November 6, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

For such a sweet name, Hurricane Sandy wasn’t one to play nice. Sandy wreaked havoc on much of the East Coast last Monday, and for many people things still aren’t quite back to normal. Subway lines in New York City are still being reopened little by little, and New Jersey- one of the hardest hit states- is slowly working to clean up the extensive damage Sandy left in her wake. Power outages and lack of heat and other utilities made it a rough week for many, and are still on-going issues for people living in New Jersey and some parts of New York City. But there may be a silver lining to this monster of a storm.

Hurricane Sandy has brought the discussion of climate change back into the political realm, and more importantly, back into the issues being debated in the current election (did you see the cover of Bloomberg Magazine this week?). This election season, climate change has been absent from the presidential debates with issues such as jobs and the economy taking precedence. Political pundits and opinionators have stepped up and spoken out on the matter bringing the issue to the forefront of current political discussions. However, some say that this new surge of political interest in climate change is a fleeting one. While scientists can confidently say that global warming contributed in some respects to Sandy’s devastating power, it is impossible to pin the entire cause of the storm on global warming.

Nevertheless, for most people climate change is becoming more real everyday- especially when they are first hand witnesses to mega storms like Sandy which are becoming more of the norm rather than the exception. HERE is a cool article about the climate modeling that allowed scientists and government forecasters to predict the path and intensity of the storm so well! HERE is another article from CNN that quotes some amazing scientists about climate change, the hurricane, and urban planning.

But not to fear! Even if Sandy doesn’t keep climate change on the political agenda for long, there are campaigns out there continually reminding the political minds that climate change is a concern to watch out for. Just check out this amazing campaign that’s working to illustrate the effects of climate change on the everyday lives of kids. It’s called the TRUST campaign and features videos of youth from across the country talking about how shifts in climate have directly affected their lives, and trying to bring attention to these issues.

If you’re interested in volunteering for hurricane relief efforts, here are some helpful resources for ways to get involved: Occupy Sandy,

And here is a photo from the Atlantic. See lots more HERE. Our hearts go out to all those in need, and our thanks go out to all those who are out helping.

From the Atlantic, link to the article above. Robert Bryce walks with his wife, Marcia Bryce, through destruction from superstorm Sandy on Route 35 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, on October 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)


September 10, 2012

We Are Scientists

As environmentally conscious world citizens, “What can I do to help?” is a question that we frequently ask ourselves when the discussion of environmental issues comes up. The National Science Foundation has found a really cool answer- everyday people can work as scientists by helping to collect data for their projects.

Citizen Scientists are:

  • Concerned volunteers who collect data and share their observations with full-time scientists.
  • People who may or may not have any previous scientific training or background
  • People who have a curiosity for learning and a willingness to complete relatively simple tasks (such as monitoring backyard rain gauges, taking pictures of local insects, etc.)

Citizen scientists are invaluable to the scientific community because they not only provide sheer numbers to aide in data collection, but also contribute new insights to on-going questions. A group of Foldit gamers helped generate models that assisted researchers in refining and determining the enzyme structure of an AIDS-like virus which then allowed the researchers to advance their work designing anti-AIDS drugs.

A few places to check out if you’re interested in becoming a citizen scientist are:

The USA National Phenology Network
Project Budburst
Projects Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As well as many others about sustainability, lady bugs, and the sky which are linked on the original National Science Foundation Article! A lot of these are great for kids or adults, and there are lots of options for what subject you can be working on and what kinds of activities you can do. Find something that you’re excited about, and get to it!

July 16, 2012

Rio+20 Breakdown

The Great Immensity is happy to welcome its first guest blogger, Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, who attended Rio+20, the United Nations’ recent Conference on Sustainable Development.

The mega-conference of the century just ended with an extraordinary fizzle. So why are some of the most vulnerable countries in the world cautiously optimistic about the outcome?

Rio+20, the follow-up event to the historical 1992 Rio Earth Summit, drew 50,000 people and intended to deliver the concrete, drastic shifts we need to avert catastrophic climate change while lifting 1.4 billion people out of poverty.

But after months of exhausting prep negotiations – I was there and can attest! – 188 countries agreed to a legally-non-binding document  (check it out here) that only “reaffirms” the importance of changing course, and launches processes…to consider further processes…to address our pressing global problems. It’s not quite the urgency that’s called for. While hopes were high – and the media came in droves to report – there was no big news.


I was in Rio as an advisor to a small island state. Low-lying countries like Nauru or the Maldives could disappear within the next fifty years because of sea level rise or a single devastating storm. They are already facing real food and water scarcity, less predictable rainfall, and more frequent drought.

For my small island colleagues, the conference delivered minor wins. The document officially acknowledged that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and that impacts of climate change “represent the gravest of threats to the survival” of some islands.  For the first time, the international community acknowledged that some states could cease to exist as countries through the small but relentless washing away of their territory.

