Monday, September 30, 2019

UN Publishes New Climate Report: The Heat Is On

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
One of the highlights of this month's climate events at the United Nations was the release of their report, The Heat Is On:  Taking Stock of Global Climate Ambition. The report provides a summary of the current state of climate policy taking place around the world.

There are three main takeaways that I got from the report. 

1. Developing countries are leading the way. Many developing countries are at the front lines of climate change. Many, particularly the small island states, are already feeling the impacts of our climate disruption. The developing countries have developed climate action plans and adaptation plans, they are leading by example, and they are revising initial plans to become more ambitious in reaching their sustainability and climate change goals.

2. The developed world is focused on long-term strategies to phase out greenhouse gases in the second half of the century. This approach is a bit contentious. Many argue that the time to act is now. However, there is concern over economic disruption if change happens too quickly. However, there is definitely a contrast between the approaches in the developing world and the developed world around climate change.

3. We are not doing enough now. The report highlights that there is a great deal of good work happening around the world to reduce greenhouse gases. However, we are not doing enough. According to the report, we are failing to reduce greenhouse gases at a rate needed to prevent climate change. Indeed, greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere even though there are many efforts underway to reduce them.

The report has much more information that many will find useful. I really enjoyed the case studies from places like the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia. There is so much good work going on around the world, however, the report makes clear that it is not nearly enough.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

My Interview With James Ellsmoor, Director of Island Innovation

James Ellsmoor, Director of Island Innovation

James Ellsmoor is an entrepreneur, writer, and sustainability expert who is one of the world’s leading voices on the sustainability of islands—particularly small island states. He is the founder of the Virtual Island Summit and has been named a Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur. He also contributes to Forbes on sustainability topics.

Since the Pacific Islands Forum has just ended with modest success and since the Virtual Island Summit is coming up, I thought it would be great for the On the Brink readers to learn more about James, his work, and his thoughts about sustainability through an interview.

  1. You have such an interesting career for someone so young and I am sure that you are an inspiration to many young people interested in sustainability. Who inspired you to get involved with sustainability?

It was not so much one person in particular as much as what. There were multiple things that pushed me in this direction, and they are best summarized by the old proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

The environment is an extremely complex web of interactions. This means that any action that is not part of these natural processes will have a consequence - not necessarily immediately, but if that action persists the consequences will compound over time. This is how issues like land degradation, ocean acidification and collapsing fisheries are taking hold.

It became clear to me that a future where development is done with the environment as a shareholder rather than a resource to exploit could create a better, sustainable world. Once you see past the environment as a short-term - and finite - profit-generating resource to see the potential applications of renewable or sustainable development as well as their benefits for current and future generations, then you have a different outlook on the world.

  1. There is so much to be negative about at this particular moment with sustainability (bad news from Brazil, climate change extremes, etc.). However, much of your writing for Forbes tends to focus on the positive side of the sustainability field. There are so many great innovations going on and lots of great science happening that is changing lives. How do you stay so focused on the positive when we have so many problems?
The climate crisis we are currently experiencing means that it is common to hear the ‘doom and gloom’ stories that dominate a lot of news cycles. Especially in an environment-based sector such as sustainable development, we tend to hear much more about the negative sides than the success stories.
However, that isn’t constructive – is it? If we live by the negatives and choose to ignore the positives then we’re falling into the trap of thinking that nothing can be done to drive innovation and find solutions to our issues, which simply is not true. That being said, a mixture of negativity and positivity leads to a more constructive, realistic debate, it is all about striking a balance.
New scientific findings are constantly updating our understanding. We should strive to be more scientific, which means being realistic about the problems we face. Negativity is constructive only if paired with optimism, which in turn drives innovation - its a cycle. By sharing the positive stories – and there are many – that are happening globally we can shift the conversation away from ‘doom and gloom’ to ‘hope and optimism’.
  1. You travel to some of the most exotic and distant places on the planet to work on sustainability issues. Your passport must tell quite a story! What is one success story from these places that makes you most proud?

