Whether it’s a cardinal on the terrace picnic tables or a Red-tailed Hawk coursing through the trees on your way to class, hopefully you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to observe some of the dozens of bird species visible throughout campus. If you have been around this summer the warblings of bluebirds and numerous nests bustling with newfound life have become part of the background of your campus environment. Although you may not have noticed them as much as the shorter weekend night lines at Wawa, these denizens of campus are indicators of the lively avian community reliant upon campus landscapes. Soon, though, these fervent residents will begin their fall migration to southern latitudes and in their stead a whole new bird community will replace them. Just as William & Mary has a different human community come August it will also have a new bird community. Some such as the Blackpoll Warbler will be traveling from as far away as Western Alaska. For species like these our campus is a critically important resting area as they wing their way as far south as Brazil. Unfortunately, for nearly all migrants their journey is never as romantic as the writings of Rachel Carson and others have described.
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter…” –Rachel Carson
More and more the symbolic and actual beauty of migration is vanishing as the journey becomes a gauntlet of increasingly frightening challenges. Habitat destruction and climate change are rapidly rendering long-honed migration instincts outdated. There are, however, a few lethal pressures on birds that DO NOT require multinational legislation or burdensome economic policies. Bird window strikes are one of those easily fixable problems*. And with estimates of up to 1 billion birds killed per year in the US alone of the approximately 20 billion in all of the country, we can no longer afford to continue on this trajectory. Sometimes saving birds leaves us in difficult situations such as when leaving a productive wetland intact means a housing community cannot be built. In comparison, the issue of preventing birds from hitting windows is relatively simple. Within the past couple of years easily applicable films have been developed to reduce reflections from windows to a point where birds no longer see the appealing habitat “behind” the window and therefore no longer strike the window. These films may be applied to any window and the film is easy to install. The best part? Every time a window is outfitted with this film, birds’ lives are saved. The effect is that straightforward, that instantaneous and that simple.
The top window has been treated while the bottom has not. Notice the difference in the reflections.
This spring a Green Fee awarded to Professor Dan Cristol and students Ohad Paris (Graduate program ’17) and Megan Mass (Undergraduate ’18) funded the application of treatments to windows in the Swem courtyard, on the southwestern side of the library building. For the past three years students have been monitoring birds killed at windows on campus and this was the most lethal area killing an estimated 25-30 birds per year. Taken over the life of the now 50-year-old building, that combines for a saddening number of needlessly taken lives. As you walk to Swem from the direction of Ukrop Way take a look at the windows surrounding the courtyard, in all likelihood you won’t notice any difference, at least right away, and that is the beauty of the project. The birds notice it, we don’t and everyone goes on with their lives.
What you can do
Join me and movements across the country in doing what you can to prevent window strikes. A list of links with more information are at the bottom of this post. If YOU would like to help on campus email the Bird Club of William and Mary. Right now we are gathering data to figure out where the next windows we should treat are.
On a side note, if you do look carefully you will notice that some of the windows are not as reflective. Right now two windows have been treated, but keep an eye out for the installation of the last five as migration, and bird collision frequency, increase come the end of August.
*An in-depth look
Birds and windows have obviously not evolved in tandem. The time required for birds to adapt to challenges posed by windows is, unfortunately, orders of magnitudes longer than the 150 years or so that glass windows have been in widespread use. When birds fly around they are typically looking for one of three things: water, food or shelter from predators and the weather. Often this means they are looking for trees and bushes. There are three major problems when this desirable habitat comes in close contact with structures that have windows. The first issue is that birds cannot readily discern the difference between a reflection of a tree and the sight of a real tree. The second problem is that birds don’t see like humans do; their eyes are positioned on the side of their heads as opposed to the forward facing eyes of humans. This means they are less likely to be able to detect an obstruction directly in front of them. Finally, more than 90% of the birds that hit windows and succumb to the associated severe brain trauma are migrants not familiar with the local windows. In contrast, local birds very rarely fall victim to windows. This means that fall and spring, when millions of birds migrate, are far and away the most dangerous and lethal times of year on the William and Mary campus and around the world.
Below are some pictures and commentary of a few of the species that have been found under windows around campus.
