I hope like me you're counting the hours till this Thursday, April 22, the 52nd observance of Earth Day.
An American invention largely credited to U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and student activist Denis Hayes, Earth Day's 1970 debut drew millions of people to rallies and events in big cities and small towns; grade schools, and college campuses.
This is not to be confused with Earth Hour, which was observed this year at 8:30 pm EDT on March 27, leaving the annual final score for the year: Earth = one hour; everything else = 8,759 hours.
Earth Day is also not to be confused with the United Nations' World Environment Day coming up on June 5, or its World Oceans Day, three days after that.
After its grand 1970 debut, Earth Day became a decidedly more mundane event until 1990. Several years of telegenic eco-disasters—the horrific chemical release in Bhopal, India; the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; the Exxon Valdez oil spill; and more – re-ignited public passions.
As a major event, Earth Day 1990 stands alone as a high-profile environmental newsmaker (except, of course, for the disasters). A two-hour primetime ABC special drew A-list talent: Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Kevin Costner, Rodney Dangerfield, Jane Fonda, Morgan Freeman, Dustin Hoffman, Magic Johnson, Jack Lemmon, Meryl Streep, Betty White, Robin Williams, and Barbra Streisand.
On the corporate side, greenwashing— green public relations efforts meant to mask polluting reality—started to increase in the 1980s and 1990s. Petrochemical giant Chevron notably put the con in consummate, dropping millions in greenwash print and video ads in its "People Do" campaign. In this TV classic, the kindly folk of Chevron keep desert critters from dying of thirst.
In a 1988 print ad, Chevron dropped an estimated six figures bragging about its efforts to save the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Unmentioned in the ad: Chevron was initially mandated to save the butterfly because its habitat was plowed under in part to build Chevron's massive El Segundo refinery complex.
Here in 2021, Greenwashing lives, and it's slicker than ever. America's biggest soda makers trotted out their biggest brands—Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper—to pledge their fealty to plastics recycling, despite decades' worth of opposition to bottle return legislation. Their ad ran during the Super Bowl of American advertising, which is, of course the Super Bowl.
Heartless journalists like me aren't blameless, either, as we annually turn our cyber-backs on literally hundreds of press releases, story pitches, and videos about how Snoopy (or was it Snoop Dogg?) is spending Earth Day.
Of course, not all of the news is cause to be cynical. President Biden has scheduled a virtual summit of world leaders (on Earth Day, of course!) to harden and accelerate commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions and affirm the reversal of the past four years of White House science denial.
Make no mistake: Earth Day, even with its shallowness and condescension, is a good thing—as are Earth Hour, World Environment Day, World Oceans Day, and more.
Hopefulness? By this time, I had hoped over 52 Earth Days that we had accomplished a little bit more.
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To prevent pipes from freezing, set the thermostat in your house no lower than 55°F, an article tells me.
I set the temperature to 55°F, and scratch the last item on my to-do list, finally ready to leave for the holidays. As I am about to step out, I turn around and raise the temperature to 60°F— I had almost forgotten about James! Named after James Baldwin, he is my favorite houseplant. Native to West Africa, he is at the mercy of my energy use decisions as he tries to survive New York City winters.
This scenario, though admittedly silly, points to a key problem that researchers in climate, energy, and health grapple with: decisions around household energy use are complex and malleable. Understanding energy-related decision-making is an aspirational yet challenging goal because such a broad range of factors are at play. Such decisions depend on money, accessibility, and preferences; they are affected by availability, climate, and infrastructure; they are molded by habits, culture, history, and relationships with loved ones. Unfortunately, most home energy transition programs are designed around one-size-fits-all approaches that at best consider only a handful of these factors.
If we are to leverage the household energy sector's potential to mitigate climate change and protect health, we need to acknowledge that adoption of new technologies and behavior change depend on a full understanding of the end users' needs, beyond simple thermostat settings. Too often, however, society simplifies and labels people prematurely, to the detriment of truly comprehensive and effective solutions. It often seems as though the standard approach to problem-solving is not to embrace complexity but to reduce it by creating categories.
Author Misbath Daouda (right) and Jaagi lead a workshop on air pollution awareness with community health workers in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Credit: Sabrina Netrvalova)
I learned this firsthand through my struggle to define my identity after immigrating to the U.S. Born in Senegal to a Beninese father and a French-Togolese-Malian mother, I have consistently re-adjusted the way I define my identity depending on the people, culture, and legacies surrounding me. Throughout middle and high school in Senegal, my Beninese identity took center stage, explaining away my subpar ability to speak Wolof. Later, having moved to France, I carried my French passport around to prove my legitimacy in a nation that refused to accept its past. Today, I have the same feeling of perpetually needing to fragment who I am as I attempt to position myself within American society. For example, I tell people that I am a French native speaker when asked about my accent, but while this label offers an answer to the immediate question, it does not fully reflect my heritage.
