The First American Climate Refugees

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When we think about climate refugees — people forced to flee their homes due to climate shocks and/or rising sea levels — this often conjures images of communities in far away lands. I’ve witnessed many of these refugees myself during my travels in East Africa and Latin America. But I’ve also met them in California: any of the tens of thousands forced to abandon New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could be classified as a climate refugee.

In a story this week for The New York Times, Coral Davenport and Campbell Robertson tell the story of the Isle de Jean Charles, a small Native American community in southern Louisiana, which is being urged to relocate by the government due to consistently destructive flooding. As part of a series of grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development totaling $1 billion, some $48 million has been allocated to move the people the entire community on Isle de Jean Charles

“The divisions the effort has exposed and the logistical and moral dilemmas it has presented point up in microcosm the massive problems the world could face in the coming decades as it confronts a new category of displaced people who have become known as climate refugees,” write Davenport and Robertson.

While many continue to think of climate change as a distant spectre, this story and others like it are evidence that our climate comeuppance already has arrived. Around the world, governments are confronting the reality that as the planet warms, rising sea levels, stronger storms, increased flooding, harsher droughts and shrinking freshwater supplies could drive the world’s most vulnerable people from their homes.

Between 50 million and 200 million people — mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen — could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to estimates by the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration.

Davenport and Robertson write: “The Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plan is one of the first programs of its kind in the world, a test of how to respond to climate change in the most dramatic circumstances without tearing communities apart. Under the terms of the federal grant, the island’s residents are to be resettled to drier land and a community that as of now does not exist. All funds have to be spent by 2022.”

And there’s also the social and cultural aspect.

“Still, many residents of Isle de Jean Charles do not want to leave. Attachment to the island runs deep. Parents and grandparents lived here; there is a cemetery on the island that no one wants to abandon. Old and well-earned distrust of the government hangs over all efforts, and a bitter dispute between the two Indian tribes with members on the island has thwarted efforts to unite behind a plan.”

Huge chunks of southern Louisiana are disappearing — an area the size of Delaware has vanished since the 1930s.

While this plan only involves moving around 60 people, it is facing logistical and political complications that could lead to its failure. It makes you wonder how we are going to manage to pull this off when hundreds if not thousands of people will need to be relocated from climate-risk areas.

How I became a corporate sustainability storyteller

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The “Top of the World” in the Tahoe National Forest

As anyone connected to me on social media knows too well, Earth Day is every day for me. A statistical analysis of my typical Facebook posts, tweets and LinkedIn updates likely would find a strong correlation between it being a day of the week and me posting some kind of sustainability-focused update.

In 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denis Hayes, who served as national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and currently leads the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on advancing the next generation of sustainable buildings.

As a sustainability communicator, I make my living helping to tell the sustainability stories of others. While that’s wonderful, Earth Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own personal sustainability stories.

Today, I’d like to reflect on mine — where it began, how I got to where I am today and where  it may lead in the future.

A nature-filled childhood

Growing up in beautiful California, I gained an appreciation of nature and the environment at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are visiting brisk beaches near San Francisco and spending summers in the tantalizing Tahoe National Forest.

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Little me (on the left) with my big brother in the Tahoe Forest.

I also have been storytelling since shortly after I first learned how to write. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, I wrote short stories for fun and as an outlet for getting me through those often awkward adolescent years.

The first time I realized that I was capable of writing things that others actually would want to read occurred during my freshman year of high school when I won a creative writing contest for a story I wrote about a family camping trip to Lake Shasta gone awry. The story was published in the local newspaper, The San Mateo County Times.

As I entered college, I became more and more interested in politics, and wondered if I might be able to use my writing and storytelling abilities to advance the causes I cared about. During my senior year of college, I became an opinion columnist for the university’s student newspaper, which gave me a platform to write about everything from politics to social issues.

Intro to sustainable business

While I always had considered myself to be an environmentalist, it wasn’t until my first job out of college at a San Francisco communications firm that I became aware of the concept of corporate sustainability. Working with renewable energy and energy efficiency companies to help tell their stories, I realized that helping to reconcile business with social and environmental issues was what I wanted to do with my life.

But I also knew that I needed to acquire a global perspective if I truly wanted to be an effective communicator of the social, environmental, and economic complexities that constitute sustainability.

