Oil & Gas… time to divest?

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Starting in 2010 students on U.S. college campuses began to gain traction—and media attention—for protests trying to force their institutions to divest from oil and gas companies and shift into alternative energy. College endowments, along with pensions, can have enormous holdings and winding down holdings across an entire industry would have significant market impact. For example, as of November 2017, just 4 of the top ten U.S. college endowments (Columbia, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania) had reserves of $73.7 billion held offshore, which was revealed in the Paradise Papers. This is just a fraction of their total portfolio.

The students led a global trend and by 2016 a total of 688 institutions had sold off about $5.5 trillion of investments in fossil fuel sector.

The rationale for divestment mirrors the normal negative screening common to investors concerned about investing in companies that profit from “sin” including alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Fossil fuel companies, along with the arms industry, have been added to the screening list for many investors. The point of divestiture is to hit the company “where it hurts”—their balance sheet—and drive down the stock price. The hope is to hold the industry accountable for their outsized role in carbon emissions. A report from CDP indicated that only 100 companies, most of them oil and gas related, have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Unlike boycotting the industry, however, broad divestiture is unlikely to have lasting impact, and selling the stock doesn’t impact the company, which only makes money during the initial stock offering.

Oil and gas companies are among the most profitable businesses in the world, with the largest firms reporting annual revenue in the hundreds of billions. For more than a century most of these companies have relentlessly pursued new oil deposits, including offshore and arctic drilling, fracking and exploiting oil shale/sands, despite the knowledge that using already known oil deposits will have long-term environmental consequences. Titans like ExxonMobile have been aware for more than 40 years that the industry was the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and that it impacted the climate, but continues to intentionally mislead the public to the dangers of fossil fuel use. Despite the uneven growth of alternative energy, fossil fuels continue to make up approximately 90% of the world’s energy sources; this is not going to change any time soon. Big oil is only starting to invest in relatively bite-sized amounts into renewables.

Is divesting the right approach? Arguments have been made against it and here are some other considerations. Let’s start with two of the less controversial aspects of retaining the investments.

  • Unwinding positions held by endowments and pensions involves selling—sometimes at a loss—to other entities that may not hold the same concerns about the environment. One study found that one college would lose up to 12% of the endowment’s value if it sold off their positions.
  • The role of endowments and pensions is to protect the principal and invest for the long-term. Oil and gas stocks and bonds are lucrative, especially as prices are rising. Even some democratic-leaning states have blocked divestment in state pensions due to financial losses.
  • It doesn’t decrease the demand for fossil fuels. Demand is growing as many developing nations aspire to adopt developed world lifestyles.

An better alternative would be to put pressure on the universities and pensions to use their large holdings in the industry to get a seat at the table. Shareholder proposals have been used for decades by concerned investors to steer companies toward more sustainable business practices. Progress has been made incrementally, but only shareholders have any influence; those without can only protest from outside the boardroom.

Another approach is to encourage companies to Keep it in the Ground, winding down oil exploration and put a cap on drilling as we begin the global transition to renewable sources of energy. There are estimates that we can only use one-fifth to one-third of known oil reserves before the planet’s average temperature rises over the 2C threshold, tipping our existence into uncharted territory.

 

Photo Credit: David L. Ryan, The Boston Globe

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Green & Gray Infrastructure vs CSOs

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Many American cities have a problem hidden beneath their paved streets. Approximately 860 communities in the U.S. have combined sewers that carry commercial and residential sewage along with storm runoff. On dry days these aged sewer systems, parts of which may date back to the 1800s, route soiled water to treatment facilities. However, rain or melting snow can easily overtax the sewer systems, which causes the waste to spill into a local body of water. These spillages, called combined sewer overflows (CSOs), flood nearby streams, rivers, or lakes with untreated sewage, oil from roadways, and other toxins, similar to the “poonami” recorded in New York’s notoriously contaminated Gowanus Canal. These pollutants can affect the health of the more than 40 million people who live in these affected communities and have a negative impact on the local ecosystem.

The need to better manage our cities’ wastewater is facing two additional challenges: climate change is increasing the number of CSO events as more powerful storms bring higher rainfall totals, and cities on the Eastern seaboard are also facing rising sea levels that create sunny day flooding like in Miami. The EPA has used the Clean Water Act to fine cities for each CSO, but adding new infrastructure and waste treatment plants can easily cost taxpayers tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

Necessity—and strained budgets—are the mother of invention.

Many cities are employing time-tested and cost-effective solutions to reduce the amount of runoff that enters the system. One of the challenges that cities face is that almost all of the land is covered in impermeable surfaces; buildings, roadways, and sidewalks. This prevents rainwater from being absorbed into the ground organically. New York City has developed a Green Infrastructure plan, which leverages bioswales (aka rain gardens), green roofs, blue roofs (which capture and temporarily hold rainwater), permeable pavers, and rain barrels. Philadelphia has a similar plan, Green City, Clean Waters which was developed in response to the potentially massive infrastructure cost of upgrading their existing sewer system. These inexpensive solutions save money by reducing the volume of water that needs to be processed at sanitation facilities and limiting the need to build additional facilities, but adding green spaces also helps clear air pollution, reduces the ambient temperature, provides areas for wildlife and pollinators, and has shown health benefits, never mind improves the city’s curb appeal.

