At the frontline: Princeton Environmental Forum addresses climate crises
In response to the urgent environmental challenges facing the planet, Princeton faculty and alumni who are working to protect the environment gathered for the Princeton Environmental Forum held on campus Oct. 24-25. They came with knowledge, questions and an eagerness to share ideas from the frontlines of science leadership and environmental advocacy.
Nearly 700 people attended the event, which centered around a series of discussions featuring 40 speakers in Richardson Auditorium. These scientists, policymakers, scholars, authors, and artists and filmmakers delved into the latest research, policies and action related to the impact of extreme weather, the loss of biodiversity, water and food security in a warming climate, and communicating science to the public.
“Today, humanity needs your service more than ever,” University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in his opening remarks. “Of the challenges facing our world, none are more urgent, or all-encompassing, than those pertaining to the environment. These problems are global, complex and interconnected. Their solutions have to be, as well.”
The event was organized by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. PEI is a globally recognized center of excellence in climate science known for its interdisciplinary work in climate change science and policy; its work at the intersection of energy and the environment; and the study of oceans and the atmosphere, water systems, biological complexity, and the ecology of infectious disease. With more than 100 faculty members from 30 academic departments, PEI also is an emerging leader in the field of environmental humanities and the study of urban systems and resiliency.
PEI Director Michael Celia, the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering, welcomed participants and reflected on PEI’s numerous, cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives that support vigorous research, teaching and public education.
“All of our faculty have agreed that our informal motto that we use these days is, indeed, ‘environmental engagement across disciplines,’ because we all believe there is not a single discipline by itself that can solve the major global problems that we face,” Celia said.
Below are highlights from each session. Also listen to episodes of the Princeton podcast “All for Earth,” which includes conversations with some of the panelists.
Overcoming skepticism to invite change
One of the most perplexing issues of the climate debate has been the “logjam” in attitudes about the cause of — and solutions to — climate change. While most scientists have reached the conclusion that human-induced climate change is a threat to humanity, societal attitudes haven’t necessarily followed.
The inability to reach consensus was among the topics covered in the first session, “Breaking the Environmental Logjam.”
Juliet Eilperin, the panel’s moderator and a 1992 graduate of Princeton who serves as senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, opened the discussion with recent Post and Kaiser Family Foundation polling data on societal attitudes. She noted that 8 in 10 Americans say that human activity is fueling climate change. “Still,” she said, “there are signs that Americans are, frankly, looking for an easy fix.”
Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said that by focusing on solutions, as many enterprising scientists and policymakers are, “there is real reason for optimism here.”
Anu Ramaswami, the Sanjay Swani ’87 Professor of India Studies, professor of civil and environmental engineering, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and the Princeton Environmental Institute, said, “I think that for all of the young scholars and professors, there’s really a big advantage of recognizing the combination of science with action.” Ramaswami is also director of Princeton's M.S. Chadha Center for Global India.
Carl Ferenbach, Class of 1964, who is chairman of the High Meadows Foundation and chairman of the board of the Environmental Defense Fund, said he has seen an upsurge in philanthropy toward the environment.
Panelists were united in their hope that, despite the challenges of this attitudinal logjam, the issues around climate change are being carefully considered by creative minds in the private and public sectors — at universities, think tanks, for-profit and nonprofit institutions, and government agencies.
The best way to contribute to breaking the logjam is to be engaged, active and aware, they said. In many cases, such as energy, the technology and policy ideas for producing a cleaner, more sustainable society exist, but people tend to resist radical change.
"Whether we make it by 2050 or not depends on if we can get our brains around a resistance to change," Ferenbach said.
Coming to grips with extreme weather
Vecchi opened the panel “It’s Getting Hot Out There … Weird Weather and Other Climate Change Anomalies” with a computer model of global average temperatures, which showed temperatures rising overall, but with surges occurring and some areas even cooling to extremes.