Black-throated Blue Warblers breed throughout the northeast and are commonly found migrants in May and September campus
In the late winter large flocks of more than 200 Cedar Waxwings eat every single berry on campus
Common Yellowthroats are another migrant seen in brushy areas on campus. They make their home across North America along waterways and in wetlands
Rusty Blackbirds are a globally threatened species that makes its winter home on campus where it subsides on the crushed acorns in front of Swem and on Ukrop Dr.
Song Sparrows nest in the bushes across campus and are often the first to sing in the spring
Gray Catbirds make their home in berry thickets where you may have caught glimpses of them making their namesake mewing call while picking berries
Northern Parulas are one of the 28 or so species of warblers that pass through campus in the spring and fall every year on migration
The closest Painted Buntings can reliably be found to campus is in South Carolina, but they sometimes stray to Virginia
The classy Black-and-White Warbler is one of the first warblers to arrive in the spring and last to leave in the fall. One even spent the winter in Colonial Williamsburg in 2014!
The documentary The Messenger, available on Netflix
A major part of being a graduate student is getting your work out into the world and networking with other like-minded scholars at academic conferences. As an emerging scholar, who focuses largely on nonhuman animals and environmental issues in American culture, the Cultural Studies Association (CSA) Annual Conference was a great fit for me. This year, the conference took place at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania; however, the conference hotel was in downtown Philadelphia, a 40-minute drive away, creating an initial environmental dilemma by increasing travel time and fuel consumption for attendees as well as making my attendance at the majority of events challenging. Because of this distance, however, my dog Winslow, who was my co-pilot on this environmental adventure, and I got some great walks in along the Schuylkill River, a river with a history of pollution due to the oil and coal industries dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
My own presentation entitled “Why is no one clamoring to save the cockroaches?” took place during the Material Creatures panel alongside Daniel Lanza Rivers, a recent PhD from Claremont Graduate University who looked at the extinction of the California grizzly bear within a queer ecology framework; Anna Guasco, a recent graduate of Carleton College who rejected the notion that ecotourism regarding the American grey whale heals traumatic historical interspecies encounters through touch; and Michael McGlynn, Associate Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures from National Taiwan University who presented on the ecological formal elements of Spanish love poetry. My paper questioned why no animal activists think about animals that are considered “pests,” a pest being an animal (human or nonhuman) who is considered “out of place.” I use three examples of performative art that involve the live bodies of animals to highlight their agency and the affects produced by the production of this artwork: Kim Jones’ Rat Piece (1976), which uses rats; Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)(2001), which uses mice; and Catherine Chalmers’ Safari (2008) which uses cockroaches. I argue that each of these works are successful in shaping the American cultural imaginary differently and more humanely with regards to pest animal deaths by employing shock, naturalization, and re-wilding tactics respectively. This essay acts as a seed on which my dissertation will grow as I continue to look at the art, activism, and visual culture of the pest in America. I would also like to thank the William & Mary Committee on Sustainability for partially funding my travel to this conference and supporting my research.
Kim Jones, Rat Piece, 1976 (performance documentation)
If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me what I am going to do with my major, I would still be poor, but at least now I have a few ideas. As an Environmental Science major, many people are curious about what that means for my future career. I have wanted a green career for most of my life, but I did not know what that meant until this year. I am in a research lab in the Biology department, but, like a lot of students involved in undergraduate research, I still want information about careers outside the lab. When I found out about the EcoAmbassador program, I saw this position and felt relieved. I could get credit for doing career research? This position has allowed me to do job research not only for myself, but also for any student interested in a “green” career.
A green career can be defined in many ways, and a few sources have attempted to assign certain characteristics to these careers and quantify their impact. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics explains that these careers can either be “Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources,” or “Jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources” (BLS 2010).
These sustainable activities are restated in a survey from the New Hampshire state government. Their report adds that a green company will offer a green product or service, or uses green processes such as “environmental management” (State of NH, 2011). Next, I found a few podcasts dealing with green careers, and one of the podcasts on a site called Green Biz explains that a green career “[reduces] environmental impact or [promotes] environmental restoration,” or it is a career “that affects, in a positive way, what’s referred to as people, planet, profit” (GreenBiz). A green career is one that helps the employees and customers, ensures decisions are being made with a focus on the environment, and helps the bottom line.
