Biodiversity and Cities Summer Fellows

Jimena Muzio, MCP ’23, and Daniela Castillo, MCP ’23, will join the ESI as Biodiversity and Cities Summer Fellows. The fellowship builds on the work developed for the client-based course 4.S23 Biodiversity and Cities: A Perspective in Colombian Cities, which aimed to identify strategies that help the city of Quibdó to incorporate biodiversity restoration and enhancement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and socioeconomic development into their planning processes as the city continues to urbanize in the heart of the Pacific tropical forest. 

Jimena and Daniela will return to Quibdó to implement an engagement plan designed to discuss the local priorities, solicit feedback on the class work, and prioritize a series of solutions for city-led biodiversity management strategies at the urban, peri-urban, and non-urban levels. Additionally, the students will work with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia and assess the replicability of lessons learned in Quibdó for other cities within the BiodiverCities by 2030 framework.

Jimena has a BA and MA in Economics. Her work focuses on integrating informal settlements into the urban fabric in socially and spatially equitable ways. More recently, she has been exploring the link between Bioeconomy and urban planning to promote and increase support for biodiversity conservation through the development of bioeconomic strategies. “The city of Quibdó offers a unique opportunity because it is located in a biodiversity hotspot and urban policies and regulations have the potential to impact a highly valuable ecosystem. I will be conducting research at the intersection of biodiversity conservation and carbon markets in Colombia to inform my master’s thesis at DUSP” said Jimena.

Daniela has a B.S. in Environmental Sciences. Her previous research focused on the health impacts of particulate matter pollution in cities. She is interested in how different urban environmental aspects, such as air pollution, noise pollution, heat and green space, can impact health, as well as in the multiple co-benefits of climate change mitigation actions in urban settings. Through the Biodiversity and Cities class and fellowship, Daniela has started to inquire how the co-benefits can also positively impact biodiversity, particularly in a mega-diverse country like Colombia. With a focus on participatory science as an approach to co-create knowledge between communities and researchers, Daniela aims to strengthen data collection and monitoring practices, as well as to promote environmental education and community engagement in Colombian cities.

Student Sustainability Journeys: Eli Brooks

As the end of the spring term draws to a close, we are celebrating the graduation of those seniors who are minoring in Environment and Sustainability (E&S). These students come from majors across the Institute. Below we share with you here an example of one student’s academic journey through the E&S Minor. 

Eli Brooks (Course 2, 2022) was attracted to the E&S Minor for two primary reasons. First, he had always wanted to “do better through engineering.” Second, he wanted to make sure that if he had the opportunity to take classes outside of his major and GIRs, that it wasn’t a random collection of classes, but rather a collection of classes that were all of interest to him. 

Eli’s roadmap though the E&S Minor included five classes:

  • 12.387 / 15.874 / IDS.063[J] People and the Planet: Environmental Governance and Science
  • 1.005 Tools for Sustainable Design
  • EC.715 D-Lab: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
  • 4.411 / EC.713 D-Lab Schools: Building Technology Laboratory
  • 11.002 Making Public Policy

Looking back, he sees that the combination in pairs of People and the Planet and Tools for Sustainable Design melded well with the two D-Lab classes. The former two classes provided over-achieving views and frameworks, whereas the latter two were oriented towards more hands-on projects “implementing ideas in reality and in a foreign country. Confronted with a real-life situation, how do you ensure that something is sustainable?” As he explained,

“What I ended up with was a ground-level view and then this much broader view in the combination of all of these classes. This is how they all connected. There were two sides. One was more of an in-person, ground level (you are doing something in this other place), and then the other side was broader, like how can you be an engineer and be sustainable, and what does sustainability mean in the context of engineering now?”

One of Eli’s primary regrets was that he did not find this passion until later in his MIT career. He started classes for the E&S Minor in his junior year, and he laments that he has had to squeeze many of the classes into his senior year, “I’m not going to have an opportunity to expand on the learning I’ve had. I realized too late that I enjoy it. It would have been nice to have some time after finding this passion.” 