The language may seem too dry for the stakes, but these political gains were hard fought and felt valuable. The logic is this: agreements like these can help set priorities domestically and internationally for the next twenty years and increase the chances, however little, that change will happen.

For a while, I was pleased with these minor successes too. For months I had been desperately lost in the woods of international legalese, and so celebrated when we got language we wanted in the text. I felt these outcomes were measured steps on which to build momentum.

But the re-acknowledgement of problems, no matter the wording, is simply not enough to help real people in real crises. There’s a wide chasm between these high-level agreements and what is happening on the ground.

Case in point: After the conference, I traveled to the Amazon’s Mamiraua Reserve, home of the seasonal flooded forests. There, communities are accustomed to living surrounded by water six months of the year. But this year, many have had to build second floors in their homes or have been forced to evacuate to regional towns because the flooding reached 50-year record highs. The federal government in Brazil hasn’t been able to mobilize enough emergency funding. Many of these families have found their crops drowned.

The high-water mark is visible on this stilt-house, where the family has had to build a second floor to stay above the flood in Mamiraua. Photo credit: Benedict Moran

While the situation in Mamiraua can’t fully be chocked up to climate change (it is a La Nina year, during which more rains can be expected), crises like these can be amplified by climate change and may be on the rise due to increased rainfall and increased snow melt in the Andes Mountains, a significant source of the Amazon River’s flow. That the government is unprepared with disaster relief funding is concerning. But even more concerning is the fact that families around the world living near water are unprepared to adapt to rising levels.

For me, Mamiraua was a stark reminder that political action at the highest levels is not meeting the world’s most urgent needs and is out of step with the calls of the scientific community. Sure, the scope of the Rio+20 agreement is broad and has potential to eventually lead to change. But if these changes come – the track record for actually following through with these UN agreements is already less than stellar – delivery will be slow and will fall short. While governments plug away at negotiations and squabble over who will foot the bill, shores will disappear, wildfires will spread, droughts will scorch fields, and families will be devastated.

The low-ambition of “The Future We Want” – as the document is un-ironically officially called – is the lowest-common-denominator compromise between countries that continue to prioritize narrow, old-school economic self-interests instead of engaging in the spirit of sustainable development that they have theoretically endorsed. What we need is action at every level, from international and national priority setting, to community organizing.

Here are just a few ways we can close the chasm between “The Future We Want” and the future we actually want.

  • On the sidelines of Rio+20, where advocacy organizations like held focus groups and demonstrations, ending harmful fossil-fuel subsidies was the number one recommendation to governments. The oil industry has claimed record profits in 2011. While the Big Five companies collectively raked in $140 billion in profits, governments continued to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, in large part for expanding oil exploration. Many civil society organizations argue this sends the wrong signal about our energy future.
  • At Rio+20, Hillary Clinton announced a $20 million commitment to the United Nations “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy in Africa. Those old fossil fuel subsidies could mean changes for research, development, and deployment of renewable technologies. The shift to investing in renewables has the potential to generate jobs in many fields including the energy, vehicle, and building industries while reducing carbon emissions. The good news: solar and wind industries are developing faster than expected. Over the last five years, solar capacity has been growing by over 50 percent a year, while wind capacity has been growing by 25 percent.
  • Sustainable transport and sustainable cities were hot topics at Rio+20 and at the parallel C40 Cities conference, which drew mayors from major cities around the world. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, currently chaired by NYC Mayor Bloomberg, is a network of large cities proactively advancing programs and partnerships to increase energy efficiency and address climate risks and impacts. This type of development would not only mean lower emissions and better air quality, but more resilient, long-term, and livable homes. With potentially more frequent disasters and the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, we’ve got to create safe spaces for future generations and learn to live together more efficiently.

Mamiraua Sunset

Post by Marie-Marguerite Sabongui. Thanks, Marie-Marguerite!

March 6, 2012

What do you wish that you or your community could do to respond to the environmental crisis?

We asked a similar question at the start of the run of The Great Immensity about what you or your community have already done to respond to the environmental crisis. (We got some great responses – check them out HERE!) Now, we want to know what you wish would happen. What would you like to hear your local politicians address? If you got the people on your block or in your apartment building together, are there environmental issues you’d like to address? Let’s get some ideas going, and maybe we’ll find that we can start working on some of them!

February 28, 2012

What do you think it would take for society to meaningfully respond to the environmental crisis?

Today’s is a big question – and it’s also the central question that The Great Immensity poses. We want to know about what you think it will take for society to meaningfully respond to the environmental crisis. Is it a shift in our media? – a social movement like Occupy? – a new political agenda? – all of the above? Let us know what you think and don’t worry: this is a brainstorm, not a quiz, so get creative!

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