As beneficial as green infrastructure can be, there is still a need for “gray” infrastructure. The city of South Bend, Indiana, was faced with an $860 million problem. They had 60-70 CSO events a year, dumping approximately 1 billion gallons of wastewater into the St. Joseph River, which flowed into Lake Michigan. Even after spending $87 million on infrastructure improvements, they were still faced with thousands of dollars in EPA fines or spending approximately  $10,000 per resident on additional infrastructure. Instead of crippling the city with enormous debt, they leveraged the internet of things to optimize their upgraded system into a “smart sewer”.

EmNet’s (embedded networks) sensors were installed beneath 150 manhole covers at a comparatively nominal cost. The sensors measure the volume of water passing through that point in the sewer and transmit data every 5 minutes for real time tracking. They can monitor the entire network during rain storms and use the data to open and close values to redirect water from segments that are overtaxed to areas that have additional capacity to store the overflow. While this system can still become overwhelmed, as it did in February of 2018 during a flood, they have estimated that the sensors help prevent more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater from polluting the St. Joseph River every year.

Each city will need to tailor their own approach to wastewater management, but using green infrastructure to reduce runoff in conjunction with well planned gray infrastructure upgrades to existing systems may help reduce budget outlays.

 

Image Credit: EmNet.net

The Atlantic is Running AMOC

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Imagine the water circulation system of a swimming pool. Water is drawn into filters around the pool’s edge, stripped of debris, and then the cleaned water is pumped back into the pool, restarting the cycle. If the filtration system got shut off the water would quickly fill with dead bugs and leaves, grow stagnant, and create an environment ripe for algae and mosquitos. Tens of thousands of swimming pools abandoned during the U.S. housing crises created a public health hazard and helped mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile and Zika spread like wildfire across the southern states.

Now imagine turning off the pool filter for the ocean.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is the “pool filter system” for the Atlantic and an integral part of the world’s ocean system, the Thermohaline circulation. Cold, saline-heavy water sinks in the North Atlantic, which pulls warmer seawater from off the coast of Africa, transferring heat to Western Europe and nutrients to marine life, and captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a side benefit. However, fresh water from the rapidly melting glaciers in Greenland is diluting the saltwater of the North Atlantic, disrupting the cycle. Scientists have long worried about a slowdown in this critical system and a report published in the journal Nature presented data on how the Atlantic current has weakened by as much as 15 percent since the mid-20th century. If the AMOC continues to weaken it will certainly have a global impact.

What are the potential scenarios? The mild climate of western Europe could cool by 5° to 10° C, sea levels could rise faster and higher along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, rainfall volumes from monsoons in India and Asia could decrease, food sources for key species like plankton could evaporate, the severity and occurrence of Atlantic storms might increase, and an ice age could possibly be kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere—though not as swift or dramatic as depicted in the disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow. The significant shift in temperature would impact the climate, agriculture, fishing regions when large fish leave to find new food sources, and create waves of climate refugees, possibly destabilizing countries. We had a preview of this when over a million Syrian refugees flooded into Europe.

While this is a forecast, meaning it is a potential outcome, scientists have looked to the past to determine these future scenarios. According to paleoclimate markers compiled from sedimentary core samples, the last time AMOC was this weak was 1,600 years ago at the end of the “little ice age” when a warming climate melted glacial ice and caused the slowdown in the AMOC, destabilizing the climate. That was when the world’s population was approximately 400 million; now we are closing in on 9 billion. Looking further back scientists have begun drawing correlations between a 50 percent slowdown of the AMOC and ice ages in the Northern Hemisphere. Current conditions mirror these previous occurrences.

What can we do to stop this from happening? Very little. Even if the world stepped up to achieve the goals of The Paris Agreement and attempt to keep the global average temperature from increasing by 2°C, which is extremely unlikely as we have kept up business as usual, glacial ice melt may have already passed a tipping point and will continue to flood into the North Atlantic despite our best 11th hour efforts. While some extreme measures have been introduced to stop glaciers from disappearing, including wrapping them in white blankets, it may be too little too late. In any event, extreme fluctuations in the climate typically occur every 1,500 years, so we are already overdue, but this would be the first ice age triggered by mankind.

We may not be able to stop the glaciers from melting, but increasing global temperatures might pave a way into a different outcome than the earth’s prior rapid climate change events (but will probably make it worse). However, we can’t just sit on the sidelines, deny that it is happening, and not try to do anything. We should take this moment to mitigate the worst case scenario projections by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing our impact on the climate, and protect the environment for future generations. Although our planet earth will continue, she is our only home in the universe that we have found so far, we will need to adapt to a radically different climate for decades, or centuries, to come. Otherwise we will perish alongside so many other species that have faced the same fate. We may be the problem, but we can also be the solution.