Eli is thankful that he did the E&S Minor because, as he said, “it allowed me to take classes that I would have otherwise never taken… like Tools for Sustainable Design, which was one of my favorite classes. I definitely learned a lot about climate change, and also about larger issues in the world. I don’t want to just live in this (privileged) bubble. I learned a lot more about what is really happening in, rather than just turning a blind eye.”

4.s23 Biodiversity and Cities: a Perspective for Colombian Cities Trip

The Environmental Solutions Initiative, in collaboration with the Vice-Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, Nicolás Galarza Sánchez, and supported by MIT Latin American Office conducted a week-long fieldwork in Bogotá and Quibdó for the class “Biodiversity and Cities: a Perspective for Colombian Cities” co-instructed by Professor John Fernandez, Research Program Director Marcela Angel, Post-Doctoral Fellow Norhan Bayomi, and Doctorate Instructor Alessandra Fabbri.

Engagement with the Environmental Youth Network, Quibdó. Photo by Yujie Wang.

Recognizing the inextricable link between biodiversity and urban planning, the class partook in a series of interviews, site visits and workshops with government officials (MinAmbienteMinViviendaMinCiencias, National Planning Department, the Municipality of Quibdó), research institutions (Humboldt Biological Resources Research InstituteEnvironmental Research Institute of the Pacific IIAP), community-based organizations (the Environmental Youth Network of Codechocó, the Ethnobotanical, Pedagogical and Environmental Center of Quibdó CEPAQ), and representatives of local communities (Tutunendo Afro-descendant Council), among others, to learn about the challenges, capacities, and opportunities of the city of Quibdó to preserve its biodiversity and foster sustainable planning and bioeconomy strategies. Seven students from the MIT School of Architecture and Planning were at the forefront of this inclusive engagement process, conducting meaningful conversations and interviews with local communities and stakeholders. “Meeting in person with a wide range of stakeholders in Quibdo was a valuable and enriching learning experience, and it was fundamental to build trust and to create the foundation for long-term relationships. There is a lot of information and observations that we need to process, but this is only the beginning of an exciting and meaningful collaboration between MIT ESI and Quibdo” said Daniela Castillo MCP’23 and one of the students in the class.

Site visit to La Esmeralda neighborhood, Quibdó. Photo by Yujie Wang.

Yujie Wang, MArch’23 added “The field trip to Quibdo, Colombia deepened my understanding of BiodiverCity and made me realize the importance of recognizing the reality and complexity of biodiversity conservation and urban ecosystem as well as active listening to the communities with humility. Quibdo is one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots in Colombia but it suffers from diverse challenges: poverty; lack of infrastructure due to geographic conditions, urban expansion, and a housing shortage; human resources needs due to talent loss; ethical dilemmas related to indigenous and black communities’ different views of the land; and policy implementation shortcomings due to a lack of coordination between the national and local entities as well as government transitions, just to name a few. Their world is not run by social media, people rely on radio and newspapers as the main ways of communication. Hyper-local solutions with the consideration of complex stakeholder relationships are needed to effectively address Quibdo’s challenges.”

Workshop at the IIAP, Quibdó. Photo by Yujie Wang.

In this regard, Ángel indicated “We aim to support Quibdó to create a collective vision for a BiodiverCity. For this visit, we designed an engagement process to inquire, listen and document diverse perspectives on the opportunities as well as the environmental and cultural assets of Quibdó to support the development of the city’s identity by leveraging and integrating its unique biodiversity into its urban development”. For additional information see press release from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and a note on the local newspaper Chocó7días.

Letter from the Director: “Delay is the new denial,” March 2022

On February 24, I participated in the first White House-level convening on the topic of “climate delayism” as part of a group consisting of climate experts and scholars of climate denial and misinformation. The roundtable event was intended to highlight the accelerating strategy of delay now being deployed to directly target climate solutions.

