Concluding the ESI’S Two-Year Pilot Project in Mocoa, Colombia

By: Danielle Baez, Research Assistant at Pratt Institute

In 2017, a devastating landslide in Mocoa, Colombia caused the death of over 300 people and affected 22,000 more, including over 2,900 indigenous people belonging to nine different communities, according to Mocoa’s reconstruction Plan CONPES 3904. Corpoamazonia, the regional environmental authority for the region, has estimated that approximately 30% of the urban area is still located in high-risk areas, as portions of the displaced population have not been resettled and efforts to build an early warning system remain limited.

Following a sequence of planning workshops organized in partnership with MIT DUSP, the ESI partnered with the aforementioned Corpoamazonia (Corporación Autónoma Regional para el Desarrollo de la Amazonia), Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Latin American Development Bank (CAF), among others, to launch the pilot project, “Drones for Equitable Climate Change Adaptation” (DECCA) in 2022. This pilot project aimed to develop an intervention model using an asset-based approach to community-based planning and participatory risk management with the development of technological tools for landslide monitoring.

The participatory monitoring model works through robust stakeholder engagement and the construction of a Community Researchers Network (CRN) that gives seven community leaders from varied backgrounds a seat at the table, with the ability to participate and drive much of the outreach strategy and community involvement with decision making. It pioneers new applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and integrates machine learning to process landslide susceptibility data. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to strengthen the community’s planning and risk management capacity and to build technology-enhanced strategies to monitor and respond to climate change impacts in areas facing structural challenges. 

In March 2024 — after months of testing drone flights to map the middle part of the Rio Mulato watershed — the project partners convened in Mocoa to present the results of the pilot. Over the course of three days, the team facilitated and engaged in a series of workshops and public meetings to reflect on the use of the information to generate adaptation indicators and to introduce the prototype of the landslide susceptibility visualization platform to the community. Moreover, after gaining insight from this first phase, the team started delineating work areas for a potential second phase and its possibilities, including how to create a data service for financial institutions that could support data collection efforts in the future. Hosted by Corpoamazonia, the delegation included members from the ESI and project partners from Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, as well as representatives from CAF Development Bank of Latin America, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Community Researchers Network.  

Combining technology development and community-based planning

While the project is ambitious both in its technological development and in its community engagement efforts, getting the drone in the hands of the local pilots and determining the ideal parameters for the data collection was not an easy feat. One of the primary reasons drones were chosen as the mechanism for mapping the watershed is the difficulty of the environment itself. The drone has to fly below the constant cloud cover characteristic to the Andean-Amazon piedmont region, but just above the dense forest cover in order to accurately create digital terrain models. It took an enormous amount of collaboration and calibration between teams in Mocoa; Bogotá; Cambridge, Mass.; New York City; and Panamá City to build the local technical capacities to fly the drones while honing in on exactly what speed, height, and even flight patterns were optimal to capture the highest quality crucial data in the steep slopes near Mocoa. 

A staff member from Corpoamazonia´s data collection team works in the field.

A staff member from Corpoamazonia’s data collection team works in the field. Photo credit: Duber Rosero

The project also explored different machine learning methods to better understand what factors most heavily contribute to landslide susceptibility in Mocoa and to develop the most accurate landslide susceptibility model based on collected data and key hydrological, geological, and geomorphological features. While a variety of machine learning models are still being tested and data continues to be integrated, a first model resulted in an accuracy upwards of 92% for landslide susceptibility monitoring. 

”This model has potential applications in informing urban planning, including the identification of almost real-time changes in susceptibility, the identification of areas of priority for direct intervention and mitigation works, and the generation of data and outputs for the early warning system,” explained Maritza Garzon, project coordinator at Corpoamazonia. “But this requires increasing the coverage and frequency of the data collection efforts. The model is also determined by the availability of a detailed inventory of historical landslide data which can be hard to come by, robust local meteorological and seismic data, and the quality and resolution of the data collected, which can be difficult [to access] due to the environmental challenges of the cloud cover and density of the vegetation.” 

Beyond the technical component, the project has devoted equal efforts to community engagement and strengthening local capacities for risk understanding and management, as exemplified through the aforementioned CRN. 

 “Technology development can only bring us so far,” said Juan Camilo Osorio, associate professor at Pratt’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, and founding partner and co-investigator of the project. “At the heart of the project, DECCA has launched a Community Researchers Network to acknowledge and position grassroots leadership to guide the creation of a genuine community-based planning and risk management process. We are grateful for the opportunity to help strengthen local technical capacity to investigate, communicate, and imagine opportunities to address the risk of landslides and inundation in Mocoa.” 

The CRN has been working to strengthen the alliance between the institutional and academic entities and the community of Mocoa itself to raise awareness on the landslide susceptibility and the risks and opportunities around landslide monitoring and community action. 

As part of this visit, the CRN convened, presented the work, and co-facilitated a series of local events, including a public meeting and Q&A session; an adaptation indicators workshop with the municipality and other local, regional, and and national entities; and a roundtable with academic institutions to further understand how a partnership could expand opportunities and refine the understanding of landslide susceptibility in the area.  

“The CRN has emerged as the driving force behind outreach and impact, increasing the interest of the community to engage with more sophisticated data in their understanding of risk,” said Lucy Milena Castillo Landazury, CRN member, during the public meeting. “This active engagement has guided the project, and hopefully subsequent planning decisions, that will make Mocoa more resilient to future disasters.” 

Public meeting

Lucy Castillo, member of the CRN, presents the prototype susceptibility map at a public meeting.
Photo Credit: Danielle Baez

Envisioning the next phase  

As a pilot project, this work represented a first attempt at mobilizing the expertise of the academic community and financial resources from the Global Environmental Facility through the CAF Development Bank of Latin America to promote knowledge of landslide risk awareness through a deeply participatory process in a context of contention, distrust, and high climate risks.    

Despite encountering numerous obstacles, the team has gleaned invaluable insights from this first phase that have provided the proof of concept needed to define priorities for a second phase. 

“Looking at the future of the project, we envision to build on the strengthened data collection capacities to start cultivating local data processing capabilities and improving the landslide susceptibility models with more frequent updates and broader coverage; to continue to empower the Community Researchers Network with greater autonomy; to enhance collaboration between technical elements and community stakeholders, alongside official advisors and newfound allies; and to broaden access to diverse risk information while enhancing interoperability with early warning systems” said Marcela Angel, research program director at the ESI. 

This future phase could be focused on strengthening technical and technological capabilities for landslide susceptibility monitoring, developing actions that strengthen the capacities of vulnerable communities in Mocoa for risk preparedness and nature-based risk reduction actions, disseminating risk information with a focus on equitable access, and leveraging the technological infrastructure and network of partners for the implementation of nature-based solutions for climate adaptation. 

The trip concluded with a workshop in Bogotá focused on opportunities to involve microfinance institutions and how to use landslide susceptibility data to catalyze financial inclusion for the region, and possibly fund the technological and human capacity that has been built out as a result of this project. Taken together, these actions set up a pathway for the continuation of a partnership that has been bridging the gaps in technology development and community engagement for climate risk monitoring in Colombia. 

