Assessing the Utility of Food Certifications in Advancing Environmental Justice

Written by Shashank Anand, Hezekiah Grayer II, Anna Jacobson, and Harrison Watson

Sustainability is the notion that we should consume with caution, as the Earth is a delicately balanced ecosystem with limited natural resources. Social justice generally aims to eliminate disparities and inequities between discrete demographics. These include inequalities between persons of different socioeconomic status, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Environmental justice (EJ) intersects both of these movements: EJ is the notion that specific ecological burdens of society should be shared equitably across communities. Historical trends suggest that as we expand, consume, pollute, and produce, the benefits and costs of industrialization are inequitably distributed. This inequality comes at the cost of poor health for those living in highly polluted areas. Inequitable distribution of pollutants has recently brought EJ to the center of political discourse due to its correlation with increased Covid-19 mortality and racially skewed disease outcomes

Unfair treatment of workers at farms and manufacturing plants is a prime example of an injustice that ethical spending can aim to rectify. The misuse of pesticides, low worker wages, poor living conditions for farmers, and child labor are all sources of social and environmental injustices in food production. Socially conscious purchasing could be key in fighting these injustices. Academic institutions, which often purchase food en masse to serve thousands of individuals, have a sizable impact on humanity’s social and environmental footprint. Institutions like Princeton thus have a practical interest in reducing their footprint and a deontological obligation to mitigate their negative societal impact. 

Potential local food purchasing power of fourteen Michigan colleges and universities (Source: Michigan Good Food Work Group Report Series)

In general, it is difficult to assess the relative social and EJ impact of discrete products due to the inherently unquantifiable nature of justice. Certifications like Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance attempt to assuage buyers’ concerns by identifying and establishing environmentally just organizations. Certifications like USDA Organic and the Non-GMO Project endorse products and operations from an environmental sustainability standpoint. 

CASE STUDIES

Rainforest Alliance (RA) is an international NGO that provides certifications in sustainable agriculture, forestry, and tourism. RA seeks to “protect forests… and forest communities.” For farmers, the certification process involves site audits that check for compliance with the Rainforest Alliance Standards for Sustainable Agriculture. Standards include child labor protections and worker protection against the use of harmful pesticides listed in the Sustainable Agriculture Network Prohibited Pesticide List. RA Standards address economic and gender disparities on farms through the use of an “assess-and-address” approach. Farms are responsible for setting the goals that will mitigate the effects of “child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and workplace harassment and violence”. RA Standards also enforce implementation of a “salary matrix tool” for the collection of comprehensive wage data and identification of wage gaps. 

Support from RA has historically proven impactful, most notably on certified cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer. A 2011 survey conducted by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment analyzed the impact of RA on the economic, environmental, and social dynamics of these cocoa farms. RA certification was shown to increase school attendance (noted as the percentage of children who have completed the appropriate number of grades for their age) by 392%, thereby reducing child labor; increase crop yields by 172%; and improve farm income by 356% compared to uncertified farms (see figures 4, 6, and 10 at this link). Despite these documented successes, there has been a history of exploitation of previous Standards on certified farms. In 2019, for example, pineapple farms in Costa Rica were cited employing undocumented workers and illegal agrochemicals despite RA restrictions. 

Fair Trade USA (FTU) is a certification that focuses on social and EJ much like RA does. FTU cites ideals in democratic and fair working conditions for its workers. FTU employs an Impact Management System (IMS) towards these ends; the IMS is used to assess the social and economic impact of growers’ practices. FTU is distinct from its well-known parent company, Fairtrade International: the two split in 2012 over a dispute about certified growers’ company size. 

FTU implements a price premium, ensuring that if the market value of a product falls, FTU products have a floor price on store shelves, thus ensuring workers earn some minimum wage. FTU also requires a small additional fee, the “Fair Trade Premium”, on top of the purchase price of the product. The premium is used to improve local infrastructure for the producers. How it is used is decided democratically by workers at the farm. In a poor economy, Fair Trade products are likely to be pricier than their uncertified counterparts. In a thriving economy with high demand, this difference will be negligible (see figure 1 at this link). A 2009 case study of coffee production in Nicaragua found that many Fair Trade coffee producers still had trouble finding places to sell their coffee. In times of high coffee prices, producers found that they reaped little financial benefit from the Fair Trade label. 

The Non-GMO Project (NGP) certifies distributors and farms whose procedures align with “standards consumers expect.” Certification is obtained after evaluation of the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in produced foods. GMO crops are often bred to be more resistant to drought or pests. This may lead them to outcompete local crops and flora. Combined with the potential unknown behavior of these nonnative crop variants and risk of gene flow, e.g. through cross-pollination, many communities want to keep excessive GMO cultivation out of their neighborhoods. NGP upholds the long-standing Non-GMO Standard, which outlines requirements for companies looking to sport the butterfly label. These standards necessitate greater coordination between cleaning and transference of products between storage facilities (termed “elevators”) as well as increased investments in process monitoring to account for the potential introduction of GMOs along the production process. NGP partners with third-party certification bodies (also known as technical administrators) that audit businesses and farms for compliance with all Non-GMO Standards. Application fees, as well as Non-GMO product premiums, contribute to the conservation of environmental health through the protection of genetic diversity in organic agriculture. 

USDA Organic was created by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which mandated the USDA to develop federal-level regulations in the US for organic food. It was actualized in 2002, after 10 years of public debate, as a compulsory certification requiring producers and handlers with annual organic sales greater than $5,000 to discontinue the use of prohibited substances. To ensure the insulation of formed policies from special interest groups, OFPA also instituted the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that includes 15 volunteers representing the consumer, organic farmer/handler, retailer, scientist, and environmental conservationist. A two-thirds majority of NOSB is required to add a material in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (NLAPS). Third-party certifying agents issue the product as organic after confirming that the producer or handler has discontinued the use of prohibited substances for three years. 

USDA Organic and a growing market for organic produce have resulted in high product premiums. Unfortunately, a booming market does not guarantee good wages, living standards, or fair treatment for farm labor. There are cases recorded where working conditions have worsened due to the heavy work and time demands of organic farming. Some new programs build on USDA Organic’s structure with additional focus on standards for animal welfare and worker fairness. Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is an example of such a program. It is too early to determine whether these certification programs will be successful or will earn the trust of the market.

DISCUSSION 

Consumer activism flourishes with effective metrics on desired qualities (e.g., EJ) to inform conscientious purchasing. Certification efficacy for social and EJ depends on two main questions: on a policy level, how relevant are the certifications’ guidelines to the social and EJ movement? In practice, how successfully are rules enforced; are audits thorough, unbiased, and based on clear criteria? These questions help us establish whether certifications actually impact procedure at the farm-level. Certifications lacking in the first quality risk being irrelevant to social and EJ, while certifications lacking in the second risk being inconsequential. 

The missions of certifications like RFA and FTU to enable sustainable livelihoods for farmworkers and promote environmental stewardship are in line with core tenets of social and EJ. However, the auditing processes of these certifications have demonstrated weaknesses, as noted by recent RFA-certified pineapple farms in Costa Rica. Furthermore, the guidelines for these certifications may be poorly communicated with farm workers as shown by a study from Vakila and Nygren on Nicaraguan Fair Trade-certified coffee farms. 

USDA Organic and NGP are more closely aligned with environmental sustainability than social or EJ, yet they have more streamlined auditing processes because sustainability can be more directly quantified (e.g., unit volume of water usage). USDA Organic, for example, strictly regulates pesticides and herbicides, thus protecting farm workers’ health. Prohibited chemicals in NLAPS include methyl bromide, sulfuryl fluoride, and phosphine (aluminum phosphide or magnesium phosphide), exposure to which can affect fetal development and can lead to irreversible damage. NGP, on the other hand, does not regulate chemical substances; on the contrary, the products it promotes forgo the health benefits associated with reduced pesticide use in farming GM crops. In general, many larger social justice themes (minimum wage, underage labor, unfair working conditions) are not addressed by these sustainability certifications. 

The cost of buy-in is one major obstacle for smaller distributors. For example, the harvest process for GMOs and Non-GMOs must be separated to prevent contamination, leading to more labor for farmworkers. Investigations check for use of USDA Organic’s prohibited substances for three years leading up to product harvest; a waiting period that may prove prohibitive to some smaller farms. These smaller farms may not be able to afford the fees of the certification process, or the costs of regulations/liability insurance as required by schools’ procurement offices. Interviews with local players in food distribution, however, alleviated these concerns: Ms. Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services confirmed that many small farms have difficulties affording the certification label, but asserted that a network of farmers, larger distributors, and university support systems help small businesses obtain necessary certifications and build a sustainable customer base. She cited a pilot conference hosted by the Princeton University Department of Finance and Treasury and Princeton University Central Procurement. This conference focused on woman-, veteran-, and minority-owned businesses; through the conference, Princeton offered to subsidize the first year of various certifications at no cost to the vendor. For obtaining expensive liability insurance, as well, outside help proves paramount: Ms. Recine says that many small farms may be able to get their goods onto campus by partnering with larger distributors. Jim Kinsel of Honeybrook Organic Farm stated that open communication with customers about the certification waiting period usually assuages their concerns about uncertified crops. 

