Superblocks: Barcelona’s Car-Free Zones Could Extend Lives and Boost Mental health

Grid, glorious grid.  Kaspars Upmanis/Unsplash. ,  FAL

Grid, glorious grid. Kaspars Upmanis/Unsplash., FAL

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Screen Shot 2019-09-18 at 8.39.56 PM.png

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play.  Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash. ,  FAL

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free.  Zvileve/Flickr. ,  CC BY-SA

Nothing comes for free. Zvileve/Flickr., CC BY-SA

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona.  Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr. ,  CC BY-ND

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr., CC BY-ND

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

ANUPAM NANDA is the Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate at the University of Reading.


Coral Reefs: Breakdown in Iconic Spawning Puts Species at Risk of Extinction – New Research

Corals release millions of sperm and eggs in synchrony to reproduce.  Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Corals release millions of sperm and eggs in synchrony to reproduce. Rich Carey/Shutterstock

It’s rather tricky to reproduce if you’re stuck to the floor – unless you’re a coral. Their spectacular spawning events are a beautiful sight to behold. Once a year, they spill billions of sperm and eggs into the sea, peppering the deep blue with a palette of vivid reds, yellows, oranges, and whites.

But according to new research, some corals are no longer reproducing with the same clockwork timing, adding yet another survival threat to the long list already befalling reefs.

Corals are unlike any other animal on the planet. Thousands of polyps, each resembling an upside down jellyfish, live with each other in beds of limestone attached to the seabed. As they grow, they create the unified limestone skeleton we see as coral from the outside. Many of these coral colonies together create a complex three-dimensional reef structure that in turn creates a home for thousands of other plants and animals.

Corals release so many sperm and eggs that the slicks can often be seen from the air. LBM1948/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

To get around their firm attachment to the seabed, most coral species reproduce by the mass release of sperm and eggs directly into the water at the same time. This annual mass spawning is one of nature’s most iconic events – rising underwater snowstorms so thick that they create brightly coloured slicks on the sea surface, visible from high above.

Astonishingly, corals synchronise their reproduction despite not having a brain, nor any direct way of communicating between colonies. Sperm and eggs can only survive in the water for a few hours, so in the vast ocean space this synchrony is essential for a good chance of fertilisation.

Until recently, little more than this was known about the intricacies of coral reproduction. But in the context of rapid coral decline, researchers have started applying genetic and reproductive research techniques to understand how environmental conditions are impacting coral fertilisation.

Read more: Explainer: mass coral spawning, a wonder of the natural world

The new research monitored mass spawnings on corals reefs in the northern Red Sea. The researchers compared spawning timings of five coral species between 2015 and 2018 to results from two other studies conducted on the same species in the 1980s. In the species Acropora eurystoma, they also measured various reproductive traits, such as the number of sperm and eggs within a colony, the number of colonies reproducing in a given area and the size of coral colonies in the area – an index of their age.

In the 1980s, all the coral species monitored had one or two well-defined periods of spawning, where eggs and sperm were released within a few days of each other. But by the 2010s, some species released them over as many as a couple of months. With a lower concentration of eggs and sperm in the water at any one time, fertilisation becomes much rarer.

Although visually the coral reefs appeared in overall good health, the researchers found that the corals that weren’t spawning at the same time had no baby corals. This means that affected species can appear to be abundant, but in reality be nearing extinction through reproductive failure.

Threat and opportunity

This is the first study to compare current spawning behaviour with historical data, providing evidence of increased desynchrony over time. Of course, there are many, many more coral species than the five measured in the current study, so we must be cautious of drawing general conclusions at this stage. However, evidence (without historical data for comparison) suggests that the same may be happening in other parts of the world too.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet known exactly what is causing the apparent decline in spawning synchrony, making it difficult to put forward a solution to the problem. Increases in light pollution from coastal development and hormone pollution from contraceptive pills have recently been shown to disrupt the natural triggers for coral spawning. The same is true of water temperature, which has increased by 1.2℃ at the test site since the 1980s. However, further research is needed to establish whether these factors are causing corals to reproduce out of sync with each other.