The DECCA project is supported by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with the economic support of the Global Environmental Facility and implementation through CAF Development Bank of Latin America. Questions about DECCA can be directed to Marcela Angel at marcelaa@mit.edu.

How Do You Bridge Divides in Climate Change Conversations? A Q+A with Ben Stillerman, Deb Roy, and Laur Hesse Fisher

By: Sophia Apteker, Administrative and Communications Assistant

During Earth Month, the internet has been abuzz with a spectrum of conversations about the current and future state of our planet. And while the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has categorized the majority of Americans as Alarmed or Concerned about global warming, roughly a third are still Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. This begs the question: How do we catalyze the latter audience to recognize what the climate fuss is all about and mobilize them for action?

On Tuesday, April 30, the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative will be partnering with the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences (EAPS) to present a film screening of True False, Hot Cold. The documentary was shot in a county of Utah with the least belief in climate change in America. It weaves vignettes from farmers, ranchers, cowboys, coal miners, and other county residents together to build bridges — not divides — between people who have very different identities and beliefs.

The screening will be accompanied by a discussion with Ben Stillerman, filmmaker and founder of the Social Cohesion Lab; Deb Roy, faculty director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication; and Laur Hesse Fisher, program director at MIT Climate and founder of the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship. These panelists, who are actively incorporating these bridge-building values and approaches into their work, will also have an open conversation with the audience.

This event is sponsored by the MIT Climate Nucleus

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Ben and Laur: each of your projects — Ben with the film, Laur with the journalism fellowship — attempt to connect with hard-to-reach communities on climate change. Why is this topic important to you?

BS: Well here’s a simple way of thinking about that question, and it’s something I ask people who feel uncomfortable about giving airtime to people with wildly different opinions about a topic as big as climate change: How’s it working out for us right now, when we’re not able to talk to communities who disagree with us or are different from us? Doesn’t seem to be working that well, does it? The feeling of polarized animosity has stalled progress, so although a rural community might have different ideas about how to deal with climate, I think that the social value of connecting with them is greater than the risk of not hearing from them entirely. 

LHF: Climate change has become a politically polarized issue in the United States. Yet a country free of carbon pollution requires the support of Americans across political parties and across the country – in the voting booth and also, critically, in the city halls and neighborhoods where the energy transition is happening. Still, opportunity exists, as an increasing number of Republicans, especially young Republicans, say that they are worried about climate change and many support the same climate solutions as Democrats. Building bipartisan support for climate solutions is within our grasp, but we need to approach it thoughtfully and humbly.

2. It seems like people might be hesitant to share their opinions if they don’t know how their words are going to be used. With this in mind, Ben, how did you convince people to let you interview them for the documentary?

BS: This might seem counterintuitive, but on big, controversial topics, I’ve found that people are eager to have their voices heard, especially when given the opportunity to share their beliefs in the context of their life experience. Everyone likes to feel that their story is worth hearing. In practice for our film, I showed up one afternoon at the Main Street gas station, introduced myself, and asked if people knew anyone worth talking to about some of these topics. Once I had done one interview and proved I wasn’t out to belittle or trick people, they were happy to suggest someone else worth chatting with, and because I now had the added validation from the first person, the door was already half open. 

3. Deb, your expertise lies within using human-machine systems to develop deep systematic listening, which has applications in large scale social media ecosystems. What could we learn by using these listening techniques in the climate space?

DR: Our approach brings together facilitated dialogue, sensemaking, and digital technology to surface patterns of experience – rooted in personal stories – rather than opinions. This form of listening fosters a deeper understanding of what people value and how those values intersect with climate issues. 

For example, through The Museum for the UN’s Global We initiative, we collected hundreds of conversations in 25 locations around the world and shared underheard local perspectives on climate directly with leaders at the UN COP28 summit. One of the questions that was asked was: “Imagine that the quietest voices on climate change were heard – what are they saying?” We also engaged 25 young people around the world to make sense of these conversations, building a transparent youth-owned process that activated and empowered local community members around climate. 

4. Deb and Laur, we need to engage millions of people on climate change, yet in a way that’s personal to them. How can we effectively build connections at scale?

DR: We need to create opportunities for people to engage in meaningful personal actions. Meaningful because they are clearly connected to something bigger. Personal because they are actions that an individual has the power and agency to perform. In our work we seek to create scalable systems for dialogue and listening that create opportunities for people in communities from all walks of life to organize, design, facilitate, and analyze conversations they host with people in their trusted networks. Our main focus is to help communities build the capacity they need to surface and make sense of the voices of their peers using tools that are designed to empower them to analyze and interpret their own data. 

LHF: Local news is the outlet that Americans rely on and trust the most, and studies show that localizing climate change is an effective way to open perspectives on the issue. Yet climate journalism is often limited to national and specialty news outlets. In order to engage Americans where climate change is disputed or underreported, we need to make it local — told by local messengers and centering local issues and values. This is the mission underlying the MIT Environmental Solutions journalism fellowship and a way we see we can help scale conversations about climate change in the parts of the country where it greatly matters.

5. What kinds of media do you consume and how does that shape your work?

BS: Is there a word for being addicted to Reddit? That’s what I am. I really love the weird feeling of always being one click away from devoted communities of people posting dozens of articles a day about things I sometimes totally disagree with, alongside reviews of lawn mowers or traffic reports from India. Although Reddit is often wrong, angry, or opinionated, it’s almost always passionate and fun, so it’s where I get a lot of the ideas which interest me for further investigation. 

DR: I try to read news sources across a range of political perspectives, together with some news aggregators and public commentators that I trust.

LHF: This is a little cheesy but the media that is most effective for me are one-on-one conversations about climate change with people who don’t see what all the fuss is about. I learn what they’re hearing about climate change and solutions, what their concerns and frustrations are, and, when I can, where they get their information. It’s an incredible source of learning.

6. Who do each of you look to for inspiration?

BS: Two of my all-time heroes are Studs Terkel and Frederick Wiseman. Terkel, in his oral histories, was able to use deeply human narratives to ground his examination of massive topics like war or work. Wiseman, in his documentaries, is brave enough to let the people and institutions he profiles speak for themselves, without letting his own editorializing overshadow them.

DR: I am lucky to have an incredible network of mentors, advisors, colleagues, students, and family members who are constant sources of inspiration and who push me to aim higher while keeping grounded in real and practical progress.

LHF: Our journalism fellow alums are smart, thoughtful and committed to the audiences they serve. Their passion for tackling these issues with care and excellence is a great source of inspiration. I greatly admire the work and perspectives of Prof. Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in their Own Land, and Prof. Katharine Hayhoe, a celebrated climate scientist and communicator. What brings me the most inspiration are the millions of people all around the world who are working boldly on reducing global emissions in their part of the world.

7. What kinds of projects can people expect to see from the Social Cohesion Lab (from which the True False, Hot Cold film emerged), the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, and this year’s journalism fellowship?

BS: We’re focused on two things: First, we’re planning on telling more stories about people and places with different ideas about right and wrong, true and false, in an effort to bridge divides through documentary. Second, we’re running “Depolarization Day” events using our documentaries, alongside guest speakers and a taught curriculum, as an engaging way to teach the skills of bridging to college students and interested communities.