Image of tomatoes being grown on a farm (Source: Canva Images)

Cost of buy-in shows that many certifiable farms may lack a formal label. Additionally, if farms pursuing certification already employ environmentally just practices before they apply for the label, we may see biases which interfere with our ability to assess certification efficacy objectively. A recent meta-study confirmed that many reports investigating the efficacy of certifications did not control for possible selection bias. 

With certifications alone, we are left with an incomplete picture of ethical consumption. If EJ certifications rely on vague self-improvement, sustainability certifications are not as justice-relevant, and all certifications are audited by third parties whose reliability is hard to ascertain, is a certification stamp on a unit of packaging truly enough to assert that a product was ethically produced? The ethical consumer is caught between a rock and a hard place; incomplete information makes it impossible to gauge EJ using certification labels alone. We will need additional information from producers to rely more comfortably on the value of consumer certifications. 

The solution to these concerns may lie in local purchasing. Sarah Bavuso and Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services emphasized the importance of forming relationships with producers, citing the value of allowing farmers to see the campus and of university officials taking trips to farms and production sites. This relationship allows Princeton to be more hands-on with its food and to interfere when questions of ethics arise. Indeed, a 2007 study suggests that forming relationships with local farms decreases the distance that products travel, allows for cooperative relationships with individual farmers, and introduces flexibility in verification processes. 

Decreasing food-miles through local purchasing may be a critical component of both sustainability and EJ: as food travels and the supply chain lengthens, more middlemen get involved, and there are more opportunities for injustices and unsustainable practices. Each border that food passes through serves as another regulatory vulnerability for the introduction of harmful pesticides and food contamination. At each stop on the road, food loses freshness and emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) by burning fossil fuel through transit. Additionally, laws and regulations are more easily ascertained locally: consumers are more likely to know the minimum wage and regulations on working conditions for farms near their own homes. 

Local farms may also be smaller and more sustainable than larger national chains. Mr. Kinsel claims that larger farms are more likely to cut corners in the name of profit. While Ms. Recine confirms that larger producers may be less inclined to act ethically, she states that these farms have “come a long way” towards humane and ethical behavior, largely thanks to students and universities vocally lobbying for causes that were important to them. Purchasing certified food that is also locally grown may address many of the concerns introduced by the information gap mentioned above. 

Image of vegetables displayed at an outdoor stand (Source: Canva Images)

CONCLUSION 

Rather than relying entirely on certifications like USDA Organic, a supply chain can be created where the university shares the risk of crop production under unpredictable hydroclimatic conditions with the local farming community. One realization of a more local supply chain is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where schools select membership for a season and receive fixed volumes of freshly harvested produce from local farms. Students receive fresh and nutritional food from farms that abide by local regulations. Farmers get money from subscriptions upfront, allowing them to expand and invest early. Schools build working relationships with constituent farms and their management, creating a point-person on the farm grounds who can verify safe conditions for farmers. Many local farms in the Princeton area (like the Snapping Turtle Farm and the Cherry Grove Organic Farm) already have some of the same certifications as larger factory farms. 

A CSA supply chain would fit neatly into many residential colleges for small portions of salads or boiled eggs and meats. Non-perishable products like crackers and cereals could still be purchased from larger certified producers. In this supply chain, certifications are relied upon for goods that are difficult to buy from local producers. The local economy around the university is enhanced by the CSA program employed for fruits, vegetables, and meats. There are, of course, logistic questions to be resolved: a supply chain where crop proportions are not predetermined is quite different from the institutional status quo. The feasibility of such a supply chain will likely need to be vetted through a pilot program or a case study of other institutions implementing a similar program. CSAs have been implemented on some scale at schools like the University of KentuckyRutgers University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. We suggest schools start small: by implementing a CSA supply chain in an on-campus cafe or residential college. The program can be scaled up over time, after feasibility studies and conversations with local farmers. 

The feasibility of establishing a local supply chain will depend on how universities currently source their food. Ms. Bavuso indicated that many schools fall into one of two classes: self-operated schools, whose food procurement departments are university-run and in-house, and non-self-operated schools, whose food procurement is outsourced via contracts. Many schools employ some combination of these operations, with state schools being particularly strictly regulated via contracts (Aramark, University of Delaware; Sodexo, The College of New Jersey). Self-operated schools like Princeton will likely have more flexibility in vetting and choosing vendors. Non-self-operated schools aiming for social change will likely have to do so by lobbying distributors through the schools’ purchasing power or threatening to withdraw their business if practices are not improved. Not all schools will have the means to investigate each food product on their shelves: it will likely be useful to leverage an inter-school consortium of food procurement research, see the National Association of College & University Food Services, allowing inter-institutional procurement departments to swap findings and relevant research. 

The authors of this article do not wish to claim that certifications are entirely ineffective in gauging the social and EJ of food procurement. But certifications are not a panacea for ethical supply chains. Universities relying solely on these certifications for assessing food safety and social and EJ are not doing due diligence when it comes to ethical spending. It may take additional effort to switch to a CSA-style supply chain like the one suggested above; but if institutions are serious about the values that they promote in their dining services brochures, this added effort will be well worth the improvement seen in the quality and justice of the campus food. 

Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber wrote in June of 2020: “As a University, we must examine all aspects of this institution — from our scholarly work to our daily operations—with a critical eye and a bias toward action. This will be an ongoing process, one that depends on concrete and reasoned steps[.]” The authors of this article believe that a CSA pilot program would be one such concrete step towards action, a step that would be directly in line with the larger themes of environmental and social justice that have become more pronounced in the societal collective consciousness during recent years. At the very least, it is the duty of university procurement departments to state the steps they intend to take to address inequity. Princeton’s recent Supplier Diversity Plan is one example of such an effort in that it aims to support more diverse-owned businesses. As entities with large economic impacts, universities do have the power to effect real societal change. 


Shashank Anand: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, working with Prof. Amilcare Porporato. My research focuses on understanding the role of ecohydrological and geomorphological processes in the evolving landscape topography by analyzing process-based models and learning from the available observations.

Hezekiah Grayer II: I am a 2nd year PhD candidate in the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, where I am fortunate to advised by Prof. Peter Constantin. My academic goals intersect fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and partial differential equations.

Anna Jacobson: I am a 3rd year PhD candidate in the department of Quantitative and Computational Biology. I am affiliated with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. For my thesis work, I study energy systems and environmental policy.

Harrison Watson: I am a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology working with Professors Lars Hedin, Rob Pringle, and Corina Tarnita. My work currently focuses on clarifying the forces that influence land carbon cycles using eastern and southern African savannas as a study system.

Offsetting your greenhouse gas emissions can impact more than just your carbon footprint

By Tim Treuer

This Giving Tuesday, I decided to offset my 2020 carbon footprint. And help protect endangered biodiversity. And help eliminate poverty. And improve air, water, and soil quality. And support gender equality. And empower historically marginalized communities. And maybe even decrease the risk of killer diseases like COVID-19 and malaria.

But I only made one donation. And its price tag was the equivalent of about a dollar a day.

How? I’m donating to an organization that will use the funds to restore tropical rainforests. I may be biased as a restoration ecologist, but in my mind there are few ways to offset your emissions that carry as many co-benefits to nature and society as regrowing rainforests. More on that below, but first I want to address the elephant in the room when it comes to carbon offsetting: most don’t offset anything.

Seedling nursery

Per a 2016 European Commission report, 85% of carbon offsets fail to offset carbon. A big problem is scam organizations that simply do less than they promise. But even well-intentioned, reputable groups can fall short. The two main problems are failures to account for ‘additionality’ and ‘leakage’. Additionality means that the carbon that is pulled out of the atmosphere wouldn’t have been pulled out anyway. Some organizations offer to do things like establish tree plantations in areas that would otherwise be recovering forest–forest that would, in many cases, store more carbon than the tree plantation!

Leakage becomes an issue when a group’s actions to draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere lead to increased emissions elsewhere. This is a pernicious problem with many efforts, even ones that have huge positive local benefits. Protecting stands of old-growth forest or using farms to produce biofuels can be really great in theory, but if you don’t address the demand side of the equation, economics dictates that you’ll end up with compensatory logging or farming elsewhere. (Side note: one pet peeve of mine is that biofuel studies sometimes come up with rosy predictions because they simply assume we will produce less food and eat fewer calories in the future.)

If you pick carefully enough, however, tropical forest restoration projects often evade these two pitfalls. Many (if not most) involve jumpstarting the recovery of land that would not heal on its own because of challenges like invasive vegetation that chokes out seedlings, absent seed sources because of widespread forest clearing, or heavily degraded soils from overgrazing or nutrient depletion. So you can go ahead and tick that box for additionality. And so long as the restoration activities take place in protected settings like national parks or community forest, you shouldn’t see compensatory carbon emissions elsewhere. Ergo, no more leakage.

But carbon offsetting is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tropical forest restoration. Pound for pound there are more species in tropical forests than any other ecosystem on Earth. In places like Madagascar or lowland Borneo, many of those species are in serious danger of disappearing forever because of past habitat loss. We are talking millions of species hanging on by a thread. Most don’t even have scientific names yet. Their only lifeline is the resurrection of lost habitat. The biodiversity benefits of forest restoration alone can and do justify restoration projects across the tropics.

