An early dispatch from Bonn Germany where I am attending the first week of climate talks of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23).
From my point of view the most important observation so far is that the Paris Agreement is holding fast. Possibly the strongest evidence of this is to be found in the administrative fervor of this week’s activities focused on developing the ‘rule book’ for delivering on the commitments made in Paris. So, the machine of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) continues its work with national delegations including the US. In fact, the agreement is stronger by one more signatory this week. It seems that Syria and Bashar al-Assad, now refreshed from the ebbing away of one existential threat seem empowered to join the international community in addressing another. As regularly noted by many, climate change knows no national boundaries.
Of course while the agreement is robust, the situation could not be more different than during COP21 in Paris, December 2015 and even COP22 in Marrakech, November 2016 - and I’m not just referring to last year’s US presidential election.
Three days before last year’s Earth Day, the Mauna Loa observatory recorded the first instance of 410 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. So, it’s no surprise that 2017 looks like it is going to be one of the three warmest years on record; the extent of Arctic sea ice decreased to a record low (8th lowest on record); and 95% of the coral comprising the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was found to be bleached and about half is now considered ‘dead’. Scientists across the world are becoming more emphatic and certain about the strong likelihood of an increase in catastrophic storms, unprecedented rates of precipitation, forest fires, heat waves and more. It is now widely appreciated that the climate has already changed significantly and will continue to do so by way of all of the already banked human produced carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. One of the differences in a year’s time is the increased rate at which all of these consequences are progressing.
And yes, the political climate has also changed. While 25,000 people spend two weeks here in Bonn, on the other side of the world one pair of leaders spent 36 hours together and, according to reports, there was no mention of climate change – hoax or not. Here in Bonn, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) has begun circulating a petition to have the US delegation barred from participating further, given the well-founded perception that the US is simply interested in dismantling the agreement. And so, there is a new palpable anxiety compounding the usual worry about the end of the world, on the prospects for a successful COP23.
But as I started this note, the important thing today is that the agreement is carrying on. Now what is needed more than ever are solutions and financing. A recent article posits that nature-based solutions may be able to deliver more than a third of the needed reductions in carbon emissions in the coming decades (Griscom 2017). Doing so will involve science, engineering, policy-making especially with regard to land use and conversion and a concerted political will in many places that control natural systems; forests, wetlands, water ways. The people living in these places know this also means protecting livelihoods, indigenous cultures and ways of life, as well as biodiversity.
Joining them, often at the other end of the development spectrum are cities, their leaders and their residents in conceiving of a future of electrified transport, super-efficient buildings, low carbon power grids and supply chains. For example, the US Climate Alliance and the Global Convenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy are two groups that are committed to achieving and exceeding the Paris reduction target with or without a national level commitment.
Both of these, nature and cities, are very prominent here in Bonn, in the official proceedings of the talks themselves and in the extensive activities in side events and exhibits. The message that comes across is that we all have a role to play while the complex dynamics of national and international politics plays itself out and the much needed financing, especially for the developing regions of the world, continues to be mobilized.
About 50 kilometers northwest of Bonn is the Tagebau Hambach lignite mine. Also known as ‘brown coal’, lignite is the lowest quality and highest polluting type of coal there is. The Tagebau Hambach mine is the deepest open pit mine in the world at 299 meters, also the lowest manmade point on earth, and covers an area of 85 square kilometers. Today it continues to operate and deliver coal to power plants in Europe. Germany is no doubt a global climate leader but like many countries it has a long way to go. And this is the last point of this note; Paris was successful in establishing commitments and launching a process for achieving those nationally determined goals. However, its success is ultimately tied to an increasing level of reductions, because success is nothing less than the avoidance of catastrophe. This next stage of commitments, when it comes, will be the true test of the longevity of Paris.
Griscom, B.W. et al., 2017. Natural climate solutions. PNAS. Vol. 114, No. 44: pp. 11645–11650
Welcome to the class of 2021 and to new graduate students - and welcome back to all continuing undergraduates and graduate students. Also, greetings to MIT’s post-doc community. We hope you will all join us, along with the faculty, alumni, staff, partners, and friends of the ESI as we start a new academic year.