DR: We have ambitious plans to advance and scale tools and methods for dialogue, listening, and deliberative decision-making. A first opportunity for some of this work will be right here at MIT where we are planning the launch of a dialogue and listening program for our undergraduate students this fall.

LHF: We’re accepting fellowship applications until April and the fellow stories will start dropping this summer! I’ll be reposting all the stories here, and you can also follow our media or sign up for our newsletter for updates. You can learn about the incredible impact of previous fellows.

8. What is one tip you have for people who want to respectfully engage in a discourse with someone that holds a different belief than them?

BS: Everyone holds their own belief with as much internal logic as you hold yours; no one is walking around thinking their beliefs are built on shabby reasoning. Remembering this really helps keep an open heart when someone holds a position that you think is totally wrong. And stay humble, because of the thousands of beliefs you hold big and small, the chance that you’re right about them all is almost certainly zilch.

DR: Start by asking them to share their personal experiences about the topic or issue rather than their opinions, be willing to do the same for them, and commit to truly listening.

LHF: I love Ben and Deb’s replies! I’ll add, be curious, find shared values, and set appropriate expectations. Regarding that last one, I wouldn’t expect that you will be able to change someone’s mind. But if you come out of the conversation understanding their values and perspectives — and they understand and respect yours — that is a big win.

Register for the ‘True False, Hot Cold’: Film Screening & Discussion here

A Refreshed MIT Climate Primer to Better Serve Students, Educators, and the “Climate Curious”

This month, the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative launched the first major update to Climate Science, Risk & Solutions, an online introduction to the science of climate change that won the Webby Award for Best Editorial Feature with its 2020 debut. 

The Climate Science, Risk & Solutions website, also called the MIT Climate Primer, is an interactive digital journey written by Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of Atmospheric Science at MIT and a celebrated climate communicator and hurricane researcher. The eleven chapters are punctuated with quizzes, interactive graphics, and videos that allow high school, college, and adult learners with no prior background in climate science to explore how scientists came to realize that the climate is changing, and, with those evolved findings, what actions people can take today to adapt to and mitigate the impacts. 

“At MIT’s climate communications program, we often get questions about how scientists know what they know about climate change,” says Laur Hesse Fisher, director of the climate communications and engagement program at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. “In this Primer, Dr. Emanuel walks with readers, step-by-step, to unpack the scientific community’s emergent understanding of how the Earth’s climate is changing, with a level of skepticism and clarity that learners crave and deserve.”

As of this month, the Climate Primer is now informed by four more years of global climate research, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth comprehensive assessment report (AR6) on the state of climate science. The updated Primer includes more precise estimates of future global warming and its effects on global temperatures and extreme weather events, important advances in climate modeling, new actions taken around the world to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and the latest data about the pace at which clean energy and other critical climate solutions are being deployed.

Left: a figure which shows three warming scenarios with varying levels of carbon mitigation, from when Climate Science, Risk & Solutions was first published in 2020. Right: the updated 2024 figure showing the latest modeling of climate scenarios, as well as how it compares to warming of the deep past.

Left: a figure which shows three warming scenarios with varying levels of carbon mitigation, from when Climate Science, Risk & Solutions was first published in 2020. Right: the updated 2024 figure showing the latest modeling of climate scenarios, as well as how it compares to warming of the deep past.

The updated Primer is also enhanced by linked resources for further learning, drawing on four years of publications at MIT Climate explaining key climate topics and answering frequently asked questions about climate change. The other interactive elements were created in conjunction with MIT Open Learning to include best-in-show multimedia elements to reach all kinds of learners, including the “climate curious,” who are newly interested in climate change or in a new climate topic, and are searching for easy-to-understand answers from trustworthy sources.

To date, the MIT Climate Primer has been used by over 100 schools, universities, and educational sites — like ShareMyLesson, Climate Interactive, and EdX. 

“The pace of climate science has never been faster,” says Hesse Fisher. “And the same is true for efforts to reduce climate pollution. It’s critical for students and adult learners to have the latest understanding of the predicted impacts of rising climate pollution – and how our actions now make all the difference in creating a clean, prosperous, and beautiful future.”

Visit the Climate Primer here

The ESI’s Angélica Mayolo Invited to Provide Technical Support as City Advisor for the Biodiversity COP (COP 16) in Cali, Colombia

By: Sophia Apteker, Administrative and Communications Assistant

When Angélica Mayolo was advocating for the city of Cali to host the Biodiversity COP (COP 16), her marketing was simple: “Choosing Cali means that you recognize the populations in the Colombian Pacific that are working toward the conservation of the environment.” 

Here, the “you” refers to the Colombian government, with the implication that failure to integrate historically underrepresented voices into climate conversations would undermine any type of progress made at the international event. 

The people of Cali, like those of other marginalized groups, have been innovating localized solutions for generations. The “Piangueras,” for example, are a group of women in the Colombian Chocó that collect a mollusk called Piangua from roots of mangroves. By protecting them, they also expand local gastronomy to include the Piangua, which guarantees local interest in mangrove preservation. 

Yet, since these solutions like this haven’t been translated into scientific knowledge, they can, and have, gone overlooked by those in academic and governmental spaces. 

With this in mind, Mayolo’s people-centric argument — supplemented by Cali’s wealth of biodiversity — made for a rather compelling case. And against all odds, it was enough. 

See, Cali was an underdog, competing with roughly ten other Colombian cities for the hosting spot since December of last year, after Turkey withdrew from their position in August due to a series of devastating earthquakes. Shortly after Colombia was declared the hosting country, during the Climate Change COP 28 in Dubai, Mayolo began reaching out to various members of the national and local government to discuss the possibility of hosting the COP in Cali. Several organizations and key leaders from Cali quickly got on board with her proposal, and it evolved into a collaborative effort to present the city as a candidate.

Despite this surge of support, Cali wasn’t always seen as an immediate, clear winner. For example, when stacked against the other finalist city, Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, Cali had comparably less apt infrastructure and fewer resources to support the expected influx of 9,000 attendees, given Bogotá’s population of 7.1 million and Cali’s population of 2.8 million. It’s also worth noting that Cali has been riddled by cartels and gang-related violence, giving it the reputation as one of Colombia’s most violent urban centers

To combat these weaker areas, Mayolo, who is an MIT MLK Fellow and a consultant for the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) leading the Afro-Interamerican Forum on Climate Change, had to lean heavily into the importance of recognizing the Biogeographic Choco region and the work of the local communities as stewards of biodiversity. 

“To present the technical reason behind Cali’s candidacy, we brought together representatives of the hotel industry, local airport, local governments, academia, and others,” Mayolo said. “The proposal itself argued that aside from the role of local communities and biodiversity richness of Cali, we had, as a city, sufficient capacities to host the event, support all the activities related to it, attend all the needs presented by the UN, and emphatically, that the team behind the candidacy could rally several organizations and leaders in Cali, the State of Valle del Cauca, and the Pacific Region of Colombia in support of the event’s needs.”