Delay is the new denial – “climate delayism” is a systematic and coordinated strategy to bring about unwarranted concern regarding a wide range of climate actions for the purpose of slowing down or indefinitely suspending those actions. Of course, delay has always been the primary purpose and consequence of climate denial. Climate denialists, such as the soon to retire Senator James Inhofe and ExxonMobil, have never been primarily interested in probing science in an honest and dispassionate manner. Climate denialists have been primarily interested in obfuscation and nurturing confusion for the purpose of derailing and delaying climate actions [1]. Delay has always been a primary goal – so “climate delayism” is not a new thing. However, in light of the critical urgency for action, delay is more problematic than ever.

Urgency and agency – after several years of significantly worsening climate catastrophe, lethal and uncontrollable wildfires in the American west, Australia, Greece; worsening droughts and record low reservoirs at Lake Powell and Mead; devastating floods in Germany, Houston and Manila and so much more, the urgency of climate change is plain as day. In his Washington Post article [2] and recent blog post [3], Michael Mann details how we can still achieve maximum warming of no more than 1.5C, but we need to act now. And yet, while urgency is unfortunately amply clear in a changing climate, there is still much to do to engender agency – the knowledge and capacity to act in effective ways. The situation is dire, so what do we do?

This is exactly the question that delayism targets, for while delay is not new it is now becoming a more effective way to misinform and disinform. Delayism’s answers to the question of what do we do are 1) it’s too late, the game is over so we might as well not overreact – therefore let’s make the best of a bad situation and accept that fossil fuels, like methane are here to stay and; 2) alternatives are risky, they might not work, are expensive and might make the situation worse. The first fatalistic position is intended to create a crippling stasis – deer in the headlights – in which one believes there is no possible way to avert the coming catastrophe. This argument takes advantage of the increasing number of people who consider the situation urgent but suffer under the weight of helplessness from not knowing what to do – who feel a lack of agency. The second leverages the inertia that comes from invoking risk to create doubt about the real value and suggest vague dangers of existing and emerging solutions. For example, this second argument was used to blame the massive power outage in Texas in 2021 on renewable energy [4] when the actual primary cause was disruption from very cold temperatures on thermal plants fueled by natural gas [5].

Present and local – a major part of the answer of what to do begins with solutions in the present that can be deployed at the local level. Economically and technically viable solutions have been available for decades and more are developed regularly. For example, electrification of buildings, heat pumps, building and district scale geothermal are a path toward eliminating on-site combustion of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Let’s remember that natural gas has been cited as the primary bridge fuel essential to lowering GHG emissions while meeting increasing global energy demands in a concerted corporate and special interest campaign [6,7,8,9].

While this may have made sense as a strategy to aggressively replace coal years ago it no longer does as methane emissions mount and threaten to overwhelm this decade’s emissions reductions targets. The continued investment in methane infrastructure is partly the result of the various questionable arguments used for delay such as the responsibility to meet increasing consumer demand with fossil fuels; the lock-in of already existing infrastructure; and the immaturity of system and technology alternatives. Yet, robust arguments easily dispel the myth of methane as a climate-benign fossil fuel essential to a low carbon transition [10].

Over the past half century, a sustained marketing and communications campaign has resulted in public acceptance of the necessity of natural gas as a benign alternative to coal and oil at the same time that CO2 emissions from gas have risen faster than coal and oil, anthropogenic methane emissions are now 60% of the global total [11,12] and new sources of methane releases are discovered [13,14]. For example, recently it was shown that household emissions from kitchen gas ranges are a significant source of emissions. In the US, more than 40 million gas stoves emit methane through leakage and incomplete combustion with three quarters of emissions occurring while stoves are off [15].

While there has been substantial research accounting for leakage of methane along the supply chain including the ∼3 million miles of pipeline in the United States – there is very little about emissions in the home at the point of household consumption, so-called “post-meter” emissions. Narratives of delayism have taken advantage of this gap in general awareness about the consequences of household methane emissions and combustion to assert that natural gas is the very best low carbon alternative currently available. This is not accurate.