 

Image credit: YaleEnriornment360

Natural Capital and the Resource Curse

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Countries that are rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, or minerals often fare worse economically because of those resources. This conundrum, known as the resource curse, occurs when the country becomes heavily dependent on one export. Rather than distribute income to the general population, the single revenue source can inflate the local currency and drive up the prices of other exports (decreasing export sales), increase the odds of economic disparity and high-level corruption, and tie the country’s economy to the market price of the single commodity. Consider oil-rich Venezuela and Ghana with economies in turmoil, or mineral-rich Democratic of Congo, Angora, and Peru, which have significant rates of poverty despite the millions of dollars worth of ore and jewels being extracted from their soil.

Similarly, idyllic locations can be “cursed” by their natural beauty when they become tourist destinations. Two recent victims of their success are Maya Bay in Thailand and Boracay Island in the Philippines. These exotic locales gained international attention for their picturesque and pristine beaches. They draw a growing numbers of tourists, developers and ancillary businesses who extract their income from the common good (the beautiful location) without giving anything in return. The overwhelming number of tourists, as well as unsustainable development, have created environmental catastrophes that have compromised the very reason people wanted to visit. Both locations will be closing for short durations to help stabilize their environments.

Maya Bay became a destination for daytrippers in 1999 after it was used as a location in the movie The Beach. It draws an average of 4,000 visitors a day every day of the year. This has overwhelmed the environment; marine biologists have documented the disappearance of marine life and coral reefs. The beach will be closed to visitors for four months, and once reopened the parks department will place a cap of 2,000 visitors per day and prevent boats from docking in the bay. Boracay Island, home to approximately 40,000 people, was flooded with almost 2 million tourists in 2017. Unchecked development and an overwhelmed waste management system have turned the island into a “cesspool” according to the controversial president, Rodrigo Duarte. The island will be closed to visitors for six months to respond to the ecological mess, but the government has not communicated any plans for waste treatment and recently green lighted a $500 million beachfront casino project.

Both of these closures come with short term costs. The destinations draw tourists from around the world, bringing income to hotels, restaurants, airlines, boat captains, tax revenue, and multiple ancillary businesses. It is estimated the Philippines economy will take a hit of $1.96B pesos ($37M USD) from the loss of the tourist economy during the 6 month closure. Approximately 36,000 people are financially dependent on the tourist economy in Boracay Island alone and will be left without alternative sources of income. Although it is naïve to think either of these closures will have a long term impact on the environment, consider the direction these destinations are headed. Human-made pollution and exploitation will make these islands less desirable as a vacation spots and the long term tourist economy will disappear until the environment is restored… or forever.

These are just two examples of broader environmental problems around the world. Short-term economic gains with long term negative environmental consequences are robbing us of future income. As the saying goes, for long term planning you should live off the interest without touching the principal. Protecting our environment (the principal) from exploitation will not only preserve the things we hold vital to human life, such as clean air, water, and idyllic locations, never mind the native habitats of the creatures we share this planet with, but ensure that future generations will have access to them. Today we are borrowing heavily against the future and have highly leveraged our natural capital.

Image source: Mashable

 

Empowering Smallholder Farmers with Measurements

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Smallholder farmers are providing up to 70 percent of the world’s food using traditional methods that may have been passed down for generations. However, the conditions that today’s farmers have inherited bear little resemblance to those of their parents and grandparents. Climate change is altering the volume and frequency of rain, flooding and droughts are becoming more pronounced and prolonged, and temperatures are rising. Subsistence farmers must adapt to these conditions to protect their livelihood and way of life. 

Farmers are responding to climate change with agroecological innovation, tailoring traditional methods and testing crop varieties to counter the effects of climate change in sustainable ways.  For instance, they are improving the health of depleted soil by mulching in animal and green manure, planting nitrogen-enriching plants and trees to boost crop production, and reforesting areas of land to create biodiverse microenvironments. These methods not only improve growing conditions, but also aid in carbon sequestration, critical to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Agroecological farmers do not use commercially produced inputs, due to resource constraints or by personal choice, which decreases capital requirements while protecting their ecosystem.

Due to several overlapping factors, such as resource and time constraints, smallholder farmers do not commonly document their performance nor basic environmental measurements such as soil health, water usage, biodiversity or amount of crops harvested  per acre (yield). Smallholder farmers may not place a high value on tracking these measurements, but the sustainable and industrial agriculture communities do, in order to demonstrate progress over time. Smallholder and subsistence farmers rely on memory for historic data, such as volume of rain, crop production, or climate conditions. Without collecting this information over time, smallholder farmers are unable to counter claims from industrial agriculture that industrial farms are more productive; smallholder farmers may produce higher yields with less environmental damage but are left out of the solution to feed their countries’ growing population.

Farmer innovations, knowledge and experience often have a limited reach. This information is typically communicated orally farmer-to-farmer, within the family or village. This vital information needs to be preserved and exchanged with other communities and the broader sustainable agriculture community. This knowledge also needs to be saved for the future, as the younger generation is leaving the labor-intensive work of the farm for employment in the city. In exchange, farmers need to be able to tap into resources and knowledge they may lack access to from their remote locations.

