature rise at 1.5℃ as compared to an increase of 2℃. Although any further rise in the global temperature has and will result in devastating changes to our natural and human systems, the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ warming is significant. This report makes it clear that 1.5℃ should not be considered as ‘above and beyond,’ but instead as the absolute limit for global temperature rise.

By 2100, the global average sea level rise is projected to be 0.1 meter lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. Sea level rise will continue past 2100, and it is inevitable at this stage. However, sticking to the 1.5℃ goal and slowing the rate of sea level rise will allow more time for adaptation of coastal communities impacted by this rise. Although 0.1 meters may not seem significant, it will make a big difference in giving the world time to prepare for sea level rise.

One of the most poignant symbols of this change in global temperature is the livelihood of the coral reefs. At 2℃, more than 99% of coral reefs will die off due to coral bleaching. At 1.5℃, only 70-90% of current coral reefs are projected to die off. The loss of this incredible phenomenon would be a tragedy. The majority of the ocean’s biodiversity exists in coral reefs, they serve as a buffer that protects coastlines from tropical storms, and they function as important primary producers as well.

The frequency of a sea-ice-free Arctic during summer is substantially lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. At 1.5℃, an ice-free summer will happen once per century; at 2℃, it will happen at least once per decade.

In addition to the effects mentioned previously, a 2℃ rise instead of 1.5℃ will drive the loss of coastal resources, reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture, and lead to greater species loss and extinction. Vector-borne diseases, such a malaria and dengue fever, are expected to increase and shift geographic regions. A 2℃ rise will lead to larger net reductions of cereal crop yields such as maize, rice, and wheat.

As the global temperature warms, the effects outlined above are expected to lead to increased poverty and disadvantages in vulnerable populations. Limiting the temperature rise to 1.5℃ instead of 2℃ could reduce the number of people who will be susceptible to poverty and facing climate-related risks by up to several hundred million by 2050.

The IPCC states that reaching the 1.5℃ goal and protecting what we can of our world requires “upscaling and acceleration of far-reaching, multi-level and cross-sectoral climate mitigation and by both incremental and transformational adaptation.” While the Paris Climate Agreement was a historical step for humankind, it’s not nearly enough to save us. The agreement was the beginning of this world transformation; true change will require continued, tenacious, collaborative effort.

This information can be overwhelming and disheartening. We at the office understand that, and know that this work requires stubborn positivity. The only way we’re going to get close to reaching the 1.5℃ goal is if we wholeheartedly believe in our mission and in the future of our world. Even if we do not reach our goal of 1.5℃, or even that of 2℃, any change we make now will still have an important effect on generations to come. So get out there and make some change happen. Reduce your carbon footprint. Vote on November 6th. Start improving your community. Collaborate with friends and neighbors. Have meaningful conversations with those around you. We are each just one person, but we still have an important, irreplaceable influence on the world around us.

Link to the IPCC’s Report: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/

UConn Joins the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3)


UConn has recently entered into the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) and is joining a network of 16 other leading research universities committed to channeling their resources into accelerating and easing the transition to a low carbon future on local and regional levels.

Climate change is one of the most challenging environmental issues facing society and has already begun to cause negative impacts on our ecosystems, communities, and health. The multi-layer complexity of our changing climate makes it a particularly difficult issue to address, and solutions complicated to implement. Everyone plays a part in mitigating climate change, and UC3 recognizes the significant role universities play when it comes to stimulating action. The Coalition will pilot a collaborative model; partnering with businesses, government, and higher education, to develop more realistic, scalable climate solutions.

University President Susan Herbst affirms UConn’s dedication to environmental sustainability saying, “Research universities are uniquely qualified to address the myriad of challenges of a problem as urgent and complex as climate change. We can lead not only by developing research, technology, and policy to effectively curb carbon emissions and ameliorate the effects of climate change on our communities, but also by making sustainability a core component of our mission and identity. The University of Connecticut is proud to join with our UC3 partner institutions in working to find solutions now to what could ultimately be the most important challenge of the 21st century.”

Executive Director of UConn’s Connecticut Institute of Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), Jim O’Donnell remarked that “dozens of faculty from four different colleges are [currently] working on CIRCA-sponsored projects,” and feels that “UConn’s membership in UC3 will accelerate progress by further broadening interdisciplinary partnerships.” Many other UConn faculty are in agreement, including the Director of UConn’s Atmospheric Sciences Group, Dr. Anji Seth, who describes UC3 as “an excellent platform for UConn’s continued leadership on climate action.” Joining UC3 is the latest advancement in UConn’s long-term commitment to environmental sustainability and Dr. Mark Urban, Director of UConn’s Center of Biological Risk, considers “UConn’s membership in the UC3 Coalition…a logical and vital next step in order to keep UConn at the forefront of global climate action.”

