Three questions on sustainability education with Liz Potter-Nelson

ESI has a brand-new hire this week: Liz Potter-Nelson, our postdoctoral associate in environment and sustainability education. Liz has long roots in education, having worked as a high school physics and chemistry teacher, a science department chair, and in multiple advisory positions for teachers and administrators. She also holds a doctorate in Educational Sustainability from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where her dissertation examined key sustainability competencies in undergraduate education courses. At ESI, Liz will focus on bringing new climate, environment and sustainability teaching tools to teachers in secondary and higher education across the U.S. You can read more about her background here.

To introduce Liz, we asked her three questions about bringing sustainability concepts into classrooms.

How did you become interested in sustainability education?

I became interested in sustainability education as I started to step outside of my classroom and interact with the complex nature of educating students. Initially this was through an equity lens, working to remove barriers for secondary students and early-career teachers, but has grown to encompass a more holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of the decisions that impact the education system.

What would help teachers do an outstanding job teaching sustainability concepts?

It is important for teachers to see that sustainability isn’t an add-on to what they are currently teaching. At the heart of it, sustainability education is interdisciplinary and embraces many of what are considered to be best practices in education. Providing teachers with the training and support to make small adjustments to existing lessons or enhance their current practices can go a long way in supporting sustainability in the classroom at any level.

What makes you hopeful about the future of sustainability education?

Ultimately, I think that the overwhelming majority of people who engage in the education system are hopeful people. They are change agents, who see the good in their students and are willing to help these individuals grow. And the knowledge that many of them are eager to continue growing their practices to embrace sustainability, so that they and their students can tackle wicked problems, gives me hope.

Designing exploratory robots that collect data for marine scientists

Victoria Preston, a PhD student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and a 2021 Martin Fellow for Sustainability, programs robots to collect environmental data in waterways. Read the full story in MIT News.

Three questions on mining and the environment with Scott Odell

This spring, ESI welcomed a new member of our team: Scott Odell, a post-doctoral associate who is building out our Metals, Minerals & the Environment Program. Scott is a researcher who studies the converging environmental and social impacts of climate change and mining on vulnerable communities. He received his PhD from the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, where his dissertation examined the impacts of new community relations strategies and desalination operations on conflict over water between mining companies and communities in Chile, within the context of an unprecedented mega-drought. You can read more about Scott’s background here.

To introduce Scott, we asked him three questions about his work on sustainability and mining and his plans with ESI.

What is the role of mining in advancing sustainability?

Current efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change depend on investment in innovations like electric vehicles, solar panels, and expanded public transportation, which require natural resources like copper and lithium. However, the extraction of these materials causes its own environmental and social harms, particularly in communities that host mines. Thus, both the opportunities and risks of mining must be taken into account when considering solutions to sustainability concerns.

What led you to this area of research?

At the broadest scale, I study issues related to development in Latin America. Early in my graduate studies, this led me to conduct fieldwork in agricultural communities of the Peruvian highlands. The farmers with whom I spoke expressed concern over the intersecting impacts on their livelihoods of climate change and the arrival of a new copper mine to the area. As a geographer, I am trained to study interactions between society and the environment, so these linked concerns over climate change and mining captured my attention. I came to learn that the issue was not unique to that specific field site, but is of concern in mining communities across the Andes and beyond. So it was clear that there was an urgent need for research on the topic, and I was prepared to be able to contribute.

What are your plans for the Metals, Minerals & the Environment Program?

Currently, the program is focused on supporting MINE 2.0, a professional development program sponsored by the mining company Vale that trains participants in Brazil to improve the sustainability of the mining industry. We hope this program can expand to other regions as well. In the longer term, I am eager to help ESI’s mining program become a leading center for research on social and environmental concerns related to mining, convening academics, policymakers, the mining industry, and communities to consider ways to prevent socioenvironmental harms of resource extraction while pursuing innovative solutions to sustainability concerns like climate change.