On Feb. 20, Cali was officially recognized as the host city for the Biodiversity COP (COP 16), and Mayolo was invited to provide technical support as city advisor. She is now planning the event within a tight timeline, one that usually spans two years but is now compressed to eight months due to Turkey’s resignation. It will be held from Oct. 21 to Nov. 3 of this year, and will invite a range of attendees, including scientists and government representatives, from 180 countries. 

“Receiving the news from the Minister of Environment that Cali had been selected was an incredible rush of energy for me personally, and for everyone involved in the candidacy for host,” Mayolo recounted. “As soon as we received news of our selection, the representatives of the organizations collaborating got together at the City Hall and started planning out the upcoming days of work towards COP.”

Since the starting gun has been fired, time has been of the essence. 

In the upcoming months, Mayolo’s work will center around articulating the various needs and opportunities of the parties collaborating towards COP 16 by reaching out to the communities and leaders of the Pacific to help build an academic agenda for surrounding events. She will also be engaging the private sector and local governments to coordinate additional efforts. 

Mayolo credits the ESI for providing her with tools and networks that have given her “an opportunity to grow [her] understanding of how vital and unique the ecosystems in the Americas are, as well as how local communities work tirelessly for their protection.” 

“We recognize that choosing Cali as a host means the UN and the national government understand the importance of the Biogeographic Choco and all the species living there, so we seek to make the region the protagonist of the COP,” said Mayolo. “With side events and activities related to showcasing the biodiversity of our region, bolstering the work of our local communities to protect it, and expanding the understanding of local needs and opportunities by the countries participating, we believe that the COP can impact Cali, the Pacific Region, and Colombia beyond the scope of the event itself, reinforcing our identity as a beautiful and biodiverse destination.”

Science, Technology, and Environmental Justice: Addressing MIT’s Imperative of Justice in the Classroom

By: Madeline Schlegel, Co-op and Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate

The environmental justice (EJ) movement arose in the early 1980s to better understand and address how people of color, low income groups, and Indigenous peoples experienced disproportionate environmental harms across the United States. This led to a multidisciplinary field of EJ studies that has evolved to include aspects of sociology, public health, human rights, geography, environmental science, history, and much more. From protests in Warren County, N.C. about PCB contaminated soil in a predominantly Black community to racial and economic gaps in recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the EJ field attempts to explore the ways in which historical social injustices are interconnected with ecological and environmental problems.

MIT recognizes this interconnectedness in The Imperative of Justice section of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade. This section highlights the need to decarbonize the economy by centering justice and equity in the process. Furthermore, it asserts that solving issues of the climate and environment requires a simultaneous effort to solve issues of injustice and inequity.

However, despite increased recognition from the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the Association of Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), research in higher education continues to demonstrate that EJ content knowledge isn’t sufficiently included in environmental and sustainability degree programs, and even less likely in STEM program contexts. The ESI recently published a white paper that reinforces this, highlighting an extreme dearth of climate and environmental justice (CEJ) content within MIT’s STEM departments. This means that students engaging in STEM related learning and research experiences aren’t being exposed to CEJ issues, which is problematic because it may cause a perpetuation of EJ issues in the field.

In an effort to address the lack of CEJ content knowledge in STEM courses and further MIT’s Imperative of Justice, the ESI and the Program in Media, Arts, and Sciences within the MIT Media Lab collaborated to offer a Science, Technology & Environmental Justice (ST&EJ) course during the 2024 IAP session. The course was originally created by Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a PhD candidate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and was co-taught by Chris Rabe, a postdoctoral associate at the ESI.

ST&EJ students listen to a lecture. Photo credit: Madeline Schlegel

The initial interest form for this course garnered 64 responses from students across a wide range of schools and departments, which demonstrates a significant interest of MIT students in the inclusion of CEJ issues in STEM courses. Ultimately, 25 students participated in the course with 11 students taking the course for credit. The primary goal of the ST&EJ course was to experiment with environmental justice as a foundational framework to foster a meaningful, culturally relevant, and socially just context for STEM learning. More specifically, the course explored the question: How can science and technology be employed in the study of and fight against environmental injustice?

This past January, students engaged with this question by first examining the foundational history of the EJ movement; then by studying the role science and technology has played in exacerbating or ameliorating environmental inequalities; and finally by considering different theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and technological tools that contest (or produce) environmental injustice. Throughout the two weeks of instruction, several topics were discussed, including: engineering climate justice, environmental justice and AI, critical data science and environmental justice, community engagement, electronic waste, environmental justice, and energy justice. Students also gained knowledge of and experience using tools like ArcGIS Story Maps, EJ Screen, and EJ Atlas.

Another aspect of this course included participation from guest lecturers, including Bianca Bowman from a local EJ organization, GreenRoots; Alejandro Paz, an MIT librarian; and other EJ scholars and researchers working at the intersection of EJ, science, and technology.

ST&EJ students engage in a workshop using EJScreen, an environmental justice screening and mapping tool. Photo credit: Chris Rabe

The final project for the ST&EJ IAP course was to create a project proposal of an environmental justice artifact that discusses or presents analysis of an environmental justice issue. The goal was for students to practice applying environmental justice theory and methodology and engage with themes from the class related to science, technology, and environmental or climate justice. The students’ final project presentations focused on a wide variety of topics, like mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, battery storage facilities, historical EJ issues in Cancer Alley, L.A. and global EJ issues in Honduras and India, among others.

An ST&EJ student gives a final project presentation on mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. Photo credit: Madeline Schlegel

To further the ST&EJ course’s goal to experiment with environmental justice as a foundational framework to foster a meaningful, culturally relevant, and socially just context for STEM learning, the course will be adapted to a full, semester-long course and a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). The semester-long course will be offered within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in Spring 2025, but it will likely be cross registered within at least one engineering department. The MOOC (planned to launch in Fall 2024) will be free of charge and fully open to the public. 

In both forms, the future iterations of the ST&EJ course will provide more space for both instructors and students to experiment with a collection of STEM tools and approaches for identifying, understanding, and exploring potential solutions to complex EJ issues across the globe.

For more on climate justice education, contact Chris Rabe at cjrabe@mit.edu.

Music Industry Leaders Tune in to Climate Solutions at Sustainability Summit

By: Sophia Apteker, Administrative and Communications Assistant

The inaugural Music Sustainability Summit in Los Angeles earlier this week was accompanied by record-breaking rainfall — more than half the average seasonal precipitation in just three days. Such extreme weather made conversations centered around human-induced climate change, and the responsibility that music industry stakeholders have to mitigate it, salient all at once. 

“It’s not a solo sport,” said one speaker. “We need to get the ecosystem in this room, and that’s what we’re doing.” 

(As noted in Billboard, the summit was held under the Chatham House Rule, which advises that anyone who comes to a meeting is able to use information from that meeting, but is not allowed to reveal who made any particular comment. This rule was enacted so that summit attendees could speak freely, allowing for a more impactful event.)