This year will mark the second year of our People and the Planet Lecture Series and we are thrilled to have the Director of the Stockholm Resilience Center Johan Rockström and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse joining us this fall. We are also looking forward to a new beginning with the launch of a new interdisciplinary minor for all undergraduates and our second cohort of research seed grants and curriculum development grants. More details below.
We hope you will join us in these and other programs of the ESI.
The end of the spring term marks the 3-year point for the ESI. At its inception, founding Director Susan Solomon launched a multi-disciplinary seed grant program with a first round of 9 awards. Recently, we closed the call for the second round and will announce winners later in the spring. We also completed another of Prof. Solomon’s early initiatives with the approval of an undergraduate minor in Environment and Sustainability open to all majors and beginning in the Fall of 2017. In support of this new offering we continue to fund curriculum development for the minor.
During these past three years, we’ve sponsored two Hackathons for the Climate and, come April 22 of this year, two Earth Day celebrations. We have hosted a monthly Faculty Lunch series highlighting research from professors and groups from all five schools across the Institute. We founded the ESI Student Advisory Council and members of that body initiated work on four key projects within our portfolio including an Environmental Student Action Corps and a Green Careers program.
We have also been reaching outward beyond MIT. Through the Office of the Vice President for Research we recently reached a collaborative agreement with Conservation International  and have already begun to engage with them on several fronts. We are also formalizing collaborative relationships with companies in the US and abroad and governments in South America, Europe and Africa.
We could be, and in some respects are satisfied with the progress we’ve made here at the ESI. The results of the first round of seed grants are having an influence on decision-making in various regions around the world. At the same time, change all around us is proceeding more rapidly and creating more immediate urgency than had been anticipated by many. During ESI’s existence, we have added three more years of record global temperatures. Concern over the consequences of these increased temperatures is now widespread and global. Attribution to specific events is still tentative in many cases, but rock solid in others. The concern that we are headed into a period of enormous climate uncertainty compounds the social, economic, and political complexity that accompanies a global population of 7.5 billion.
Eighteen months after ESI’s founding, Christiana Figueres and the UNFCCC secured possibly the most important climate agreement at the COP21. Since Dec 2015, 143 countries have ratified their commitments and the subsequent Conference of the Parties in Marrakech set the stage for continuing to deliver on those commitments. An ambitious and notable proposal came from the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI)  intended to spur the deployment of 10GW additional capacity by 2020 and 300GW by 2030.
Here in the US the renewable energy sector is going strong. The growth in solar energy jobs in the US is outpacing the economy by a whopping 12 times and solar and wind employment has been increasing in recent years at rates above 20%. Clean energy and sustainability employment in advanced vehicles, renewable energy, the public sector, and energy efficiency now amount to 4 million jobs.  The Department of Energy 2017 Energy and Employment Report  asserts that the solar industry now employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined in the production of electricity. And let’s make sure to remember that efficiency, the avoidance of energy expenditures, is not only a powerful strategy for reducing carbon emissions but also grows the economy. One dollar not spent on energy has a 2.24 potential in non-energy sectors of the economy. Not spending on energy means that spending is freed up for other purposes. Maybe this is one of the reasons that the 2016 GreenBiz survey  found that 75% of firms now have dedicated budgets for internal sustainability programs.
The past three years have been a solid beginning for the ESI, but what is needed now is a dramatic increase in activities, engagement and support. It is now the new normal to expect that next year’s global average temperature will once again establish a new high. That’s a reasonable expectation given that the CO2 already banked in the atmosphere will be there for hundreds of years. We will need to mitigate carbon emissions at ferocious rates to secure our future. Adaptation in many forms is happening now; from Dhaka, to the 33 atolls and reef islands of Kiribati, to Miami. Increasingly, the prospect of having to actively remove carbon dioxide, alongside aggressive mitigation, is receiving a great deal more attention. Without active measures, we may not have any hope of avoiding the very high probabilities of catastrophic consequences.