For my project, I interviewed nine professionals with green careers and posted them on the Cohen Career Center’s website. My interviews include two salesmen, an environmental consultant, a handful of directors of sustainability, a local government leader, and a science communicator. If you are interested in pursuing a green career, or just want to learn how to conduct an informational interview, please listen to my podcasts.
Through these interviews, I have learned a great deal about how to achieve a green career, and I want to tell you what I learned about networking. First, get a LinkedIn. Making a profile takes 10 minutes, and I promise it will make your networking so much easier. Then, join groups on LinkedIn with W&M alumni. Once you are in the same group, you can message alumni with jobs that you are interested in. Try to set up a phone call even for 20 minutes, and then ask them how they got to their job. I like to ask questions about skills, their past careers, and what they love and hate about their jobs. Become an expert on these informational interviews, and I promise that you will figure out what you are interested in. Plus, you may get a job offer from these contacts. These interviews were extremely valuable to me, and I hope that by listening to mine and conducting your own interviews you are able to find the green career of your dreams.
Over spring break, I joined a group of seven William & Mary students on the college’s Branch Out service trip, TREE. We loaded on to an airplane and headed off to the dry forest in Ecuador to plant some trees. Clarification #1: The dry forest is different than the rainforest. The dry forest is located on the western coast of Ecuador whereas the rainforest circles around to include the eastern region of the country. Unlike the rainforest, known for its constant wet conditions, the dry forest, on the pacific coast, has both a rainy and dry season. When we went, it was the rainy season– green, lush, rainy and roughly 80°F. In the dry season from June to December, the land appears dead with no rain. This dry season tricks many people who see the forest as “dead” anyway and therefore cut down many of the trees. Now, less than 25% of the dry forest is left, resulting in erosion and mudslides as well as the destruction of one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet.
Dedicated to preserving the dry forest, California residents Lucas and Jasper Oshun founded Global Student Embassy (GSE) in 2008. We know the story all too well where a white man comes into another community, finds a problem and tries to fix it, but as I learned more about GSE, I began to see why this organization is different.
Lucas partnered up with Ecuadorian science teacher, Mancho, and the two of them work on a program where students are the core labor and funding that supports this reforestation project. Lucas has set up GSE programs and eco-clubs throughout the U.S. especially in high schools and colleges in California. Mancho started high school eco-clubs in which Ecuadorian students prepare for reforestation throughout the year and then plant trees with American students in our springtime. Some of these Ecuadorian “eco-club” teens are even given the opportunity to visit the United States.
When we arrived in the beaches of San Clemente on the Ecuadorian coast, some of the first faces to greet us were those of Luis, Alvaro, Fiorella, Rolando, Evelyn and Christian—all Ecuadorian students and interns. Country boundaries rapidly faded as we traded a Salsa class for the “Cotton-Eye Joe” dance, exchanged language lessons and compared environmental actions.
Together, we planted over 500 trees in just three days in Bahia, Ecuador. For the first time, I felt the lumpy green skin of the Ceibo tree and ate a bright pink dragon fruit straight off the branch. The mosquitos swarmed and our arms carrying the fifty-pound seedling-boxes ached. There were some near-fainting experiences and the harsh sunlight reminded us that Ecuador is on the equator. Yet the feeling of rich soil in-between my fingers, the Spanish jokes and the look of the farmers after they saw our hard work were all I needed to keep planting.
On the last days of the trip we left the bioluminescent-watered, pink-sea-shelled Bahia coast, and stayed in the old Andes town of Cuenca. There, I learned about the various groups of indigenous people in Ecuador like the Quechuas who wear two braids, a velvet skirt and dominant the traditional medicine corner of the market. We explored the enchanted Cajas National Park with “Quinoa” trees the color of a red crepe myrtles and with waters so clean we drank out of them.
On the last days we reflected on the trip: the culture, the nature, the friends. All of the immense beauty humbled me and reminded me of my small size in the immense, dynamic and essential forests of Ecuador.
Check out Talia’s blog here and a video she made below!
The fall weather felt pleasant as I hiked the trails in Matoaka woods, scrutinizing the leaves at the tops of oak trees through my binoculars and using a field guide to identify tree species. My mission was to find a scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, and then collect as many of its acorns as I could fit into my bag. I wasn’t hoarding for my winter food supply – I was saving the tree biodiversity on campus.