Nonprofit organizations like A Growing Culture are aiding communities by capturing farmer knowledge in an exchange of ideas, which is shared within the community as well as more broadly via the internet. For example, they sponsor farmer-led workshops, which may be documented via digital video, to share skills and ideas. Successful initiatives in the communities that A Growing Culture works with focus on knowledge sharing, however there are currently no comparable methods of measuring their environmental benefits over time. Quantifying environmental progress can help farmers in 2 ways.

The first is a means of communicating the success of their work to promote practices and participation in a ‘knowledge economy.” For community leaders who are promoting sustainable and local practices, or striving to meet environmental objectives, quantified progress provides evidence to support their claims. Focusing on supply chain or yield to improve farmers’ lives is good, but the farmers native knowledge is extremely valuable to the sustainable agriculture community.

Second, the ability to demonstrate progressive benefits to the environment through record keeping could open up additional opportunities in the form of investments, subsidies, and grants. This approach is valuable for farmers who are looking to expand to new markets to sell crops, join corporate supply contracts, or diversify their income. Studies on smallholder farmers and record keeping (i.e. crops harvested, the cost of inputs, and income) show that maintaining written records opens up access to credit and other investments including sustainability certifications.

Across the global sustainable agriculture community, major actors including governments, investors, companies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are looking to demonstrate progress towards environmental objectives. Companies are facing increased public scrutiny to deliver more transparent supply chains and support farmers with sustainability certifications. Similarly, companies and investors have growing interests in demonstrating social and environmental progress as well as financial returns. Numerous grants exist to support smallholders, but the NGOs that distribute them need to demonstrate progress to their donors. A growing number of organizations are required to show results-based performance to their investors or sponsors to validate funds are being spent with positive impact; results need to be collected and reported.

The growing interest in sustainable agriculture is partially driven by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are a set of 17 global goals that focus on reducing poverty, improving education, and sustainable development, among others. Each goal has individual targets, 169 in total, that are relevant to smallholder farmers, including protecting biodiversity, access to clean water, and food security; all of these targets are challenged by climate change.

The emphasis of sustainable development is on reducing poverty without compromising environmental ecosystems. Smallholder farmers who can demonstrate the environmental benefits of their sustainable farming practices may have an increased opportunity to participate in this solution. However, to participate, farmers will need to measure their benefits and track them over the course of years in a systematic way; without this data, they may not be able to access resources offered to those aiding in this global effort.

Image credit: One Acre Fund

Dear Climate Science Skeptic

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Over the last few decades there has been a growing division between us. We have each chosen our position and vigorously stuck to our set of facts, confused about how the other side can be so easily duped by misinformation. The internet gives us access to global news and volumes of research, yet we normally seek out stories that agree with what we already believe to be true, seldom crossing the aisle to see what the other side is saying. There is no dialogue or compromise, only an unwavering conviction that our side is right.

I had a chance to cross the aisle and hear what climate change skeptics and deniers are saying. Someone in my social network posted a story that detailed the plight of a climate research vessel, which was stalled by Arctic ice despite scientists forecasting the Northeast passage would be clear of ice thanks to increased summer ice melt. The brief story mentioned 2 other similarly stalled scientific expeditions, appearing to build a case against climate change “alarmists”. Reactions to the story highlighted where we stand as a country on climate science. Comments were evenly divided between those who used the piece as proof that climate change is a hoax and the others who fired back with scientific facts and data. Shouting at each other until the loudest one wins is not a solution to this problem. We must come to an agreement on what is impacting the planet we all call home so that we can work together and fix the problem.

Some of you are skeptical of climate science and believe that humans could not possibly change the earth’s atmosphere; that it is a hoax created by environmentalists, liberals, the government, or the United Nations. Others believe that changes in the sun’s distance, brightness, and/or temperature are responsible. Or that volcanoes are causing warming, or skewing the measurements, and that the earth is actually cooling.  Some of you in colder climates don’t see the harm in a warmer planet. Or counter that meteorologists can’t predict the weekend weather, how can they predict what will happen in 100 years? Or that today’s seasonal weather proves that climate is not changing. You might argue that the climate has always gone through cycles and we just need to ride it out. Or if it is changing that there is nothing we can do about it. Or if we tried to change it would destroy the economy.

Skepticism is not new to science. I would argue that skepticism is the foundation of science. It encourages critical thinking and engages us to look for explanations. Science is not a final answer, but a work in progress, with new discoveries forcing us to revise the way we view the world. Driving exploration is the scientific method, which is an ongoing process that requires ceaseless questioning, new data, and the requirement for a theory to be proven by multiple sources before being accepted. Science is not perfect, but the struggle to understand how things work has advanced our civilization, allowing us to share this conversation on whatever electronic device you are reading this on.

There is a big difference between skepticism and refusal to accept facts. There is a history of rejection of scientific findings: Galileo Galile and Nicolaus Copernicus met with violent objections to their theories about the universe, flat earthers and those who chose not to believe in plate tectonics are gaining traction, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and vaccination remain controversial… I could go on, but lets tackle some of your objections to climate science.