And so I left my cubicle, packed my bags, and moved to Bogotá, Colombia to spend a year volunteering teaching English in a disadvantaged community in the city’s southern sprawl. As someone who grew up relatively privileged in a suburb of San Francisco, it was a truly transformative year. The world no longer seemed so small, and I became a hardened citizen of the world comfortable traveling anywhere with nothing more than a travel pack.

Urban development in Bogotá

While living in Bogotá, I became fascinated by urban sustainability, learning about the city’s efforts to deal with air quality, water, energy and planning problems. As an Andean metropolis thousands of miles above sea level, Bogotá’s already thin air is worsened by smog. Bogotá suffers the same problems as many other cities in the global South — as droves of people come to the big cities to escape poverty, war and climate change-induced problems, the urban environments swell, compounding social and environmental problems.

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Teaching English in Bogota.

In other words: Bogotá is a city designed for maybe a million people, which now has a population of close to 9 million. That’s a lot of people trying to get around, looking for jobs, needing children educated, and everything else associated with living life.

A few years before I arrived in Bogotá, the city opened the TransMilenio rapid bus transit system. Designed like a light rail system with dedicated lanes and stations for transferring, TransMilenio has been touted as a golden solution to urban transit in developing cities. While the system works well enough, it still isn’t capable of meeting the demands of the city’s growing population.

If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a sardine in a can, try riding TransMilenio at rush hour.

But strained as the system is, it still is a major step up from the previous chaotic system of private colectivo buses, which still operate but have become less necessary in certain parts of town.

Disappearing islands in the Caribbean

During my year in Latin America, I had the opportunity to travel to Panama and spend some time on the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean. These islands are some of the most pristine, beautiful geography I have ever laid eyes on. Virgin beaches transport you back to another time, and you wonder if you wouldn’t be happy spending the rest of your days out there away from the toils of reality.

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Visiting a Kuna community in San Blas.

Unfortunately for the Kuna, the indigenous people who inhabit many of the San Blas Islands, their days of living such a life are numbered. While these resilient people survived Christopher Columbus, they will not endure climate change.

Living on islands not much bigger than a couple of football fields and maybe a meter or two above sea level, rising sea levels will soon force the Kuna to evacuate their entire society to the mainland. I had the privilege of visiting one of the Kuna communities, which informed me on the human cost of climate change.

Entering the corporate sustainability world

In January 2012, I returned to the United States utterly transformed by my year in Latin America, and armed with a new sense of urgency to do whatever I could to help turn the tide against climate change. I soon became involved with Sustainable Brands, helping to tell the stories of corporate sustainability. For a while, I also wrote for Triple Pundit, another media outlet focused on corporate sustainability. And then I became a senior writer for GreenBiz.

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Conducting an interview at GreenBiz VERGE.

Two years after returning from Latin America, my experiences drew the attention of a professor at George Washington University, who offered me an opportunity to continue my education at the graduate level. The program, Media & Strategic Communication, is essentially a masters in data-driven storytelling.

Recognizing the importance of data in corporate sustainability communication, I accepted the offer and once again packed my bags to move across the country to Washington, D.C.

More global perspectives

Over the past two years of graduate school, I have continued to write for Greenbiz and Sustainable Brands, interviewing movers and shakers in the corporate sustainability world and writing stories about every imaginable sustainability issue — including energy, water, waste, supply chains, cities… you name it.

In November 2014, I traveled with my GW professor to Nairobi, Kenya where we met with an information technology NGO working to improve governance capacity in the city’s slums. Mathare Valley is a slum overflowing with climate change refugees — largely smallholder farmers driven out of the nearby Rift Valley from a years-long megadrought.

We met with local community organizers working to improve conditions that the government has been happy to ignore. In an area where garbage removal doesn’t exist, we saw trash heaps two stories high. We met human beings living in conditions most Americans wouldn’t tolerate even temporarily.

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With local children in Mathare Valley, Nairobi.

In April 2015, I was invited by the Rainforest Alliance to participate in a media tour to the rainforests of Guatemala, where the nonprofit is working with local communities to sustainably harvest forests. Through this experience, I witnessed the power of sustainable business in earnest — increasing demand for sustainably sourced wood is creating markets for local communities to make a living while protecting their quickly disappearing forests.

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Reporting on sustainable forestry in Guatemala.

While historically, Guatemala’s government has favored corporate interests over local ones, as part of an effort to make reparations after its tragic genocide the government created the 5 million acre Maya Biosphere Reserve. The difference in the protected and unprotected regions is staggering — in order to reach the MBR, we passed through unprotected forests, which were being burned even as we passed to make room for cattle farming.