ESI and Minciencias sign memorandum of understanding

We are proud to announce that ESI has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Colombia Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Minciencias), with the aim of launching a collaboration centered on sustainable economic activity within biodiverse regions. This partnership reflects the strong synergy between Minciencias’ interest in providing economic opportunity to Colombian communities while addressing planetary environmental challenges, and the goals and strategies of ESI’s Natural Climate Solutions Program.

Mabel Torres, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation for Colombia, signs the memorandum of understanding with ESI

The collaboration envisions a broad analysis of the environmental burden of current economic activities within biodiverse regions of Colombia, which may give rise to new research and educational opportunities and ideas for sustainable businesses and innovations. Among other ideas, it contemplates:

  • Supporting the development of the Regional , Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centers that will act as local innovation hubs for bio-economy oriented ventures in historically marginalized communities who live in highly biodiverse regions;
  • Engaging in horizontal knowledge co-creation processes with local communities and scientists;
  • Supporting the transformation of local and scientific knowledge into sophisticated community-owned and technology-based business ventures able to create local wealth;
  • Training local producers to train others in all aspects of sustainable entrepreneurship;
  • Developing a methodology for benchmarking and impact measurements of sustainability and sustainable businesses including the design of economic and sustainability indicators, environmental data collection and analysis, and technology development for participatory monitoring and verification of socio-environmental impact indicators.

We are tremendously excited to build on our productive relationship with Minciencias, and to deliver on the promise of the bioeconomy to secure the world’s most important reserves of biodiversity while providing economic growth and security to historically marginalized peoples.

You can read Minciencias’ announcement of the memorandum of understanding (in Spanish) on their website.



Climate, security, and racial justice: Biden’s opportunity to advance U.S. Policy in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Luis Gilberto Murillo, Martin Luther King Fellow at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia (2016-2018), and Caroline White-Nockleby, ESI Research Affiliate

The Biden-Harris administration has defined advancing racial justice, tackling global climate change, and furthering peace across the Western Hemisphere as key priorities. These priorities have been ratified with recent reports from the White House, particularly the Biden-Harris Administration’s Statement on Drug Policy Priorities for Year One, the State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, and the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The fact that these issues were elevated within the first three months of the Biden-Harris administration sends a strong message to the region and reaffirms the administration’s commitment to racial equity.

Confronting these challenges domestically is vital over the coming months, but the Biden-Harris administration will also have the opportunity to support racial justice efforts across Latin America, where roughly one in four people self-identify as Black or Afro-descendant, and often issues of race tend to be overlooked.

Recent policy initiatives in Colombia, some of them backed by USAID, exemplify how the Biden administration could make supporting community-led Afro-descendant initiatives—for peace, autonomy, climate solutions and sustainable development—a central component of its Latin America agenda. This will allow the U.S. to reclaim and strengthen its leadership role with an equity lens that uplifts and supports historically disenfranchised communities.

In Colombia, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, Afro-descendant communities have higher rates of poverty, lower educational attainment, and are underrepresented in positions of leadership. Though the UN estimates that in Colombia they comprise about 26 percent of the total population, they are undercounted in official census statistics.

Moreover, Colombia’s decades-long conflict with the far-left guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which officially ended with the peace agreement of 2016, had a disproportionate impact on Afro-Colombian communities. Afro-Colombian territories in the Pacific coast, the Magdalena river, and the Amazon were affected by violence and related activities including drug trafficking, coca cultivation and illegal mining. Since 2016, the conflict has reemerged. In 2020 alone, the UN recorded 375 conflict-related deaths, many of them Afro-Colombian leaders and activists. With some exceptions, media coverage has largely elided the conflict’s devastating impacts on these communities.

In January, a coalition of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino leaders wrote a letter calling on the Biden-Harris administration to take action to secure peace, in part by supporting the political and economic autonomy of Afro-Colombian communities in their territories. President Biden has recognized Colombia’s crucial role in regional stability, calling it “the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” As the Biden administration develops its concrete policy for Latin America, it has to promote security and economic development for marginalized communities, in addition to tools and resources that help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Afro-Colombian communities have sometimes been marginalized not only in discussions about the conflict, but also in those regarding peacetime development and conservation initiatives. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country worldwide. Its forests, which cover half its total landmass, are also vital sites of carbon sequestration: preserving them is crucial to meeting global climate mitigation goals. Many of the most biodiverse areas of the country are in traditional Afro-Colombian territories.