My work with Solar Head of State is one of the biggest highlights to date. Solar Head of State is an organization that I co-founded that has the aim to make renewable energy influencers out of world leaders. Our work in Jamaica was extensive, and we helped to promote the country’s renewable energy policies while also drawing attention to solar power throughout the nation with the Jamaica Solar Challenge.

The Jamaica Solar Challenge was a competition asking Jamaican youth to create a project that would effectively communicate to their peers the benefits of renewable energy. This was carried out at the same as Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness revealed his ambitions for the country to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, up from the official policy of 30%. This was announced during the commissioning of a new government building on which we had installed a state-of-the-art solar array.

We were able to see firsthand the impact that climate change has on islands, as well as how much positivity sustainable development and renewable energy could provide. It was a surreal and rewarding experience that has now led to several new projects.

  1. There was great hope at the Pacific Island Forum that the small island states of the Pacific would convince Australia to cut back on coal mining and promoting the expansion of coal burning power plants around the region to help mitigate climate change. That didn’t happen. There is tremendous concern around the globe about the future of the low-lying islands. What do you think are the next steps in helping nations in the region address their climate change challenges?
Supporting and empowering local institutions. COP21 was a step in the right direction and has spurred a lot of change globally, but it may be time for the governments lagging behind - such as Australia and the US - to be reminded of their commitments through some form of sanction or reprimand. There needs to be consequences or there will be nothing to stop nations from flaunting their commitments. The Pacific islands contribute less than 0.03% to global carbon emissions yet they are on the frontline of climate change. Low-lying islands worldwide are faced with the same problems and they have known for several decades that climate change would be an issue they would face, yet these islands have never given up on trying to find a solution - it only seems fair that we support them and find one.
Islands are leaders in innovation and climate action, pioneering carbon-neutral electrical grids to community-based energy transitions. Using their experiences to build a blueprint for large scale sustainable development would ensure that we reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the damage from climate change. A more island-centric approach would be to invest in resilience strategies as well as research into efficient management techniques. In the past decades local institutions have already done a lot to further our understanding of the processes of climate change, identifying opportunities for innovation and sustainable development. Empowering these institutions and the communities on islands worldwide will go a long way in helping address the challenges created by the climate crisis.
  1. You have organized a free conference on sustainability and islands called the Virtual Island Summit (which I will be attending virtually) coming up October 6-10th of this year. What is the purpose of the conference and what can participants expect to gain from it?

We hope to create an online community that includes cross-sector collaboration and facilitate communication and knowledge sharing with the goal of driving innovation. By being an entirely virtual conference it will provide opportunities for global participation and showcase expertise from a variety of fields. This will ensure that decision-makers and practitioners from around the world will be able to discuss, share ideas and find solutions that benefit all stakeholders. On top of this, the Virtual Island Summit will be carbon neutral, the conference will be using modern technology to be entirely online, thereby eliminating the need to travel to and from locations and massively reducing greenhouse emissions.

I started the Virtual Island Summit as an opportunity to share even more information and increase participation. We will engage over 5,000 participants from a diverse range of island communities and discuss environmental issues such as energy and waste but also cultural preservation and social issues. There are big opportunities to share knowledge and now digital communications gives us a way to do so.

  1. I live on Long Island, which is a part of the State of New York. It is a big island, but it has many of the same problems of island states: pollution of sole-source aquifer, saltwater intrusion, population pressures, limits to economic development, transportation, etc. Outside of climate change, what do you think are the most important sustainability issues emerging on islands today?