While these new advances in the understanding of coral reproductive biology are worrying, they also present opportunities. If we can identify why some corals are reproducing well and others not, we may be able to innovate new conservation methods that protect corals before they show signs of dying off. Using selective breeding techniques, for example, we may be able to imbue corals with greater resilience to the factors causing spawning desynchrony.

Read more: Heat-tolerant corals can create nurseries that are resistant to bleaching

In the meantime though, all we can do to keep the glimmer of hope alive for reefs is redouble international efforts to tackle climate breakdown, and manage coastal areas responsibly. Without such intervention, these ecosystems rich in economic, ecological and cultural value will soon succumb to the multiple threats it faces.

HEIDI BURDETT is a Research Fellow, Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology, Heriot-Watt University.


5 Animals that Made it Off of the Endangered List

Conservation efforts are saving biodiversity.

The Panda is an example of a species that was once endangered but is now vulnerable. Photo by Ju Santana C.C. 2.0.

The Panda is an example of a species that was once endangered but is now vulnerable. Photo by Ju Santana C.C. 2.0.

It’s no secret that in order for our planet to survive, we need an array of species to fulfill different niches. However, when humans over hunt animals, destroy their natural habitats, or disrupt their environment, species can die out, or become extinct. This threatens the status quo of our planet, and the safety of all living organisms. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) created the “Red List” in 1964 to keep track of species that are threatened by extinction. Conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund use this list to determine their course of action. 

There are three categories to measure species that are threatened by extinction, from lowest risk to highest risk: Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered. Because of the efforts of conservation organizations, as well as government acts (such as the 1973 Endangered Species Act), animals have had their endangered status lessened. Here are five animals that you might recognize.

Photo by David Ellis C.C. 2.0.

Photo by David Ellis C.C. 2.0.

The Giant Panda: Endangered to Vulnerable 

1. The Giant Panda, native to the bamboo forests of China, was once endangered. They are threatened due to loss of their habitat. Forest destruction to make way for roads in China means that Pandas lose access to bamboo, their main source of nutrients. Additionally, they are threatened by hunters who kill them for their fur. However, now there are more than 50 panda reservations in China, and the population has rebounded. 

Photo by La Chiquita. C.C. 2.0.

Photo by La Chiquita. C.C. 2.0.

Manatees: Endangered to Vulnerable

2. Manatees were also marked as vulnerable or threatened instead of endangered. Manatees feed on seagrass, which is found in shallow waters. This leaves them vulnerable to boats and jet skies. Conservations have been created to help protect Manatees from trash and boats. However, not everyone was enthused about the reclassification, as advocates think it could undermine the urgency to continue protection efforts for manatees. 

Photo by National Marine Sanctuaries.

Photo by National Marine Sanctuaries.

Humpback Whales: Delisted

3. Some populations of Humpback Whales were delisted from the US government’s endangered species list. In 2016, 9 out of the 14 populations of Humpback whales were delisted. Most whales are threatened by collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear. The entire species wasn’t delisted, as Humpback Whales are geographically separated and face different risks. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, and an international ban on whaling serve to continue protecting the species. 

Photo by J. Phillip Krone. C.C. 2.0.

Photo by J. Phillip Krone. C.C. 2.0.

American Alligator: Delisted

4. The American Alligator is found in Southeastern United States. The species was put on the endangered list in the 1960s because of hunters and habitat loss. However, after the Endangered Species Act prohibited hunting, the species was able to recover. In 1987, it was removed from the endangered list. 

Photo by Clive. C.C. 2.0.

Photo by Clive. C.C. 2.0.

The White Rhino: Delisted

5. The White Rhino is found in South Africa. The species was on the brink of extinction after poachers killed them to take their horns. Due to regulation of poaching and an effort to stop illegal trade, the species has since been removed from the endangered list. 

Even though these species have had their categories lessened, or have been removed from the list entirely, conservation efforts are needed to preserve the species and foster the regrowth of their population. Consider volunteering with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to get involved. 

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 

The Lungs of the Earth are Burning

 The Amazon Rainforest is currently burning and has been for weeks, while little to no coverage has been given to the immediate and dire situation. 