The music industry is a multifaceted landscape with a range of players, including, but not limited to, artists, managers, agents, venue owners, production teams, merchandisers, and catering vendors. Over 300 of these individuals attended the summit, from premiere companies like Live Nation Entertainment, ASM Global, Sony Music Group, and Warner Music Group to organizations with more specialized missions, like Support + Feed (founded by Maggie Baird, mother of Billie Eilish and FINNEAS) and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. 

The hosting Music Sustainability Alliance — which aims to be a central hub for these workers to convene for climate action — has created a shared knowledge base to assist this array of workers as they prioritize more eco-conscious decisions. Their resources are also available to general audiences. 

An obscure carbon footprint

To address a problem, it must be defined. Yet, public data on the environmental impact of festivals and live events across the globe is slim, and it’s even more scarcely available for the United States. In 2007, a UK report found that emissions from the music industry accounted for a tenth of a percent of the country’s total emissions, with 73% coming from live music and 15.6 coming from festivals. While the industry itself may not have the largest sum of emissions, it is still deeply intertwined with leading emitters in the transportation, electric power, and agricultural sectors.

It helps that climate solutions being applied in these areas (more on those later) are transferable to the music industry. Moving forward, they must also be supported by policymakers, applied equitably, and prove to be capable of meeting the existing and growing demands of festivals and other live events. 

To fill in the dearth of data, the ESI is partnering with Live Nation, Warner Music Group, and Coldplay to compile a comprehensive assessment of the US and UK markets that delves into the relationship between live music and climate change, identifies key areas where the industry and concert goers can drive planet-positive outcomes, and offers actionable solutions based on the latest developments in green technology and sustainable practices. It is expected to be completed in July 2024. 

To be more green

But even without this in-depth evaluation, areas where urgent action is needed are still evident. Fan travel, for instance, accounts for 70 to 90% of the live music’s carbon emissions. This could be lowered by offering shuttle systems or holding festivals in areas more accessible by public transit. There is also 23,500 metric tons of waste accumulated by the millions of people who attend festivals in the US each year, which could be minimized by deploying recycling incentives or implementing reusable cups. Right now, only around 8% of plastic waste generated at festivals is recycled.

From the artist’s side, planning ahead and nailing down logistics — with regard to factors like freight transport, food, and waste — is imperative. A lack of lead times can cause bad decisions, and consequently, a regretful environmental impact. 

Some questions for them and their team to consider include:

  • How is freight being transported? (A bus or an airplane?)
  • What is the source of electric power? (Diesel generators, batteries on site, or the grid?)
  • How much gear is there to transport? (And could it be reduced?)
  • During the show, how much renewable energy is available? And after the show, will the catered food be local? Will it be plant-based? Sustainably packaged?
  • How will leftovers be handled? (Donated or disposed of?)

These discussions can be navigated with the aforementioned knowledge base

Overviews of past climate reports have highlighted the crucial need to decarbonize globally by 7% annually to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To get there, people must act collectively and intentionally, something that the Alliance hopes to facilitate through working groups and monthly webinars. 

John E. Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, later supplemented his talk by saying, “Getting to net zero is certainly not a tweak. It’s a paradigm shift across all sociotechnical systems, especially the energy sector.”

The artist’s role is nuanced and requires a thoughtful approach when determining how to communicate their efforts to their fans. They are the most visible embodiment of their brand and their approach to climate, but they are most likely not a climate expert. Even though fans often like hearing artists talk about climate change, there is also a fear of getting canceled, or accused of greenwashing. 

Their best bet? Supporting climate actions with authenticity and the backup of science and scientists. 

Today, the music industry is moving quickly to adopt a range of climate-positive recommendations, but it is still in its early days. At some point, hopefully soon, meaningful climate actions will become the standard — like LED lights or electric runner vehicles — and it will be easier to make a full transition to low and net-zero live music. 

“Artists don’t always have to be the speaker,” said one panelist. “They can shine their light on experts and activists.”

For more on panelists and resources, visit the Music Sustainability Alliance website.

Local Journalism is a Critical “Gate” to Engage Americans on Climate Change

By: Sophia Apteker, Administrative and Communications Assistant

To get Americans to care about climate change, guide them to their gate. At first, it might not be clear where it is. But it exists. 

That message was threaded through the Connecting with Americans on Climate Change webinar on Sept. 13, which featured a discussion with celebrated climate scientist and communicator Prof. Katharine Hayhoe and the five journalists who made up the 2023 cohort of the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship. Prof. Hayhoe referred to a “gate” as a conversational entry point about climate impacts and solutions. The catch? It doesn’t have to be climate-specific. Instead, it can focus on the things that people already hold close to their heart.

“If you show people…whether it’s a military veteran or a parent or a fiscal conservative or somebody who is in a rural farming area or somebody who loves kayaking or birds or who just loves their kids…how they’re the perfect person to care [about climate change], then it actually enhances their identity to advocate for and adopt climate solutions,” said Hayhoe. “It makes them a better parent, a more frugal fiscal conservative, somebody who’s more invested in the security of their country. It actually enhances who they already are instead of trying to turn them into someone else.”

Last year’s Pew Research Center data revealed that only 37% of Americans said that addressing climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Furthermore, climate change was ranked 17th out of 21 national issues included in a Center survey

But in reality, it’s not that Americans don’t care about climate change, Hayhoe argued. It’s that they don’t know that they already do. 

The MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship provides financial and technical support to journalists dedicated to connecting local stories to broader climate contexts, especially in parts of the country where climate change is disputed or underreported. 

Climate journalism is typically limited to larger national news outlets who have the resources to employ dedicated climate reporters. And since many local papers are already struggling — with the country on track to lose a third of its papers by the end of next year, leaving over 50% of counties in the US with just one or no local news outlets — local climate beats can be neglected. This makes the work executed by the ESI’s Fellows all the more imperative. Because for many Americans, the relevance of these stories to their own community is their gate to climate action. 

“This is the only climate journalism fellowship that focuses exclusively on local storytelling,” said Laur Hesse Fisher, program director at MIT ESI and founder of the fellowship. “It’s a model for engaging some of the hardest audiences to reach: people who don’t think they care much about climate change. These talented journalists tell powerful, impactful stories that resonate directly with these audiences.”

Narratives from across the nation

From March to June, the second cohort of ESI Journalism Fellows pursued local, high-impact climate reporting in Montana, Arizona, Maine, West Virginia, and Kentucky. 

Collectively, their twenty-six stories had over 70,000 direct visits on their host outlets’ websites as of August 2023, gaining hundreds of responses from local voters, lawmakers, and citizen groups. Even though they targeted local audiences, they also had national appeal, as they were republished by forty-six outlets — including Vox, Grist, WNYC, WBUR, the NPR homepage, and three separate stories on NPR’s Here & Now program, which is broadcast by 45 additional partner radio stations across the country — with a collective reach in the hundreds of thousands. 

Micah Drew published an eight-part series in The Flathead Beacon titled, “Montana’s Climate Change Lawsuit.” It followed a landmark case of 16 young people in Montana suing the state for violating their right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Of the plaintiffs, Drew said, “They were able to articulate very clearly what they’ve seen, what they’ve lived through in a pretty short amount of life. Some of them talked about wildfires — which we have a lot of here in Montana — and [how] wildfire smoke has canceled soccer games at the high school level. It cancels cross-country practice; it cancels sporting events. I mean, that’s a whole section of your livelihood when you’re that young that’s now being affected.”