Climate change is a symptom of a wide-ranging set of problems that need to be addressed and urbanization is a developmental process from which many of these problems can be fixed. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are always mentioned in new projects whether they be in the Caribbean, the Pacific, Europe, or the United States! They serve as a blueprint for a better form of urban development and has led to innovation in the fields of circular agriculture, governance, and renewable energy - just to name a few. On top of ensuring that new city expansions are built in a way that is sustainable, there is also a rising need to redevelop already developed established areas to a similar level. Islands worldwide are working towards creating a society that is sustainable not only from an environmental perspective, but a socio-economic one as well. Only once we are able to expand and build societies in a way that is sustainable will we be able to take on larger, overarching issues such as climate change.

  1. I always urge my sustainability students to take courses in entrepreneurship since there are lots of new businesses opening up in the area of sustainability. Given your background as an entrepreneur in the area of sustainability, what advice would you give students interested in becoming sustainability entrepreneurs?

Innovation is a major component of sustainability, and there is currently an abundance of opportunities for potential entrepreneurs to create a business within that sector. There has been a massive shift over the past couple decades where companies, cities and nations have become more invested in creating a sustainable future and are willing to work across different sectors to find the best possible solution.

Innovation can take so many different forms, it doesn’t have to be a major idea or a massive program, it just needs to be a product, service or project that would fit well within a society that is seeking to be as efficient as possible without creating waste. Sustainability is a rewarding sector to find yourself in. You will see the world from an entirely different point of view once you start imagining how to make processes or developments more sustainable - and that is both how you promote innovation and craft an idea worth following!

  1. One of your areas of expertise is renewable energy. There are so many great things happening with renewable energy right now from expansion of wind and solar farms to new battery technology. What excites you about the renewable energy field at this particular time?

Renewable energy such as solar or wind has always been constrained by its natural cycles, but new developments in battery storage has created a revolution within the renewables market. From the Tesla mega-battery that is powering the state of South Australia’s backup power grid to the rise in electric vehicles or even the spread of pico-solar installations in Kenya and Papua New Guinea, batteries are driving sustainable development.

The rise of storage is a major component in renewable energy but we need more innovation that has made batteries more efficient. This has increased the interest in renewable energy as well as made it easier to promote a transition away from fossil fuels, with renewables now able to be stored on a large-scale and providing a range of other benefits.

James Ellsmoor is the Director of Island Innovation, a company operating worldwide to build digital bridges and connect distant islands. He is the organizer of the Virtual Island Summit which will be held in October 2019.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Intersections of Sustainability and Geosciences at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting

Yesterday (September 24), I co-chaired along with my colleague Dr. Leslie North, a professor at Western Kentucky University, a session on the Intersections of Sustainability and Geosciences at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. There were twelve presentations overall in the session Here is a very brief summary of each of the talks in order of the presentation.

Click for photo credit.
I kicked off the session with a paper focused on the importance of historical considerations in sustainability and the earth sciences. I provided a theoretical framework for framing history and sustainability together and also reviewed three case studies demonstrating the importance of history in sustainability considerations, each focused on a pillar of sustainability:  Aztalan, Wisconsin (environmental justice), Fort Ross, California (environmental sustainability), and Michigan State University (economic aspects of sustainability).

Dr. Greg Wessel, the President of Geology in the Public Interest, presented a paper on results from the Geoscience and Society Summit. The public is increasingly confronted with a number of issues that intersect public policy and geology. Because of this, the earth science community needs to do a better job in enhancing its role in decision-making and communication. The Geoscience and Society Summit provided a roadmap for how to move forward in doing a better job in enhancing the role of earth scientists in society.

Franklin Schwartz and colleagues, presented a paper that reviewed a variety of challenges with groundwater sustainability in Southeast Asia. Dr. Schwartz noted that many aquifers in the region are not managed at all and that there are serious concerns over water quality and quantity in many parts of Asia. He noted that there are many unsustainable practices associated with water management that will soon come to a head that will be challenging for this part of the world in the decades to come.

Andrea Brookfield and Anthony Layzell presented an interesting case study from a major drainage basin in Kansas. Here, there are serious problems with long-term sustainability of surface water resources for agriculture. Over the years, several reservoirs have been constructed to help manage scant water supplies but these reservoirs have challenges with sedimentation and algal blooms. The paper reviewed efforts made to better manage the overall system.