Today, in your own kitchen you can reduce emissions of a powerful greenhouse gas and improve your health and the health of your entire family. Every day, American families turn on gas-fired ranges and stoves and breathe in un-combusted methane and compounds formed during combustion including formaldehyde (CH2O) carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). This indoor pollution can lead to a range of negative health effects. In the US homeowners know to be concerned about lead paint and radon gas but there is very little awareness of the health consequences of natural gas. Electrification of heating, cooling and cooking would eliminate on-site combustion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment and improve human health. We are fortunate to have market ready low and zero carbon alternatives to gas fired boilers and stoves already on the marketplace – heat pumps, household and district scale geothermal, for example (16).

Climate denialists are realizing that greater acceptance of the science of climate change internationally and now in the US – including the acceptance that warming is due to human activities – has taken root and may continue to expand [17]. So, the strategy to block meaningful climate actions is shifting to skepticism about solutions. Delaysim is a particularly insidious and effective way in which to continue inaction on climate change. It is a strategy that needs to be aggressively opposed before it derails the climate actions critical to this decade and our future.

At the inaugural Climate Science Roundtable on Countering “Delayism” and Communicating the Urgency of Climate Action the White House committed to addressing the corrosive and insidious strategy of delayism that attacks creative, economically and technically viable, and broadly benevolent solutions.

Press release readout of the White House Climate Science Roundtable:


John E. Fernández, Director
March 4, 2022
Cambridge, Massachusetts


  1. Supran, G. & N. Oreskes 2021. Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications. One Earth 4, 696-719.
  3. Hertsgaard, M., Huq, S., and M. Mann. “The Best Climate Science You’ve Never Heard Of.” February 26, 2022,’ve-never-heard?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Weekend+Reader%3A&utm_campaign=Weekend+Reader+Email accessed 26 February 2022.
  4. Kim, N. Y. “Tucker Carlson falsely blames Green New Deal, wind energy for Texas power outage.” Politifact, The Poynter Institute, February 17, 2021. accessed 24 February 2022.
  5. Henson, B. “Why the power is out in Texas… and why other states are vulnerable too.” Yale Climate Communications, February 17, 2021. accessed 24 February 2022.
  6. Stevens, A. 2021. How the Battle of the Natural Gas Bans Will Cost You, Institute for Energy Research Research. accessed 10 February, 2022
  7. Raval, A. 2018. Majors back gas in power switch as a ‘bridge fuel’. Financial Times, November 28, 2018. accessed December 12, 2021.
  10. Muttitt, G. 2021. Gas Is Not a Bridge Fuel, It’s a Wall. So, Why Are Governments Still Financing It? IISD. accessed 12 February 2022.
  11. Jackson et al. 2022. (ERL, in press) and Friedlingsten et al. 2022. (ESSD, in press) – findings from both presented at an internal MIT climate workshop on 15 February 2022 by Robert Jackson.
  12. Saunois et al. 2020. The Global Methane Budget 2000-2017. ESSD, 12, 1561–1623.
  13. Phillips, N.G., Ackley, R., Crosson, E.R., Down, A., Hutyra, L.R., Brondfield, M., Karr, J.D., Zhao, K., and R.B. Jackson, 2013. Mapping urban pipeline leaks: Methane leaks across Boston. Environmental Pollution, 173, 1-4.
  14. Jackson, R.B., Down, A., Phillips, N.G., Ackley, R.C., Cook, C.W., Plata, D.L., and K.Zhao. 2014. Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks Across Washington, DC Environmental Science & Technology 48 (3), 2051-2058.
  15. Lebel, E.D., Finnegan, C.J., Ouyang, Z. and R.B. Jackson. 2022. Methane and NOx Emissions from Natural Gas Stoves, Cooktops, and Ovens in Residential Homes. Environmental Science & Technology 56 (4), 2529-2539.
  16. Abel, D. “These climate activists aren’t just spouting rhetoric; they’re helping wean utilities off fossil fuels.” Boston Globe, 11 February 2022. Accessed 24 February 2022.