“The way we experience climate change isn’t by average temperature over five years, but by events,” said Vecchi, who moderated the panel featuring climate scientists from various institutions and organizations. Not all weather events, however, are exacerbated by climate change, which can cause confusion for the general public.
“We need to understand how to communicate the interplay between weather and climate and not go down these rhetorical holes that aren’t going to get us anywhere,” Vecchi said.
Given the unpredictability and seemingly contradictory nature of weather patterns, communication about climate science takes on even greater importance, the panelists said.
Sea-level rise is probably the most obvious and observable environmental change, said Benjamin Strauss, Graduate School Class of 2007, CEO and chief scientist of Climate Central. “It is the most localizable of all climate change impacts,” he said.
It’s also highly visual, lending itself to flood maps and compelling video and photographs. “I believe when people can look at maps or images of their block, they’re going to be more motivated to act across party lines,” Strauss said.
Communities in developing countries are especially likely to be affected by climate change, but they have the least access to information about climate events and extreme weather, said Lisa Goddard, Graduate School Class of 1995, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and senior researcher at Columbia University.
Natural cycles of variation, such as those demonstrated by Vecchi, combined with larger patterns of climate change can be catastrophic for developing nations if they are not properly understood, Goddard explained. "So much of the world is vulnerable," she said. "They need to make it through the next five years or the next 10 years before they can get through the next century."
Vecchi noted that Princeton and PEI are leading the development of models and carrying out fieldwork related to climate and resiliency in emerging economies, particularly in rapidly growing cities in Africa and South Asia.
Spotlighting effective environmental solutions
Some carbon-cutting concepts that seemed attractive decades ago, including the use of biofuels and nuclear power, no longer pass muster. That’s why it’s important to develop and share successful solutions to environmental problems, said Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus.
Socolow moderated the panel “Getting the Solutions Right,” featuring Princeton alumni who presented best ideas and practices from their work in the public and private sectors.
Cliff Rechtschaffen, Class of 1978, commissioner for the California Public Utilities Commission, noted several of his state’s efforts to “foster innovation and transform markets.” Over 650,000 electric vehicles are now registered in California, and one-third of California’s energy comes from renewable sources, he said.
“This happened without any adverse impact on the grid and with prices declining,” he said.
In addition, carbon pricing and a statewide cap-and-trade program — which controls carbon emissions by setting limits on the amount that businesses and other organizations can produce, then allowing them to buy unused capacity from one another — have helped reduce California’s emissions, Rechtschaffen said.
“The policies were designed specifically to be replicable and to serve as a model for other jurisdictions,” he said.
Ashley Conrad-Saydah, Class of 1999, former deputy secretary for climate policy for the California Environmental Protection Agency, said $11 billion in proceeds from the cap-and-trade program is being used to address equity issues in California. Many communities bearing the worst effects of climate change already are impacted by poor air quality and environmental pollution, she said. The state has used the funds to empower those communities to improve air quality and sustainability.
“Science is embedded in all of our policy and all of our solutions,” Conrad-Saydah said. “It’s not really technological innovation, but it's policy innovation that derives from advancements in science and technology to really make life better for all Californians.”
Anne Hoskins, Graduate School Class of 1986, and chief policy officer for Sunrun, the nation’s largest solar storage and distribution company, called the recent California power outages due to wildfires “a wake-up call, but also an opportunity.”
Both economics and climate are forcing governments and utilities to reconsider how power is delivered. Sunrun provides batteries to solar customers, which act as backup during emergencies and create resiliency in the system, she said.
“They’re not only providing benefits to the individual, but benefits to society,” she said.
Standing at the brink of mass extinction
There have been five great extinctions on Earth, each of which involved the extermination of a large number of species, gave rise to others and played a major role in the development of life.
Many scientists assert that we are now in the midst of a sixth extinction — but this one is caused by human activity.
“We face an extinction crisis,” said David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and PEI, in his introduction to the discussion “Do Wildlife and Wildlands Have a Place in the 21st Century?”
This sixth extinction places approximately 1 million species at risk, Wilcove said.