Diana Di Leonardo and her colleagues presented work that is underway to assess how best to manage a major dredging operation that is underway at Port Fourchon in the Mississippi River delta plain to enhance the resiliency and sustainability of the region. As most know, this part of the world is subsiding and being impacted by sea level rise. Port Fourchon, which is the most significant service port for the Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, is at the front lines of all of this change. A major dredging project is underway to enhance the port operations and the paper reviews how the community is coming together to decide how best to use the dredge sediments to enhance the resiliency of the region.

Yi Lu presented an interesting paper on the Cedartown Municipal Landfill Site in Polk County Georgia. This Superfund site has been of concern for many years and Lu provided an historical review of documents and data while also summarizing current environmental conditions.

Alexander Stewart provided a paper that reviewed the effectiveness of the U.S. Army's agricultural development team's work in Afghanistan using a 10-year assessment. Stewart was part of a team of military experts that included geologists, agricultural experts, and others, who worked on development initiatives in the war-torn country. He used remote sensing to assess the effectiveness of the projects on which he worked. As it turned out some were highly successful, most were moderately successful, and some were failures.

Kent Murray reviewed a number of issues associated with lead pollution in southwest Detroit. The region has many problems that can be tied to lead pollution including educational outcomes and violence. Murray demonstrated that many areas of the community have lead levels in soils that far exceed state and national guidelines. In addition, lead is present in old abandoned homes that have been demolished and there is concern over the way that houses are being razed in the community.

Stephen Boss' paper started with a discussion of the famous essay, the Tragedy of the Commons which inspired him to question how many metals remain available for human use. As his paper demonstrated, we have been doubling our usage of metals every twenty years or so for over the last century. Given what we know about existing reserves, Boss asserts that we could run out of some metal sources (of known reserves) in the next decade or two, barring the development of new resources.

Josephine Hall and Stephen Boss also presented on a similar topic as the one above. However, this paper focused on non-metals. As in the previous case, we have been doubling our non-mineral consumption at a relatively steady state and we could run out of some of these materials (barring the development of new resources) in the next two decade or two.

Andrew Stumpf and his colleagues next presented a paper on the development of geothermal energy on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. Geothermal (the low temperature kind, not the high temperature kind known in places like Iceland) has the potential to help reduce energy consumption. The university has invested in geothermal as part of their climate action plan. Several experimental systems and working systems have been developed.

Finally, Diana Dalbotten and her colleagues reviewed a National Science Foundation funded project focused on research experiences for undergraduate students focused on sustainable land and water resources. The project focuses on providing opportunities for a diverse set of students, particularly Native American and non-traditional age students in Montana, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Monday, September 23, 2019

5 Tips for New Writers

Click for photo credit.
I am working with a number of graduate students this semester who are starting their masters' thesis writing. I've been sharing a number of writing tips with them that I thought my readers might enjoy as well. Here are 5 tips for new writers that will help with productivity while making the process fun.

1. Slay the dragon. What I mean by this is that a thesis or any writing project is not something that is unattainable or mythical. It is just a writing project. It is possible to complete it without difficulty. So many people think of writing as something that they cannot do. There are a million excuses for this:  they don't have enough time, they are not talented enough, or they cannot conceive of finishing up a big project. As we say in New York, fuggedaboutit. You do have enough time, you are talented enough, and a writing project is not a dragon--you can do it. You need to start thinking of yourself as a writer.

2. Break down the project into component parts. A big writing project is like putting together a piece of furniture from Ikea. You have to break it into parts to complete the whole. All writing projects have distinct parts. For example, a masters thesis has a highly structured introduction which includes a thesis statement and literature review followed by a methodology. Following this, there are results, synthesis, and conclusions. Each section can be outlined and each piece of the outline can become its own work package that can be tackled independently.