Fire. Cullan Smith. Unsplash.

Fire. Cullan Smith. Unsplash.

The Amazon is on fire and has been for a little over a month. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “40,000 different types of plants” are estimated to have been affected by the fires raging in the Amazon. The Amazon fires have been burning for a while now, but coverage on the fires has been little to none. Now, though, through the outcry on social media, attention has been brought and countries across the globe are pitching in, trying to do their part in reversing and stopping the fires. 

According to a NY Times article, “Hours after leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest countries pledged more than $22 million to help combat fires in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s government angrily rejected the offer, in effect telling the other nations to mind their own business — only to later lay out potential terms for the aid’s acceptance and then, on Tuesday evening, accepting some aid from Britain.”

Denying the aid could prove detrimental to the people and animals living in the Amazon forest. According to a CNN video, Daniel Aristizabel, a member of the Amazon Conservation team, states that the fires are affecting tons of the wildlife in the Amazon, stating “if you lose one species, you cause a chain reaction”. This “chain reaction” can cause a major shift in our ecosystem and possibly put many animals on the endangered species list. 

Being far-removed from the fires makes it difficult to understand the scope and how big of areas the fires are covering. In an ABC video, Andres Ruzo from National Geographic Explorer and Conservationist and also the Director of the Boiling River Project states that “we could be losing, in certain areas, as much as 3 soccer fields of jungle every single minute”. The rate at which the Amazon is burning is huge and will have an impact on ourselves. To put the size in perspective, CNN reporter also adds that the amount of land burning is equivalent to “two thirds the size of the contenential United States”. The Amazon Rainforest has often been called the lungs of the Earth but now they are clogged with smoke. 

Senior VP of Forests, WWF, Kerry Cesareo, states “we have seen a dramatic increase in deforestation in the Amazon, recently, and it is driven by humans and this is happening in part due to demand for food and other resources from the forests and exacerbated by the decline and enforcement of laws”. The apparent need for land for farming is the reason behind the fires. A great need for profit and resources are killing the Earth’s lungs.

If you would like to contribute to the efforts of saving the Amazon rainforest, you can donate to Protect and Acre Fund at which “has distributed more than one million dollars in grants to more than 150 frontline communities, indigenous-led organizations, and allies, helping their efforts to secure protection for millions of acres of traditional territory in forests around the world.” You can also reduce your wood, paper, and beef consumption as those are the top reasons deforestation is currently happening to the Amazon. 

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 

Sustainable Future: The New Plastic

Life in plastic can be fantastic now that Sandra Pascoe Oritz has created a material that could possibly replace regular plastic and help fight the growing climate conditions.

Nopal cactus leaves. genericavatar. CC by-NC 2.0.

Nopal cactus leaves. genericavatar. CC by-NC 2.0.

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a Mexican researcher, has created a “plastic” dupe from cacti. Oritz states, “My idea is to produce a plastic from natural ingredients and substitute it for some of the plastics we use today”. Her invention will not only aid the fight against the growing climate crisis, but provide a more efficient way of mass producing cheaper products that will not affect our future in the long-run. The material Ortiz created takes one month to biodegrade in soil and a few days to biodegrade in water. That ensures that the product will quickly be erased, allowing for no buildup or junk yards to pollute the Earth.

Also, the material she created is so natural that it is edible. “All the materials we use can be ingested both by humans or animals and they wouldn’t cause harm.” This means that when the product does biodegrade, it should not affect the surrounding ecosystem, instead contributing to it. 

But what is her process? First, she cuts the leaves off the cactus - the big round part that we associate with the general look of the cactus. Then, she peels the leaves, shaving off the outside spikey layer. Next, she presses the shaved cacti into juice placing the juice into the fridge. After some time, she takes the juice out of the fridge, mixes the non-toxic formula into the juice and after the concoctions are mixed, she laminates the mixture, letting it dry. 

Oritz is currently testing many different ways the new material can be used. “We can obtain different colours, shapes, thicknesses; we can make plastics that are very smooth or very flexible and we can make others that are more rigid.” The material is malleable enough that it can possibly replace most of the functions that plastic is used for. 