The consensus among students is overwhelmingly supportive. Anna Freeda, a junior double-majoring in Psychology and Communications, is “excited to see UConn’s administration taking proactive measures to combat climate change.” Similarly, Taylor Doolan, a junior Allied Health major, is “proud of UConn’s dedication to the environment and [is] looking forward to seeing what the Coalition will accomplish.”

Formed in February 2018, UC3 is still quite new, but is certainly committed and ambitious. As they continue to evolve, UC3 looks forward to meeting their goals and spurring climate action across the country.

6 Stupendous Sustainability Courses to Take in Fall 2018

With the Spring Semester quickly reaching its end, the class pick time season is once again upon us. Lucky for UConn students, there are hundreds of interesting courses to choose from, ranging from topics as far and wide as the mind can imagine. However, given this range of options, it can be difficult to navigate the extensive class lists. As students with passions for sustainability, the interns at the Office of Environmental Policy have compiled a concise list of some of their favorite sustainability courses, all of which are offered this upcoming fall. We hope that this list will aid your class selection process! Happy choosing!

 

SPSS/SAPL 2100: Environmental Sustainability of Food Production in Developed Countries

(Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

The current average population increase is estimated at a staggering 83 million people per year, a number that places us at 9.7 billion people by 2050. Given this steady increase, food production will need to accommodate the growing population size. However, the agricultural sector currently contributes to one third of the Earth’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The sector will need to alter its current practices to ensure both food security and environmental sustainability. Take this class to investigate alternative food systems, and the benefits and environmental risks associated with modern food production. (3 credits)

 PHIL 3216: Environmental Ethics

Do trees have rights? Whose interests count? Whose interests must we consider? If you have ever pondered these questions, look no further. This class allows students to inquire about the extension of ethics to both human and non-human species, and challenges traditional boundaries of philosophical thought. (3 credits)

AH 3175: Environmental Health 

The environment is not just made up of the woods in our backyards or the national parks we hike. It is also the quality of the air we breathe and the clean water we drink. This course investigates the true meaning of environmental health as a crucial component of any public health system, and exposes students to the health consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals, radiation, and food contaminants. Open to junior or higher, this course provides an advanced perspective of the basic principles of toxicology and complex occupational hazards.  (3 credits)

Senior OEP intern Christen highly recommends this course, saying: “Environmental Health is a great interdisciplinary course that highlights the ways we impact our environment, as well as how our environment impacts us.”

BADM 3252: Corporate Social Impact and Responsibility

Can the private sector contribute to a future of shared environmental accountability, equity, and sustainability? Learn to navigate this debate in class through the deconstruction, and discussion, of social impacts and human rights implications as they relate to global operations of multinational corporations.  (3 credits)

SPSS 1125: Insects, Food, Culture

Welcome to the interesting world of bugs and their multifaceted interactions with nature and people. A perfect course for fans of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, this course introduces the varied roles of insects in traditional human culture, ranging from their contributions to fiber and food production, popular culture, and commerce.  (3 credits)

EVST 1000: Introduction to Environmental Studies

Need one more class to fulfill content area two, social sciences? Want to think critically about the intersections of contemporary environmental themes across a wide array of sectors and disciplines? Introduction to Environmental Studies is the course for you. Explore environmental action from a variety of approaches and take a look at the different perspectives of the relationships between humans and nature. (3 Credits)

Here’s what our interns have to say:

Jon: “Great introduction to analyzing environmental issues from a holistic perspective”

Emma: “This class was basic enough for a non-major student to be interested and understanding of the content while laying a strong groundwork for any students with an Environmental major.”

 

 

 

4 Black Environmentalists Who Changed the Environmental Movement

If you take a glance at the extensive legacy of black American history, the intersections with conservation are undeniable. From urban and rural agriculturalists, environmental scientists, planetwalkers, and environmental justice activists, the legacy of black Environmentalists exists in our natural places, National Parks, and enacted policy.  In celebration of Black History Month, and the often untold contributions made by black environmentalists, we will be highlighting four black Americans who have advanced and innovated the fields of conservation, environmentalism, and activism: Dr. John Francis, Majora Carter, Charles Young, and Margie Richard.