I will ask you to keep Occam’s razor in mind: among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected, meaning that the least complicated theory is often the correct one.

To believe that climate change is a hoax would mean that for more than 50 years scientists around the world have conspired together, with the support of government institutions and non-profit organizations, to mislead the public. How would they benefit from perpetrating this gigantic fraud against the world? To what end would all of these agencies conspire together? And if this were the case, where is the evidence of this collusion?

There are some who believe China manufactured climate change to gain a competitive advantage over the U.S., which would mean that all of the other countries in the world who signed on to the Paris Accord are participating in the hoax. It would also mean that China, which only recently emerged as a global manufacturer, traveled back in time to the 1950s to seed concerns about climate change.

Thermometers don’t have a political or financial agenda. The ocean is warming, and there are several indicators that confirm this. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the largest coral reef in the world, has existed in some form for over 200,000 years; the current living reef is estimated to be 6,000 to 8,000 years old. Since 1979 coral reefs have been dying off around the world, with a global coral bleaching event in 2016. Scientists have linked the events to increased water temperature and acidification, caused by increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Portions of the Great Barrier Reef have already lost 83% of their coral and this ancient living organism may not survive.

Another sign of rising ocean temperatures is polar ice melt. The polar regions are heating up faster than any other place on the planet. The icecaps, which are being attacked from warmer air and warmer water, are flooding the oceans with freshwater ice. This is impacting water cycle patterns, changing the weather, and increasing ocean levels. What reason would scientists lie about warming oceans when we can see the ice melting? What  alternative cause might explain these linked events?

The average temperature of the earth has continued to rise since the Industrial Revolution. The planet’s average temperature has increased 1.4º Fahrenheit (0.8º Celsius) since 1880, with two-thirds of that rise occurring since 1975. Every year is hotter than the next, with 2016 the hottest year in recorded history. Temperatures from around the world are aggregated to reach this average, with some areas, including the polar regions, experiencing significantly larger increases. If man-made climate change is a hoax,  how might you explain measurable increases in temperature?

Dear climate skeptic, I am not trying to change your world view, but merely posing some questions to ask you to challenge your own. Ask yourself if you would rather spend your energy denying that we are impacting our planet or to do something. Maybe you have children. Maybe you have grandchildren. Maybe you would like for them to enjoy the world in which we live today. You can make that possible. The choice is yours.

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Header Image Credit: NASA

The Battle for LGBTQ Equality: A Playbook for Climate Science Progress

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June 28, 1969, was a milestone in LGBTQ history. The police had frequently raided the unlicensed bar, Stonewall Inn, but on this night the patrons resisted. The police were in the process of arresting cross-dressing men and a lesbian on trumped up charges when people poured into the streets in  protest. Years of unwarranted harassment had built up a tangible distrust of the police; the powder keg found its spark. At this time in New York gay and lesbian bars had to pay bribes to avoid being raided. Drag queens led the crowd in throwing loose change at the arresting officers as a form of payoff. The tossed pennies were replaced with empty cans, bottles, and bricks. The riot escalated and spilled into the pre-dawn streets of the West Village, lasting almost a week. The riot became a revolution that has continued to this day.

Why was that night different? This was not the first time that a LGBTQ bar had been raided, nor was it the first time that people fought back. What changed during that rebellion in 1969 was the realization that no one had to live with discrimination and that they could fight back as a community.

The crowd found its collective voice and raised it against pervasive social injustice. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn led the “lavender scare“, claiming gay men and lesbians were a risk to national security. Beauty queens and evangelicals campaigned through the 1970s to Save Our Children by spreading unfounded fears about child recruitment and abduction by homosexuals. Conservative politicians joined the religious right and used Biblical morality to wage a war on crimes against nature, trumpeting gay conversion therapy as a cure. Suicide attempts among gay teens have historically been 4 times greater than straight youth. Anyone who embraced their true identity could lose their job, home, and bring shame to their family.

Had the Stonewall Riots stayed focused on local police harassment it would have burned out in the narrow streets of the West Village. Instead various groups organized into a coalition to affect positive change. To commemorate the event they held the first gay pride parade. They gained traction by orchestrating boycotts and protests, using their purchasing dollars as leverage against businesses that discriminated against them. The fight moved from the streets to the court rooms, government offices, businesses and classrooms to build awareness. The AIDS epidemic devastated communities forced people to organize and fight for their lives against government negligence, public ignorance, and pharmaceutical foot-dragging. Being LGBTQ in the 1980s was a radical act.

American’s growing tolerance and acceptance was advanced through the media that connected people. Breakthrough comedies, movies, publically out celebrities, and the internet were used to raise awareness. Critical questions and scientific findings about gender and sexual fluidity refuted moral-based objections. As public opinion changed, so did politics. President Obama allowed long-standing discriminatory rules to expire like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Supreme Court advanced marriage equality after decades of fighting for equal rights. Our understanding of LGBTQ issues has continued to evolve through education and exposure. Knowing LGBTQ people, even in the media, helps people see our similarities rather than our differences. This builds empathy.