Currently, as Ortiz does everything by hand, the process of creating the new “plastic” takes up to 10 days. Ortiz believes that upgrading the process into an industrial factor, the process can be sped up. 

The best part about the whole process? The substance is made up entirely of renewable resources. “The nopal cactus is a plant endemic in Mexico”. To continue the process, the plant must stay alive to create more leaves, ensuring overcropping will not be the result. Although the material is still in development, it shines a light for a hopeful future filled with less plastic and a more sustainable future. 

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.


It’s Not Just Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest That’s Ablaze – Bolivian Fires are Threatening People and Wildlife

Firefighters and volunteers have been working around the clock to tackle the flames. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

Firefighters and volunteers have been working around the clock to tackle the flames. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

Up to 800,000 hectares of the unique Chiquitano forest were burned to the ground in Bolivia between August 18 and August 23. That’s more forest than is usually destroyed across the country in two years. Experts say that it will take at least two centuries to repair the ecological damage done by the fires, while at least 500 species are said to be at risk from the flames.

The Chiquitano dry forest in Bolivia was the largest healthy tropical dry forest in the world. It’s now unclear whether it will retain that status. The forest is home to Indigenous peoples as well as iconic wildlife such as jaguars, giant armadillos, and tapirs. Some species in the Chiquitano are found nowhere else on Earth. Distressing photographs and videos from the area show many animals have burned to death in the recent fires.

The burnt region also encompasses farmland and towns, with thousands of people evacuated and many more affected by the smoke. Food and water are being sent to the region, while children are being kept home from school in many districts where the air pollution is double what is considered extreme. Many families are still without drinking water. While the media has focused on Brazil, Bolivians are asking the world to notice their unfolding tragedy – and to send help in combating the flames.

Dry forests of the Chiquitanos before the fires. Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Author provided

Dry forests of the Chiquitanos before the fires. Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Author provided

It’s thought that the fires were started deliberately to clear the land for farming, but quickly got out of control. The perpetrators aren’t known, but Bolivian President Evo Morales has justified people starting fires, saying: “If small families don’t set fires, what are they going to live on?”

The disaster comes just a month after Morales announced a new “supreme decree” aimed at increasing beef production for export. Twenty-one civil society organisations are calling for the repeal of this decree, arguing that it has helped cause the fires and violates Bolivia’s environmental laws. Government officials say that fire setting is a normal activity at this time of year and isn’t linked to the decree.

Fires burn across Santa Cruz state. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

Fires burn across Santa Cruz state. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

Morales has repeatedly said that international help isn’t needed, despite having sent just three helicopters to tackle the raging fires. He argued that the fires are dying out in some areas – although they continue to burn in others and have now reached Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Many say that the fires could have been contained far sooner with international help, as videos show volunteers trying to beat back the fires with branches.

As the fires worsened, people gathered to protest in Santa Cruz state. Chanting “we want your help”, they complained that the smoke was so bad they were struggling to breathe. They want Morales to request international aid to fight the fires. While firefighters and volunteers struggle to tackle the blaze in 55℃ heat, Bolivians have set up a fundraiser to tackle the fires themselves.

The extreme heat has made fighting the fires intolerable for those involved. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

The extreme heat has made fighting the fires intolerable for those involved. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

A fortnight after the fires began, a supertanker aeroplane of water arrived, hired from the US. But if the reactions to the president’s announcement on Twitter are anything to go by, many Bolivians think this is too little, too late. Morales is fighting a general election and has faced criticism for staying on the campaign trail while the fires spread.

Some Indigenous leaders are asking for a trial to determine responsibility for the fires, and the response to them. Alex Villca, an Indigenous leader and spokesperson, said:

It is President Evo Morales who should be held accountable. What are these accountabilities going to be? A trial of responsibilities for this number of events that are occurring in the country, this number of violations of Indigenous peoples and also the rights of Mother Nature.

