Archive for February, 2016

De-stigmatizing the Climate Change Debate

~By Talia Schmitt (reposted from The Flat Hat)

The glacier calving in the Fjord of Eternity (Evigsfjord) - South Greenland. Courtesy of Talia Schmitt.

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.

See a video of Talia’s arctic experience.

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.

Read Talia’s personal blog.

February 24th, 2016

Go Outside – Doctor’s Orders

~By Rachel Wimmer (reposted from the William & Mary Blogs)

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.

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”

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.

wimmer 3

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.

–       Freedom Park: Nice hilly trails, great for hiking.

–       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.

Interested in learning more about the Parks Research Lab?

–       Check out their symposium on December 1,2015 at 3:30. Swem Media Center, RSVP at

–       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.

February 10th, 2016

EPA Director, Gina McCarthy Reflects on Paris Climate Deal

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2016

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.


Check out Talia’s blog here.

February 3rd, 2016


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