Three Questions on Environmental Education with Sylvia Scharf

Sylvia Scharf is ESI’s Climate Education Specialist. She primarily works on materials for educators related to the TILclimate podcast and the MIT Climate Portal. She brings over 15 years’ experience in public and outreach education and communication at New England Aquarium, a leader in climate communication practice. Her focus areas are climate change and resilience, science literacy, and connecting people to place. She has an MS in Environmental Education from Antioch University New England.

We recently asked Sylvia three questions about her experiences and thoughts on environmental education.

What is the role of educators in climate change?

Climate change touches every aspect of human life. While it may be easier to see connections to curriculum in science classes, climate change has a place in any subject: essays and reading in English, the history of fossil fuel development, civics and policy, art, and anywhere students are imagining the future. Young people are well aware that climate change is the defining issue of their time, and are looking to learn more.

How did you come to be a climate communicator?

As an undergraduate, I was interested in ecology and assumed I would become a field researcher. After a semester abroad doing a mixture of field research, policy, and education, I realized that I enjoyed teaching people about what I was learning more than I enjoyed collecting the data myself. Since then, it’s been a progression of opportunities to learn new information and new techniques.

What is your goal in developing the TILclimate Educator Guides?

We know that teachers want to teach climate change with their students, but may not have the resources or background knowledge to feel comfortable taking on such a big topic. My goal with the Guides is that teachers can choose (buffet-style) which pieces they are interested in digging into. The Guide activities are student-oriented, solutions-driven, and adaptable. We’ve done some of the heavy lifting finding real data, real-world problems, and innovative solutions – so you don’t have to!

Environmental Equity and Racial Justice

ESI’s Luis Gilberto Murillo and Marcela Angel Lalinde published an essay in Sur, an international journal of human rights issues in the Global South, laying out the opportunities for Afro-descendant communities in the Americas to contribute to climate solutions in ways that also address social, economic and racial injustices.
Read the full story at Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.

Bringing climate reporting to local newsrooms

Inaugural MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Journalism Fellows reflect on their experiences telling local climate stories.
Read the full story at MIT News.

Three Questions on Energy Justice with Yiran He

ESI’s newest member is Yiran He, a research assistant who studies equity issues in economic development and energy transitions. Yiran joins ESI from the MIT Technology and Policy Program, where she is a first-year masters student with an undergraduate degree in Materials Science and Engineering and Science, Technology and Society. She previously worked on the MIT-Harvard Roosevelt Project in the area of the clean energy transition and regional economic and community development. Here, she will expand our research on various equity issues facing policymakers in planning for a just economic and energy transition.

To introduce Yiran, we asked her three questions about energy justice and transitions.

How does a focus on energy justice play a part on the path to a low-carbon economy?

Due to global economic and social forces, the world is already moving toward lower carbon emissions in many sectors. With a market shift toward cleaner sources of energy, and cleaner forms of manufacturing, it is essential that communities deeply engaged in changing industries are not left behind, or left out of conversations.

What has your research on energy transitions in different parts of the U.S. taught you about tailoring energy policies to the needs of specific areas?

First of all, tailoring policies to specific areas is necessary. Every region has a different history and different existing assets, which can include longstanding ties to, and deep expertise in, specific industries. Furthermore, finding the right combination of policies for specific areas requires collaboration with and commitment from partners with close regional ties and vested interest in the region’s future.

What kinds of regional partners does ESI need to engage with to make the most productive strides toward a just transition?

Transitions are about more than energy sources, and a smooth and just transition must include a diverse array of voices. Industrial, non-profit, academic, community development, and governmental actors, focused on a spread of topics including energy, workforce issues, education and training, and economic development, will all be part of a conversation in planning the pathway toward a low-carbon economy.

Two Basins in 2050

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

Picture the Klamath Basin in March, as the summer of 2050 looms on the horizon. It’s been a warm, dry winter. Only specks of white remain on the mountaintops, streams languish with no snowmelt to surge their riffles and forests and grasslands already thirst for moisture. What will the experience of drought in the basin feel like if we do nothing to change the way we manage it? And what could it look like if the watershed’s stakeholders right the ship?