I work on the Native Plant Nursery project (NPN) through the EcoAmbassador internship. The EcoAmbassador internship is a program operated by the Committee on Sustainability where students can apply to multiple on-campus sustainability internships and receive class credits for their work. I compare this experience to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. EcoAmbassadors are Planeteers and Calandra Lake, the EcoAmbassador coordinator, is Captain Planet.
My project is an initiative to restore declining native plant populations on the William & Mary campus. This is both for educational and conservation purposes. The educational reason is to replace species important to biology and environmental science courses that were lost due to ongoing campus construction and development. The conservation purpose is to support landscape efforts by providing native plants which require less maintenance to thrive compared to non-native plants, and that support native animal populations.
The targeted species are:
Decumaria barbara (climbing hydrangea)
Ulmus alata (winged elm)
Quercus prinus (chestnut oak)
Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
Quercus stellata (post oak)
Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak)
Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak)
Viburnum nudum (possumhaw)
Oxydendrum arboretum (sourwood)
Field work is essential for this project – especially during the fall season when I was out competing with squirrels for acorns. The seeds and acorns collected are used to grow seedlings during late autumn. It’s the EcoAmbassador’s responsibility to find mature individuals of the targeted species and collect the seeds from campus property. By selecting seeds from trees nearby, rather than from trees of the same species in a different part of their natural range, our seedlings should be adapted to the local climate.
When I finally found a scarlet oak deep in the College Woods, I collected 97 of its acorns, using an acorn identification guide just to be certain. Acorns with holes weren’t selected, because holes indicate invasion by parasitic insect larvae, such as weevils.
I brought my sizable collection to the potting room in the green house where I performed a float test. This test separates the germinated acorns from the insect damaged and non-germinated acorns. All acorns are placed in a container of water for 24 hours. The ones that sink are viable and kept; the ones that float are discarded. All but four acorns passed the float test.
Scarlet oak is in the red oak family, a family comprised of dormant oak species, and therefore needs a cooling period in order to grow. This cooling period would be winter naturally, but in the NPN it is a refrigerator. Acorns from the red oak family are placed in the fridge in a plastic container filled with soaked peat moss for at least three months. It is vitally important to keep acorns (from all oak families) moist as it is imperative to their timely germination.
When I took the acorns out of the fridge a month ago, I was ecstatic to see the cracked acorn shells with green seed coat peeking through. My advisors (Patty Jackson/Greenhouse Manager and Beth Chambers/Herbarium Curator) and I set up two seed flats for our acorns and put them under grow lights. Most of them now have shoots – a few even have leaves! Soon, they will be transferred to their own individual tree pots.
Currently, the NPN has almost 100 tree seedlings growing at the nursery behind the law school. Once these seedlings reach a self-sustaining size where they no longer require protection against predation, they will eventually be landscaped onto campus property and carry the genetics of their ancestors into the future- hopefully, without any need for helping hands. Looking at the sprouts extending from my scarlet oak acorns, I remember Captain Planet’s words, “The power is yours.”
The Crim Dell is one of the most prominent landmarks on William & Mary’s campus, and even in Colonial Williamsburg. Often the backdrop for family photos, its natural beauty in unmatched by anything on campus. Unfortunately, the Crim Dell is not as beautiful up close as it is from afar, and many people are not aware of this due to its charm.
Unfortunately, in reality the Crim Dell is in poor ecological health, and the structural elements such as trails and stairs are becoming unsafe. Many plant species found in the area around the lake are not native, the biggest offender being the bamboo that was actually planted near the Crim Dell decades ago. Bamboo can even be seen obscuring the bridge. Other invasive plants include wisteria and Japanese honeysuckle which have smothered native species on the trails.
In addition to the lack of attention to the invasive plants, much of the infrastructure in the area has been left to decay over the years. Plants have grown into the trails, blocking people from exploring the trails. Benches are nowhere to be seen, restricting the practicality of student use. In some places the stairs and bridges are falling apart, causing safety hazards.
Our group, SEAC Restoration, has been working on improving the Crim Dell for over a year. We have cleared large areas of invasive species and will continue to do so. We have also improved trails by clearing them of overgrown plants as well as working to make the trails more flat and accessible.
Restoration is continuing to work to fix these issues with the Crim Dell, and to make it a more central part of campus; we hope to make it a destination for students looking for something to do. We are currently working on a green fee proposal, or a request for money, to improve the Crim Dell. We will continue clearing invasive species and replacing them with native plants. We are also planning to improve structures around the area such as the broken stairs, and to possibly build new infrastructure, such as educational signs.