The dry forest understorey ignites while firefighters deploy fire breaks. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

The dry forest understorey ignites while firefighters deploy fire breaks. Ipa Ibañez, Author provided

President Morales came to power in Bolivia in 2006, on a platform of socialism, Indigenous rights, and environmental protection. He passed the famous “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” in 2010, which placed the intrinsic value of nature alongside that of humans. His environmental rhetoric has been strong but his policies have been contradictory. Morales has approved widespread deforestation, as well as roads and gas exploration in national parks.

While the fires in the Chiquitano have dominated the media within the country, hundreds more rage across Bolivia, assisted by the recent drought. It’s unclear whether the response to these fires will affect the October election outcome, but sentiments are running high in the country, where more than 70% of people prioritise environmental protection over economic growth.

Bolsonaro and Brazil might grab the headlines, but Bolivia too is now host to a desperately serious humanitarian and environmental situation.

CLAIRE F.R. WORDLEY is a Research Associate, Conservation Evidence, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge.


Swimming in Toxic Water

There’s a reason no one has gone for a dip in New York City’s Newtown Creek in recent history. In Christopher Swain’s words, it’s like “swimming through a dirty diaper garnished with oil, gasoline and trash.” He’s a clean water activist who has swum over 3,000 miles in 25 different contaminated waterways across North America as a means of advocating for their cleanup. Taking a dip in these waterways does not come without its risks. Despite the precautions Christopher takes—wearing a puncture-resistant drysuit, goggles, ear plugs, etc.—he still gets sick from the various contaminants. It’s the hazards that come along with the cause, but Christopher continues to swim, all out of love for the water.

Why Stores and Restaurants are Ditching Plastic Straws

Single-use plastics like straws can harm the environment. Photo by Marco Verch C.C. 2.0.

Single-use plastics like straws can harm the environment. Photo by Marco Verch C.C. 2.0.

You may have noticed that the beverages you’ve been ordering at your favorite coffee shop or restaurant have not been accompanied by plastic straws. Chains as big as Starbucks and establishments as small as neighborhood cafes have been finding creative substitutes to plastic straws, or are just getting rid of them altogether. 

What’s so bad about straws? 

Straws are just one example of wasteful single-use plastic. Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year, and a large portion of that plastic ends up in the ocean. It seems like plastic straws is an interesting place to start in the crusade against single-use plastics. However, for an able-bodied person, avoiding plastic straws is an easy way to start reducing plastic use. 

How are things changing? 

Some restaurants have tried to be more conscious about their straw usage by not automatically putting a plastic straw into each beverage. Some establishments will wait for their customers to ask for a straw instead of serving it to them. 

Other establishments—like Starbucks—have developed a new plastic lid that looks like a sippy-cup so that customers can sip their drinks without needing a straw. However, cups like these are difficult for those who aren’t able to pick up their drinks and bring them to their mouths. A straw is literally the only way for some people to drink on their own. 

Therefore, better solutions may be composter-approved paper straws, like Aardvark straws, or reusable glass or metal straws. 

While finding alternatives to plastic straws can make a substantial impact, it should just be the beginning of a global campaign to reduce single use plastics. Hopefully, there will be future campaigns to reduce plastic bottles, plastic cutlery, or single-use containers. 

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 


Adapting Cities to a Hotter World: 3 Essential Reads

Keeping cool in Brooklyn.  A. Katz/Shutterstock

Keeping cool in Brooklyn. A. Katz/Shutterstock

Heat waves can be deadly, especially when they combine high temperatures with elevated humidity levels that make the air feel even hotter. The impacts can be especially strong in cities, which often are several degrees warmer than nearby rural areas due to the urban heat island effect. These three articles from The Conversation’s archives describe steps that communities can take to adapt as climate change makes heat waves more frequent and intense.

1. Offer many cooling options

Emergency cooling centers are one way to mitigate the effects of heat waves, but cities need to do more. Nick Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, has worked with planners around Cleveland to understand how they prepare for hot weather. Strategies there include planting more trees and shrubs, which provide shade and cool the air; weatherizing buildings with window shades and light-colored, reflective materials; and preparing emergency kits for power outages that include food, water and radios.

Most importantly, in Rajkovich’s view, different agencies and organizations need to talk to each other and plan together so they can take complementary steps.