Oceans, which cover 71% of the planet and contain half of all the world’s animal phyla, are significant bellwethers of this extinction crisis, said Michael Hirshfield, Class of 1970, senior adviser for Oceana. Overfishing, coastal development, destruction of oceanic and coastal habitats, and pollution — from an influx of plastics, oil, chemicals and mercury, to name a few — have taken a toll.
“The trend right now may not be particularly good, but remember that trend is not destiny,” Hirshfield said. “Change only comes when people are dissatisfied with the status quo, and I think it’s safe to say that people are dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Meg Symington, Graduate School Class of 1987, a managing director at the World Wildlife Fund who works to conserve large swathes of the Amazon, said that although the “rhetoric of environment versus development is again resurgent in the region,” there have been some small success stories. “The name of this panel asks if there is a place for wildlands and wildlife in the 21st century — what we do in the Amazon will answer that question," Symington said. "If we can't get it right in the Amazon, we can't get it right anywhere."
One of the keys to preserving Earth’s complex biodiversity was encapsulated by documentary filmmakers Katie Carpenter, Class of 1979, and Paula Kahumbu, Graduate School Class of 2002, CEO of WildlifeDirect. This involves communication — informing and inspiring the public to care about wildlife and wild places, particularly in the rapidly growing economies of Africa.
“We need to be crazy in love with nature,” Kahumbu said.
The business case for sustainability
When advising businesses on sustainability, Andrew Winston, Class of 1991, said he’s been getting more aggressive in his rhetoric.
In a lunchtime talk under a tent on Alexander Beach, Winston, author of “The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, More Open World,” laid out the case for companies to take decisive action to combat climate change and protect the environment.
“I’m out there trying to convince executives that sustainability is a core way of seeing their business, and actually the only way right now,” said Winston. "Business cannot thrive unless the people and planet are thriving."
Winston was introduced by President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro, who was at the University’s helm when PEI was launched.
“Andrew has played, and continues to play, a key role … in helping institutions to reorder their priorities and take on new and important challenges,” Shapiro said. “In an environment where market incentives and even governance do not seem fully up to the task, Andrew Winston has stepped into this void with new ideas that are certain to play a role of increasing importance in the decades ahead.”
Among those ideas is the creation of a “circular economy,” or a system of production where waste and pollution are eliminated and resources and materials remain in use. Moving forward, most businesses will find both cost savings and financial growth in the clean economy, Winston said. For example, renewable energy projects are already more cost effective than constructing a new coal plant, he said.
"People think there's this fight between coal and renewables, but the battle's over. It's been won," he said, eliciting applause. "That doesn't mean it's been won politically."
Concerns about clean water in an erratic climate
Water, a necessity of life, is at the epicenter of the climate crisis, said Scott Moore, Class of 2008, director of the Penn Global China Program and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “To the extent that we’re focused on the threat of climate change to humans, we’re really concerned about water,” he said.
Concerns about water scarcity, flooding, clean drinking water and sewage treatment amid a burgeoning global population are just some of the issues we face.
“We expect climate change to make our water patterns more extreme,” said Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J. Wu '94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and professor of civil and environmental engineering and PEI. Porporato moderated the discussion “Drought and Deluge: How Shifts in the Water Cycle Are Impacting the Environment and Society” with Corina Tarnita, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Jay Famiglietti, executive director for the Global Institute for Water Security and a member of Princeton’s Graduate School Class of 1992, has followed worldwide trends in the availability of freshwater since 2002. He noted there have been dramatic changes in its availability and supply, many of which are due to climate change.
“The already wet areas of the world are getting wetter,” he said. “And the already dry areas in the world — the arid and semi-arid regions of the mid-latitudes — are getting drier.”
Farhana Sultana, Class of 1996, an associate professor and research director for environmental collaboration and conflicts at Syracuse University, spoke about how climate impacts — especially water issues — should be viewed in a more broadly social context.
“Water is simultaneously economic, ecological, social, political and spiritual,” she said. Water issues disproportionately affect “poor people, marginalized people and indigenous communities,” and because of this, she noted, “our solutions have to be context specific, because problems are often context specific.”