Joan Meiners is a climate news reporter for the Arizona Republic. Her five-part series was situated at the intersection of Phoenix’s extreme heat and housing crises. “I found that we are building three times more sprawling, single-family detached homes…as the number of apartment building units,” she said. “And with an affordability crisis, with a climate crisis, we really need to rethink that. The good news, which I also found through research for this series…is that Arizona doesn’t have a statewide building code, so each municipality decides on what they’re going to require builders to follow… and there’s a lot that different municipalities can do just by showing up to their city council meetings [and] revising the building codes.”

For The Maine Monitor, freelance journalist Annie Ropeik generated a four-part series called, “Hooked on Heating Oil” on how Maine came to rely on oil for home heating more than any other state. When asked about solutions, Ropeik said, “Access to fossil fuel alternatives was really the central equity issue that I was looking at in my project, beyond just, ‘Maine is really relying on heating oil, that obviously has climate impacts, it’s really expensive.’ What does that mean for people in different financial situations, and what does that access to solutions look like for those different communities? What are the barriers there and how can we address those?”

Energy and environment reporter Mike Tony created a four-part series in The Charleston Gazette-Mail on West Virginia’s flood vulnerabilities and the state’s lack of climate action. On connecting with audiences, Tony said, “The idea was to pick a topic like flooding that really affects the whole state, and from there, use that as a sort of an inroad to collect perspectives from West Virginians on how it’s affecting them. And then use that as a springboard to scrutinizing the climate politics that are precluding more aggressive action.”

Finally, Ryan Van Velzer, Louisville Public Media’s Energy & Environment reporter, covered the decline of Kentucky’s fossil fuel industry and offered solutions for a sustainable future in a four-part series titled, “Coal’s Dying Light.”  For him, it was “really difficult to convince people that climate change is real when the economy is fundamentally intertwined with fossil fuels. To a lot of these people, climate change, and the changes necessary to mitigate climate change, can cause real and perceived economic harm to these communities.” 

With these projects in mind, someone’s gate to caring about climate change is probably nearby — in their own home, community, or greater region. 

It’s likely closer than they think. 

To be notified when applications open for the next fellowship cohort — which will support  projects that report on climate solutions being implemented locally and how they reduce emissions while simultaneously solving pertinent local issues — sign up for the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative newsletter. 

Questions about the fellowship can be directed to Laur Hesse Fisher at climate@mit.edu.

The Climate, Environment, and Sustainability Infusion Fellowship (CESIF): An Interim Update with Initial Findings

By: Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate

The ESI’s Climate, Environment, and Sustainability Infusion Fellowship (CESIF) launched in February 2023 to empower nine faculty members across seven MIT departments to cross their disciplinary boundaries and embed topics of climate science, the environment, and sustainability (CES) into the regular undergraduate curriculum. 

As an ESI white paper explains, climate education is necessary for several reasons, including its ability to encourage critical and collective reflection on science and its implications on equity in order to break down disciplinary boundaries. This, in turn, provides students with the tools to “challenge technological and scientific advancement that can perpetuate the unjust status quo for more just solutions.” 

Since we are nearing the halfway point of this two-year fellowship, let’s examine its structure and how research questions have been addressed thus far.

CESIF Structure

On the left-hand side of the figure below, individual faculty change is depicted through Hauk’s model for faculty readiness and change. This model includes domains of the professional change environment, as professors may be influenced by many factors including personal interest, disciplinary expertise, or institutional pressure. 

Conceptual framework for CESIF individual, community, and institutional change. Figure courtesy of Chris Rabe

Moving to the center, CESIF’s components include three models that will create a faculty-centered, experiential community of practice where professors receive support from the CESIF staff and faculty peers through monthly meetings. These models are based on research that shows successful faculty development projects have a long-term duration, focus on shifting beliefs, and seek to create a community of practice. During this time, CES instructional frameworks will be presented to professors and include sustainability content knowledge/literacy areas (sustainability knowledge, systems thinking, social justice, futures thinking, and active citizenship) and sustainability instructional approaches (collaborative, small group learning, inquiry based learning, experiential learning, service learning, place-based learning, and culturally sustained learning), all of which are supported by an ESI white paper titled An Introduction to Sustainability Education. Professors will interpret and infuse these frameworks based on their disciplinary experience and expertise. 

The central area also depicts how the CESIF community of practice interacts with the process of individual change. Work from Kim Kasten and Cathy Maluca highlights how communities of practice influence individual change, which can then reciprocally benefit changes to the community, something they refer to as “a reciprocal benefit feedback loop.”  

The right side of the framework depicts a successful influence of CESIF on the faculty participants which includes changes in content knowledge, instructional approaches, and teaching philosophy. In addition, it highlights how faculty members can disseminate their changes to their departments and create new departmental course offerings, syllabi, units, or course modules that can be used by other faculty members. A critical goal of CESIF is to spur wider departmental and institutional integration of CES course content and pedagogical strategies. 

Although this study builds on models for STEM transformation and communities of practice for instructional change and a framework for examining faculty instructional readiness for change in geosciences, the framework for CES infusion in STEM disciplines created for this study would be the first of its kind. 

Research Questions & Initial Findings

What factors contribute to or inhibit instructional change? 

Two challenges that have been noted often among faculty are (1) The need to cover a wide-range of discipline specific content and a limited amount of space to include new CES units or modules and (2) a lack of CES disciplinary expertise and a need for time and resources to engage in learning experiences to gain knowledge in this area. 

To address this, some of our discussions have focused on the potential of infusing CES content as part of disciplinary content, rather than thinking about adding onto an already crowded syllabus. This is quite a challenge, especially when exploring ways to integrate CES content and teaching practices throughout a course’s syllabus, as opposed to merely adding a new lesson or unit. 

Factors that contribute to change include varying levels of institutional support, the potential to share ideas with the CESIF community, and previous CES teaching experiences. 

For example, in discussing community support, Mike Short, associate professor of nuclear engineering, explained that one reason why he joined CESIF was, “to be a part of this community because MIT is so decentralized that it’s hard to find who else resonates with you. You could find great friends hiding just in the next building that you’d never meet otherwise.” 

In addition, Ariel Furst, Paul M. Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering, believes that future support is possible. On this, she said, “I think the combo of teaching and sustainability is going to be important. And I am hoping that student evaluations will speak for themselves, that students will be more engaged in these classes. And then you can share that with deans and things like that and say, ‘This is working.’ We should encourage faculty to incorporate this.” 

What kinds of instructional changes are in process? 

Faculty members are still in the process of making modifications to current courses and exploring the creation of new courses. 

For example, Katrina Lacurts, lecturer in electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS), is investigating using CES as a context for subjective decision making processes and how it can be integrated within classroom content and assignments. 

Betar Gallant, the American Bureau of Shipping Career Development Professor in Mechanical Engineering, is aiming to expand and refresh mechanical engineering courses (2.005/2.006 series Thermal Fluids and Engineering I and II) with new renewable energy based content.