In less than 50 years individuals who once had to live in the shadows have emerged into the most ethnically and religiously diverse community, with members in every country around the world. The struggle is not over, not everyone has equal footing or acceptance, it is still illegal to be LGBTQ in some countries, and bias crimes are on the rise. However, the incremental change in public opinion and legal precedents have built consensus that cannot be easily reversed.

Those of us concerned with fighting climate science deniers can take inspiration from this historic sea change. Many of the same obstacles faced by the LGBTQ community need to be overcome to make progress on global issues. The same conservatives who fought against equal rights and marriage equality are fighting climate science. They prefer the status quo and introduce misinformation to retain their view of the world.

Climate science should not be a partisan issue, but some people believe their opinion can refute basic facts. Greenhouse gas emissions, produced by humans, are warming the planet. This is disrupting the water cycle, increasing global temperatures, and melting glacial ice. Coastal areas are more prone to “sunny day” flooding, extreme temperatures and drought are becoming entrenched, forest fires are becoming more frequent. We don’t have time to waste debating whether this is real, or if it caused only by humans. We need that energy to work on mitigation and adaptation strategies.

We have the power to achieve this. Our tools are to keep fighting, educating, and building consensus. March for Science. Invite people into conversation, not battle. Bring everyone to the table. We must understand what climate change is and what we can do today to adapt to it. We can only achieve this together.

The truth always prevails.

Happy Pride.

 

Image Credit: The Advocate

A Smallholder Farmer’s Response to Climate Change

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Allow me to introduce you to Solango Kakembo, a farmer from Kikandwa, a rural village about 80 kilometers west of the capital of Uganda. This enchanting gentleman built his small house overlooking the rolling African landscape at the edge of the fields that he and his family tend. His home sits near the center of the farming community, adjacent to the primary school built and operated by the Kikandwa Environmental Association (KEA). Kakembo volunteers his knowledge and experience on behalf of KEA, provides harvested seeds along with advice, and raises seedlings for the Half + Half Reforestation project at the core of KEA’s mission.

Kakembo is a vital resource to his community, but like most smallholder farmers he has not been able to share his expertise, especially as it relates to climate change, with a broader audience. He faces language and technology barriers. KEA has attracted international attention from nonprofits interested in preserving and sharing sustainable farming innovations, including A Growing Culture and The Pollination Project, but his valuable experience has not been fully documented. We traveled to Uganda to study the environmental benefits of sustainable farming and Kakembo shared the highlights of his knowledge. I want to tell you his story.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of employment in Uganda. Smallholder farmers provide most of the country’s food at a low cost; feeding the population reduces the risk for revolt. For many years Kakembo tried to compete with other commercial farmers, growing one or two crops at a time using chemical inputs to increase his yield, including fertilizers and pesticides. Over time he saw his yield decline, requiring additional and more expensive chemicals that were destroying organic nutrients in his soil in the same way that chemotherapy cannot target cancer cells over healthy cells. Kakembo developed respiratory problems which he attributed to the use of chemicals. To continue doing what he loved, being a farmer, he had to find a more sustainable approach.

As a child Kakembo had learned from his grandmother the art of seed preservation, land and water management, natural ways to deter pests, and which plants should be grown together. He decided to return to his grandparent’s village to start over and use her traditional methods. Kakembo continues to tailor her approach to respond to the impacts of climate change, notably the disruption in the water cycle. He focuses on preserving local varieties, especially those that perform well during drought, and uses mulching and animal manure to preserve ground moisture while cultivating the soil with organic material.

The village of his grandparents, Kikandwa, had also had a bad experience with commercial farming. Most of the region had been deforested using slash and burn to grow a single type of banana that was distilled into liquor. Farmers had not been growing crops for subsistence and the bananas were susceptible to banana wilt, compromising fields of trees. Food scarcity and theft between neighbors had been common.

Kakembo joined KEA, which was engaging local farmers to diversify their crops and use sustainable farming methods to improve the economy and quality of life for the community. They began with a reforestation project to create micro-environments that attracted biodiversity, reduced soil erosion from wind and water runoff, retained moisture in the soil, and provided shade from the equatorial sun. These areas were successfully established more than a decade ago along the borders between plots and on land that farmers had intentionally set aside. The benefits of reforestation were most evident during droughts, when farmers with forests performed better than those without. Interest in reforestation has grown as droughts have become more common and prolonged.

2017-06-09 - KakemboKakembo shared his concern that commercially available seeds provided inconsistent germination; an expensive gamble. Instead he uses his grandmother’s technique for seed preservation. The first step is to set aside some of the best crops from each harvest to continuously improve the quality of each subsequent harvest. The seeds must be consistent in size and shape. For instance he will take only kernels from the center of an ear of corn, using the smaller kernels for animal feed or corn flour. It takes 120 ears of corn to provide enough seed for 1 acre. The seeds are sun-dried or smoked, and can be preserved up to 6 months. He preserves heritage seeds, protecting the local varieties and improving biodiversity.