The glacier calving in the Fjord of Eternity (Evigsfjord) – South Greenland. Courtesy of Talia Schmitt.
As a sixteen year-old earth-lover, I was skeptical of climate change. “The earth is warming? Prove it,” I would say. They said this phenomenon was manmade. “How?” I would ask.
I cared about the birds and the trees, but didn’t understand this big change that people were telling me about: global warming. And so I probed, looked for evidence and conversations and now I can more confidently explain how the earth is warming and why the world is the way it is.
It is ok to be skeptical of issues. In fact, I think it should be encouraged, but with a caveat—we need to have open minds. Be open to science and the opinions of others. From there we can become the best students and teachers.
Unfortunately in this day and age everything has become political, and there is a social stigma attached to asking very basic climate change questions no matter which political party you stand with.
“What is Climate Change?” “How does it work?” “How are humans contributing to it?”
People may be fearful to ask these good questions whether they are democrats or republicans. Conservatives are fearful that if they ask these questions they will be portrayed as liberal. Liberals are fearful that if they ask these questions they will be seen as doubting their progressive roots.
If you fall into either of these categories, I dare you to swallow any embarrassment and ask these questions out loud – loud enough so that other people know that it is okay to ask them too.
Believe it or not, your most liberal or conservative friend might be earnestly wondering the very same thing. I grew up in circle of environmental advocates, but when the question “can someone explain the science behind global warming” came out, the room went silent. Unfortunately, people often race to the debate without understanding the problem. What we have to remember is questioning and curiosity are at the core of progress and education.
It wasn’t until I took a trip to Greenland with climate scientists in the summer before college that I really started to see evidence of climate change. They showed me the temperature data detailing climate abnormalities. I sent follow up emails questioning how they knew these changes could be attributed to man. Dialogue over phone calls and emails continued. Only after continued phone calls and emails am I now comfortable accepting and explaining climate change.
This type of skepticism is healthy. Climate change need not be framed as a debate, but rather a conversation– an opportunity for scientists to share their findings, and for the public to question, dig deeper and help find solutions.
In the College of William and Mary’s newest environmental blog Going Green (and Gold), that I am co-writing with the wonderful Jo Flashman ’18, we will share these conversations with you. This is an opportunity for you all to learn about various environmental issues starting on campus and expanding around the globe. So let us know what you want to learn. Email us, message us or talk to us on campus.
I am excited for this conversation to start on paper and hopefully continue in the halls of William and Mary.
When was the last time that you went outside, and I mean really went outside, and completely submersed yourself in nature? How did you feel? Refreshed? Relaxed? Were you unquestionably happier? It’s not just you; there is an inherent connection between humans and nature that is deeply linked to our mental and physical health. The health benefits of spending time outdoors are so valuable that doctors are now writing prescriptions for their patients to spend time in a green-space. Dr. Dorothy Ibes, a professor at W&M who studies parks and public health and directs the Parks Research Lab, has established a Parks Rx program in the Greater Williamsburg Area to promote this practice
GWA Parks Rx is part of an international health initiative that gives healthcare providers the tools to prescribe time outdoors to their patients. Two years ago, Dr. Ibes was taken by an article on the DC Parks Rx program that had been launched 4 years earlier by a pediatrician who runs low-income clinics within the DC metro area. Dr. Ibes decided that she wanted to pilot the Greater Williamsburg Parks Rxprogram to promote these healthy behaviors in a community that she feels very connected to. Through support from W&M Green Fees, the Charles Center, and the Environmental Science and Policy (ENSP) program, she and her student researchers in the Parks Research Lab spent the last year and a half auditing 44 parks in the Williamsburg area, recording 50 variables from each park that can be used to help match patients with their “ideal park.”
“We went out there and said, ‘Okay, how many garbage cans? How many picnic tables? Are there bathrooms? Are they open? Are there drinking fountains? Are they functional? Do they have walking paths? How steep are they? Can you go biking?’ … You name it, we collected information on everything that we could.”
Dr. Dorothy Ibes with the healthcare provider interface and parks information.