Caterpillar at reforestation site

Forest restoration through planting seedlings and controlling weeds is a super labor-intensive activity. 22-23 year old me can definitely attest to that fact after spending two seasons co-managing a reforestation project in Gunung Palung National Park on the Indonesian side of Borneo. But the required blood, sweat, and tears is a feature, not a bug. Labor means employment opportunities, and in impoverished tropical communities, that means poverty alleviation. One of the top requests from the villages where I worked was for more opportunities to be paid to reforest. And it’s equitable work too. It was common at our site to see planting teams led by women from an indigenous ethnic group– women who would be less likely to get jobs with the commercial oil palm plantations, the main local employers.

Reforestation site

There’s another reason those communities love reforestation work. They know healthy forests mean less smoke and haze from invasive grass fires, less flooding, and more consistent and cleaner water in the streams running out of the forest. The water perks span the wet and dry seasons. Forests decrease rainy season flooding via increased and root-mediated groundwater infiltration into the water table, which then feeds streams during drier periods.

At this point I’m starting to feel like Billy Mays: “But wait! There’s more!” I think it’s safe to say that most people would relish the opportunity to kick an anthropomorphized version of this global pandemic right in the nu… uhh, somewhere really painful. Tropical forest restoration is actually the next best thing. One of the big insights of the scientists in the emerging discipline of eco-epidemiology is that unhealthy ecosystems tend to yield greater risk of wildlife diseases crossing into human populations. There’s a whole slew of mechanisms for this–from stressed animals like bats shedding more virus to many malaria-spreading mosquitoes preferring open habitat to closed canopy forest– but the punchline is that when scientists looked at how to prevent the next pandemic, halving deforestation made the list of cost-effective preventative measures. My current research looks at how reforestation could protect against malaria in Madagascar, and past work I’ve been a part of showed that deforestation upstream of impoverished rural communities leads to more cases of diarrhea in kids and infants.

There are many organizations that need your support for their tropical forest restoration work, and many online tools for calculating your annual carbon footprint. I’m choosing to donate to the organization I worked with in Borneo. Not only do I know from firsthand experience that they are doing truly additional and leakage-free offsetting, but they also are super transparent about how they calculate and track their offsets.

There are tons of great organizations out there, though. You could even pick one in a country you plan on visiting once the pandemic is over– maybe they’d even show you the forest you helped replant. Just make sure you are asking three questions: will the trees you help plant cause forest clearing elsewhere? Would the replanted forest recover on its own anyway? And finally, how are they calculating their emissions reductions?

If you’re happy with your answers, congratulations! You’ve found a way to give that really does keep on giving.

Tim completed his PhD at Princeton in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (*18), where he studied large-scale tropical forest restoration. He was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and currently a Gund Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont, where he studies whether and how reforestation can be used as a tool for combatting malaria in Madagascar. You can find him on Twitter (@treuer) and at www.timothytreuer.com.  

Sustainability: That Ain’t Country?

Written by Ashford King

In the US, the fight against climate change often looks more like a fight to achieve the public recognition that climate change is real. Flat out denial of science by the dominant strain of conservative politics and the reticence to take bold action on the part of moderates, combined with the self-interested, well-funded and short-sighted survivalist instinct of the fossil fuel industry, continues to hamper sustainable development in our country. We stagnate at home even as we attempt to export models for sustainable development to other parts of the world. 

In our national culture, broadly speaking, we still uphold the rugged cowboy individual as the model for how to exist in the world. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia pointed out the degree to which Americans’ individualism hindered our collective response to the coronavirus. Lately, science and individualism haven’t seemed able to get along.

A good cultural marker for this is country music. In the US, recent years have given us country songs like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” by Jimmy Rose (championing a phrase that has been used widely in the coal industry’s propaganda campaign) and “Coal Town” by Taylor Ray Holbrook (the music video for which was produced in partnership with the United Mine Workers of America). It is worth noting that these artists are rather marginal country artists, both little known and both hailing from Appalachia, but have taken on specific significance in the debate around the political and cultural value of coal. More widely popular country music artists, at least those that produce popular music that is marketed as “country,” eschew the specifically political in favor of a few main themes: booze, romance, and general patriotism (guns, religion, troops, sports, farming, hunting, the paterfamilias, etc.). The wildly popular band Florida Georgia Line, in their summer 2020 hit “I Love my Country”, exalts the use of styrofoam plates while rattling off a list of American stuff: “Barbecue, steak fries / styrofoam plate date night.” It seems that, regarding sustainability, American country music either takes a hard pro-fossil fuels stance, or nonchalantly implies approval of the status quo. As far as the market is concerned, apathy towards climate change reigns. This is not entirely surprising, given the political climate.

What is surprising is how the analogous genre in Mexico, música regional, compares. Many of the themes heard in contemporary American country music are still present, both the good (importance of family, romantic love), the bad (binge drinking, misogyny) and the more complicated (guns, dogmatic religion). Mexican country music is even starting to incorporate Latin hip-hop and pop into their music, similar to how bands like Florida Georgia Line imitate rap lyricism in their own vocals. This all makes sense; to paint with broad strokes, it’s safe to say that Mexican society and cowboy culture developed in a manner parallel to the development of their American counterparts, and pop musical trends, such as the increasing relevance of hip-hop forms across the boundaries of genre, are increasingly global phenomena. However, Mexican country music, despite its conservatism, finds it within itself to engage with climate change. 

At approximately the same time Florida Georgia Line was working on “I Love my Country”, Edén Muñoz, the lead singer of the Mexican group Calibre50 (“50-Caliber”) was working with fellow artists Alfredo Olivas, la Arrolladora Banda el Limón (“the Irresistible Lemon Band”), Pancho Barraza and C-Kan on a song called “Corazón Verde” (“Green Heart”). The song amounts to an impassioned plea for the listener to become conscious of climate change, understand how it is detrimental to human society, and actually do something about it. Pancho Barraza sings: “Estamos cavando nuestra propia tumba / y no es por asustarlos, viene lo peor” (We are digging our own grave / and not to scare you, but the worst is yet to come”).  He goes on: “Falta de conciencia y no es coincidencia / que todos los días haga más calor” (“[There is] lack of awareness, and it’s no coincidence / that every day it gets a little bit hotter”). Tough solutions are not proposed, just tough rhetoric about what is happening right now. The music video shows the artists planting trees (which is more symbolically important than it is effective as a long-term strategy). Still, it’s a fine start, at least rhetorically. 

Perhaps most importantly, the artists express concern for future generations: “¿Para qué esperarnos? Limpiemos el mundo / y cuidemos la casa. O ya se preguntaron / a tus hijos y a los míos / ¿qué les vamos a dejar?” (“What are we waiting for? Let’s clean up the world and take care of our home. Or have you already asked yourselves what’s going to be left for your children and mine?”). In the words of the singers, recognizing and fighting climate change is an urgent civic duty. The fact that this urgency is absent from cultural representations of American patriotism is baffling. 

I mention this song not to hold up Mexico as an exemplar of environmental or cultural sustainability, or as an example of a society that always leverages science to increase the public good. Certainly, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico has hardly stood out as successful in its response. What’s more, these artists don’t exactly have a blank check to claim the moral high ground on whatever topic they choose. The same artists that here sing about making cultural and political shifts to fight climate change also sing in a glorifying way about guns, corruption and cheating on their wives and partners. I make this comparison between American and Mexican country music to illustrate that, outside of the US, even politically conservative cultures and ideologies elsewhere pass the very low bar of urgently believing in science. It is a bar that the US needs to pass soon. Coal may “keep the lights on” for now, but it will eventually burn down the house.

Ashford King is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. He is also a musician and poet. He is originally from Kentucky.

It’s Past Time for Princeton to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Written by Ryan Warsing of Divest Princeton

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that the planet is on fire, and we need to do something to put it out fast.  We see evidence all around us:  California is again in the throes of a record wildfire seasonglaciers the size of Manhattan are sliding into the sea, and in some of the most densely populated parts of the world, massive cities are being swallowed by the tide.  There is little dispute that these disasters stem from our burning of fossil fuels, and that by most any measure, we are failing to prevent the worst.

(Sources: Nik Gaffney / Flickr; Pixabay; Don Becker, USGS / Flickr; CraneStation / Flickr – Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, in balmy Princeton, New Jersey, the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have signed splashy agreements with BP and Exxon (respectively) to fund research into renewable fuels, carbon capture and storage, and other climate innovations.  Since 2000, these companies have pumped over $30 million into CMI and the Andlinger Center, with the latter recently extending its Exxon contract for another five years.  

To put it politely, we of Divest Princeton say these partnerships do more harm than good.  True, they may create new and valuable knowledge, but that isn’t really why they exist.  In one leaked exchange from 1998, Exxon representatives strategized about the need to “identify and establish cooperative relationships with all major scientists whose research in the field supports our position,” and to “monitor and serve as an early warning system for scientific development with the potential to impact on the climate science debate, pro and con.”

Taking this statement literally — and why shouldn’t we? — BP and Exxon’s support for Princeton is more than simple altruism.  It’s more than good PR.  Rather, it’s part of a years-long effort not to aid, but to manage climate research toward ends not in conflict with their extractive business model.  Tellingly, these do-gooder oil companies plan to increase production 35% by 2030.  This would be cataclysmic.

Their schemes are made possible by funding and power gifted by Princeton.  We cannot tolerate, let alone enable these activities any longer.  Not when they pose such obvious conflicts with our university’s core values and threaten our fellow students and faculty working around the world.  Princeton must stand up for itself.  How better than by divesting from fossil fuels?