As an energy and health scientist, I strive to ensure that my research and advocacy does not replicate the restrictive nature of such labels. I use the term "desirable" to describe household energy transitions that meet the needs of the communities I work with, protect their health, and reduce harm to the environment. I anchor my work around such transitions in the belief that "desirable" means one thing for a given community and something completely different to another community.
The only way to find out the context-dependent meaning of "desirable" is to refrain from presenting target communities with preconceived solutions arising from a fragmented understanding of their circumstances. If we fail to do so, we risk blinding ourselves to crucial societal, cultural, and individual dynamics that might dictate whether or not households adopt clean energy options.
Dangerous stoves in the US and abroad
Locals cook a meal over a coal stove in Mongolia. (Credit: Misbath Daouda)
Around the world, nearly three billion people rely on solid fuels (primarily wood, dung, crop residues, and charcoal) to meet cooking and heating needs. The combustion of these solid fuels in inefficient, unvented stoves leads to high levels of household air pollution, which is estimated to account for three million premature deaths per year, largely from pneumonia in children.
As I landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for the first time in 2018, the pilot announced what was a typical winter temperature there: - 25°C (- 13°F). When temperatures drop to their lowest and air pollution levels rise to their highest, Ulaanbaatar becomes the most polluted capital in the world. The pollution, made of tiny airborne particles called PM2.5, is partly caused by smoke from coal-burning stoves used to heat yurts—traditional Mongolian homes—during the bitterly cold winter months. These particles are so small that when inhaled, they can get deep into the lungs, even enter the bloodstream, and ultimately cause serious health problems. That winter in Ulaanbaatar, the levels of PM2.5 reached more than 130 times the World Health Organization's recommended limit.
While in Ulaanbaatar, I conducted air pollution awareness workshops with community health workers. Based on their knowledge of the communities, we developed a set of recommendations that parents could use to minimize their kids' exposure to air pollution. While the recommendations were well received, community members voiced their hope that future energy transition initiatives truly took into account their lived experiences. Indeed, alternative stoves that had previously been distributed required frequent refilling with fuel, which meant that families had to wake up in the middle of the night to do so. Instead, they resold them for much needed additional income. A year later, the government responded to these communities' needs: fuel alternatives that burn longer and emit far less fumes are made accessible at 1,000 kiosks across the city.
While most people who rely on solid fuels live in low- and middle-income countries, household energy decisions can also be detrimental to climate, health, and environmental justice goals here in the United States. Researchers estimate particulate pollution from burning wood in U.S. homes may lead to 10,000 to 40,000 premature deaths every year.
It's not just solid fuels: because indoor air quality is not regulated in the U.S., emissions levels from gas stoves can be very high. Children living in homes with gas stoves have a 42 percent increased risk of asthma. Asthma is also profoundly inequitable: Black children are affected at twice the rate of White children.Some states and cities are taking notice and are taking steps to reduce these disparities at scale. For example, here in New York City, the Housing Authority has recently committed to electrifying all of its buildings, which house nearly 400,000 low-income residents. Listening to the residents, who are experts regarding their lived experiences, will be crucial to determine which issues electrification should address. As pilot studies have shown, community voices often refocus the conversation on people instead of infrastructure or technology.
Traditionally, in places like rural Ghana, women and girls are responsible for cooking, which increases their exposure to household air pollution. (Credit: scottgunn/flickr)
Yes, commitment from energy policymakers is necessary to drive successful household energy transitions. But so is understanding the day-to-day energy-related decisions that are made within homes.
In my current work in Ghana, I am evaluating the role of women's bargaining power in shaping energy use. Traditionally, in settings similar to rural Ghana, women and girls are responsible for cooking, which increases their exposure to household air pollution. Women are also the primary gatherers of fuel when it is not readily available. They face safety risks associated with fuel collection and significant constraints on their available time for education, rest, and jobs. At the same time, these women often have limited financial and decision-making power.
Based on this understanding of their situations, I am convinced that women's empowerment is a key determinant of the success of clean cooking interventions. I believe that if women could better negotiate with their spouses and advocate for their preferences and health, the uptake of clean cooking technologies would be greater. But what do these women believe? What are their attitudes and values related to their household energy use? What do they aspire to for themselves and their daughters? These are just a few of the questions I am asking them to understand their point of view. I will then incorporate their perceptions and expectations into the design of future household energy interventions.