Patients from all walks of life and with an array of health concerns can benefit from participation in the Parks Rx program, and the entire prescription process takes just 3 minutes. A provider simply logs on to the database constructed by Ibes and her students, and enters the patient’s preferences: how far from home do they want to go? How do they want to get there? What activities do they want to do outside? What amenities do they think they might need while they are there? The program then matches the patient with an ideal park based on their preferences. The healthcare providers fills out a prescription form, designating a day, time, and duration to go to a park each week. The patient logs each park visit, records their activity, and then brings the log back to their doctor to discuss their experience and alter their program as necessary.
It’s not a replacement for medication, but rather a “green supplement”.
The online interface used by healthcare providers to match patients with their “ideal park”
So how exactly does being outside improve our health? “A lot of research shows that no matter what you do, if you do it outside, it’s better for your mental health,” says Ibes. This benefit comes from the mental health trifecta of being outside, being physically active, and being social. Further, engaging in physical activity outside, especially if done with a companion, increases the benefits that you gain from the outdoors. “Every minute you spend outside is like money in the piggy bank. It’s for your mental health if nothing else.” So far, Dr. Ibes has trained doctors at Sentara® New Town and the Student Health Center on W&M’s campus, in addition to staff at the W&M Counseling Center, all of whom are very excited about the program.
Summer 2015 Parks Research Lab student researchers, clockwise from upper left: Katie McElheny, Katie Johanson, Hannah Kwawu, and Hannah Cannon (not pictured: Robert Boyd and Tyler Treakle)
Not only does being outside have the power to encourage healthy behaviors, but it creates environmental connectedness and promotes environmental stewardship. It is important for us to protect park spaces as they hit all tiers of sustainability: social,environmental, and economic. Though most people tend to generally think of sustainability in terms of the environmental dimension, it is important to think about all three dimensions as they are interdependent. Parks may seem to be completely separate from the “wild nature” that we typically think of; however, they are important for maintaining ecological sustainability in developed areas and have been linked to an increased number of visitors to cities with green spaces. By having parks in cities, people can reap these benefits and become invested in sustainability and protecting natural spaces on a larger scale.
Perhaps, one of the biggest barriers between students and the health benefits of being outdoors is our addiction to technology. Being outside prompts non-directed attention that allows our brains to defrag after spending hours on end staring at our phones and computers. This constant directed attention towards our screens exhausts our brains and causes stress and anxiety. Even spending 5 minutes outside without being connected to our technology can have huge health benefits and help “reboot our brains.” So the next time that you are walking to class, put your phone away and just enjoy a little time outside to let your brain re-energize.
Looking for somewhere to start? Try one of Dr. Ibes’ Top 5 Outdoor Spots:
– York River State Park: It has everything that you could want to do outdoors, it’s beautiful and can be explored by foot, bike, or boat.
– Capital Trail: It’s great for biking, it’s off the street, offers beautiful Virginia scenery, and is very safe.
– College Woods and Matoaka Trails: Rejuvenating space close to campus for a quick escape, rent a free kayak or canoe from the boathouse and spend a little time on the water.
– Sunken Garden: a great place to break for a little green time in the middle of campus. Take just a few minutes between classes, sit on the side, and watch the trees and the people for a little while.
– Contact Dr. Ibes directly if you are interested in working in the lab. She is currently recruiting students from all disciplines to join the lab in Spring 2016, and will soon be soliciting submissions for summer fellowships.
WASHINGTON- The director of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday that the recently completed Paris climate talks were significant because unlike at previous conferences, a range of businesses and countries, notorious for their lack of environmental regulations, agreed that climate change is currently one of the most pressing international issues.
Just two weeks after returning from the United Nations Climate Talks in Paris, the EPA director, Gina McCarthy, said the number of players at the table including corporations and nations allowed for a much more productive conference.
Individuals like Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and private sector groups like investment groups interested in clean energy are enabling the US to reach their goal of doubling investment in energy research, which is currently at $10 billion. Ms. McCarthy said that at this conference, businesses realized that a strong international climate agreement was needed to create a clean, green economy.
“The right people were around the table saying the only way we are going to get those investments is to get an agreement,” she said.
McCarthy said that the United States utilities industries who are already working to meet the new power plant regulations set forward by the US, were at the conference to explain how they have adapted their operations to meet the new rules.
“It turned out that I needed to do a lot less talking then I thought, because I had the utilities there doing that talking. That is quite a change,” said McCarthy.