“In Cleveland, preparing for extreme heat events has brought professionals together and encouraged overlapping approaches because no single strategy is foolproof,” he observes. Officials “should pursue multiple solutions rather than looking for one ‘best’ option.”

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 8.07.29 PM.png

2. Focus upgrades on vulnerable neighborhoods

Many types of green infrastructure can help neighborhoods withstand the impacts of severe weather. For example, permeable paving and rainwater harvesting are two tools for managing flooding and reducing stormwater runoff.

Notre Dame University climate scientist Ashish Sharma has researched use of green roofs, covered with drought-resistant plants, to cool hot urban areas. In a study in Chicago, Sharma and his team determined that low-income neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides would benefit most from installing green roofs because doing so would make them less vulnerable during blackouts:

“When temperatures spike in cities, electricity use rises sharply making it hard for utilities susceptible to power outages. When the lights go out, critical services such as drinking water, transportation and health care can be jeopardized. And poorer people, whose neighborhoods tend to be the hottest, can be the most at risk.”

By lowering rooftop surface temperatures, green roofs keep buildings cooler. This would enable residents to reduce their use of air conditioning, saving them money and easing strain on the local power grid during peak demand periods.

3. Design streets for a changing climate

Most U.S. city streets are designed with a focus on the needs of drivers, and sometimes far in second place, pedestrians. But Anne Lusk, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, calls for “designing green streets for bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders and residents who live on transit routes, as well as for drivers.”

Trees and cycle tracks would be central features of these streets, configured in ways that make pedestrians and cyclists feel safe from automobile traffic. The trees would serve as barriers while cooling neighborhoods and absorbing air pollutants. And well-designed bike paths would remove cars from the road, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In surveys, respondents told Lusk that designs with trees and bushes between cycle tracks and the street best blocked their view of traffic, lessened their feeling of being exposed to pollution and made them feel cooler. Lusk also spotlights ways to offset climate-related stresses on trees, such as redesigning street drainage systems to direct water to trees’ roots.

JENNIFER WEEKS is a Environment + Energy Editor at The Conversation.


The Possibility of a International Environmental Court

Science professors and organizations are making the case for an international green court, which would fill in gaps in the existing environmental legal order.

Climate change is an existing problem. Scientists are coming up with solutions for keeping Earth habitable, including a possible international environmental court. Gerd Altmann. CCO.

Climate change is an existing problem. Scientists are coming up with solutions for keeping Earth habitable, including a possible international environmental court. Gerd Altmann. CCO.

It’s time to face scientific facts: the world is getting warmer. The five hottest years on record have all been within the last decade. Europe went through a massive heat wave this summer. Temperature changes increase the possibility of extreme heat, drought, floods, and subsequent poverty for thousands of millions of people. Climate change is a legitimate issue, seen especially by extremes in weather patterns, and scientists are pondering possible solutions beyond what is already being done.

Using previously created organizations as inspiration, one idea two scientists have suggested is a climate-based version of the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to the Huffington Post. The main problem is that the current environmental protections (which vary by country) are not enforced by any international agency, and they are failing to cope with the sheer scale of the global problem.

The 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day is less than a year away, and though the idea of getting the court up and running by then probably isn’t possible, soon afterwards would be, if initiative was taken. In 1972, the UN Environmental Programme was created, which coordinates environmental activities and assists countries with creating policies. Subsequent concerns and opinions about the environment from all corners of the world were necessary to bring attention to the problem at the time, but didn’t protect the planet on their own. Countries are now directed to measure their activities, but there isn’t any international organization in place to monitor the loopholes globally when looking at every country’s policies and activities. 

According to the Huffington Post, the International Bar Association and the Coalition for an Environmental Court have also suggested a international environmental court. The World People’s Conference recommended a similar idea, a International Climate Justice Tribunal.

One question the court would need to sort out, if organized, is which charges would be in the scope of the court. Other challenges include different priorities for developed and developing countries, discerned unenforceability of international law, and global cooperation, according to the Inter Press Service. Keeping an open mind when organizing the international green court should help solve problems before they arise. An open forum setting with understood standards should be ideal, as opposed to a criminal court setting. In a similar sense, both the state and non-state clients should be allowed to raise cases for the court. Considering the complexity of the issues likely to come up, the judge or judges assigned should be specialized and capable. Clients should, of course, be found accountable for the decisions of the court. Clear language is necessary as well. If holding states completely accountable seems too positive, then adding sufficient stakes should make it work on a international scale. 