The divestment movement has grown rapidly in recent years, with institutions like Georgetown UniversityBrown, Cornell, and Oxford recently joining its ranks.  Collective actions have taken a toll — Goldman Sachs says that divestment is partly to blame for widespread credit de-ratings in the coal industry, and Shell is on-record saying divestment will present “a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”  Essentially, divestment works.

We argue that the moral imperative of divestment should be compelling enough on its own; if Princeton moved to divest and the markets didn’t budge an inch, at least then our conscience would be clean.  At least then we could call ourselves “sustainable” with a straight face and live honestly by our motto: “in the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.”  

Detractors maintain that any “demands” on Princeton’s endowment would constrain its ability to earn huge returns, depriving students of the financial support they need to prosper.  This is absurd.  Billion-dollar endowments like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have demonstrated that divestment can be a net positive.  Fossil fuel stocks have also been declining for years.  It looks increasingly clear that an investor gains little “diversifying” in fossil fuel, and that the risks of divestment have been well overblown.  Shareholders — especially shareholders with a fiduciary responsibility like Princeton’s — should be looking for the exit.

In order to remain within 1.5°C of global warming by mid-century — the threshold at which the IPCC and Princeton’s own Sustainability Action Plan say “catastrophic consequences” will be unavoidable — the fossil fuel industry’s ambitious exploration and development will need to be mothballed.  Undrilled oil fields and unmined coal will become stranded assets, or dead weight on their companies’ books.  To have faith in these investments, Princeton must think stranded assets will actually go to use, in which case, Princeton ignores its own scientists and legitimizes the activities central to our climate crisis.

Video showing a progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies from 1951-2019. The average temperatures over 1951-1980 are the baseline shown in white. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue. The final frame represents the 5 year global temperature anomalies from 2015-2019. Scale in degrees Celsius. (Source: Lori Perkins / NASA and NOAA)

Others have argued that regardless of donors’ ulterior motives, divesting would only leave good money and research on the table.  To these people, the “greenwashing” corporations seek from partnering with elite institutions is both inevitable and of little consequence compared to the novel scholarship their funding provides.  The catch here is that quality research and a morally invested endowment are not mutually exclusive.  There isn’t a rule saying our research must be funded by BP or Exxon — if Princeton truly valued this knowledge, it would channel its creative energies toward finding funding elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” could very easily be the university’s own wallet.  Princeton is quick to remind us it holds the biggest per-student endowment in the country.  The endowment today is a bit larger than $26 billion, roughly the size of Iceland’s GDP and larger than GDPs of half the world’s countries.  In the last ten years alone, Princeton’s endowment has more than doubled.  In this light, the money needed to sustain current research is practically a rounding error.  If just a few Trustees put their donations together, they could recoup Exxon’s latest $5 million donation in under five seconds!

We tried to anticipate these doubts in our divestment proposal, which was given to Princeton’s administration last February.  Since then, we have met with Princeton’s Resources Committee and invited experts — former Committee Member Shannon Osaka, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Stephen Heintz, and Stanford researcher Dr. Ben Franta — to help present our case.  Discussions will continue through the end of 2020, culminating in a forum with 350.org’s Bill McKibben in November.

As a reward for our persistence, the Resources Committee has indicated it might decide on our proposal by Christmas.  If it approves, the proposal goes to the Board of Trustees, and the clock starts over.  This, dear readers, is the “fast track.”

It has been demoralizing to watch Princeton, one of the world’s great centers of higher learning and a temple to empirical evidence, run interference for companies that have scorned the truth, knowingly endangered billions, and literally confessed to their ill intent.  From its byzantine system for proposing divestments to its arbitrary requirement saying divestment must take the form of complete dissociation (a prohibitively high bar), Princeton’s strategy is to frustrate and outlast causes like ours.  Most of the time, it succeeds.

But our cause is different from the others.  With climate change, waiting is simply not an option.  The immovable object will meet an unstoppable force, and the unstoppable force will win.

The longer we delay, the longer we allow fossil fuel companies to weaponize Princeton’s gravitas, spreading disinformation and quack science while purporting to be part of “the solution.”  Until Princeton inevitably divests from these bad actors, we will continue to withhold our donations, continue to protest, and continue to organize, fighting fire with fire.


Divest Princeton is a volunteer movement of Princeton students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff.  Sign their “No Donations Until Divestment” petition and learn more here.

Inside a Solar Energy Company

Written by Molly Chaney

Finding an internship as a Ph.D. student is hard. Finding one at a company you have legitimate interest in is even harder. In search of a more refined answer to the dreaded question, “so what do you want to do after you get your Ph.D.?” I started looking for opportunities in what is very broadly and vaguely referred to as “industry.” I stepped into Dillon gym on a muggy August day in the only pair of dress pants I own and looked around. Finance, biotech, management consulting, and oil & gas companies filled the room with tables and recruiters.

After talking to what turned out to be a bunch of dead ends that didn’t excite me much, I decided to check out one last table before leaving. A far cry from the multi-table, multi-recruiter teams with tons of free swag to give away like Exxon and Shell, Momentum Solar had a table with some flyers, business cards, and one recruiter. I didn’t wait in line or crowd around like at the others, and immediately got to talking with Peter Clark. What I remember most was his message that they were simply looking for “intellectual horsepower,” something that the CFO would repeat to a group of students who went to their South Plainfield HQ for an information session later that school year. I came away from my conversation not exactly sure what I would be doing if I worked there, but excited about joining a small, quickly growing company founded in sustainability.

At that info session some months later, I was impressed that the CFO, Sung Lee, took the time out of his schedule to speak directly with the group of prospective interns, and gave us all some background about where Momentum has been, and where it’s going:

Momentum Solar is a residential solar power installation company that was founded in New Jersey in 2009 by Cameron Christensen and Arthur Souritzidis. In 2011, they had just four employees. In 2013, six. They were ranked on the Inc. 5000 most successful companies in 2016 (with 250 employees), Inc. 500 fastest growing companies in 2017 (700 employees), and Inc. 5000 most successful again in 2018 (950 employees). They doubled their revenue from 2017-2018, and doubled again 2018-2019. Currently, Momentum has operations in seven states, from California to Connecticut, and shows no signs of slowing down. The solar industry as a whole also shows promising trends: since 2008, solar installations in the US have grown 35-fold, and since 2014, the cost of solar panels has dropped by nearly 50%.

After hearing this pitch, we toured the office, which, while full of diligent employees in front of huge screens, also boasts two ping pong tables and a darts board. The energy in the space was palpable, and Sung’s enthusiasm was contagious: I was sold.

Fast forward a couple months, and I was about to have my first day there. I *still* didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. On day one, my supervisor presented me with a few different projects I could choose from. While I wasn’t using the specific skills related to my research area here at Princeton, I was using crucial skills I developed along the way during my PhD research: programming and exploratory data analysis. I jumped right in to their fast-paced, quick-turnaround style of work, and had check-ins with Sung nearly every day. He made a concerted effort to include me and all the other interns on calls and in meetings, even if it was just to observe. The main project I worked on was writing a program to optimize appointment scheduling and driving routes, with the goals of improving efficiency from both a time and a fossil fuel standpoint: a great example of a sustainability practice helping a company’s bottom line.

People had told me before starting my Ph.D. that, unless I was planning on taking the academic route, the most valuable things I would learn would not be in my dissertation, but skills developed along the way. This rang true during my first professional experience in industry. Problem solving and independence were probably the two most valuable qualities that a graduate student can bring to an internship. Somewhat unexpectedly, teaching skills proved useful as well: it wasn’t enough to prove a point through a certain statistical test; it was crucial that a room full of people with diverse backgrounds understood what a certain figure or result meant.

Momentum continues to grow, regularly setting and breaking records. To date, Momentum has installed 174 MW of residential solar energy, enough capacity to power the equivalent of more than 33,000 average American homes. I know my experience was unique: I was treated as an equal, was mentored thoughtfully and intentionally, and had regular interaction with corporate-level executives. Working there was rewarding, and Momentum’s success is a glimmer of hope during an ever-worsening climate crisis. 

Graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in internship opportunities with Momentum Solar should contact Peter Clark, Director of Talent Acquisition, at pclark@momentumsolar.com.

Sources: energy.gov

Molly Chaney is a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering. Advised by Jim Smith, her research focuses on the use of polarimetric radar to study tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events. Originally from Chicago, she is a die-hard Cubs (and deep dish pizza) fan. In her spare time she enjoys cuddling her dog, playing videogames, and indulging in good food and wine with her friends and family. If you have more questions about her experience at Momentum Solar you can contact her at mchaney@princeton.edu.

Sowing the Seeds of Environmental Justice in Trenton

Written by Laurel Mei-Singh

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

Magnificent, a hairdresser who lives and works in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, is one of ten adults gathered together in a community space. Meanwhile, an equal number of children paint pots outside, fill them with soil, and plant seeds to grow. On the topic of the lead-contaminated water flowing from the taps of many city homes, Magnificent asks, “What can we do, as a community, to address this issue?” This is Earth Day at the Orchid House: Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability and Justice, planned by the organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair and the SAGE Circle. We are discussing environmental justice issues in Trenton, a place just fourteen miles from Princeton but worlds apart in terms of access to resources such as clean water.