Furst is working on changes to the 10.569 Polymer Synthesis course by adding new inquiry based and active learning opportunities for students to explore sustainable processes and polymers. 

meeting

CESIF members meet for a presentation from Michael Short (associate professor of nuclear science and engineering) titled Anthro-Engineering Decarbonization at the Million-Person Scale. Photo credit: Sophia Apteker

Next Steps and Future Goals

By building a multidisciplinary framework for CES infusion in STEM disciplines, more undergraduate students will be exposed to innovative CES content and instructional approaches in STEM disciplines across institutions of higher education, which will provide them with a unique combination of competencies to address a wide-range of climate change problems that occur around the world. 

As we move into the academic year 2024-25, faculty members will continue to refine and implement changes into their courses, and we will have the opportunity to learn more about the impacts of these changes on student learning experiences. In early 2025, we plan to have an event that will allow these faculty members to showcase their instructional innovations to the MIT community. 

As discussions continue related to better integrating climate and sustainability within the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) at MIT, we believe the experiences and findings from the CESIF project can have a substantial impact on larger, institute-wide curricular change. 

Learn more about CESIF.

Exploring the Intersection of Climate Justice and Computing in the Social, Ethical, and Responsibility for Computing (SERC) Program

By: Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate

Recently, a well-warranted amount of attention has been given to the alarming and intensifying environmental impacts that result from data centers and other areas of computing, such as hardware disposal (or e-waste) and biased AI algorithms. However, not enough scrutiny has been placed on the ways in which computing causes and exacerbates climate injustices impacting the world’s most vulnerable groups at national and international levels. What is more, the world of computing education still lags behind in incorporating both more general discussion of sustainability and more specific issues of climate and environmental justice within the general curriculum. 

data center

A Google Data Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo credit: Chad Davis via Flickr

Unfortunately, this means that students currently graduating with computer science degrees at MIT are exposed to a minimal quantity of environmental and sustainability computing content. For example, a recent ESI white paper documented that only approximately 3 percent of the courses within the electrical engineering and computer science curricula at MIT contained content related to either sustainability or climate justice. Informal conversations that I’ve had with computer science students have confirmed this lack of environmental focus in their coursework. 

So, what would a course look like that centers climate justice as a foundational theoretical framework from which to explore the world of computing? 

I am currently leading a reading group as an affiliate postdoc in the Social, and Ethical, Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) program within the Schwarzman College of Computing that attempts to address the climate impacts and injustices of computing and corresponding gap in computing education. SERC was founded to provide a space for students to explore  the broad social challenges that are associated with computing, including political, ethical, philosophical, and legal issues, among others. Our reading group focuses on a core question: What are the ways in which different areas of computing (and computing education) can either exacerbate, or potentially mitigate, issues of climate justice across the globe? 

The interdisciplinary group, which features seven students from both undergraduate and graduate levels across various schools and departments, began to review the above question in October of 2024. Students include Anastasia Dunca (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Major), Ellie Bultena (Linguistics and Philosophy Major), Lauren Higgins (Political Science Major), Jasmin Liu, (Master in Business Administration), Mrinalini Singha (Master in Art Culture and Technology), Sungmoon Lim (Master in City Planning), and Lelia Hampton (PhD Candidate, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science). 

Topics featured in the syllabus include the state of computing education; the impact of hardware production and disposal on communities of the Global South; cloud computing and data center environmental impacts; AI ethics; data science, equity, and justice; and other topics based on student interest. Because this topic is fairly unexplored, the main goal is to expose students to a variety of different subtopics, which would provide opportunities to spark a wide range of interests and academic deliverables. 

During our meetings — of which we’ve had 10 at the time of publication, with 15 more remaining — some topics have garnered more interest. So far, students are most compelled by the broad area of electronics hardware production and disposal. This includes the mining of raw minerals, the manufacturing process, and electronic waste (e-waste), specifically as it relates to the inequitable impacts of these processes on communities around the world, especially the Global South. 

It seems that students are interested in this area for a few reasons. Bultena is intrigued by the history and evolution of electronics manufacturing from an environmental justice perspective, whereas Hampton is currently exploring the intersection of indigeneity and e-waste. Dunca is interested in how to influence big tech to rework their business models or material improvements to reduce e-waste. In addition, our discussions have also focused on a potential lack of awareness among MIT students (and college students in general) regarding their electronic devices and the best way to conserve their lifespan and correctly dispose or recycle them. 

E-waste recycling

E-waste recycling. Photo credit: Fairphone via Flickr

As student interest in these topics continues to be deepened and refined, there are various deliverables that students could produce. For example, the above discussion on student awareness on e-waste has sparked an interest in creating new educational materials for students both at MIT and within other educational institutions. This novel educational material could take on many forms. One option would be to write a SERC Case Study that explores various aspects of e-waste and climate justice, or other adjacent issues. SERC Case Studies are commissioned, peer-reviewed research papers with the specific goal of being used for undergraduate instruction across different fields of study, both for computing-specific students and for a more general audience.

A secondary option would be to create new modules or other educational tools for the Climate Justice Instructional Toolkit, a curricular development project to support faculty and instructors across disciplines at MIT and beyond to better integrate climate justice content within their teaching.

No matter how the students in this SERC reading group communicate their learning experience to the outside world, the main goal is to place much needed attention on the intersections of computing and climate justice to better harness solutions for a more equitable and sustainable planetary future. 

Interested in getting involved in this project? Please contact Chris Rabe at cjrabe@mit.edu to learn more. 

Advancing Natural Climate and Community Solutions at COP28

By: Marcela Angel, Research Program Director and Angelica Mayolo, MLK Visiting Scholar

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) brought over 84,000 people together in Dubai — representing governments, businesses, civil society, academia, and local communities — to discuss how to move forward with the implementation of The Paris Agreement goals. The attendance was the largest in COP history. Discussions deepened on topics such as the global stocktake, mitigation and adaptation policies, and the operationalization of the loss and damage fund. Despite it being characterized by some media as a quiet COP for the lack of significant announcements from governments and stalled negotiations, the sheer number of delegates and wide array of topics covered in side events testified that climate action continues to gain traction on the ground. 

“COPs are moving into an implementation phase, where the big announcements are coming less and less from the negotiators, and more from organizations doing the hard work of implementation and bringing forward new models of collaboration and engagement,” said Marcela Angel, Research Program Director at the ESI. 

In an official side event titled “Knowledge to Action: Co-developing Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis,” MIT brought examples of how community-led collaborations between researchers, practitioners, and decision-makers promote knowledge sharing, capacity building, and solutions that are aligned with global environmental challenges and local socio-environmental priorities. Similarly, the ESI’s Natural Climate Solutions Program (NCS) had a robust participation across five pavilions, with over 20 invited speakers and six events, contributing to raising the visibility of technology-enhanced and participatory Natural Climate and Community Solutions. With the participation of community representatives, government officials, multilateral organizations, and researchers, these events were representative of the multi-stakeholder community collaborations needed to foster equitable local climate solutions.  

