Energy and the Environment

The Final Frontier

By Cameron Davis

On March 22nd, the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss the issue of neutrality and conservation in space and how the increasing possibility of energy harvesting in from asteroids, planets, and other celestial bodies should be approached by the federal government. Although space exploration and exploitation seem to be far off, setting the groundwork for the future is an important step in order to guide progress for years to come. Co-Center Directors for Energy and the Environment Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz focused the discussion on four major areas – space law, mining in space, scientific missions, and contamination of space and earth environments.

Harper began the discussion by giving a run-down of some of the most important points for the day’s meeting, including lesser-known space legislation such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which banned national appropriation of celestial bodies and outlawed weapons of mass destruction from the atmosphere; the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 which permits all private and commercial satellites and launches; and, most recently, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, a bill that died in committee that would have regulated development of property rights for states and companies alike on claims to celestial bodies. By framing the debate with the key current legislation on the topic, Harper and Schwartz contextualized how contemporary international bodies and federal governments alike are approaching outer space.

The discussion naturally began, then, with whether either public or private missions should be allowed to use extraterrestrial resources for survival, fuel, mining, or other personal uses. The debate on this point was heated: while many Roosevelt members feared that over-regulating space could discourage private entities from becoming involved and ultimately stunt scientific progress, several other members were more cautious. “If governments don’t regulate these corporations,” seemed to be the thinking, “what’s to stop them from making unsafe, reckless, and exploitative decisions just in the name of profit?”

With that question still unanswered, Schwartz went on to re-contextualize the debate within the purview of space ecosystems – how important, exactly, is environmental consideration of celestial bodies, and to what extent should conservation be prioritized over lucrative resource extraction? This question proved to be quite contentious, dividing the room into two primary factions: one was all too cognizant of the mistakes made with our own earth and warned that without heavy regulation, our actions could similarly destroy the delicate environments of thousands of other bodies; the other group demanded a more humanist line of thought, explaining that by using other planets to our advantage we could live more at peace with our own earth without putting undue stress on the resources it gives us.

The discussion took a brief detour before final thoughts thanks to an interruption by an individual representing Mama Aerospace (http://www.mamaaerospace.com/), who used the time that he was given when called upon to pitch his own personal deep space transportation company and ask for general feedback about the policy implications of his initiative. The individual brought a sense of realism and practicality to the otherwise nebulous policy discussion, and helped underscore the importance of the topic in policymaking for the not-so-distant future.

Ultimately, participants in the discussion were unable to come to a consensus about how the United States and international bodies should regulate outer space (if at all) and deal with the crossroads between scientific exploration and environmental responsibility. Even though it may be difficult, continuing one without the expense of the other should be the focus of future policy decisions.

Flint Water Crisis

by Madeline Ducharme

On February 9th, 2016, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University discussed the extremely relevant and pressing topic of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With the concentrations of lead in Flint’s water far surpassing basic human health standards, there has been outcry from all over the country. People are considering Flint’s crisis as a case of environmental racism as the community affected is comprised largely of people of color as well as people living below the United States poverty line.

Headed by the Roosevelt’s co-presidents of environment, Charles and Nikita, we considered drastic policy solutions that included the complete overhaul of Flint’s water infrastructure as well as the implementation of a new “sexier” New Deal (truly in the spirit of Roos himself). The discussion also dealt with the issue of responsibility. While many supported the immediate resignation of the mayor of Flint and the governor of Michigan, others found this action to be too extreme and a waste of Flint’s quickly depleting financial resources. The argument over this mostly boiled down to the difference between ideology and action; some found the the lack of immediate prosecution of the mayor and governor a potentially dangerous precedent to set while others believed that all government funds should be focused on dealing with the crisis at hand, bearing in mind that there is little time to find replacements for these positions if the two men were to resign.

Roosevelt discussed some of the intense implications that this crisis has on United States infrastructure overall due to the fact that Flint is by no means the only city dealing with dangerously contaminated water. The economic aspects of this issue were also hotly contested amongst the group. This became quickly became a rather divisive issue for Roosevelt as members debated whether the municipal, state, or federal government should pay for the intense repairs that need to be undertaken. Despite the back-and-forth on infrastructure, resignations, and economics, Roosevelt disbanded Tuesday night with the overwhelming sentiment of the fact that water is a human right and we, as a highly developed country, cannot allow for crises to escalate like this.