Environmental justice means that all people have a right to a safe and healthy environment with clean drinking water, fresh food, and life-supporting homes. Its inverse, environmental racism, means that environmental hazards disproportionally shape the landscapes and lives of people of color. A 1987 report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, and a 2007 report, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, confirm that race stands as the most potent indicator of proximity to commercial hazardous waste facilities. Why? Because a long history of racist policies has shaped places in the United States along racial lines, concentrating people of color in areas often near toxic sites while cleaving places into segregated spaces partitioned by highways, train tracks, and walls. The development of industrial facilities in areas populated by people of color shaped US cities in the twentieth century as white people moved to suburbs—a state-subsidized project that ballooned after World War II. Further, the Federal Housing Authority’s A-D ranking system from 1934-1968 used the racial composition of neighborhoods as criteria for insuring private loans, making it nearly impossible for Black people to obtain a mortgage.

Residential “security map” of Trenton, NJ with A-D “area descriptions” from the 1937 records of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

Responding to these conditions, community leaders in Warren County, North Carolina merged the environmental and civil rights movements in the late 1970s to address toxic dumping in their predominantly Black community. This became the environmental justice movement, which sought to incorporate environmental problems confronting communities of color into growing mainstream environmental consciousness. Urban centers, such as Trenton, are what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, describes as “sinks of hazardous materials and destructive practices.” This is largely due to the organized abandonment of “marginal people on marginal lands.”

. . .

Most who live in Trenton know not to drink water straight from the tap. It became obvious after I moved into my Mill Hill home in 2016 that the water tasted oddly metallic and slightly rotten, and we began to buy 5-gallon jugs from the grocery store, the kind that pull your back when you lift them up if you’re relatively small like me. Soon after, news outlets began to report that Trenton’s water supply is contaminated with lead; lead poisoning is dangerous for young children, causing developmental delays and learning challenges, and affects adults too. Even more disturbingly, test results from a 2016 study showed that twenty of the Trenton Public School District’s twenty-six buildings have at least one sink or water fountain emitting water with lead concentrations that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. At Daylight/Twilight, a high school in downtown Trenton across the street from where we held our Earth Day event, a sink had levels as high as 1,600 parts per billion. Despite this study and media acknowledgement that Trenton Water Works has become a “failure” as a public utility, public officials have failed to communicate with Trentonians about the risks of drinking its water and how to remediate it. A July 31, 2018 letter sent to Trenton residents from Trenton Water Works indicates that contamination stems from lead service line pipes, banned for use since 1960. An added insert acknowledges that, “We violated a drinking water requirement” due to the fact that they failed to replace 7% of the lead service lines within one year of action level exceedance.

This neglect stems from the fact that Trenton is a “forgotten place,” typically regarded by its middle-class neighbors through the skewed lens of racist and dehumanizing tropes, particularly violence and poverty. But how did we get here?

Depiction of Trenton, NJ drawn circa 1882. (Source: Industries of New Jersey by Richard Edwards)

Multiple historical events have shaped Trenton’s environment. For centuries, the Lenape people lived in organized communities along the shores of the Delaware River until the 18th and 19th centuries, when genocidal projects displaced and killed many, while some remain in the region today. In 1679, Quakers led by Mahlon Stacy established a town called Falls of the Delaware and built a gristmill. William Trent purchased this land in 1714 and expanded the mill to become the major source of commerce—made possible by slave labor. In the 1800s, industrialists began to manufacture pottery, iron, and steel. The 1920s brought automation, mergers and consolidations, and attacks on organized labor. In the 1960s, businesses began to close shop in search of cheaper labor, and people with nominal wealth and resources capitalized on the expanding highway system, one cutting through the heart of the city, and moved to suburbs. The aforementioned race-based housing policies enhanced racial segregation, and white flight in Trenton’s environs continues today. While economic development often inoculates the wealthy from the ravages of capitalism, the disenfranchised—whose poverty contours along racial lines—must fight for their very lives. The famous Trenton riots of April 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King expressed the anger and frustration of the Black community confronting concentrated poverty and unemployment.

Mayor Carmen Armenti talking to Trenton residents after the riots of April 1968. (Source: Times of Trenton file photo)

A few decades later, the NJ Department of Transportation’s construction of the Route 29 extension that began in 1998 destroyed one of the city’s remaining environmental treasures: “a corridor of sycamore trees along the [Delaware] river’s embankment.” This cut off “the community’s once free and easy access to the water’s edge.” This area was once called “South Trenton’s Jersey Shore,” where kids swung from rope swings and frolicked in the water while adults fished upriver. Today, Trenton is full of contradictions. Trentonians rarely cross the highway to reach the Delaware River shore, despite their proximity to the water. The 2008 financial collapse largely thwarted aspirations for redevelopment and wrought a foreclosure crisis exacerbated by skyrocketing taxes. At the same time, Trenton is a vibrant and close-knit place, where “everyone knows your business [and] your neighbors watch your back.” It hosts city treasures like the Trenton Coffee House and Vinyl, Championship Bar, and Classics Books. Its current revitalization can be attributed in part to recent migrants from Central America.

Video of a performance by the band Buy Nothing, featuring Abdul Wiswall, owner of Trenton Coffee House and Roaster, performing a song about Trenton’s lead contaminated drinking water. (Source: Tess Jacobson).

I recount this history to show that, when tackling environmental racism in Trenton, a narrow focus on the intentional decisions of racist individual policymakers cannot possibly address the myriad environmental injustices that the people of Trenton face. Rather, the issue of lead poisoning and the failure of those with political power to address this problem cannot be separated from long and overlapping histories of racism, capitalist restructuring, and careless development plans literally built into the environment. Addressing this issue requires first and foremost an awareness of the many processes that have historically produced the organized abandonment of the city.

This brings us back to Magnificent’s inquiry: What can we do, as a community, to address this issue, or rather, all of these issues? Some of my neighbors believe that only two options exist for Trenton: the current state of disinvestment OR gentrification, the latter of the green variety that entails the planting of trees and the revitalization of waterways for tourists and professionals moving into the city. Yet neither of these options will serve people already living there, those who can barely pay the bills for the lead-contaminated water.

New Jersey-based public health psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove argues that when considering these rooted, metabolic connections of people to places a third way is possible. She calls this “Urban Alchemy.” It calls for holistic redevelopment grounded in community-based planning and collective place-making, a process that requires the coming together of people to fight for the whole. It calls for “unpuzzling fractured spaces” so that people can move freely and reconnect with people and places, for example, heeding calls to remove the Route 29 freeway. While bottom-up strategies such as urban alchemy are needed, strategies such as “social urbanism” involve government investment in infrastructure and services for the poor, including clean water and improved transit. These are the keys to an urban ecology that promotes environmental health and general well-being.

The organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair has initiated this process by opening up space to collectively envision what environmental justice means. We support not only lead-free water, but also community-based agriculture and arts, mom and pop stores, the retrofitting of abandoned buildings to benefit neighborhoods, sanctuary spaces for migrants, an anti-exploitative economy, and restorative justice and rehabilitation not incarceration. Grassroots, collective learning and visioning can serve as a foundation to make Trenton a healthier place, with clean water and other life-sustaining resources. It can spur informed action grounded in the daily lives and experiences of people living in the city, and in solidarity with people in places like Flint, Michigan.

This work does not aim for a balance between development and sustainability, or, in the case of Trenton, between gentrification and sustainability. This is a false choice. Planning and development must work to recuperate our connections to resources so that we can make thriving places for all, for many generations. The environment isn’t a distant place for recreation. It’s here, in our homes and neighborhoods, wholly embedded in our social and political life. Our environment makes the difference between a healthy life enriched by vibrant community and one cut short by toxic exposure. Consider not only the water we drink but also the food we eat and the systems that bring them onto our plates, the places we mingle with neighbors, the air we breathe and the industries that pollute it, the jobs we work and how our labor interacts with land to produce profit, our modes of transportation, and our systems of waste disposal, to offer a few examples.

Our efforts can take cue from environmental justice activists who have engaged in collective action for decades to envision economic and social alternatives that affirm all forms of life. Most importantly, this work recognizes that our communities and our environments are wholly interconnected, shaping our lives, livelihoods, and life chances, and the urgency of making our cities and neighborhoods life-affirming places for all.

This year’s Trenton People’s Bookfair will focus on environmental justice and will be held on October 6, 2018.

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

 

Laurel Mei-Singh recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in American Studies at Princeton University and now serves as an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i. She is currently writing a book that develops a genealogy of military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, Hawai‘i. You can reach her at meisingh@hawaii.edu.

Evaluating the geoengineering treatment

Written by Xin Rong Chua

Might there be a remedy for the worldwide temperature and rainfall changes caused by humanity’s emissions? If so, what would the cure cost? We watch as Mr. Human grapples with these questions with the help of Dr. Planet.

Dr. Planet was about to put an end to a long, hard day of work when the distress call came in.

“Dr. Planet! Dr. Planet! Our planet Earth needs your help!”

Dr. Planet quickly boarded his medical spaceship and sped towards the solar system. As the ship passed through Earth’s atmosphere, his instruments began to gather the planet’s climate records. The temperature indicator began to blink red. Then the indicator for circulation changes in its atmosphere and oceans. Then the sea ice indicator.

The moment Mr. Human boarded his spaceship, Dr. Planet knew why the planet was ill.

Mr. Human was holding a long, black cigar labelled ‘Fossil Fuels’. It was still smoking at the tip. In front of him, the reading on his carbon dioxide indicator soared.