The interpersonal nature of energy use
Ultimately, energy decisions are about relationships. They are shaped by strong emotional bonds around care, intimacy, love and friendship: cooking a child's favorite recipe, keeping elderly relatives warm, and reminding a teenager not to leave the lights on are all seemingly mundane activities that shape energy demand.
If we simply categorize energy end-users with pre-made labels, we miss out on disentangling the drivers of why they consume energy the way they do. Just as if we simply categorize people as Black or White, rich or poor, rural or urban, we miss out on the beauty and nuance in what shapes us as individuals. As my struggle to define my identity has taught me: just because a particular feature is salient does not mean it supersedes others.
As public health practitioners interested in the health benefits of clean energy transitions, we need to widen our scope of inquiry and consider the many features of a household or community. We need to not only survey households but also truly listen to them. Dedicating substantial time to learning about a community's way of life is a necessary step to understanding the historical and cultural context that influences clean energy adoption. Relationships of consensus, collaboration, and companionship that all have energy implications should not be overlooked in the design of clean energy interventions.
As for James, my beloved plant? I returned from my trip to find him happy and thriving at 60°F. While 55°F may have been warm enough for him, I don't think such recommendations take into account the well-being of West African house plants.
Misbath Daouda is a Climate and Health PhD candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @misbath_d.
This essay is part of "Agents of Change," an ongoing series featuring the stories, analyses and perspectives of next generation environmental health leaders who come from historically under-represented backgrounds in science and academia. Essays in the series reflect the views of the authors and not that of EHN.org or The George Washington University.
Banner photo: School children from Kembu primary school in Kenya holding solar lights. (Credit: SolarAid Photos/flickr)
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Virginia Wasserberg is a lifelong Republican, a deeply conservative home-schooling mom from Southeast Virginia.
Once a month, she logs onto Zoom to join an unlikely crew: there's a community organizer from Austin, Texas; a grandmother from rural Missouri; and an environmental justice activist from Port Arthur, Texas.
Wasserberg and her Zoom companions are members of Higher Ground, a national network of flood survivors. On paper, they don't have much in common. They span the income spectrum from working class to relatively affluent. They are African-American, white and Latinx; Democrats and Republicans; conservatives, moderates, and progressives. But they share one important experience: they are all dealing with floods in their homes and neighborhoods.
As the planet warms, those floods are becoming more severe. Stronger, wetter storms overflow the banks of Midwestern rivers, while hurricanes and sea-level rise inundate coastal communities. Antiquated infrastructure and short-sighted building practices make the problem worse. But as the waters are rising, so are flood survivors. Higher Ground, a project of the Florida-based nonprofit Anthropocene Alliance, now has 70 chapters in 22 states, plus Puerto Rico.
Wasserberg's experience is typical of the group's members. "On October 7, 2016, I couldn't have cared less about climate change," she said. "On October 8, a disaster woke me up." That disaster was a massive storm surge from Hurricane Matthew, which flooded her Virginia Beach home. "As soon as we got back in the house, I started looking around and saying, 'How did this happen and how can we prevent it from happening again?'" she said. That inquiry led Wasserberg to a new understanding of the science—and the politics--behind flooding and climate change.
Wasserberg got involved in her local civic league, then started organizing her neighbors through a group called Stop the Flooding Now. The group's Facebook site was spotted by Harriet Festing, director of the Anthropocene Alliance, who reached out. Soon, Wasserberg was connecting with others in similar straits. "I discovered that there were other people, not just in my community but throughout my country, who had the same problems I was having," Wasserberg said.
She met other flood survivors, including Dr. Gloria Horning, who is battling a dangerous new development in her flood-prone neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida. The group also includes Frances Acuña, whose Austin neighborhood experienced several "100-year" floods in the span of a few years, and David Southgate, whose neighbors in Ponce Playa, Puerto Rico, face possible displacement because of coastal erosion and flooding from climate-driven storms.
The first priority for Higher Ground members is to educate themselves—and others—on the root causes of flooding. To that end, Festing connects local groups with volunteer scientists from the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), a project of the American Geophysical Union.
Wasserberg was matched with Dr. Michelle Covi, a coastal resources expert at Old Dominion University. Covi linked her scientific explanations to real-life impacts: "She'd explain how what we are seeing on a graph translates to the water that's in my front yard," said Wasserberg. "It expanded my understanding, unlike anything ever could."