3. Find a time to write each day. Build writing into your calendar. If you are a morning person, do it first thing in the morning. If you have a long lunch break, do it then. If you thrive in the evening, carve out time before you go to sleep. Find a time that works for you and make it a habit.

4. Set daily writing goals. There is an old saying among graduate students that most thesis or dissertations are written in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this statement. Many graduate students and other writers procrastinate and put off writing projects until the last minute. As a result, panic sets in at the eleventh hour and much writing is done in a caffeine laden week or two of frenzied activity. That is not healthy way to live and it certainly does not help you create a practice that will help you in your writing career.

5. Don't get hung up on the editing. As you develop your writing practice, you will naturally become a better writer over time. When many new writers start out, they get hung up on self criticism which slows their productivity. They worry about individual sentences and get tied up on single paragraphs. As a result, their productivity is very slow. It is best to just write a complete component of the project and edit later. Get a first draft done of a whole piece or chapter and go back and do detailed editing. It is easier to edit a whole draft of a chapter than a page or section.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Geology and Environmental Sustainability: Some Themes From the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I am at the Geological Society of America annual meeting which is taking place in Arizona this year. There are thousands of earth scientists attending this important annual event where new research on a variety of topics is being presented. It is fascinating to see how the field has changed in the last several years. There is much more information on environmental sustainability than there has been in the past. As I type this, for example, I am at a session on human alterations of urban water systems that includes research on water quality and quantity, i.e. human alterations of the water cycle.

I thought I would be useful to organize some of what I see in the program within a handful of broad themes to show the significance of the work of geologists and earth scientists within the field of sustainability.

Theme 1. Climate and paleoclimate. Earth systems, like sedimentation and erosion, react to subtle changes in the climate. As such, geologists are studying past and present changes in earth systems in order to understand the linkages among earth systems and climate change. As we all know, the present is key to the past and the past provides evidence for what can happen in the future. Recent coastal and glacial change as a result of climate change has been an important topic at the conference for many years in a row.

Theme 2. The carbon cycle. Earth systems are very much involved with the carbon cycle. A wide range of topics are being presented on carbon ranging from karst science to linkages of soil and carbon within a changing climate.

Theme 3. Mineral and energy resources. Sustainability doesn't mean that we do not need mineral and energy resources. We just need to use them wisely. A variety of talks at the conference focus on exploration for these resources as well as environmental mitigation of their extraction and use. A variety of papers also focus on soil resources within an agricultural context.

Theme 4. Human impacts and pollution. The measurement of human impacts on our planet can be measured by assessing pollution, by evaluating remotely sensed images (air photos, satellite imagery, etc.), and by measuring systems changes like alterations in biological cycling. There are many presentations on urban systems.

Theme 5. Water. Certainly the water cycle is one of the most important ways that earth science and sustainability intersect. There are many sessions at the conference that range from topics of hydrogeology to surface water management.

There are other themes that I could add to the list (for example, there is a big focus on ethic in the geosciences this year). However, this is a good starting point for trying to organize some of the larger themes that are emerging this year.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Scenes from the Worldwide Youth Climate Strike

Yesterday, as a lead off to the United Nation's Climate Summit, youth from all over the world went  on climate strike. In New York City, public school administrators allowed students to skip class to attend and many schools around the world used the climate strike as an opportunity to do a teach-in around the climate issue. Millions showed up all over the world to send a message to our leaders that they are accountable to the next generation to do what is right at this moment in time. Greta Thunberg, who started the climate strike movement, was in New York to provide support.

Here are a handful of open access images from around the showing the impact of the climate strike. This is clearly a movement that has a future. The zeitgeist around climate change is changing quickly and that is a very good thing for our planet.

Milwaukee. Click for photo credit.

Denver. Click for photo credit.
Washington D.C. Click for photo credit.
New York City. Click for photo credit.
London. Click for photo credit.
Melbourne. Click for photo credit.

