Environmental Justice

Black Lives Matter

Sustainability is grounded in principles of justice for present and future generations. It is about being careful and respectful stewards of the planet while improving well-being, and neither is possible without social justice.  As a core principle of sustainability, social justice is something we must continuously strive and struggle for, with vigilance and dedication. A long history of racism and discrimination in the United States continues to have deadly consequences. We must do all in our power to stand up to racism and stop discrimination. Recent protests in cities across the country, including here in Phoenix, show that people are willing to take great risks to fight for and demand social justice. We should draw inspiration from their courage and bravery.

I stand in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and the ASU Black African Coalition to redress the endemic racism and discrimination that undermines the ability of marginalized people to achieve their full potential. In the School of Sustainability and the new College of Global Futures, I will convene students, staff, faculty, and partners to formulate ideas and action plans for how we can use the power of ASU to work toward a more socially just tomorrow.  I hope you can join us.

The disruptive force of sustainability and why we need to be careful

A coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1947.
Coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946. By U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17048858

Sustainability is a disruptive force. By fundamentally changing the way we think about interconnected social-ecological-technical systems, sustainability demands new models for governance, institutions, economies, technologies, and value systems. These are necessary changes. All of our students know that maintaining the status quo will be inadequate at best, dangerous at worst. We must find new ways, new interventions, to build a sustainable future.

However, change can bring hardship. In the 15th century, the advent of the printing press in Europe set in motion the spread of knowledge and literacy, but put thousands of scribes out of work. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century spurned the growth of incomes, cities, life spans, and educational attainment, but undermined the way of life for small-scale artisans. The knowledge revolution and growth of computing and robotics is eliminating occupations and will do so in ways we don’t fully comprehend. Transitions can release people from drudgery or dangerous work, but also separate them from their livelihoods, their communities, what they know and how they define themselves.

We are now undergoing an energy transition, away from coal to natural gas and renewables. This should have positive effects for the planet by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. But it can be devastating to coal mining communities. The planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the worst polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States (and also expensive to operate), will have positive environmental benefits but will put thousands of people out of work, many on the Navajo Reservation. As GIOS Director Dr. Dirks reminds us, one of the reasons that energy from solar panels is becoming inexpensive is that these systems, once installed, require very few workers.

It is important to remember that embedded in the term sustainability is the notion of human well-being. A key challenge for all of you is develop transition strategies that are just and fair, paying careful attention to people who are most vulnerable. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and change will happen in sudden, unanticipated ways. And change must happen. What I ask of all of you is to use your deep systems and normative perspectives to make sure that the transitions lead to ‘inclusive, inter-generational human well-being’ (Matson, Clark & Andersson 2016) while taking care of earth’s life systems on which we all depend.

Sustainability is a disruptive force, and should be. But I urge all of you to take on this awesome responsibility, and amazing sets of opportunities, with care. I am confident you will.

Congratulations Class of 2018!

Matson, Pamela, Clark, William C., and Krister Andersson. 2016. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

World Bank Group and GIOS partner on climate change workshop

Earlier this week, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) offered a workshop on sustainability and climate change to more than 30 participants from the World Bank Group (including IFC). The purpose of the workshop was to learn about the latest science of climate change, how climate change may affect the operations and priorities of the World Bank, and to explore how the World Bank could contribute to climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. From ASU, 7 prominent scientists presented their views and research on climate change issues.

Jim Buizer (ASU sustainability scientist and director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the U of Arizona) kicked things off with a presentation on latest findings from climate change and drew on some of his own research on climate change adaptation and resilience, including some work in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar. The next session focused on carbon budgets and pricing. ASU professor Klaus Lackner, the Director of the Center of Negative Carbon Emissions, demonstrated that carbon intensity of production would have to increase by more than 7 percent a year to remain within a target of 450 ppm for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations—a very tall order that would likely necessitate the use of carbon capture and storage technologies. Professor Michael Hanemann outlined some of the failed attempts at carbon pricing schemes, including cap and trade, and the limitations of the integrated assessment models that couple economic with damage models. He saw a role for the World Bank to improve the integrated models and to incorporate social cost estimates of climate change. James Close, Director of Climate Change for the World Bank, announced to the group that the World Bank has arrived at a social cost figure of $30/ton of carbon.

Dan Bodansky, Foundation Professor in the ASU Law School, gave a lunchtime address on the lead up to the Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Paris this December. His remarks included some predictions on the outcome of the meeting and some of the political obstacles to achieving binding agreements. One of the key differences from the Kyoto Protocol is the bottom-up approach of allowing countries to set their own goals for emissions, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The question of equity and climate change was the focus of the next session led by Sonja Klinsky, faculty in the School of Sustainability. Dr. Klinsky pressed the important point that equity needs to be incorporated into all aspects of climate change, from examining drivers to impacts, whether discussing mitigation or adaptation. Failure to incorporate equity, she demonstrated, would increase vulnerabilities and undermine efforts to reduce climate change drivers and negative repercussions. Alan Miller, retired from IFC, concluded the day’s sessions with a discussion of climate finance, including innovative financial instruments, investment needs, and potential priority interventions to support changing demand. He also offered an excellent retrospective on IFC and WB efforts in climate finance and climate change research. The day wrapped up with a closed-door session for WB/IFC staff to assess the day’s discussions in relation to their needs and priorities and those of their clients.