“I advise you to cut down on your emissions,” said Dr. Planet. “Otherwise, your planet will experience sea level rise, ocean acidification, and stronger storms.”

“We know that,” said Mr. Human. He sounded as if he had not slept for days. “We’ve known about it for decades. I was so excited after the Paris meeting, when the world first agreed on concrete pledges to cut down emissions. Then we did our sums and realized that even if every country fulfilled its promised reductions, global mean temperatures were still set to increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius come 2100. And then the United States announced that they would pull out of the agreement, which was…”

Mr. Human’s gaze fell as he trailed off. He then straightened and looked Dr. Planet in the eye. “Dr. Planet, you are a renowned planetary climate surgeon. Do you have a geoengineering treatment that might be able to cure our Earth?”

Mr. Human took out a few geoengineering brochures and laid them on Dr. Planet’s desk. They had been produced by the hospital’s marketing department.

Dr. Planet resolved to have a chat with the marketing department about a more moderate portrayal. He was getting tired of patients either believing that geoengineering was a panacea or cursing him for attempting to play God. In fact, the carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering tools he possessed only allowed for a limited range of outcomes. More importantly, all of the choices involved tradeoffs and risks. However, experience had taught him that it was best to begin by explaining the science.

Schematic depiction of climate engineering methods (Source: Climate Central)

Carbon dioxide removal

Dr. Planet picked up the first brochure. It was about Canadian entrepreneur Russ George, who in 2012  dumped a hundred tons of iron into the ocean to trigger a massive plankton bloom. There were record hauls of salmon right after the fertilization. George also pointed out that the plankton removed carbon dioxide from the air as they grew.

“It’s easy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” began Dr. Planet. “The problem is keeping the carbon dioxide out. If the fish is harvested and used as food, the carbon makes its way back into the air. Also, when the plankton respire, or are eaten by organisms higher up the food chain, most of that carbon is released once again. In addition, the immediate phytoplankton growth triggered by fertilization robs the iron or phosphorous that might have been used by other organisms. If you are looking for a long-term solution, don’t get tricked into looking only at the initial gains.”

“Besides, iron fertilization can’t be the only solution. In the most optimistic scenarios, the bulk of the carbon uptake would be used to form the shells of marine organisms such as diatoms. Since the shells would eventually fall to the bottom of the ocean, there would be a net removal of carbon from the surface. But based on the availability of iron-deficient waters around your planet, I estimate that iron fertilization can sequester at most 10% of human annual emissions.”

“Our clinic also has some options to store carbon underground by pumping it into porous rock,” said Dr. Planet, taking a brochure from a nearby shelf and handing it over. “However, the technology is still experimental and expensive.”

Mr. Human brightened as he saw that this technology could store about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. If humanity continued emitting at 2014 levels, this would lock up about 45 years of carbon dioxide emissions. When he came to the section on costs, his jaw dropped. “Double the cost of our existing power plants?” He took out his bulging wallet and removed a stack of bills. Dr. Planet wondered if Mr. Human considered this so cheap that he was willing to pay upfront.

Mr. Human waved the bills. “Look at all the IOUs! There is no way we can afford that cost. I’ll bet the aerosol plan is cheaper than that.”

Solar radiation management

Mr. Human pointed to a printout explaining how particles called aerosols could be placed high in the atmosphere. Choosing aerosols that reflected solar radiation would help cool the Earth’s surface.

Dr. Planet understood why Mr. Human liked the aerosol plan. It made sense to place the aerosols far above the surface. That way, it would take many months before the aerosols settled below the clouds, where rain could flush the particles from the air. Furthermore, after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, global-mean temperatures in the Northern hemisphere fell by half a degree Celsius. With such a natural analog in mind, it was no wonder that Mr. Human thought he knew what to expect. He even was correct on the costs. Starting from 2040, dedicating 6700 flights a day to sulfate injection would keep global-mean warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This would involve a mass of sulfates roughly similar to that of the Pinatubo eruption and would cost about $US20 billion per year.

Volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 (Source: USGS )

“It would be cheaper,” agreed Dr. Planet. “But tell me, is global mean surface temperature all you care about?”

“Of course not,” said Mr. Human. “Rainfall is important too. Also, I want to make sure we keep the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and reduce…”

“Then I should let you know that using aerosols means making a choice between overcorrecting for temperature or precipitation,” said Dr. Planet. He used the same serious tone a human doctor might use to explain that chemotherapy might remove the tumor, but would also cause you to vomit and lose all your hair.

Mr. Human folded his arms. He looked most unconvinced.

As Dr. Planet cast about for a good explanation, his eyes fell on Mr. Human’s wallet. It was still on the table and still full of the IOUs. He picked up a stack of name cards from his table.

“What if I asked you to place all of the cards into your wallet?”

Mr. Human frowned at the thick wad of paper. “I would have to remove some of my old receipts, or the wallet wouldn’t close.”

“Think of the Earth’s surface as the full wallet,” Dr. Planet said. “If we put in energy from increasing sunlight, your Earth has to throw out some energy. Because we’re trying to keep the temperature unchanged, the surface can’t radiate more longwave radiation by warming. It therefore has to transport heat, which mostly happens through evaporation. In the atmosphere, what comes up must come back down eventually, so increasing evaporation increases rainfall.”

“So, increasing radiation towards the surface increases rainfall,” said Mr. Human. “Don’t sunlight and carbon dioxide both do that?”

“They do,” said Dr. Planet. “But the atmosphere is mostly transparent to solar radiation and mostly opaque to longwave radiation from carbon dioxide. Energy entering via solar radiation thus has a stronger impact on the surface and rainfall. Hence, trying to correct for the change in temperature from carbon dioxide by stratospheric aerosols is expected to lead to an overcorrection in precipitation .”

Mr. Human was silent for a while, before he perked up. “Well, a slight change in the weather we’re used to isn’t that bad, especially if it avoids a worse outcome. Besides, you’ve only talked about the global-mean. With some fine-tuning, I’m sure we could come up with an aerosol distribution that delivers a good balance.”

“We have produced hypothetical simulations that investigate a range of outcomes. As a case in point, tests on a virtual Earth show that we can control the global-mean surface temperature, as well as the temperature differences between the North and South hemispheres and from the equator to pole. This was achieved by injecting sulfate aerosols at four different locations in a computer simulation.”

“However, given the lack of rigorous clinical trials on planets like your Earth, I must warn you that it will remain a highly uncertain procedure,” said Dr. Planet. “For one, we will encounter diminishing marginal returns as we attempt to increase the sulfate load to achieve cooling. The increased amount of sulfate in the atmosphere could form bigger particles that reflect sunlight less efficiently rather than create new ones.”

“The treatment procedure of sustaining the thousands of aerosol-injection flights will require the commitment and coordination of all the peoples of your planet. A disruption due to conflicts could be catastrophic. If the aerosol concentrations are not maintained, the decades’ worth of change from greenhouse gases that they are holding back would manifest in a couple of years. The change would be so sudden that there would be little time for you to adapt.”

Mr. Human paled. Countries might well balk at paying the geoengineering bill. After all, that was money that could go to feeding the poor or to reducing a budget deficit. A rogue country might threaten to disrupt the injections unless sanctions were lifted. Or a country that might benefit from warming could sabotage the flights…

“I think you already know what I’m about to say,” said Dr. Planet as Mr. Human buried his face in his hands. “There’s no magic pill here. There never has been. I can help perform some stopgap surgery by removing carbon dioxide or provide some symptomatic relief through solar radiation management. Ultimately, though, your species has to stop lighting up in the way it has.”

Mr. Human sighed; he had to deliver the sobering news that geoengineering was riskier and more complicated than his colleagues they had expected. As he rose from his chair, he realized that he was still holding his smoking carbon cigarette. The numbers on Dr. Planet’s carbon dioxide detector were still rising. He watched the readout as it went past 400ppm, then 410ppm. With a regretful sigh, he ground the lit end of his cigar into an ashtray and stepped out to continue the long journey ahead.

Acknowledgments: This article was inspired by a group discussion with Dr. Simone Tilmes at the 2017 Princeton Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Workshop on Climate Engineering. Katja Luxem and Ben Zhang read an early draft and helped improve the clarity of the article.

Xin is a PhD candidate in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a collaboration between the Department of Geosciences and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She combines high-resolution models and theory to better understand the changes in tropical rainfall extremes as the atmosphere warms. She is also interested in innovative approaches to science communication.

 

Pulp Non-fiction

Written by Timothy Treuer

A story (but careful, there’s a twist):

In 1998, the Costa Rican Sala Cuarta (their highest judicial body) issued a ruling against a company that had dumped 12,000 tonnes of waste orange peels in one of the country’s flagship protected areas, Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). The ruling came at the urging of some members of the Costa Rican environmental community, and studies had found elevated levels of d-limonene–a suspected carcinogen–in local waterways as a result of the company’s actions, raising tensions with neighboring Nicaragua over the possible pollution of their downstream eponymous lake. The court ruling demanded the immediate removal of the orange peels from where they lay–a site that some had labeled ‘an open air dump.’

A keen observer at the time would have noted one immediate hiccup with the court’s order: those 12,000 tonnes of orange waste? They didn’t exist anymore.