Keystone XL and Fossil Fuel Dependence

by Fernando Garcia

On November 10th, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University gathered to discuss the Keystone XL Pipeline and fossil fuel dependence in a debate led by the two Energy and the Environment co-directors: Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal intended to extend a current pipeline that would transport 1.3 million barrels of tar sand oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Texas. The proposal had an estimated cost of $7 billion and was ultimately rejected by the State Department after years of protests and controversy.

The discussion began with an analysis of the pros and cons of the proposal. The extension of the pipeline would create 2000 short-term (one to two years) and 50 long-term jobs and would lower the cost of transporting tar sand oil, possibly leading to a worldwide drop in oil prices. It would also strengthen U.S.-Canadian economic and diplomatic relations. However, these benefits would come at a huge environmental cost, not only because of increased burning of fossil fuel but also due to the fact that the extension would pass over aquifers and endanger the welfare of surrounding ecosystems. Some members pointed out that the pipeline would also put nature at risk on certain Native American and First Nations reservations. Others discussed the fact that a justification for the expansion based on increased jobs is faulty because renewable energy development and maintenance has the potential to create a profitable industry with many new jobs, especially if given the necessary governmental support.

Another key question raised during the discussion was the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and whether or not declining the proposal to import Canadian oil would only further this dependence. Many argued that it is better to import oil from countries that are more respectful of human rights and have closer diplomatic ties to the United States such as Canada than to rely on oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia. Some members equated U.S. reliance on Saudi oil with direct support for the Saudi regime its widespread violation of human rights. Supporters of this view also argued that if the United States does not trade this oil with Canada, Canada will happily trade it with another nation, thereby leading to the burning of fossil fuel and environmental damage in any case.

The opposing view is that the United States as a global superpower has the clout necessary to influence other nations and set the precedent that fossil fuel energy is a thing of the past and that we as humans should now focus solely on renewable energy infrastructure for the sake of our very existence in the coming decades. By rejecting such fossil fuel infrastructure proposals and implementing other policies such as a carbon tax or expanding renewable energy subsidies, many argued, the United States can shift away from fossil fuel dependence and start building an infrastructure that is completely geared toward renewable energy sources. Many also argued that this has to be as much of a local effort as a national effort. States such as Arizona can focus on solar energy whereas windier states can focus on expanding wind energy infrastructure. By doing this, the United States can show the rest of the world that it is indeed possible to eventually let go of fossil fuels. This can be achieved in many ways: diplomatic influence, transnational agreements, economic partnerships, development and exporting of cheap renewable energy technology and other forms of soft power.

Despite having differing opinions on the recent decision by the State Department, all members of the Institute agreed that it was necessary to shift away from fossil fuels in favor of green energy sources. In other words, everyone acknowledged the impending consequences of climate change. This led to another point being raised: the fact that many members of the United States Congress publicly deny the very existence of global warming. The general opinion was that this is a deep-rooted problem that must be addressed before the U.S. quits dirty energy.

US, China, and International Climate Change Relations

By Masih Babagoli  

In light of Earth Week, the discussion topic on April 9th was on climate change relations. Our Energy & Environment Center Leader Sam Place, and body member Charles Harper focused the conversation on the relationship between developed countries, like the US, and the developing countries, like China.

How do we escape from the “doomsday” that scientists are prophesizing? How should the US Congress enter this issue of sustainable development? What are the best ways at slowing down climate change? And most controversially, are we justified in telling developing countries that they cannot go through the same path that developed countries have taken because of the contributions that the conventional path makes to global issues of climate change?

 

This last question was the main topic of discussion for our meeting. Some argued that it was not justified for developed countries such as the US to dictate the course of development for countries – such as China – that are undergoing industrialization right now. The main premise of this argument was that by forcing China to change the way that it is developing, for example by replacing its agricultural technologies with greener though less efficient ones, the United States would be reducing the standard of living of Chinese people.

 

Through that lens, it is not justifiable for the United States to be depriving other individuals of a better quality of life when Americans were able to enjoy the same luxuries without a responsibility for its emissions. We might claim to have sustainable technology, but that is nothing more than rhetoric if implementing this technology is at odds with the economic wellbeing of a nation.