Linking climate change science to real world impacts
That pragmatic approach—linking climate science to what's happening in our front yards—has helped Wasserberg talk to her fellow conservatives, as well. Early on, a Higher Ground member from the Midwest counseled Wasserberg to lead with the what, rather than the why: "Just to get in the conversation, you start with 'something is happening,'" she said. "The main thing is to keep focused on the flooding. Once people start discussing the what, it's completely natural to end up on the why. That's how it's worked for me."
Dr. Horning agrees: "In Florida, climate change is a dirty word," she said. "Our governor doesn't believe in it; our senators don't believe in it; lots of Republicans in the community don't believe in it. But when you show them pictures and say, 'this happened, and this happened,' they say, 'well, maybe she's got a point.'"
In addition to illuminating challenges, Higher Ground members share solutions. They learn about what works from one another, and through seminars and trainings with experts. "We've learned about rain gardens, bioswales and other green infrastructure," said David Southgate. They also get schooled on the politics of flooding: "We've learned how big money influences the creation of flood maps that allow developers to build in areas where they shouldn't be building," Southgate said.
Practical knowledge and political savvy make Higher Ground members effective advocates. "We are not just complaining," said Frances Acuña, "we are offering choices and recommendations and offering to build a working relationship."
And Higher Ground members "train it forward," passing on what they've learned to others in their communities. "I've learned a lot about how to speak to your representative or your senator," said Acuña, "so now I'm doing a training for the community to teach back what I've learned, because it's important."
Solutions to flooding
Students and landscapers work digging and planting in a bioswale area. (Credit: Lewis and Clark Community College/flickr)
Higher Ground's approach is getting results. Wasserberg's work in Virginia Beach sparked new building regulations; major capital projects to mitigate flooding—including tidal gates—are also in the works. Frances Acuña helped win a citywide flood-control resolution, and she now advises local officials on green infrastructure and disaster response. The community group David Southgate volunteers with, Un Nuevo Amanecer, persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to launch a study that will guide climate adaptation in Ponce Playa.
Other Higher Ground members have successfully halted developments in flood-prone areas, instituted green infrastructure programs, promoted cleanups at toxic waste sites in areas that flood, and organized home buyouts. Recently, a member group called Rosewood Strong in Socastee, South Carolina, secured $13 million in federal funding to buy out 60 repeatedly flooded homes and use the land for green infrastructure.
But you could say that the group's greatest achievement lies in those monthly Zoom calls. Today, Americans have sorted ourselves into communities defined by geography, demography, ideology— and opportunities to communicate across those divides are exceedingly rare. But the shared trauma of flooding offers an opening.
"Floodwaters don't recognize geographical boundaries, political boundaries, or racial boundaries," said Wasserberg. "That was the catalyst for me to join with other people who had different perspectives, politically speaking. They had the same experience I had; they had water in their homes, just like me. We all found that common ground."
The circle of trust
We live in a society of weaponized information, where media outlets at opposing ends of the political spectrum no longer share a basic perception of reality. It's an atmosphere of metastasizing mistrust and contempt that threatens the very foundation of democracy. And yet: here is a diverse group of Americans, sharing information and making common cause. Like many conservatives, Wasserberg does not trust the mainstream media. But she does put faith in the information she gets from her fellow flood survivors and affiliated experts. "It's almost like a trust circle," she said.
Of course, Higher Ground is not an island; the bitter politics of this moment are not absent here. When partisan passions reached a fever pitch around the 2020 elections, Wasserberg stepped away from activism for a few months, fearing that her conservatism would make her a target. And she declines to sign on to Higher Ground initiatives that don't align with her politics. But that does not affect her relationships with other members of the group. "There's room for us to be who we are," she said.
The group's winning formula does not guarantee success. Indeed, Higher Ground members are often locked in struggle with entrenched local power structures. Dr. Steven Emerman, a TEX volunteer who advises several local flood-survivor groups, observed that facts are often no match for ideology: "I've never seen a case where you take a city council member who's totally pro development, and you show him or her the facts about flooding, and they just change their mind." Victories are rarely permanent: as long as there is money to be made—or votes to be gained—by building in flood-prone areas, the flooding will continue.
What is needed is a sea change in our politics. That will require new understanding of flood risks, and of how those are made worse by a changing climate. That, in turn, requires communication across the gaping divides in American society. We need a wider "circle of trust."
Like other members of Higher Ground, Virginia Wasserberg is doing her part. Recently, she launched an initiative to put climate change and sea-level rise on the platforms of Republican candidates, and to hold them accountable once they are in office.
"Republicans like myself who care about the environment need to stand up and do something about it," she said. "We can't just sit on the sidelines and let this be a political issue. It's a human issue."
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