Today, deforestation, due to both illicit and sanctioned activities, poses a grave threat to the Amazon and the Pacific region. Though some media coverage suggests that the 2016 peace agreement led to deforestation, this interpretation is inaccurate. Deforestation has complex causes, including in some cases fighting and related illicit activities themselves. This narrative contributes to the invisibility of the role that Afro-Colombians have played in stewarding the Pacific and the Amazon forest, riverside, and coastal environments where they have historically resided.

The passage of Law 70 in 1993, in part spurred by Afro-Colombian social movements, paved a legal pathway for the collective titling of these traditional territories. With this law, Colombia became the first country in Latin America to encode the right of a non-indigenous minority group to receive collective title. Law 70 has inspired similar initiatives in Ecuador, Panama, and Brazil.

Despite the violence and displacement that have been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, collective titling has strengthened the ability of Afro-Colombian communities to conserve and protect their lands. Multiple studies have found that collectively titled lands have, on average, lower deforestation rates than individually titled land—and, in some cases, than traditional national parks.

Investing the necessary resources in the governance of ancestral territories can present a promising pathway of advancing not only peace and wellbeing, but also drug policy, climate and conservation goals. Indeed, both regionally and worldwide, titled Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, which cover about one fifth of carbon stored in all forests, are often associated with lower deforestation rates. In a recent report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization highlights the case of Afro-Colombian territories and documents how Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are central for nature-based solutions to the climate crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Colombia, as worldwide, racial justice, peace, climate mitigation, and biodiversity conservation are intertwined. During my term as the Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development under President Juan Manuel Santos, we addressed these issues in tandem in the formulation of key policies such as the 2016 peace agreement and Colombia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Much work remains to improve these policies and their application. Yet these, alongside Colombia’s climate ambitions and other innovative environmental initiatives, might inform and inspire the Biden Administration’s Latin America policy agenda.

Across Latin America, Afro-descendant communities are on the frontlines of deforestation and climate change. With the unprecedented COVID-19 American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and other legislation to implement the administration’s proposed FY22 budget, President Biden has the chance to make substantial strides in priorities including tackling global climate change, addressing racial injustice, and furthering hemisphere-wide stability in a way that reflects the centrality of racial and ethnic minorities in any solution. As the case of Colombia demonstrates, investing in Afro-descendant communities throughout Latin America offers one effective means to reach these goals.


An excerpted version of this op ed appeared in Impacto Media on April 17, 2021.

A Spanish-language version of this op ed also appeared in the following outlets:

ESI and the MIT Climate Action Plan

by Aaron Krol

When the Environmental Solutions Initiative was founded seven years ago, MIT defined a mandate to tackle “environmental challenges of global import,” with all the scientific, engineering and imaginative capacities of the MIT community to draw on. Even then, it was clear that climate change would be the greatest—though not the only—focus of our attention.

Now, MIT has announced its ambitious and far-reaching Climate Action Plan for the Decade, which charts a clear course for a whole-of-MIT effort, worthy of our resources and abilities, to ensure that generations to come will continue to enjoy a habitable Earth.

At ESI, we have been party to many of the discussions, public forums and calls for ideas that led to this moment, and the coordination and commitment we have seen across the MIT community, as much as our own contributions to the plan, give us immense hope for its success. We have also done much work, over the past seven years, to jumpstart many of the plan’s key elements and aspirations. As such, the time is right for us to take stock of what we have accomplished on this greatest of all environmental and social challenges, and describe how we have positioned ourselves to do more.

Below, we look at three of the core pillars of the new Climate Action Plan that call on ESI to play a leading role as MIT moves ahead together on the profound challenge of climate change.