  1. Charles Young, the first black US national park superintendent

    Charles Young 

If you have ever had the opportunity to gaze upon the majestic Sequoia trees in California’s Sequoia National Park, you can thank Charles Young, the first Black colonel in the United States Army and fierce protector of the great Sequoias. It was under the careful instruction of Colonel Charles Young that the U.S. Army worked to preserve the Sequoias, and transformed the Sequoia forest from an impenetrable wilderness into the revered Sequoia National Park

Young’s journey towards this position was a difficult one, as he was born into slavery in Kentucky on March 12, 1864. It was through the legacy of his father, who had escaped slavery to join the Union Army during the Civil War, that Young attended West Point Military Academy.

Not only was Young the third black American to graduate from West Point, but he was the first black National Parks Superintendent, where environmental preservation was at the forefront of his life’s work. In this position, Young ensured the preservation of the great wilderness, and commanded a group of park rangers that became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”  They kept the park free from poachers and ranchers whose grazing sheep destroyed the parks’ natural habitats. In 2013, Young was recognized as a true American hero, when President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Young’s house as the 401st unit of the National Park System, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

  1. Dr. John Francis, American environmentalist and planetwalker

     John Francis

The modern day interpretation of an activist goes something like this: a young, jarring individual with an unapologetically loud voice, raised fist, and picket sign. And while this image was birthed from the largest and most successful social movements of the past century, an alternative form of activism has also emerged, in which silence can become the loudest and most compelling voice in the room. A conservationist, educator, and best-selling author, Dr. John Francis, also known as the ‘Planetwalker’ is best known for his impressive 22-year motorized transportation boycott, and his 17-year vow of silence.

Inspired by the horrific 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill, Dr. Francis’s legacy led to years on foot, during which he traveled across the United States and Latin America, receiving a Ph.D. in Land Management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison along the way. In his decades-long journey, Dr. Francis observed the mutual disconnect between people and the environment, and urged people to reposition themselves as intricate pieces in the overall concept of the environment.

After breaking his silence during the first Earth Day in 1990, Dr. Francis has gone on to an extensive career in conservation, as both an educator and environmental policy maker. To date, he has garnered dozens of environmental accolades: being named the National Geographic Society’s first Education Fellow in 2010, an ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World’s Grassroots Communities, and an acclaimed bestselling author.

  1. Majora Carter 

    Majora Carter, American urban revitalization strategist and public radio host

If you’ve ever watched an online TED talk, there is a high probability that you have come across Majora Carter’s inspiring lecture entitled ‘Greening the Ghetto.’ With several million views and counting, Carter’s compelling TED talk outlines her journey fighting for environmental justice in the South Bronx, in which she draws key connections between economic, ecological, and social degradation.

As an activist in the 1990s, Carter brought the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years, and founded ‘Sustainable South Bronx,’ an organization to mobilize grassroots environmental activism among New York City’s poorest and most environmentally oppressed citizens. In the present day, Carter works to help people in low-income communities realize that they don’t have to move out of their neighborhoods in order to live in a healthier environment.

While most acclaimed as an urban revitalization strategy consultant, Carter is also a real estate developer and a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, whose innovative views on urban renewal have altered the understanding of comprehensive urban policy to include goals for environmental protection and restoration. Carter was also awarded a “Genius Grant” by the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation. Her company, the Majora Carter Group, is putting green economic tools to use, unlocking the potential of every place, from inner cities to rural communities, university campuses, government projects and industrial parks.

  1.   Margie Richard

    Margie Eugene-Richard, 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, North America (United States), holding Ouroboros statuette.

In Southern Louisiana sits an area known as Old Diamond, a small neighborhood in Norco where residents are sandwiched between a Shell Chemical plant and an oil refinery owned by a Shell joint venture. For decades, the residents of this predominantly black neighborhood suffered under the constant fear of an industrial accident, and faced unusually high rates of cancer, birth defects, and respiratory diseases.  These environmental threats were a result of decades-long and, in some cases, ongoing environmental contamination stemming from the industrial operations that surrounded the residential neighborhood.

After years of being subjected to these environmental risks, and following the death of her sister from a rare bacterial infection, in the early-1990s, resident Margie Richard founded the Concerned Citizens of Norco, an environmental justice citizens’ group that fought for fair resettlement of Old Diamond residents in order to escape the daily threat of health and environmental hazards. After an intense community-based air quality research study, and 13 years of Ms. Richard’s tireless leadership, the CCN finally reached an agreement with Shell that paid for the  relocation of Old Diamond residents to new homes, in neighborhoods with clean air, water and soil.

Margie Richards is a true pioneer of the environmental justice movement.  Her work led her to become the first black American to win the Goldman Environmental Award in 2004.