March 31, 2014

Climate Change “Stories”

To better educate and engage the public, environmental organizations like Climate Wisconsin, Facing Climate Change, and Aspect have begun recording digital climate change “stories” as told by local residents. The goal for filmmakers is to create a relatable, contextualized narrative around climate change that will encourage dialogue and inspire action.

Though WI is know for its brutal winters, extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in the state than all other weather disasters combined.

In Wisconsin, higher than average temperatures year-round are curtailing ice fishing in Madison, and fly fishing in Viroqua. Across the Atlantic in Cornwall, England, surfing enthusiasts complain that they are now more prone to ear and other infections as heavy rainfall regularly overwhelms waste drainage systems causing toxins and sewage to spill into the sea.

Local industry is also feeling the sting of climate change. In Idaho, declining mountain top snow pack is resulting in a reduced stream of fresh water feeding the Columbia River Basin, which has caused the closure of several potato farms that rely on the river to irrigate their crop.  In Washington State, oyster and clam farming is quickly becoming unviable due to the rising acidity of the ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast.

From the inability to take part in recreational activities to threatening local economies, it is clear that the effects of climate change are becoming palpable. What’s your climate story?

Check out these awesome projects:

Climate Wisconsin: Stories From a State of Change

Facing Climate Change: Stories from the Pacific Northwest

Aspect (UK)



February 19, 2013

Chalk it up to the Sea Urchin: An Unlikely Source of a Stable Mineral

I wish I had thought of this first, but apparently scientists have discovered that sea urchins convert CO2, that harmful stuff that’s trapping heat in our atmosphere, into chalk. Check out the article in Telegraph about it! Those little guys use nickel ions to transform carbon dioxide into exoskeletons for themselves. That’s cool on its own, but there is talk that we can adopt this urchin technology by suspending nickel nanoparticles in vats of water at factories, and in doing so, capture the carbon dioxide as it’s pumped through. The nickel can be recycled, and not only is the chalk useful (used to make cement, plaster casts in hospitals, etc.), but it’s also a stable mineral, so it poses no threat to the environment. You can find this study in the Catalysis Science & Technology academic journal if you’d like to investigate it further. I’m personally curious about just how much this could cut down on factory CO2 waste and how soon and easily we could begin to implement it globally!

And this is maybe not as pragmatic, but if you’re interested in some other unlikely (and incredible) animals that evolution may or may not have been playing practical jokes on, check out this Tumblr, WTF Evolution!

August 27, 2012

Achieving Athletic and Environmental Excellence

So… who out there spent some amount of last month hunkered down in front of the TV watching really incredible men and women swim, bike, horseback ride, volley, and dive for coveted medals?  I know I did.  That’s right, folks, I’m talking about the 2012 Olympics, and while most of you probably know it took place in London this year, many of you may not know the big reason why the city was chosen to host.  London made a radical proposal to host the world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games, and as we’re heading into environmental crisis mode over CO2 emissions, it was the perfect bid to win them the gig.  Now I have always been a skeptic when it comes to these lofty declarations of green plans of action, but after checking out Kevin McCloud’s video which explains how the plans were realized, I’m warming up to our friends across the pond, even though they  only gave Canada one gold medal this year and it was for bouncing on a trampoline…

The name of this plan for sustainability is Towards a One Planet 2012, and it was developed in association with WWF and BioRegional to show the world how it is possible to live within its means.  It’s a set of green guidelines, if you will, to help demonstrate how essentially easy it would be to reduce our carbon footprint worldwide.  Together, these organizations focused on four areas of the Games that they believed would have the most impact on the participating community.  The first was, of course, the venues themselves.

The Olympic Park is the largest new urban parkland development in 150 years, and 60% of the materials used to build it were brought by rail or river, thus keeping its carbon footprint to a minimum.

The second focal area of community sustainability was London’s Active Travel Programme.  This basically consisted of a constant reminder from the Games to walk or bike around the Park whenever possible.  The site was structured to be easily accessible using such simple methods thus attempting to cut down traffic and of course, carbon emissions.

The third centers around food intake (and outtake) throughout the Games arenas.  The goal was to offer affordable, diverse food supplied by local food service companies thereby bolstering business in surrounding communities.  As far as waste goes, they declared they could achieve a zero-waste-to-landfill Games by offering hoards of various recycling bins that are different colors depending on the kind of waste they take (there are numbers on the bottom of all food/beverage-related products you can buy that designate the corresponding bin).  While it sounds fairly simple, a great deal is left up to the masses here – let’s hope they’re all environmentally conscious!

The final spoke of this plan has to do with people improving their local communities.  It’s called the Changing Places Programme, and it involves inspiring individuals to get out there and make a difference in and around the places they call home.  You can see here how volunteers of the Games jumpstarted this outreach program in and around the Park itself.

Sounds like a pretty sizable endeavor, doesn’t it?!  The reports on how close they came to reaching these goals aren’t yet complete, but the updates look very promising.  I just wish I had seen more commercials about these initiatives and fewer from BP!

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!

May 14, 2012

Wedges in Vogue

Apparently this season, wedges are in – I’m talking about climate wedges, not the shoes! Scientists are mobilizing people into Green Action with a wedge plan known as a “stabilization triangle.” What’s super clear about this is the time limit for stabilizing the climate: The goals of the stabilization triangle must be achieved over the next ten years, which isn’t much time!

Princeton’s Environmental Institute has more info:

And MSNBC host Chris Hayes does a good job explaining the plan with some images that help to clarify both the problem and the solution:

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