Plucked from a slew of possible futures, below are two scenarios the Klamath and its communities could face by the mid-21st Century. Though fictional, they are based on the impacts associated with a specific degree of warming determined by climate and economic modelers. Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs, are socioeconomic models that describe four different trajectories of carbon emissions, each resulting in a specific average temperature increase by the end of this century. Researchers can then use those trajectories to model the behavior of the atmosphere, assessing future impacts like extreme heat, fire danger, snowfall and more.

Both of these scenarios exist within RCP 4.5, which projects a global average temperature increase of about 3.24˚F by the end of this century relative to the period between 1986 and 2005 (for comparison, the Klamath Basin has already warmed by about 1˚F since the mid-20th century). For this to occur, global carbon emissions must peak by around 2040 and decline rapidly over the following 30 years to half of what they were in 2000.

Climate modelers consider RCP 4.5 a middle-of-the-road pathway. It emits more carbon and results in worse impacts than the best-case-scenario model that has become the goal for the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it’s not as catastrophic (or even as unlikely) as RCP 8.5, the worst-case pathway that more than doubles the increase in global temperatures by 2100.

For that to occur, humans would have to continue increasing fossil fuel use and emissions, despite market forces driving down the price of renewable energy even in the absence of robust climate policies.

In the Klamath Basin, future impacts based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 only differ toward the end of this century, with the latter being more intense. For the purposes of imagining the Klamath Basin in 2050, both scenarios result in roughly the same outcome because previous emissions will have already locked in a certain level of warming by then.

In both of these futures, the annual average temperature of the basin will be 51.9˚F, nearly 4˚ warmer than it was in 2000. Each summer, the atmosphere will draw nearly an inch more water from plants than it used to, requiring that much more precipitation to replace it. Soils are 7% drier, and three fewer inches on average of snow-water equivalent are available to make it into streams and lakes by April 1. The average number of “extreme” fire danger days has increased by five each fire season because wildlands have become so parched.

But this isn’t a doomsday scenario — or at least it doesn’t have to be. The sparsely populated Klamath Basin can’t single-handedly reverse global emissions trends, but it can control how it responds to their related impacts. Though the first future described in “The Lone Farmer” could be considered the “bad” future, while the second described in “Lodgepole and Ponderosa” could be considered “good,” neither is any more likely than the other, and neither is set in stone.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.


This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

On November 5, 1922, in the volcanic scrublands just south of the Oregon-California border, a group of people gathered on a hill above the Klamath River to celebrate a newly minted, 126-foot wall of concrete.

A local band played “America the Beautiful” and the American flag unfurled from a flagpole on the dam. Soldiers fired a salute from atop the mountain. The attendees had a picnic and local officials made speeches praising the utility bringing large-scale hydroelectric power generation to the area. At the time, the Siskiyou Daily News called the project “one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world,” able to produce 12,500 kilowatts of energy.

At the end of the event, the daughter of the California Oregon Power Company’s board chairman flipped a switch, turning the generator on and feeding the power of the Klamath River into the regional grid. Copco Dam was officially in operation.

The newspaper paraphrased a Yreka judge who told a romantic story of development in the region, of how white American settlement had progressed the area by leaps and bounds. Horses had been upgraded to oxen and then to cars in a matter of decades. And thanks to the booming development of hydropower, the sky would be the limit.

“It is but a matter of a few years until we will be coming to the Copco picnics and future dedicatory ceremonies flying through the air,” the article read.

But one community’s progress was another’s decline. The dam almost perfectly bisected the Klamath Basin, and due to its height, it wasn’t feasible to construct fish passage infrastructure at the dam. Salmon lost access to hundreds of miles of spawning habitat in the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake.

A June 1921 article in the Klamath Evening Herald had pointed out that the watershed was at a crossroads. Would it become a major hydropower-producing stream or California’s salmon stronghold?

“Along with it is the problem (of) whether the need for electricity ranks higher in the law than a food supply for the Indians,” the article read.

Fast forward 100 years, and the Klamath is known for neither an abundance of hydropower nor an abundance of salmon.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.