Uganda. Click for photo credit.
New Delhi. Click for photo credit.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Opening Comments for the Exhibit, Environmental Impact, at the Hofstra University Museum

Photo courtesy of the Hofstra Museum of Art.
I provided comments for the opening of the exhibit, Environmental Impact, at the Hofstra University Museum of Art yesterday. It's an amazing collection of images dealing with our impacts on the environment. The show runs through December 3rd. My comments are below.

Thank you all for coming and big thanks and congratulations to Museum Director, Karen Albert and the museum staff, for putting together such a great show.

This week has been an unusual one in the world of the environment. Leaders from all over the world are coming to the United Nations' headquarters in New York City to join with activists like Greta Thunberg to participate in next week's Climate Summit. At the same time, massive fires continue to burn in the Amazon and in Southeast Asia as those areas seek to develop more agricultural lands to provide food for the global market. And our president is trying to change rules for car emissions which will certainly exacerbate climate change.

Indeed, there has been an all-out assault on environmental rules and regulations in the United States which is impacting drinking water, surface and groundwater, public lands, health and safety, and even our food supply. Just yesterday, new rules on pork inspection were put into place which allows companies to conduct their own health inspections.

It would be easy to say that the issues are the problems of big industry, but they are all of ours.

From left to right:  Karen Albert (Director of the Hofstra Museum of Art,
artist Barbara Roux with one of her pieces, and me. Photo  courtesy of
the Hofstra Museum of Art.
We do a tremendous amount of virtue signaling around our own actions related to sustainability. Certainly I like to point out that I drive an electric car and pay for my carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits.  Many of us do these things and more. They are good things and we should all continue them. However, we live in a society where we as a whole consume more than most people in the world. Our per capita energy, water, and basic resource use is higher than ever in the span of human history. Certainly those of us concerned about the environment do what we can, but at the end of the day our consumerist society is killing our planet.

We have been working on sustainability issues ever since the Brundtland Report was published by the United Nations in the 1980's. That report defined sustainability as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Since then we have developed all kinds of sustainability initiatives like green energy, environmental justice, and many more. Nevertheless, our planet is becoming less sustainable, not more sustainable as time goes on.

In many ways, we are living at a time of two sustainabilities. I call these surfing and suffering sustainability.

Surfing sustainability is the sustainability of the now. It is cool, hip, and young. It is the sustainability of electric cars, organic t-shirts, green economic development, and fair trade coffee. This type of sustainability is great and makes us feel good but it does not change the fundamental issue about our increasing unsustainability.

Suffering sustainability is the sustainability that is imposed on people. It is associated with a lack of water, food, and healthcare. It is the sustainability that deals with excessive pollution and with insecurity. How can we become more sustainable in places like Yemen or poverty stricken polluted areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast?

It is hard to see a way forward. Yet, we shouldn't just do nothing. We should be inspired by people like Afroz Shah, an attorney in India who has organized beach cleanups for over 200 weekends in a row. He is not only ridding the beaches of waste. He is also creating armies of activists. Then there is Greta Thurnberg who is inspiring a new generation of environmental activists through her commitment to confronting power to do more to address climate change. They inspire me and others to do more than be surfers of sustainability.

And then there are the artist's in this exhibit. They show so many things about ourselves. Alejandro Durán's pieces on plastic pollution make us consider how ordinary items become extraordinary in nature. And Daniel Beltrá confronts us with stunning images of pollution and how it has both local and regional importance. It makes us look at the wound we are creating. It leaves one making the choice of whether to continue to be a planetary sociopath or to change our ways to live a life that is gentler on the planet.

And Barbara Roux's work puts human agency front and center in contemplating our impact on the planet. Our beautiful Long Island is not natural. It is changed. And we are part of the change as our changing world changes us. 

It is hard to leave an exhibit like this untransformed. It asks more of us. As Greta Thunberg and other activists meet next week in New York City, we will be here considering what more we can do. I am certain this exhibit will challenge visitors to do more than just surf while the climate changes around us.


September 19, 2019