But let’s not end on a sobering note. The future is very, very bright. Technology innovations in energy production and storage, engine and vehicle design, water and material reclamation and reuse are finding investment dollars focused on this new future. Renewed interest in pricing carbon that will result in creating new markets and revenue generation are spawning a regular stream of proposals and legislation. There is money to be made in this great renewable energy and sustainability transition. There are inventions needed in the form of products, services, and new systems. New disruptive and constructive business models will emerge, you can count on it. There is great opportunity for all that MIT excels at delivering. It just so happens that these opportunities also hold the very great potential of making a better world for everyone.
So, let’s get on with it!
John E. Fernández, Director
 https://www.greenbiz.com/report/state-profession-2016, open access but requires registration.
I am so very pleased to announce that MIT now offers an undergraduate minor in Environment and Sustainability! This is a real milestone for learning about our world in an interdisciplinary minor that is open to all undergraduates in every major beginning this coming academic year.
The Environment and Sustainability minor promotes learning and prompts action on the many challenges and opportunities inherent in a changing environment, ongoing and emerging environmental risks, and new ways of utilizing our natural capital while inventing and innovating new technologies and systems for a better world. Learning through the minor will touch on the roles of government, industry and business, civil society and the academy in a forward-looking and positive perspective of a sustainable and humane future.
The minor is comprised of five subjects; two required core subjects and three electives. The two required subjects are newly developed and bring together a group of professors representing all five schools. The three electives may be taken within one of five tracks: Earth Systems and Climate Science; Environmental Governance; Environmental Histories and Cultures; Engineering for Sustainability; and a Cross-Pillar track. Elective subjects may be selected from a listing of dozens of existing and several new subjects from more than twenty departments and other academic units.
While having this minor approved as part of the regular curriculum is a major development for MIT and the ESI, it is really just crossing a threshold that now leads into an enormous learning opportunity space. That space contains extraordinary expertise and deep commitment to the minor across the Departments of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Urban Studies and Planning, the Terrascope Freshman Learning Community, and many other units and reflects the three main focus domains of the ESI: Climate Science and Earth Systems, Cities and Infrastructure and Sustainable Production and Consumption.
A complex world deserves the kind of integrated content and collaborative teaching that will come from the two core subjects and the many electives. Taking meaningful action on campus and in the world will entail a kaleidoscope of activities alongside and complementary to the learning that will happen in these classes. We look forward to all of the development to launch and grow a minor that addresses the most important questions of our era. We also look forward to the many new ideas and creative actions that will spin out of the work of students in the minor.
For me, the very real pleasure of preparing and submitting the proposal for the minor was in the many conversations that I was privileged to have during the past year and a half. Novel ideas and exciting elements of our vision were spawned from meeting regularly with interested faculty and students from across MIT. We could not have achieved this moment without your contributions. Thanks go out to all who joined us in this effort!
John E. Fernández, Director
These are trying times; disruptive times. Recent successes to protect our wild lands and natural capital as well as move toward long term stabilization and reduction of global carbon emissions are facing the prospect of rollbacks and wholesale repudiation. The nation’s commitment to climate action is downshifting even while a massive crack in Antarctica’s Larsen ice shelf continues to grow.[i] Only months after its designation, the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah may see expanded mining of oil, gas, potash and uranium threatening a unique American place.[ii] The US commitment to the COP21 climate agreement is uncertain[iii] and many efforts to rescue and archive valuable scientific data from dozens of government agencies are underway.[iv][v] For the foreseeable future we can be most certain of great uncertainty in policy-making despite the constantly mounting evidence of ever more dire consequences of climate change.