Speakers from the “Knowledge to Action: Co-developing Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis” event gather. From left to right: Marcela Angel, Mark Ortiz, Joice Mendez, Sergey Paltsev, Bethany Patten, Benjamin Zaitchik, and Maria Zuber. Photo credit: Angelica Mayolo

Showcasing the results of a participatory landslide monitoring pilot project

The ESI has been working alongside local partners in the city of Mocoa, Colombia on the challenge of equitable climate change adaptation since 2017, after the city suffered a devastating landslide that caused the death of over 300 people, while injuring and displacing hundreds more. During a side event in the Colombia Pavilion, a team of researchers from MIT, Corpoamazonia, and Pratt Institute — alongside community representatives from the Community Researchers Network, government officials from the Ministry of Environment, and strategic allies from the Development Bank of Latin America CAF and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) — provided a vision for equitable community-based and technology-enhanced strategies to monitor and respond to climate change. The session showcased the results of the GEF project titled “Drones for Equitable Climate Change Adaptation,” which outlined strategies to combine community-based planning and the development of technological tools for landslide monitoring in Mocoa. Participants were able to engage with the project’s online platform prototype and take part in a lively discussion about the challenges and opportunities presented by the use of new technologies for environmental data collection, and the potential of information coupled with the promotion of community participation to develop risk reduction strategies through nature-based solutions. 

The ESI’s Marcela Angel and local partners present the “Drones for Equitable Climate Change Adaptation” project at the Colombia Pavilion. From left to right: Lucy Castillo, Maritza Garzón, Edgar Torres, and Marcela Angel. Photo credit: Angelica Mayolo

“Civil society worldwide is claiming for collective governance and more diversity in the organizational mechanisms,” said Edgar Torres, a member of the Community Researchers Network. “By being connected to the research from its origin, influencing the project’s mechanism of citizen participation called the Community Researchers Network, and with the objective of bringing in, acknowledging the role, and connecting the community, we are putting forward a model for community-led participation.” 

New partnerships for citizen science and biodiversity-based planning

At a side event titled “Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities’ perspectives for climate action and biodiversity protection: integrating traditional knowledge, culture and local innovation the ESI, alongside the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) ACDI/VOCA, Universidad Javeriana, indigenous representatives, and Colombia’s Institute for Scientific Research of the Pacific (IIAP), announced a collaboration to work in partnership with the Humboldt Institute of Colombia to strengthen local capacities in participatory science as a tool for co-creation, democratization, and social appropriation of biodiversity knowledge by various entities, ethnic communities, and local academia in the urban and peri-urban areas of the city of Quibdó. 

Speakers at the “Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities’ perspectives for climate action and biodiversity protection” panel convened by ESI and the AIFCC. From left to right: Marcela Angel, Zoraida Quesada, Luis Sevillano, Vanessa Teteye, Pablo Palacios, Angelica Mayolo. Photo credit: Sabrina Monsalve

“Quibdó is located in the Chocó Biogeographic region, within the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena global biodiversity hotspot,” said Zoraida Quesada, a researcher at the IIAP. “And it is representative of the development challenges of cities with limited resources and capacities to address the overlapping climate, biodiversity loss, and poverty crisis. Using the bioblitz method, we hope to engage the youth in biodiversity monitoring, aiming to create a baseline of information for the city while transferring technical capacities for the co-creation and appropriation of biodiversity knowledge, empowering local youth in biodiversity protection.” 

A research milestone for the Afro-Interamerican Forum on Climate Change (AIFCC)

The panel “Research to action: Insights for conservation from Afro-descendant communities in the Americas,” co-hosted by Conservation International (CI), the ESI, and the Afro-Interamerican Forum on Climate Change (AIFCC) at the Nature Positive Pavilion, showcased the findings of the forthcoming study (led by CI and with co-authors from the other groups) titled, “Recognizing Afro-descendant peoples’ (ADP) role in securing nature in the Americas.” This study, which was framed in the discussions of the AIFCC and headed by CI, a technical ally of the Forum, provides the most compelling evidence to date of the contribution of Afro-descendant people in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Suriname to biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation. 

Angelica Mayolo presents the vision for the AIFCC and moderates the “Research to action: Insights for conservation from Afro-descendant communities in the Americas” event with the participation of Hindou O. Ibrahim, Kelvin Alie, Martha Rosero, Hugo Habini, Marina Marcal, Luis Sevillano, and Pablo Minda. Photo credit: Marcela Angel

Martha Rosero, the Social Inclusion Director at CI and a co-author of the paper, presented the study. Then, people responded to the findings with their own perspectives and recommendations. The respondents — representing  organizations such as USAID’s ACDI/VOCA, Universidad Javeriana, C40 Brazil, the Saramaka Community of Suriname, and Universidad Tecnica Luis Vargas Torres of Ecuador — represented four countries and organizations from academia, NGOs, community leaders, and international cooperation working towards the conceptualization and launch of the AIFCC Researcher Network, which aims to promote a collaborative research agenda focused on addressing research gaps to advance policies and local priorities of ADP related to biodiversity and climate. 

Discussing transnational priorities for the Grand Chocó region

In a conversation convened and facilitated by the ESI and the Development Bank of Latin America CAF at the Latin America Pavilion, Sebastian Carranza and Ligia Castro — the Climate Change Directors of the Ministries of Environment of Colombia and Panama — led an in-depth discussion about the pressing threats and challenges with regard to the sustainable development and conservation of the Chocó Biogeographic Region and the need for instruments to strengthen collaborative work and enable joint international efforts for the conservation of this region. Ignacio Lorenzo, Technical Director for Climate Action and Positive Biodiversity at CAF, shared CAF’s perspective on the effective ways in which governments can implement coordinated conservation efforts. 

The side event, which was titled “The Chocó Biogeographic Region: Urgent call for a transnational effort to protect biodiversity,” also featured the work of Javeriana Professor Pablo Palacios and the MIT ESI’s MLK Visiting Scholar Angelica Mayolo, who presented an overview of the current demographic, economic, and environmental challenges of the Biogeographic Chocó (which is also referred by the researchers as the Grand Chocó region). 

Speakers from “The Chocó Biogeographic Region: Urgent call for a transnational effort to protect biodiversity” event gather. From left to right: Zoraida Quesada, Luis Sevillano, Ignacio Lorenzo, Alicia Montalvo, Ligia Castro, Pablo Palacios, Angelica Mayolo, Marcela Angel, and Martha Rosero. Photo credit: CAF

“The Grand Chocó region has lost around 10% of the local species of birds, 16% of all species of mammals, and 39% of amphibians,” explained Palacios, referring to the biodiversity loss trends in the region. “With a quarter of all species being endemic to the region, the damage to local biodiversity puts the entire ecosystem at risk” 

Mayolo reinforced those figures in her closing remarks. 

“The biggest challenges faced by the Biogeographic Chocó are all international threats, therefore requiring international action to ensure the protection of the region,” she said.

The ESI appreciates the support and commitment of multiple partners who contributed efforts and resources for the successful realization of these events and the wide participation of members from local communities, including GEF, CAF, USAID ACDI/VOCA, Pratt Institute, MIT´s MLK Program, the BMW Foundation, Universidad Javeriana, CI, and MISTI.