“Spark, Foster, and Speed Adoption of Important Innovations”

In 2014, one of ESI’s first activities was to issue seed grants for the kind of early-stage, multidisciplinary and novel environmental research in which funding was not readily available but which held the potential for profound impact. Many of the early seed grants were directed toward climate science and solutions—from better understanding and managing the carbon storage function of crucial ecosystems like peatlands, to using AI to improve climate models that give early warnings on the regional impacts of climate change, to replacing carbon-intensive cement with new materials based on industrial byproducts.

As we raise the funds for future stages of research, solutions like these will continue to hold a central place at ESI. Two years ago, we established our Natural Climate Solutions Program with an anchor project in the Colombian Amazon. This work, combining technology with deep community engagement to safely and permanently protect a vital carbon-storing ecosystem, is based on the premise that natural climate solutions will not be permanent unless they are a source of socio-economic uplift for the people living in and around strategic ecosystems, particularly indigenous and afro-descendant communities.

ESI research affiliates speak with some of our community partners on the ground in Mocoa, Colombia.

ESI research affiliates speak with some of our community partners on the ground in Mocoa, Colombia.

As the Climate Action Plan rightly emphasizes both issues of environmental justice, and the need for climate innovations that can rapidly scale, our Natural Climate Solutions work—joined with related efforts at the Parsons Lab and others—provides an essential complement to excellent work elsewhere at MIT on energy, mobility, and food systems. The Natural Climate Solutions Program has enormous room to grow, prove the impact of its community-first approach, and extend to other sites around the world.

The Climate Action Plan’s welcome pledge to add up to 100 climate and sustainability graduate and postdoctoral fellows will also significantly expand the cohort of researchers who are focused on the environment and climate change. ESI is the proud administrator of MIT’s standout graduate fellowship in this area, the Martin Society of Fellows for Sustainability, and we look forward to connecting this program to a growing community of climate researchers. There are now over 400 alumni of the Martin Fellows program, and we are strengthening the connections within this remarkable community of alumni, so the Martin Society can continue to make its mission felt across academia, industry, civil society, and all the many places its fellows now strive to build a more sustainable world.

“Educate Future Generations of Leaders, Problem Solvers, and Citizens”

Every school and department at MIT has within it outstanding faculty and teaching staff who are finding new ways to instill among their students both a clear-eyed understanding of the climate challenge, and the appetite to solve it.

It has been ESI’s unique privilege to work with all these schools and departments. As the administrator of the Environment & Sustainability Minor, we have advised students in every school, supported the creation of new climate-focused classes and provided new resources and materials for existing subjects, and worked with students to assess the climate connections in their summer internships and work opportunities so they can bring principles of sustainable practice and design to their future careers.

Kelly Wu and other MITASC members at the Net Impact Conference 2019

In addition to supporting climate-related coursework at MIT, we have connected students to career-building opportunities focused on sustainability, like the Net Impact Conference.

We do this not only to help train a new generation of climate leaders—though that would be reason enough. We also do it because students have been among our best resources in carrying out climate research and engagement work. The Climate Action Plan’s pledge to “make a climate or clean-energy research opportunity or experiential learning opportunity available to every undergraduate who wants one” reflects this confidence in our students’ ability to make meaningful contributions on climate change and sustainability. Together with our partners across MIT, we look forward to creating many more undergraduate positions in the years to come.

ESI has also taken on the unique task of introducing environmental themes to foundational STEM courses across MIT, so that a climate-informed perspective is not restricted only to those students who seek out environmental coursework. We are thrilled to contribute this perspective to the Climate Action Plan, and will continue and deepen our collaborations across the Institute to build climate content into these foundational classes. This curricular effort will form a solid bedrock for a whole-of-MIT initiative on climate education.

“Inform the Work of Governments and Leverage Their Power to Accelerate Progress”

“Public officials and policy makers are essential to driving progress on climate change,” the new Climate Action Plan states. “MIT will take every feasible opportunity—at the city, state, federal, and international levels—to share evidence-based knowledge of climate science, as well as technology- and policy-based solutions, with those officials whose decisions can facilitate or impede the world’s transition to a decarbonized economy.”