Yet, despite the dramatic swing of the federal pendulum away from strong and sustained commitments to steward the environment and tackle climate change head-on, the ESI is doubly motivated. The time is now. In fact, there could not be a better time and we are not alone in this sentiment. Conservative elder statesmen in the US are advocating that the time is right for a carbon tax.[vi] Private investment in clean energy continues to soar.[vii] MIT’s role is unchanged. Serving our country and the world in these trying and disruptive times is needed now more than ever. At the ESI, acknowledging all of this is just the beginning. Massive change means massive opportunity: conditions are ripe for breakthroughs, paradigm shifts, and transformation. In the coming weeks and months, we will do our part by delivering on the ESI mission to advance science, engineering, policy and social science, design, the humanities, and the arts towards a people-centric and planet-positive future.
We look forward to having you join us to mobilize our community, generate opportunities for engagement, and build upon MIT’s deep and unwavering commitment to humane and effective climate action.
John E. Fernández, Director
Listen to me.
Do this one thing:
Lay your hand over your heart, and feel.
Feel your heart pump, pump, pump.
Feel how warm you are.
That is my light, alive inside of you.
Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, 2009.
Living Sunlight, How Plants Bring the Earth to Life, The Blue Sky Press.
Solutions. What are the problems for which we want to provide solutions? In scientific terms there are no problems, only phenomena that arise in accordance with physical laws. The chemistry and physics of the atmosphere is not problematic in and of itself. It has been noted in various ways and by diverse voices that the earth itself does not care one way or the other whether or not oceans are becoming acidic, glaciers are retreating, and average global temperatures are rising. The problems are in relation to living organisms and the biosphere. Consequences of carbon emissions do matter as fish stocks are threatened, fresh water runoffs are reduced, and extreme weather becomes prevalent. Furthermore, extinctions and reduced biodiversity are certainly important not only in direct relation to the health of our species but as a matter of ethics as we continue to dominate the planet.
Evidence of the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of humans is exemplified by the extent of our settlement of the earth. We occupy every continent, including Antarctica. In doing so, we have become exquisitely attuned to our environment. This observation, made by Prof. Kerry Emanuel at a climate symposium at MIT, also reveals our weakness. Our settlements and infrastructure are critically dependent on the environmental conditions that led to our civilization, economy, and culture. Our buildings, water systems, agriculture, have been designed on the basis of a climate that has been dependably stable over the emergence of human civilization.
Today, we know the climate is changing before our eyes. The knowledge we have gained from one of the largest scientific enterprises our species has ever undertaken tells us that we can no longer depend on the constancy of our environment. The variability that is emerging poses grave risks to the systems and infrastructure that provide energy, food, water, and critical materials to populations around the world.
Today, we also know that the global economy is changing and enormous demographic and cultural shifts are steadily ushering in a new world. In the coming decades the urban population will increase by 3 billion. China’s population is aging and Africa’s will double by 2050. The Internet connects us in extraordinary ways and yet one in five people do not have reliable access to electricity.
Our goals for mitigating carbon emissions and moving forward to invest in adaptation cannot be decoupled from our responsibilities to address the needs of people to live under humane conditions and flourish. The challenges to be found in the developing regions of this world are sobering and so is the fact that more than 20% of US children live in families with incomes below the poverty line.
The success of COP21 should be coupled to the mandates of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our critical need to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change should align with our renewed efforts to address environmental justice, urban health, access to education and many other critical needs of people around the world. The Environmental Solutions Initiative operates through this vision by advancing science, engineering, policy, design, the humanities, and the arts toward a people-centric and planet-positive future.
It is commonly suggested that no other species has ever affected the earth and its systems as dramatically as humans. This is not true. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere is a direct consequence of eons of microbial respiration. Those ancient microbes produced the life-sustaining atmosphere that then enabled the forces of evolution and led to the explosion of biodiversity, including us.
Our species has the opportunity to learn from this deep history and through our own activities recreate this life-giving function. If countless ancient microbes generated an atmosphere that has led to our living world, we can certainly take on the challenge of regenerating a life-sustaining world that is humane and uniquely human. The sun’s energy is the light inside of you and me. Solutions begin with understanding our inextricable relation to the environment and our fundamental responsibility to improve human lives and steward all living things.
John E. Fernández, Director