The second day began with a session on the climate impacts in key sectors. ASU faculty Netra Chhetri focus on agricultural impacts with a special emphasis on adaptation in response to climate change, particularly in Nepal. GIOS Director Gary Dirks discussed the implications of climate change policy on the energy sector, threats of stranded assets, the role of renewables in climate change adaptation, and the politics of new utility models. Founding Director of GIOS and the School of Sustainability Chuck Redman focused on the risks to infrastructure from climate extremes and the need to build safe-to-fail resilient systems in anticipation of climate change, especially in critical urban environments.

The final session of the day was moderated by James Close (WB) and included Jennifer Hodbod, post-doctoral fellow at the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative, and Todd Brady, Global Environmental Director at Intel, as presenters and panelists. Jennifer focused on agricultural practices that can be undertaken immediately at little to no cost while Todd illustrated the power and innovation of private industry to mitigate and adapt to climate change. James led a rich discussion on how participants could incorporate what they learned during the two-day workshop into their everyday activities. Monali Ranade, Senior Environment Specialist at the World Bank, closed the session with a review of the objectives and key findings of the workshop.

From my perspective this was an excellent workshop. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage with an organization that is working on the ground on a daily basis and with significant resources to mitigate and adapt to climate change. I was very proud of the expertise ASU and GIOS faculty brought to the workshop. If the ideas generated from the workshop can be matched effectively to resources and practices, I see great potential for the World Bank and ASU to strategically align to address the grand challenges of climate change and sustainability.

Environmental justice of lead in soils

The Central Arizona Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research project has highlighted one of our research studies that investigates the distribution of lead in soils in Greater Phoenix. Led by former ASU PhD student Xiaoding Zhou, the study finds that lead paint is the principal contributor to lead in soil. It also finds that elevated lead levels are most likely to be found in neighborhoods with a high percentage of Hispanic renters, but there is not a strong correlation with income. This study confirms other EJ studies that shows a concentration of environmental risks and disamenities in Hispanic neighborhoods.

For a detailed discussion, see our paper:

Zhuo, Xiaoding, Boone, Christopher G., Shock, Everett. 2012. Soil lead distribution and environmental justice in the Phoenix metropolitan region. Environmental Justice. 5(4): 206-213. doi:10.1089/env.2011.0041

Lead levels (ppm) in soils from the 200-point survey.


Urban Long Term Research

The Urban Long Term Research Area projects were well represented at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The special sessions captured the attention of the New York Times, which published two articles:

1. A summary of some of the ULTRA projects: Link

2. On the socioecology of vacant lots in Cleveland and other cities: Link

Here’s hoping that the USDA Forest Service and the National Science Foundation find the funds to continue to support these meaningful, innovative, and transformative initiatives. As I have written before, sustainability will depend in large part in making urban life sustainable. The ULTRA research, which is mission-oriented and driven by sustainability goals, is a bold and very much needed body of work.


Build it and they will come

A couple of times a week, I cycle to work (about 15 miles roundtrip). My bike route takes me along the Western Canal. This used to be a gravel path interspersed with some beaten-up asphalt used by utility trucks. An added hazard was the adjacent golf course (think poorly hit golf balls and inattentive golf cart drivers). Last year the City of Tempe added a paved pathway with lights (and nets to protect users along the golf course). I am surprised by the increased number of people of all ages that use the path for running, strolling, and cycling. Canals in Phoenix are a far cry from those in Amsterdam, but the dedicated pathway along the canal is enough to get people to come and use them.  The City of Tempe’s efforts to make the city livable is important for the health and well-being of its citizens, and for promoting the city as a competitive, amenity-rich destination for new residents.


Giving Voice to Children

A "photovoice" participant. Credit: J. Sandlin
A "photovoice" participant. Credit: J. Sandlin

The excellent and moving “photovoice” exhibit that examines neighborhood characteristics through children’s annotated photography has come to ASU’s Anthropology museum. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to visit the exhibit (free admission, open until March 12, 2010).  This is a unique opportunity to hear children’s stories about health, the built environment, advertising, and social relations in some of Phoenix’s Latino neighborhoods. The exhibit gives voice to neighborhoods and members of society who are often ignored but have plenty of important stories to tell. More information is available here: http://asuma.asu.edu/

Sustainability for all

A recent story in the New York Times about the Velib bicycle program underscores the importance of justice in sustainability. The Velib program, which offers heavy duty bicycles for rent in Paris, has attracted a great deal of praise, and has been especially important for the all important tourist trade. However, as this story highlights, almost 80 percent of bicycles have been stolen or vandalized, some by disenchanted youth in the suburbs. One sociologist argues that there is “social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.” Indeed, the center of Paris is privileged space, and the efforts to bring sustainable transportation alternatives must seem patently unjust to those marginalized in the suburbs. Sustainability, both for moral and practical reasons, must be just if it is going to resonate with all members of society.

NYT Story: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/world/europe/31bikes.html?_r=1&em

Waste Export is Wrong

Race to the bottom remains an all-too-common phenomenon. The NYT ran a story today on the illegal export of waste from Europe for cheaper “recycling” overseas, especially to Asia and Africa. Because it is expensive to treat waste in Europe, unscrupulous dealers are concealing illegal waste such as electronics in shipping containers. Not only is this against the Basel and other conventions and laws, it is just plain wrong. At the end of the line someone’s child is being exposed to toxic chemicals as they recycle scraps of electronics while “recyclers” in the rich world get fat off the profits from their illegal and immoral tactics.

New York Times story on illegal export of waste: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/science/earth/27waste.html?ref=global-home

Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal: http://www.basel.int/