This is core to ESI’s understanding of our own mission, and we have acted on it.

Our Rapid Response Group of student investigators has provided relevant, timely scientific and policy briefs to government officials from U.S. Congressional staff to City Council members here in Cambridge. Our Plastics & the Environment Program has brought together policymakers, including federal regulators and a bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators, to discuss sustainability and effective policy solutions with corporate representatives and environmental advocacy groups. And through our Here & Real Program, we have collaborated with state leadership, community groups, and citizens in coal-producing regions of the U.S. to understand what climate action and the energy transition mean to them, and how to move ahead in a low-carbon future.

The last of these programs, concentrating on issues of public will and social and economic justice as localities around the world confront decisions about a changing climate, runs at the heart of the MIT Climate Action Plan. Our Here & Real engagements have been fruitful, but also opened more questions: can this work be extended at scale to more communities? How do we build trust with those we can’t reach directly? Will decision-makers carry on this engagement all the way to a zero-carbon economy, and will we have helped them acquire the tools to create economic opportunity when they do?

U.S. Senator Ed Markey

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA; center) headlines one of our People, Prosperity & the Planet events.

As MIT commits itself to working broadly and deeply with policymakers, we will keep asking these questions and experimenting with new answers. We are doing so already: knowing that local journalism remains one of America’s most trusted sources of information, we recently launched ESI Journalism Fellowships that will support deep, extended climate coverage in local outlets around the country. We are also welcoming new expertise and perspectives to ESI to broaden our capacity to work with policymakers around the globe—most recently, by hosting Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s former Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development, as an MIT MLK Fellow.

Finally, the Climate Action Plan affirms our efforts to “continue to tell the science-based climate story to the world.” We have worked hard to produce outstanding resources for the public to find factual, approachable, usable information about all aspects of climate change, through the MIT Climate Primer, MIT Climate Portal, and TILclimate podcast. These award-winning resources together form a first-class beginner’s guide to climate science and solutions. Our task now is to see them used in more places and by more people—beginning with the educators who do so much to shape the state of local knowledge in communities around the world.

“The work before us is to help humanity gain the tools and concepts to solve the existential problem of global warming, and the will and capacity to use them,” wrote MIT’s President Reif and his colleagues in their introduction to the new plan. This is the right task for MIT in this decade, and as we and our many extraordinary partners in the Institute commit ourselves to it, we can and will forge new paths toward a prosperous, equitable, zero-carbon future.


Read the entire MIT Climate Action Plan for the Decade.


The socio-environmental complexities of renewable energy

MIT SHASS interviews doctoral student and ESI collaborator Caroline White-Nockleby about social and economic effects of the renewable energy industry and the energy transition. Read the full interview.

Low-Carbon, Locally

A county fair in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the heart of Appalachian coal country, isn’t where one might expect to find education on adapting to climate change; yet, in the summer of 2020, the nonprofit Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), in partnership with MIT, presented an interactive game to share important ideas about coal, adaptation, and the local economy.

Greene County is a case-study site for Here and Real, a project launched in October 2018 by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The project engages with hydrocarbon-producing regions in the United States to connect local perspectives, values, and priorities with climate-change science and solutions, and works with government and academic leaders in Wyoming to foster conversations about how to lower carbon emissions while maintaining a strong local economy. In addition, Here and Real is collaborating with local newsrooms though the recently launched ESI Journalism Fellowship, which supports and trains journalists in connecting what is happening on the ground locally with the broader reach of climate-change science and solutions.

Read the full article in Spectrum.

Protecting and Enhancing Natural Carbon Sinks

“There is an urgent need for investment, policy, and technological innovations to strengthen both the basic science of natural carbon sequestration and the governance mechanisms that enable local communities to protect and enhance carbon-storing ecosystems,” writes ESI research associate Marcela Angel. Read the full op ed at MIT Solve.

From entrepreneur to climate policy advocate

Whether improving sanitation or addressing climate change, Kiara Wahnschafft is drawn to evidence-based methods for tackling social challenges. Read the full article on MIT News.