An international green court should be able to harmonize with existing environmental regulations, provide justice to a broad range of people, create workable solutions for maintaining international standards, and build trust among the global community. Therefore, the forum should be able to start overcoming climate inaction, and enforce that progress for the international group through agreed-upon standards.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

Climate Apartheid: The Prediction for our Future

A road flooded. maxinux. CC by 2.0.

A road flooded. maxinux. CC by 2.0.

Mother Earth is dying and we are only furthering her demise. Not only that, but we are creating an environment and society that will soon be the rich versus the dead, according to Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in his report. “There is no shortage of alarm bells ringing over climate change, and an increase in biblical-level extreme weather events appear to be finally piercing through the noise, misinformation, and complacency, but these positive signs are no reason for contentment,” Alston said. “A reckoning with the scale of the change that is needed is just the first step.”

Alston is quick to call out government leaders, like President Donald Trump, about how complacent they are being concerning environmental issues. Alston states, “Somber speeches by government officials have not led to meaningful action and too many countries continue taking short-sighted steps in the wrong direction.” Alston’s report is not only a call to action—it is a warning.

Alston deems that with climate change will come “climate apartheid”, meaning “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Alston states that, “while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves.”

So not only is climate change affecting our environment, but it will affect our lives, threatening to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” Alston said. “It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places [where] poor people live and work.”

The risk of a climate apatheid also increases the possibility of “climate refugees”, or people who will have to seek lives elsewhere because the dying environment has made their current home unlivable. In a town in Gwynedd, Wales,  Phil Black reports that the inhabitants of said town might become “climate refugees” given the rising sea levels and how close the town is to those levels. While there are people, such as Lisa Goodier, a project manager attempting to make preparations for those in the town to leave, many of the townspeople refuse to give up their properties or believe the scientific facts presented to them. They would rather stay until they truly have to leave.

It is perspectives like this that make our environmental crisis what it is today. The facts are there, the evidence has been proven, but if we continually ignore what is right in front of our faces, it will be too late. Well, it will be too late for anyone who is not rich because the rich will always have the ability to pay and get rid of anything that inconveniences them.

It is not just about our environment anymore, it is about us, as a human species. If we let things continue how they are, millions will die and it will only be time until we are all wiped out. Alston states, “The risk of community discontent, of growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups, will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses. Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex.”

We are responsible for our future. If we don’t take responsibility, or rather, if those who have the money and are making the problems do not take responsibility, it is not just our environment at risk. It is our humanity. 

Nothing will change if those who have the money do not fix the issues. And by the looks of Alston’s report, we need change, now.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 

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Here’s Where the 2020 Presidential Candidates Stand on Climate Change

Each of the Democratic hopefuls has made environmental justice a priority. Here’s who stands out in the search for a greener future.

Climate change protesters. Michael Gwyther-Jones. CC BY 2.0

Climate change protesters. Michael Gwyther-Jones. CC BY 2.0

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, signaling to the international community that the United States was backing down from the fight against climate change. Just over two years later, at the 2019 G20 Summit in Japan, Trump indicated his disdain for the essential mission of that fight: “We have the cleanest water we have ever had, we have the cleanest air we have ever had,” he claimed of the United States, adding that wind power “does not work” because it has to be subsidized.

Particularly coming from a president who has described climate change as a hoax, such a statement represented a disheartening and dangerous attitude toward environmental issues for concerned citizens across the country. As 2020 and the possibility of a new POTUS approaches, such voters will be parsing policy proposals to determine—among many other salient issues—who stands the best chance of mitigating climate change. Below are stances on climate change from a few Democratic candidates who stand out in the crowded political landscape.