Ms. McCarthy, who has been the head EPA administrator since 2013, spoke at a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations about topics ranging from the recent Porter Ranch Methane Leak to Industry’s role in the EPA.
But in the bulk of her prepared remarks as well as in the question answer session, Ms. McCarthy emphasized the significant developments that helped yield the landmark international agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions.
In previous years, industry has stayed out of the conversation, or even denied the occurrence of climate change. What’s different now, she said, is the private sector is stepping up because companies, especially industries like agriculture, realize that their businesses are and will be effected.
“There was a clear understanding that this isn’t just the government’s challenge. This is an impact on business that is already being felt,” McCarthy said.
The Paris agreement aims to commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. All 195 participating countries have approved the deal. Of those, 186 countries drafted plans ahead of the December summit, to outline their greenhouse gas reduction goals.
The United States has committed to reduce their greenhouse gas levels produced in 2005 by 26-28 percent by 2025. The Obama administration put in place the Clean Power Plan- the first national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. President Obama has increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 54.4 miles per gallon for cars and light-vehicle trucks by 2025, nearly doubling the fuel efficiency standards compared to new cars currently on the roads.
These executive actions did not require congressional approval which, experts say, allowed the President to avoid any red tape, and meet his emission reduction goals.
However, even if all 195 countries including the United States follow through on their promises, the deals aren’t strong enough to combat the predicted rise in global temperatures; experts say temperatures will still rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, resulting in some of the worst consequences of climate change from massive storm surges, to prolonged droughts.
Therefore, a large part of the agreement is the “ratcheting” up of regulations, or the improvement of a country’s climate plan every five years.
The United States leadership is something that she thinks distinguishes this year’s talks from previous ones.
“[The conference] put the US back in a leadership position in a way that we have not been for quite some time,” said McCarthy.
In the past, the US has rejected some of the largest international agreements to decrease greenhouse gas emissions like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Experts believe that the US’s rejection of this treaty, lead to the treaty’s failure.
Now, with not only the US at the table but other major economies like China and India, McCarthy says the conference was different.
By having countries come into the agreement with specific plans to reduce emissions, McCarthy says, countries were no longer starting at step one. World leaders also kicked off the conference rather than leaving their remarks for the end, which experts believe may have contributed to the sense of urgency felt throughout the talks.
“Every day after that was substantive instead a preliminary discussion…it was a vastly different way of structuring the meeting and it resulted in vastly more substantive discussion,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy mentions that many of these countries, historically infamous for being polluters, can no longer afford to just think about jobs, but must also think about the health and safety of its people when considering environmental regulations. Many countries are already forced to adapt, or change their practices, to meet temperature changes hitting now.
Countries like China and India which have acted as road blocks in the past, have changed their tune. They now recognize that responding to climate change will not only save its citizens from serious natural disasters, but also provide an opportunity to create an-internationally competitive ‘green’ economy.
“India recognizes that it is on the front line of disasters…so it’s not as cut and dry as we want jobs or we don’t want jobs. It’s about what do you do to protect your population at the same time,” McCarthy said.
She also believes this is an opportunity for countries to improve their economies through green technologies and jobs.
“This is all about shifting to a clean economy,” said McCarthy.
The urgency of Climate Change was very present, McCarthy says. There were no climate deniers at the conference, and no question of whether climate change is an issue.
“There was a certainty about the inevitability of needing to act on climate, and the immediacy of that need that was quite palpable and very different,” she stated.
McCarthy said that this conference marked a changing point for many people that Climate Change is not just a “tree hugger issue,” but rather one that is effecting communities and businesses now. She reiterates how all the people sitting around the table from industry, to faith-based leaders, to developing countries allowed for this “groundbreaking” agreement. This “positive energy,” she says will continue following the Paris conference.
Parts of Obama’s climate plan like the new regulations on the power plants are being held up in courts currently. Critics have brought lawsuits around the new regulations arguing that they exhibit government overreach. But McCarthy predicts that a decision will come out in the next few weeks, and she is confident that EPA’s new regulations will come out unscathed. This act among others would allow the US to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets following Paris.
“2016 will really be for EPA a tremendous opportunity to move forward… in supporting this international effort which for the first time has a framing that could make it very successful and we intend to get it there,” McCarthy said.
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