Six months of unfathomable ecstasy on the part of four species of flies had converted the mega pile o’ peels into several inches of black, loamy soil, smothering the invasive African grass that had previously dominated the heavily degraded corner of the national park. Oh, and d-limonene? Turns out it’s more of a cancer-fighter than a cancer-causer (See Asamoto et al. 2002 Mammary carcinomas induced in human c-Ha-ras proto-oncogene transgenic rats are estrogen-independent, but responsive to d-limonene treatment. Japanese Journal of Cancer Research), and can now be purchased on Amazon for $0.16/gram (note I do NOT endorse herbal supplements as a general rule–talk to your doctor if you or your transgenic rat suffer from mammary carcinomas).

See, the orange peel dumping was actually part of a grand plan hatched by rockstar ecologist turned conservationist, Dan Janzen (best known for his hit singles like ‘Herbivores and the Number of Tree Species in Tropical Forests’ and ‘Why Mountain Passes Are Higher in the Tropics’, but I prefer his deep tracks ‘How to be a fig’ and ‘Mice, big mammals, and seeds: it matters who defecates what where’). He and his partner Winnie Hallwachs had noted the following upon observing the development of a huge new orange juice processing facility on ACG’s northern border by a company called Del Oro: (1) most people don’t like peels in their orange juice, (2) megatonnes of orange peels probably weren’t the easiest thing to deal with on the cheap, and (3) of the 170,000+ species of creature in ACG’s forests, at least one probably would nosh some citrus rind. Upon discovering that Del Oro planned to construct a multi-million dollar plant to turn their waste into low-grade cattle feed, Dan and Winnie engineered the following plan:

  1. Dump orange peels on former cattle ranches recently incorporated into ACG.
  2. Fly orgy.
  3. Profit.

Amazingly this plan nearly worked perfectly! Del Oro was all over the idea of getting a little weird with ACG. After a promising test deposition of 100 truckloads of orange peels in 1996, Del Oro and ACG signed a contract wherein the park would provide waste disposal (and interestingly, formalized water provisioning and pest management ecosystem services that Del Oro enjoyed by virtue of being neighbors with a fat block of mountainous rain-, cloud- and dry forest) in exchange for donating a huge amount of still-forested land that they owned on the ACG border. Janzen threw in some ecological consultation and help in getting eco-friendly certifications as a sweetener. A seemingly beautiful win-win deal.

But of course, we can’t have nice things.

You may have already pieced together what happens next: after executing the first year of the contract wherein Del Oro trucked in ~12,000 metric tonnes of peels and pulp into a heavily degraded corner of ACG that was seemingly caught in a state of arrested succession, a rival orange juice company caught wind of the party, and did as one does when they get spurned by a guest list omission: they sued.

And won.

What seemed to get lost in the debates that raged at the time though, was what effect all these orange peels would have on the forest itself. Dan and Winnie had the intuition that killing off the fire-prone grass and adding nutrients to a plot of land that had been continuously trampled by bovid beasties for a couple hundred years would be a positive change for an aspiring forest, but that wasn’t a certainty.

In 1998, 1000 truckloads of orange peels were deposited in a degraded section of Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). (Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs)

After the fallout from the lawsuit and the court ruling, it’s understandable that Dan, Winnie, and ACG’s staff didn’t want to draw too much attention to the site (a couple of ACG officials nearly were thrown in jail for failing to adhere to the court order). They visited a few times early on to photograph the progress, and sent a botanist in the very early years to write down what species of plants were occurring in the fertilized area and the surrounding pasture, but other than that the project was more or less consigned to the quirky annals of ACG history (alongside such fascinating historical tidbits as a starring role in the Iran-Contra Affair–read the book Green Phoenix by Bill Allen for the full fascinating history of the park).

The reason I’m relating this story is that some collaborators and I started revisiting this site a few years ago, and we were so blown away by what we saw that we had to tell the world. The area where the orange peels had been? It had become just about the lushest forest I’d ever seen. Literally, vines on vines on vines. And the surrounding pasture? Still pretty much looked the same as in old photos.

In the summer of 2014, I set up Princeton senior thesis student Jon Choi ‘15 at the site, and let me just say, he scienced the crap out of it. We set up some vegetation transects and developed a soil sampling regime, and then he went full Tasmanian Devil in a labcoat. We’re talking camera traps, audio recorders, pitfall traps, and theoretical modelling of ecological state transitions–the whole nine meters. It truly impresses me that he managed to say so much about what ultimately boils down to a very simple observation: orange peels jump-started forest recovery–where there would otherwise be a stunted savanna, there’s now forest so thick you literally have to hack your way through with a machete.

Images from early 2014 of the unfertilized, control site (left) and the site that had been fertilized with orange peels in the 1990s (right). (Photos courtesy of Timothy Treuer)

After a few years of trying to distill this work into something palatable to reviewers, journal editors, and our team of co-authors, we are proud to finally drop our LP: ‘Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration,’ available exclusively from Restoration Ecology.

In all seriousness, I really do believe there’s an incredibly exciting idea at the core of this project: it wasn’t just a win-win initiative. It was win-win-WIN. Carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere, biodiversity was increased, and soil quality improved. All FOR A PROFIT! Despite this, we couldn’t find a single other example of ag waste being used to speed forest recovery. We hope that changes. The world really shouldn’t contain both nutrient-starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams.

Tim is a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology studying large-scale tropical forest restoration. More broadly, he is interested in the effective communication of and policy solutions to complex environmental challenges in an era of global change. He’s on Twitter (@treuer) and tumblr (treuer.tumblr.com).

Beyond the Olympics: The role of sports in social development

Written by Julio Herrera Estrada

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” -Nelson Mandela

One can’t help but grin and gasp when watching those close Olympic races where the winner came from behind in the last few seconds, or those brief moments when gymnasts are in the air before they land (amongst countless other remarkable instances across sports). The Olympics is one of the few events that brings together people from almost every nation around the world, and though the main objective is to compete against each other, one can often see good camaraderie between athletes and fans of different countries.

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Selfie between Lee Eun-Ju from South Korea (right) and Hong Un Jong from North Korea at the Rio Olympics. Picture Credit: Time.

But sports are much more than entertainment and a career path – they can contribute to the integral development of whoever practices it, and they can help unite communities. This is why sports have been recognized by organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development as powerful tools to build peace and contribute to countries’ social development.

Helping One Grow as an Individual

I did Tae-Kwon-Do when I was a kid and then swimming as a teenager. Thanks to these sports I made friends, travelled to new places, and managed to win a few medals to display in my room. However, it was not until I left home to go to college that I fully appreciated all that I was bringing with me thanks to these two sports.

First, I learned discipline: to listen and follow the directions of my coach, to respect my teammates and opponents, and to behave with integrity both when winning and losing. Martial arts also teaches self-control since having the ability to cause serious harm to someone means that you have to be very mindful of when and how you use them (“Fighting not good. But if must fight… win.” – Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid). I reinforced these skills and values when I started swimming, and I mastered one more: perseverance. As I focused on long-distance swimming, I had to learn to keep going, one stroke at a time, through the pain that you feel after you have been swimming continuously for close to an hour.

Knowing that you are good at something, and even more, that you are getting better at it, helps build your self-esteem. This is arguably easier to do with sports and other physical activities, because the pain and fatigue you are fighting to overcome at each practice, each game, and each competition is very tangible. This self-esteem came very handy as a teenager, when I resisted peer-pressure to smoke, since I would not do anything that would harm my swimming.

I was not an amazing athlete and I was not close to being able to qualify for my college swimming team, but I still carry all these things that I gained from sports, and I recognize that they made me stronger mentally, even more so than physically. My experience is not an exception but a common trend for whoever practices a sport regularly, from amateurs to professionals.

Integrating Communities, Healing Wounds, and Keeping the Youth Safe

The European Union has recognized the power of sports in helping integrate immigrants and asylum seekers, and last June the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport met in Vienna, Austria to discuss policies to aid the integration of refugees through sports. The International Olympic Committee also contributed by creating the first Refugee Olympic Team. The expected outcome of this decision is summarized best by the words of Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who was forced to flee from Syria and now lives in Germany, and who competed last week in the Olympics: “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”

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Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Credit: UNHCR

Popular team sports, including soccer and basketball are being used to help integrate people across communities and countries following conflict – i.e. Sports Diplomacy. For example, the World Bank organized The Great Lakes Peace Cup in 2012 between the countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda to help bring their people together after years of wars in the region. Each team was purposefully made up by an equal mix of civilians and former combatants. Events like these bring former opponents together, allowing them to meet and realize that they are not so different from each other, hopefully making future conflicts less likely.

Sports can improve young children’s motor skills and coordination (which are critical for their development), and teenagers’ hygiene and dietary habits. Practicing sports can also help them stay away from danger and bad influences. In Brazil, the land of soccer, a man created an interesting initiative in the favela (i.e. a Brazilian slum) of Chacrinha in Rio de Janeiro that is known for its crime and poverty. He introduced the youth to badminton by building a training center in the middle of the favela with funding help from NGOs and philanthropists. Even better, he mixes Samba dancing into practice to teach the players rhythm and coordination. Projects like this benefit the kids in the community by keeping them away from drugs and gangs, and by helping them develop self-esteem and values such as respect and integrity. It also gives them a chance to dream of one day becoming a gold medalist who comes from a favela.

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Girls from poor neighborhoods in Mumbai, India playing soccer as part of a program organized by OSCAR Foundation, an NGO. Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle.