“We have to recognize that water is a moral issue,” she said. “We have to think about water in more equitable ways so it isn’t just left up to some powerful people who will decide for everybody else.”
Bringing the humanities to the heart of the climate discussion
“One thing that environmental humanities scholars do is remind us that the world is simultaneously material and imaginative,” said Rob Nixon, the Thomas A. and Currie C. Barron Family Professor in Humanities and the Environment and professor of English and PEI, who moderated the panel “Imagining Transformation: The Rise of the Environmental Humanities.”
“And what happens in the imaginative realm can have very material effects,” said Nixon, who teaches a cross-disciplinary course with Pacala and others called “The Environmental Nexus.”
Nixon cited the example of Anna Sewell’s famous 19th-century novel “Black Beauty,” and how the book transformed legislation around the treatment of horses. He also highlighted Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as the catalyst that led to environmental legislation enacted during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably the Environmental Protection Act.
Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director for the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, discussed the need for an imaginative perspective, which she defined as “this long view of history, the imaginative view through art, narratives of literature, environmental ethics from philosophy, and the cultural views of nature from all the world’s religions.”
Steve Cosson, a playwright and the artistic director of New York-based theater company The Civilians, wrote the first major American play about climate change, “The Great Immensity,” which he worked on at Princeton in 2010. He said one of the most important goals of environmental humanities is to undo a false narrative prevalent in Western culture, which is the idea that humans and the natural world are separate.
Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, spoke about how imagery can be used to convey messages that are at once immediate and powerful.
Kusserow referred to the recent exhibition “Nature’s Nation” at the art museum as an example of how artists from America’s past and present have shaped the environmental debate and how Americans view nature, ecology and wild spaces. “Stories are effective because they are affective,” he said, “they speak to the emotions.”
Collaboration and cultivating leadership as a way forward
The final panel of the conference, “Breaking the Logjam: The Way Forward,” explored the myriad ways scientists, scholars, engineers, journalists, artists and members of the business community can come together to find solutions to environmental challenges.
Pacala, the moderator, asked the panelists to give their thoughts on how society might harness the intellectual and technological capital needed to bring people together around climate issues.
Dana Fisher, Class of 1993, a professor of sociology and director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland-College Park, underscored the need for a change in political leadership. She pointed to the rise of the environmental youth movement, embodied by activists such as Greta Thunberg, as an example. “There’s potential opportunity to make real political change by changing the people who are in power,” she said.
“There are Gretas all around us,” added Robert Orr, Graduate School Class of 1996, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, echoing Fisher’s point. “There is a tectonic shift in our young people. We have to look at that.”
Sarah Finnie Robinson, Class of 1978, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, said that responding to climate change and environmental degradation has been passed along to today’s youth, who now face a crisis they don’t have the political power to yet address. "Unfortunately for our children and grandchildren, one of our greatest challenges is complacency, the very idea that someone else will solve the problem,” she said.
Author Frederic Rich, Class of 1977, signaled a cautionary note, maintaining that climate change solutions require leadership from mainstream political centers.
He proposed environmentalists do their best to recruit moderates and conservatives inclined to believe in human-caused climate change, and other independent political thinkers. "In America, we won't get anywhere without federal policy," he said. “Do you really think we can accomplish something as epic as the de-carbonization of the American economy over the determined objection of half the population?”
Journalist Meera Subramanian, the 2019 PEI Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environmental Humanities, who has written numerous articles exploring the diverse attitudes toward climate change, spoke about the need to meld science with storytelling.
“We really need to work on building bridges,” she said. “We need to engage in conversations with unlikely people and simply listen. Figure out how to really hear what people’s stories are.” This fall, Subramanian is teaching the environmental seminar “Crossing the Climate Change Divide.”
Pacala closed the session and looked out over the audience. The answer to climate change resides in the power of people, he said, like those in the auditorium.
“I feel in good hands,” he said.