Becoming a Climate Corps fellow

Last summer, I was accepted into the elite EDF Climate Corps fellowship program, which recruits and trains graduate students and embeds them in organizations to provide hands-on support for energy management initiatives. Assigned to PG&E Corporation back home in San Francisco, I spent the summer working on marketing communications and engagement strategy for an energy finance initiative aimed at helping mid- to low-income homeowners pay for energy upgrades.

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Presenting my final deliverable my EDF Climate Corps fellowship with PG&E.

While energy always has been my “first love” as far as sustainability goes, my experience as a Climate Corps fellow buttressed my belief that energy is where I want to focus my storytelling skills on. Energy is the foundation of a modern economy, and without developing a more sustainable, smarter and low-carbon grid, it will be difficult to address the multifarious other sustainability challenges across the world.

What happens next

I recently successfully defended my master’s thesis on extreme weather events, information technology, and policy change. I have solidified my understanding of strategic communication, and boosted it with data analysis and data visualization skills.

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In a matter of weeks I will earn my masters, and plan to return to California to pursue the next stage of my sustainability storytelling career. I plan to continue my efforts as a strategic communicator and writer telling stories about companies and organizations around the world working to fight climate change and promote a better future.

But I’m also ready to take all that I have learned — from corporate board rooms to disappearing islands to crumbling slums — and focus it on helping to push the needle on energy innovation in California and beyond.

Today is Earth Day, but so is tomorrow and the day after that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s time to get to it.

Talking sustainability with James Cameron at Greenbuild

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James Cameron might be best known as a filmmaker, directing such memorable flicks as “The Terminator,” “Titanic” and “Avatar,” but he also is a staunch environmentalist. He is involved in promoting public awareness and education on sustainability issues, working with several NGOs on climate change, energy policy, deforestation, indigenous rights, ocean conservation, sustainable agriculture and the impact of our food choices on the environment.

This week at Greenbuild — the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to green building — Cameron gave the keynote at the opening plenary, which focused on what it will take to get meaningful action on climate change leading up to the United Nations COP21 Climate Negotiations in Paris in December.

After Cameron’s talk, I had the opportunity to go backstage and speak with him privately about is ongoing efforts to communicate sustainability to the masses. What follows is the conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity. Continue reading “Talking sustainability with James Cameron at Greenbuild”

A Viewer’s Guide to COP21

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In a matter of weeks, world leaders will converge on Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) 21, to achieve what many hope will be the first legally binding and universal agreement on climate change. Since the 1997 COP3 in Kyoto failed to effectively operationalize the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and meaningfully limit global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), world leaders have struggled to reach a consensus during several COP meetings. Four core issues dominated many of these climate talks, which will need to be resolved this December if a decisive agreement is to be reached: equity issues surrounding the responsibilities of developed and developing regions; the scope and scale of GHG reductions; enforcement mechanisms; and whether to pursue top-down or bottom-up solutions. Continue reading “A Viewer’s Guide to COP21”

Here’s what happened at the GreenBiz VERGE event

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Last week, I attended the GreenBiz VERGE event in San Jose, California, which brought together a multidisciplinary community pursuing the next frontier of sustainability built upon converging technologies.

As a senior writer at GreenBiz, it’s my job to help capture some of the main themes and insights coming out of the conference — no simple task considering the event’s plethora of conversations, demonstrations and connections. But after a whirlwind week covering presentation and discussions on everything from public-private partnerships to microgrids and space travel, I was able to generate some meaty stories on the latest and greatest in sustainable business and technology.

Here’s some of the highlights:

Public-private partnerships help cities increase climate resilience

On the first day of VERGE, I attended the City Summit, an invite-only event which brought together city, business and nonprofit leaders to discuss how they might work together to promote more sustainable and climate resilient cities. By viewing sustainability as an investment rather than a liability, local leaders are able to sidestep much of the political deadlock that prevents federal-level resilience policy measures from materializing.

Much of the discussion focused on how public-private partnerships are allowing cities to do more than they ever could do alone to solve resiliency challenges. To make these partnerships successful, participants generated some key strategies, including starting with a clear definition of resilience and how to measure it, cities should think like startups and getting creative to finance resilience projects, among others.

Check out the full story on GreenBiz.


Continue reading “Here’s what happened at the GreenBiz VERGE event”

‘Facility Executive’ feature: What makes a ‘resilient’ building?