Sports can bring many benefits to individuals and their communities that can translate to improvements in public health (Sustainable Development Goal, SDG #3), reduced violence (SDG #16), and increased community cohesion. A company even leveraged the popularity of soccer to create a ball that harnesses the energy from kicking it around to later be used as a lamp, helping improve access to electricity in remote communities (SDG #7). Thus, it is essential to invest seriously on projects that introduce the youth to sports and allow them to practice them throughout their life.

Moreover, it is key that such initiatives include both girls and boys so that everybody benefits from their rewards, helping us bridge gender inequality along the way (SDG #5). Often times girls are not allowed or discouraged from practicing sports, but they can be a critical pathway to help girls develop confidence in themselves, and break gender roles and stereotypes. It is vital that this divide is also bridged in professional sports, so that young girls have more role models to whom they can relate better, and who can inspire them to pursue their own goals and dreams.

The closing ceremonies of this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start the countdown for Tokyo, Japan in 2020. As the athletes return to their countries, many young children will surely be inspired to pursue a sport, though many in the poorest communities of the world will find this challenging. Much needs to be done to increase their access to sports. While the most formidable and entertaining matches and competitions happen in large and fancy stadiums, the most important for countries’ development happen in empty fields and at local swimming pools and gyms.

 

Julio-10 copyJulio Herrera Estrada is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program, and the Editor-in-Chief of Highwire Earth. His research focuses on the mechanisms and human impacts of droughts, and the policies that can help make our resource management sustainable and resilient. Follow him on Twitter @JulioSustDev.

Conservation Crossroads in Ecuador: Tiputini Biodiversity Station and the Yasuní oil fields

Written by Justine Atkins

On an early morning boat, mist still rises off the water and the Amazonian air is thick with the characteristic dampness of tropical rainforests. We’re heading out in search of a nearby clay-lick where many parrot species congregate. In the partial slumber of any graduate student awake before 6 am, we sleepily scan the riverbank and tree line for any signs of life. It’s from this reluctantly awake state that our guide Froylan suddenly jolts us to the present and directs our gaze to a small clearing alongside the river. There, out in the open, a female jaguar sits in the grass near the river’s edge. By what seems like sheer luck, we have seen one of the most elusive Amazonian species, something our second guide José says he himself has only achieved five times in seven years.

This majestic female jaguar watches us closely from the safety of the grassy river bank, perhaps waiting for our boats to move on so she could continue on her route across the Tiputini river. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Of course, luck is only part of the story. The river we’re traveling down is the Tiputini River, which forms one edge of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park — an area of some 3,800 square miles of pristine rainforest, historically left untouched by human development, that is practically overflowing with biodiversity. There are more species of plants, reptiles, insects, mammals and birds here than almost anywhere else in the Amazon and, by extension, the world.

Nestled in the dense array of kapok, ficus, Cecropias and Socratea or “walking palm” trees, is Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Established in 1993 and chosen specifically for its isolated location, the research station at Tiputini is a collaborative venture between Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University. TBS supports ecological research at all levels, hosting everyone from visiting undergraduate students to PhD candidates to senior academics.

Almost everything about TBS and its surroundings reinforces the feeling that this is truly one of the most pristine and isolated centers of biodiversity in the world. As visitors to TBS for our Tropical Ecology field course, the first-year graduate students in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology travelled by multiple planes, boats, buses and trucks over five hours from the nearest city (Coca) just to reach the field station itself. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Yet, as unfortunately seems inevitable whenever anyone talks about these last remaining ‘untouched’ areas, the pristine nature of TBS and Yasuní National Park comes with its own caveat. On our journey to the station, we are, probably naïvely, surprised to have to go through a security checkpoint run by the national oil company Petroamazonas. The mere presence of Petroamazonas indicates that the as yet undisturbed area surrounding TBS is up against a rapidly ticking clock. And with only a cursory glance over the basic facts of this situation, the sound of that ticking clock becomes deafening.

*     *     *

There are hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of barrels of Amazon crude oil lying beneath Yasuní National Park. For any nation, but particularly Ecuador — a relatively poor, developing country — the temptation to drill is immense. (Ecuador’s per capita GDP in 2013 was $6003, compared to the US GDP in the same year of $53,042.) For example, the government stood to make over $7 billion net profit (at 2007 prices) from the extraction and sale of 850 million barrels of oil from these reserves.

Yasuní had the potential to be a model for innovative environmental policy. It possesses unparalleled species’ richness, is located in a nation dependent on the extraction of non-renewable resources, and is home to the indigenous Waorani and two uncontacted groups, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In many ways, the variety of stakeholders and conflicts of interests and aims among them represents one of the most daunting conservation and sustainable development challenges the world faces today. How do we balance the needs of biodiversity maintenance, socioeconomic parity and protection of indigenous people when the goals of each seem to fundamentally misalign with one another?

The attempt to resolve this conflict was compellingly detailed in a National Geographic feature in January 2013. In 2007, President Correa proposed the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative (named after the three oil fields in the area it encompasses: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). The Yasuní-ITT sought $3.6 billion in compensation (to be contributed by international donors, both countries and corporations) in exchange for a complete ban on oil extraction and biodiversity protection for the ‘ITT block’ in the northeast corner of Yasuní.

With this initiative officially instated in 2010, Ecuador became one of the first nations to attempt sustainable development and action against climate change based on a model of truly worldwide cooperation. For this model to be successful, the government relied on other countries to recognize that an international desire to preserve the ecological value of Yasuní also meant an international responsibility to contribute to the opportunity cost of this preservation. There was a ground swell of support for this proposal within Ecuador and initially this was also met with enthusiasm abroad. However, by mid-2012, the Ecuadorian government had received only $200 million in pledges, contributions stalled and the Yasuní-ITT initiative was officially abandoned in August 2013.

Similar sustainability issues were at the forefront of the recent UN Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris, also known as COP 21 (21st session of the Conference of Parties). Much of the prolonged negotiation and disagreement among the attending countries was based on the divergence of priorities among developed and developing nations. The former group was, by-and-large, pushing for uncompromising targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy use from the current highest emissions contributors, chief among which are developing nations like China and Brazil.

But developing nations felt strongly that they should not be excluded from the full benefits of industrialization, which developed nations have profited from in the past. One potential solution to this conflict, and one which led to part of the Paris Agreement, is for developed nations to support developing nations in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable, lower emission energy sources through financial compensation. Sound familiar? This was exactly the logic behind the Yasuní-ITT, so the failure of this initiative represents more than just a threat to Yasuní — it symbolically threatens action against climate change worldwide.

A closer look at the failure of the Yasuní-ITT reveals that there were in fact more complex considerations at play than simply a lack of pledged contributions. In an essay evaluating the decision to abandon the initiative, Ariana Keyman, an associate at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, assessed the particular political, economic and social factors that contributed to the Yasuní-ITT’s demise. Due to his dogged pursuit of a ‘New Latin American Left’, Ecuador’s President Correa was determined to increase spending on pro-poor socioeconomic development while also preserving the status of Ecuador’s environment and biodiversity. Unfortunately, as is often the case, something had to give and it was ultimately the environment that was compromised. This was only exacerbated by the historic dependency of this country on the oil industry and the ‘closed-door’ manner in which the Yasuní-ITT was both adopted and abandoned by the government. In this light, perhaps the case for international collaboration and economic cooperation on tackling the challenges of biodiversity conservation and climate change is not so hopeless, but it is still likely to be a bumpy road ahead.

*     *     *

Tiputini Biodiversity Station itself still seemed largely untouched during our trip in January 2016. Part of this was surely due to our unfamiliarity with the oil extraction process, but it’s clear that the continued tireless efforts of environmental groups are at least holding off the worst of the potential destruction for now. The founding director of TBS, Kelly Swing, wrote in a guest blog post in National Geographic in 2012 that the incursion of oil companies in this area has also in some ways helped scientists learn more about the incredible ecological communities in this region, thanks to increased funding and accessibility.

More than the literal isolation, the overwhelming presence of a brilliant array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that seem to be almost dripping from the trees was a constant reminder of how far from urbanization we were and the sheer uniqueness of the location of TBS. Every morning, we awoke to the reverberating booms of howler monkeys and the screeching calls of caracara and macaws high above us. Walking to and from the dining area, we routinely spotted roosting bats, several species of anole lizards and learned to recognize the squeaking communications and rustling branches around us the local woolly monkey troop on their morning or evening commute. All of these wonderfully unique species (clockwise from top left: white-necked jacobin, motmot, woolly monkey, and tree frog) are threatened in some capacity by the oil industry. Photos credit: Alex Becker.

It appears, however, that the benefits are unlikely to outweigh the costs, particularly when the long-term consequences of the oil industry in Yasuní will be unknown for years to come. Swing was quick to point out that alread there are documented negative impacts — insects are being drawn to huge gas flares and eviscerated in large numbers, eliminating important food resources for frogs, birds and bats, and industrial noise pollution disrupting the communication channels of calling birds and primates, potentially limiting their ability to find mates, locate food, and avoid predators.

In establishing the research station along the Tiputini River, Swing said that their goal was “to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature.” From our experience there, this goal was definitely realized in the most fantastic way possible, but how many other visitors who come after us that will be able to say the same thing we cannot say with any certainty. As global citizens, this is a concern that we should all be dedicated to addressing.

Justine is a first-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton University. She is interested in the interaction between animal movement behavior and environmental heterogeneity, particularly in relation to individual and collective decision-making processes, as well as conservation applications.