He experiments with different soils and growing conditions to test varieties, particularly for drought-resistance. He and his neighbors are dependent on rain for irrigation. Drawing water manually from the distant well is a labor intensive practice saved only for the worst droughts. The farms of Kikandwa are on slopes of varying grades, and the rainy season has been shorter and increasingly inconsistent over the past 5-10 years. Water must be preserved in the soil between rain events, which is done through a combination of mulching, terracing to slow runoff, and irrigation canals to capture water. The reforestation project has also slowed runoff, provided a means of water sequestration, and the trees “breathe” water back into the air through transpiration.

Smallholder farmers average around 2-5 acres of land to farm. Intercropping is possible since most of the work is done by hand. Kakembo highlighted the importance of raising varieties of the same crop, such as different types of beans, potatoes, yams and bananas, in the same season. The crops mature a different rates, have varying resources needs, variety protects against pestilence, and allows the farmer to have successful crops if one fails. Additionally, some crops partner well, for instance maize (corn) and beans; corn depletes the soil of nitrogen while beans replenish it.

Kakembo’s knowledge of traditional farming methods combined with agricultural innovation, known as agroecology, can help solve several sustainable issues facing the world. How to produce low-cost food without sacrificing the environment; large scale farms with significant chemical inputs are not sustainable and are polluting the soil and waterways. Smallholder farmers like those in Kikandwa are stepping up to the challenge, and adapting to climate change, every day. To continue doing the arduous work of farming and remain successful in providing up to 70% of the world’s produce, they need to be helped with sharing knowledge and resources.  Farmers will benefit by having a steady source of nourishment and entrepreneurial employment with purpose, and the community benefits with affordable and healthier produce.

Image: Kakembo’s seed bank, photo by Sean Meriwether

 

We Are the Paris Agreement

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On June 1st, 2017, the United States officially withdrew from the historic Paris Agreement signed during President Obama’s administration in 2015. The agreement between all but two of the world’s nations (missing Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war and Nicaragua, which felt the agreement did not go far enough) was the culmination of more than 40 years of growing scientific consensus that human activity is increasing the earth’s average temperature. The agreement has two aspirational goals for the world: limit the increase of the earth’s average temperature by 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels and aid developing countries in responding to the consequences of climate change. The Paris Agreement works because every country agreed to collectively acknowledge and respond to a global problem in whatever capacity they could.

To achieve the first goal, each country determined their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is the leading cause of climate change. This included the reduction levels and time frames, but did not require any plan of how this might be achieved. The reduction pledges, known as National Determined Contributions (NDCs), are 100% voluntary. As with most environmental treaties there are no punitive consequences if the proposed targets are not met, however there are negative consequences to the environment and the health of all of the earth’s inhabitants.

Many scientists worried that Obama’s pledge to a 26-28% reduction in GHG emissions was not aggressive enough, but his Clean Power Plan would have helped continue a downward trend. His strategy was immediately derailed by coal-producing states and may never be implemented, making it more challenging for the United States to live up to its original NDC pledge. There has been progress with energy efficiency, stricter regulations on car exhaust and mileage requirements, and notably the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas, which have nominally reduced emissions. Yet all of these efforts are under attack by the recently elected president who embraces the fossil fuel industry and steadfastly holds the belief that environmental regulations kill jobs.

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Source: World Resources Institute

The second goal is for the developed countries to voluntarily contribute to a $100 billion per year international fund, the proceeds of which would be used by developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, a disruption in the water cycle, rising temperatures and heat-related deaths, increase in communicable diseases, decrease in agricultural output, and increase in more extreme weather events, among others. The money for this fund represents a negligible fraction of the developed countries’ Gross Domestic Product, and would be significantly less expensive or disruptive than responding to a global climate refugee crisis. The Syrian refugee crisis nearly unraveled European unity; this massive migration, one of the largest in history, is only a preview of what is to come.

The decision of the current President of the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is problematic on many levels and his statement contained misleading data and bold-faced lies. The country has historically been the largest contributor to GHG emissions, the pledges for both reduction targets and monetary contribution are voluntary, and participating in this good will international agreement neither kills jobs nor puts the United States at a disadvantage. What value is there in renegotiating a nonbinding agreement? Whatever your opinion of his policies, his decision serves only to underscore the isolationist and protectionist stance of his increasingly controversial and scandal-prone administration.

The world’s response was immediate. World leaders reacted strongly, committing to the global challenge with or without the President of the United States. Now that the United States has abandoned the rest of the world, China, under President Xi Jinping, is taking the lead and the competitive business advantage, particularly in emerging industries and renewable energy that are creating jobs. In the US states and cities are going it alone. New York, California and Washington, along with hundreds of mayors and business leaders, not to mention the majority of the population, will proceed with GHG reductions plans already underway proving that no single person can stand in the way of common sense.

We can debate this shortsighted decision with confused outrage or we can take action. The first thing Americans can do is sweep climate change deniers out of office in special and the midterm elections. We should contact our government representatives from the local up to the federal level and let our voices be heard. We can take to the streets and march, for human rights, science, and equality. We can take a bolder step and run for public office. We can also use the power of our personal choices and our purchasing dollars and achieve our environmental goals.