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Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm, recently spared the U.S. east coast from the worst of its impacts, but cities such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami might not be so lucky next time. As the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense, according to the world’s leading climate scientists. All of this is going to have a major impact on the built environment.

But what makes a building ‘resilient’? Traditionally, facilities were constructed based on the assumption that local climate conditions would remain the same. In a new world marked by unpredictable and extreme weather, we need to rethink how we build our buildings.

This month, Facility Executive, a trade publication aimed at facility managers, published an in-depth feature I wrote that looks at what makes buildings ‘sustainable’ and ‘resilient’. Interviewing leaders in the green building space, including architects, engineers and green building strategists, I evaluate what key decisions facility managers can make before constructing a new or retrofitting an existing building that will allow their building to withstand the growing impacts of climate change.

The article also will be features in the magazine’s hard copy edition, if you happen to subscribe.

I hope you enjoy it!

Cecil the Lion didn’t die in vain (Thanks to digital technology)

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The the story of the slaughter of Cecil, the much-loved Zimbabwean lion, by an American dentist from Minnesota has taken the Internet by storm, with many calling for Dr. Walter Palmer’s head, figuratively and otherwise. The sad story moved even comedian Jimmy Kimmel to tears.

The incident involved Palmer paying $50,000 to a professional hunter in Zimbabwe to kill a lion. After being lured out of the nature reserve in which he lived, Cecil was shot and wounded with an arrow fired by Palmer. The hunters tracked Cecil for around 40 hours, and then killed with a rifle. He was then unceremoniously skinned and decapitated.

Interestingly, Cecil’s tracking collar was missing when his carcass was found, suggesting the hunters had attempted to cover their digital tracks. The lion wore a collar monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University, which uses satellites to track more than 100 lions.

Continue reading “Cecil the Lion didn’t die in vain (Thanks to digital technology)”

NASA’s new Earth photo puts sustainability in perspective

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The original Blue Marble, left, and the new image, right.

The notion that  a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ couldn’t be more true than with the classic “Blue Marble” photo snapped by NASA more than four decades ago in 1972. In the midst of the Cold War, the picture of a lonely blue planet surrounded by the blackness of space showed us how trivial our wayward squabbles were — that we are in this together.

Although this photo didn’t lead to world peace, it did become a symbol of the nascent environmental movement. A few years earlier, in 1970, Denis Hayes (whom I interviewed for GreenBiz last year), organized the first Earth Day. After years of destructive economic policies resulted in an increasingly toxic environment in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency was created to protect human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. Landmark environmental legislation was passed, including the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Coast Reorganization Act (1972).

The Blue Marble photo, along with the famous Apollo 11 snapshot of Earth from the Moon, provided a much-needed context for public perceptions of the environment — primarily, that the Earth and everything on it is finite. For the first time in history, the idea that human activities could actually have a significant adverse impact on the planet entered the public’s conscience.

Continue reading “NASA’s new Earth photo puts sustainability in perspective”

A quick catch up

Mike Hower (1)_JPGIt’s been a crazy couple of months, and I’m checking in to let you know that I’m still alive and kickin’. Between traveling to Guatemala to investigate how the Rainforest Alliance is using market-based strategies to strengthen local communities and fight rampant deforestation to closing out my first year of grad school and starting a summer fellowship with the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps in San Francisco, I’ve barely had time to catch my breath. At least, I finally took a decent head shot, as you can see (seriously, this has never happened before).

It’s been great being back in California these past few months, visiting with friends and family, as well as avoiding the wretched D.C. humidity. There’s a lot to catch you all up on, but not now. I promise, it will be coming soon.

Until then, make sure to keep up with my latest stories at GreenBiz and Sustainable Brands.

Happy summer!

Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day Calls for Action Against Climate Change and Global Poverty

Global Citizen Earth Day 20152015 marks a historic year both for the environmental and anti-poverty movements — the expiration of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. In Paris, global leaders will unveil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will determine how the world tackles climate change and global inequality, as well as take on health, education and environmental challenges.

On Saturday, April 18 tens of thousands of people from around the world congregated on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. for the Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day, organized by the Global Poverty Project and the Earth Day Network to unite the issues of climate change and global poverty, and to engage citizens and business and world leaders to act now to address both. It was planned to coincide with both the 45th anniversary of Earth Day and the spring meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund in D.C.

Continue reading “Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day Calls for Action Against Climate Change and Global Poverty”