 

Those who argued that we can and should dictate a change in course of development of countries undergoing this transition focused on the macro impacts. Climate change, economic inequity, and other problems that fall under the umbrella of sustainable development are dire global issues – and these dire global issues need to be addressed immediately. Therefore, we cannot wait for developing countries to go through the process because we just don’t have the time. It is not Americans versus Chinese; it is humans against their own fate.

 

Many argued that we have a moral obligation as a developed country to export the lessons that we have learned in undergoing industrialization and development in a traditional path. Now that we know what shouldn’t be done, we need to inform others. However, some might frame this exportation of knowledge as imperialistic. But can it be viewed that we – as a developed nation – underwent “growing pains”, and now we are just helping others so that they don’t have to go through the same pains? Isn’t that a good deed?

Water Scarcity and Drought in the US

The Roosevelt Institute held its fourth meeting, “Water Scarcity and Drought in the US,”this past Tuesday, October 14. Led by the Energy & Environment Center, this discussion explored some of the complexities that arise with water scarcity, and how it is impacting the United States today. The discussion started out by addressing some of the key reasons as to why water scarcity exists in the first place. Many members expressed agreement in the fact that while issues like population growth and climate change need to be addressed in the long term, there needs to be a fundamental short term change in the way that Americans view and consume water.

A variety of body members knew impressive facts about water use off the top of their heads. One member mentioned the American consumption of meat, and how it takes over 1000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. This led other members to question the consumption of meat altogether – ultimately highlighting the necessity of a cultural change on how we use and think of water.

One member, a native Californian, claimed that there’s no public awareness regarding water scarcity in his state, despite the ongoing four year drought. This led to another member chiming in on her experiences of water usage in Australia. She stated that there was a “culture of shame” regarding excessive water use throughout the country. She also said that the federal government went as far as creating TV ads to spread this cultural phenomena. Statistically, this has been proven successful in the conservation of water in Australia. Could this be applicable in the United States?

Our conversation then addressed the privatization of water. That is, the privatization of municipal water services throughout the US. Over the last few decades, municipalities have been unable to maintain basic water infrastructure because they keep water prices low and collect little to no revenue. One solution, in order to create a more effective management system, would be to privatize the system. Some members were in support of this idea. One member suggested that privatization would be more efficient and would allow for the control of water prices while getting rid of the politics surrounding it. Another member suggested that we should treat water like we treat energy ¬– it should be privatized, and there should be an independent oversight committee in each state. Other members were strongly opposed to privatization. Some cited how water was a human right, and that it should be administered by the public; others were quick to cite the problems of privatizing other industries like prisons; and some brought up the past failures of privatizing water throughout the world.

The fact brief for the meeting can be found here, and if you’re more interested in pursuing this topic, or anything else related to Energy & the Environment, feel free to contact me at sjp2171@columbia.edu.

Thanks to all of those that attended!

Sam Place
Energy & Environment Center Leader

 

Genetically Modified Food

At this past week’s meeting, our Energy and Environment Center leader Swara and body member Sam led a riveting discussion on the place Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have in our society today. We discussed the effects GMOs have on our environment and businesses, and the potential role they could take in combatting world hunger.

GMOs constitute a substantial portion of the American diet- at least 90 percent of soy and corn in the US, for example, is genetically modified. We discussed whether or not we were comfortable with the status quo of GMOs, and most of us agreed on the fact that GMOs most likely did not pose a significant threat to human health, as studies have shown they post no acute threat. On the question of labeling GMOs, some agreed that they should be labeled, trusting that consumers would realize the relative safety of these products, while others believed that public misconception would dissuade consumers from purchasing them. On the question of whether they could be an effective means of tackling hunger and malnutrition in poverty stricken areas of the world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, some members agreed that they could have a crucial role to play. Others said that if GMOs were exported to these countries, large agribusinesses like Monsanto, which develop a substantial amount of GMOs in the US, should not be a part of the equation, lest they hold a monopoly on these countries agricultural sectors and potentially worsen their impoverishment.

Should GMOs be labeled? Can certain strains of genetically modified food, like “Golden Rice,” which has been inserted with a gene to increase vitamin A production, tackle hunger without any risk to people’s health? Let us know in the comments below.