Our decisions in what we eat, how we live, how we travel and what we buy are made daily. Minor changes in our habits can have dramatic impact on protecting the environment. Simple choices such as eating less red meat, eating locally produced food, reducing our energy usage, using mass transit when possible, and improving energy efficiency in our homes and offices can help save this planet. If you consider our actions like compound interest, with each person contributing a little every day, crowdowdsourcing a solution gives us the power to change the world.  Do your part today to save tomorrow.

 

Image credit: Earth Times

Takeaways from the US SIF Conference

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US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment is part of a global network advancing sustainable, responsible, and impact investing across all asset classes through a combination of collaboration, education and public policy work. The US-based organization held their annual conference in Chicago in May, 2017. This year’s theme was “A New Climate for Investing in Impact”, which offered a platform to raise concerns and responses to the radical shift on the political landscape.

The three day event covered the basics of sustainable investing, tried to tease out the varying definitions linked to the industry, and detailed many of the nuances of this incredibly broad list of investment strategies. As will be discussed below, the industry is built on a forest of overlapping terms, which can be opaque even to the initiated. For the purposes of clarity this post will defer to social responsible investing (SRI) as a comprehensive term that covers sustainable, responsible and impact investing across all asset classes, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics as an investment criteria used to screen corporations.

The name of the 45th US President appeared like a specter throughout the conference, namely his administration’s buckshot approach to derailing more than 40 years of environmental and scientific advances, but many attendees maintained a pragmatic optimism. His administration may disempower the environmental regulations entered into force under Nixon in 1972, continue removing scientific data from government-owned websites, and re-crown the fossil fuel industry as the kings of energy, but the general feeling in the room of over 400 SRI/ESG advisors and specialists was that “the train has left the station” with regard to environmental issues, renewable energy, and cleantech. Consumers are better informed and vote with their dollars. If fact, having a common enemy in the current administration has unified this loose collection of investors, advisors, scientists and concerned individuals into a stronger opposition; passionate people who are armed with the truth and facts.

The conference focused on the market forces already at work, in which SRI/ESG investment strategies have gained momentum beyond a niche investment space. Climate change is no longer a theory, it is happening in real time with extreme weather events,  melting polar ice and disappearing islands. Consumers, particularly Millennials, are investing their money with companies that align with their environmental concerns. Several speakers shared data about how the coal industry is tapering off due to the availability of cheap natural gas more than environmental concerns, and it was only a matter of time before the fossil fuel industry followed (albeit more slowly). Representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists are on the front lines protecting data sets, and Kathy Mulvey’s report was shared on how the oil and gas industry is recently promoting  an environmental message but continuing business as usual. We are collectively pushing forward despite the current administration’s haphazard push in the opposite direction.

However, one alarm raised during the conference was the Business Roundtable’s proposal to modify Rule 14a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act, which governs shareholder proposals. Currently owners of at least $2,000 worth of a company stock, which has been held for more than 1 year, can submit a proposal to be voted on by shareholders. This proposal must win an escalating percentage of votes over years before it will be officially considered. To modernize the process the Roundtable has proposed that only shareholders with 1% of company stock held over 3 years should be allowed to make proposals; this translates into billions of dollars in shares for large-cap companies. This rule would also disallow asset managers who hold stock on behalf of their clients from the process, not that they actively make proposals to date. This minor change would effectively eliminate everyone from the process. This is a concern because shareholder proposals have been used over decades as a way to gather support for social and environmental initiatives, such as equal pay across genders, LGTBQ rights, and better resource management. Without this tool, the majority of stockholders will be voiceless in the boardroom.

Additional opportunities were raised throughout the conference to help take this investment strategy to the next level.

  1. Despite a growing body of evidence that companies with strong ESG metrics are more innovative and more resilient than their lower-scoring ESG peers, there is still a misperception that investing in social good requires a tradeoff in yield. To quote US SIF Director of Research, Meg Voorhes, “Values translates in value.”
  2. Advisors who are on the front lines with clients are often unfamiliar or unaware of the advantages for SRI/ESG investment strategies, even when their clients are asking for them. Lily Trager from Morgan Stanley outlined plans to educate their 16,000 advisors.
  3. SRI/ESG investing has a significant marking problem; members within this community have difficulty parsing the terminology. To paraphrase the CEO of US SIF, Lisa Woll, the community took the most complex language of the financial sector and appended it with terminology that only makes sense to themselves. They cannot engage investors until investment advisors can speak in clear terms.
  4. In the coming decades, there will be a wealth transfer from Baby Boomers to Millennials estimated to be $30 trillion. This generation is more interested in putting their money to work while earning a profit, or “yield plus”. This enormous opportunity is driving the conversation around SRI/ESG investing.

Lastly, the keynote speaker, Bryan Stevenson, raised social justice issues not covered elsewhere during the conference. He has been a public advocate for those who have been victimized by the American criminal justice system, reminding us that the system “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” His impassioned speech was the highlight of the event, and his real-life experience was documented in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.