Jay Inslee. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Jay Inslee. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Jay Inslee (Governor of Washington)

Inslee’s name is practically synonymous with the battle for a greener future: He has made climate change a key plank of his campaign platform, and has released four extensive climate plan proposals, each outranking his competitors in length and depth. Part one addresses clean energy in electricity, cars, and buildings; part two is a 10-year, $9 trillion investment plan; part three discusses foreign policy; and part four recommends stemming the flow of fossil fuels from the United States. Together, the four segments speak to a whopping 41 out of 48 components in the rubric put forth by leftist think tank Data for Progress, which in 2018 created one of the first blueprints for the Green New Deal—the clean energy–based economic stimulus package championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. As of now, Inslee’s plan lacks proposals to curb waste, increase antitrust enforcement, establish a universal basic income, or found a public bank, but the governor has promised more to come.

Inslee on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “Victory is the only option against climate change, because without victory there is not survival.”

Polling numbers: 0.4 percent.

Bernie Sanders. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Bernie Sanders. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Bernie Sanders (US Senator, Vermont)

Given that Sanders hails from the Green Mountain State, it’s no surprise that going green is high on his political agenda. In the Senate, he has introduced carbon-pricing legislation and pushed for the Democratic Party to embrace a carbon tax, but his stance on climate change can be traced back to well before he was elected senator in 2006: Videos are available from 30 years ago of him discussing the issue. During his 2020 bid, Sanders has been enthusiastic about the Green New Deal (also an unsurprising development, given that Ocasio-Cortez worked for Sanders during his 2016 campaign). In April, he released his climate platform under the heading “Combat Climate Change and Pass a Green New Deal,” citing upgraded public transit, a ban on fracking, and an end to fossil fuel exports as key tenets. Yet despite his long-running push for improved environmental policy, Sanders’ proposals fall short of some more specific and nuanced iterations put forth by competitors like Inslee.

Sanders on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “Not alone, and not, certainly, just by doing what has to be done in the United States.”

Polling numbers: 14 percent.

Elizabeth Warren. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Elizabeth Warren. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Elizabeth Warren (US Senator, Massachusetts)

Rather than releasing policies focused narrowly on climate change, Warren has taken a different tack, addressing the issue through the lens of public lands, the military, and domestic industrial development through three distinct proposals. And running through each of these manifestos is the thread of Warren’s policy centerpiece: getting money out of politics and out of the hands of massive oil conglomerates. Her latest proposal, which is also her longest, fleshes out some of the tenets outlined in the Green New Deal, suggesting a Green Industrial Mobilization that earmarks $1.5 trillion for low-carbon tech; a Green Marshall Plan that encourages foreign countries to buy American clean energy tech; and a Green Apollo Program that invests $400 billion in energy research and development over a decade. Taxing wealth and corporate profits would provide funding for the ambitious plans, which have led Greenpeace to place her as tied with Sanders in its climate scorecard.

Warren on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “I believe that the opportunities for the next president are enormous. We can show worldwide leadership.”

Polling numbers: 13.8 percent.

Kamala Harris. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Kamala Harris. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Kamala Harris (US Senator, California)

Harris has supported and co-sponsored the Green New Deal, but her 2020 bid has otherwise made limited mention of climate justice. Past actions, however, show at least some commitment to the issue: As San Francisco’s district attorney, she established an environmental justice unit, and as attorney general, she launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil to see whether the company lied to shareholders and the public about the risks posed by climate change. During her time in Congress, she joined with five other senators to file a brief on behalf of San Francisco and Oakland in their climate damages lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, pointing to massive spending by the industry to quash climate concerns and influence lawmakers.

Harris on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “There’s no question that the next president has within her capacity to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Polling numbers: 15.2 percent.

Joe Biden. Chad Cassin. CC BY-SA 2.0

Joe Biden. Chad Cassin. CC BY-SA 2.0

Joe Biden (Former Vice President)

As part of his lengthy legislative career, Biden has the distinction of being among the first to introduce a climate change bill in the Senate: the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986, which called for an EPA national policy on the issue. In concert with President Obama, Biden built a notable record on climate change, particularly with the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2016 and the initiation of auto fuel economy standards that slashed emissions levels. Nevertheless, Biden has faced scrutiny for missing crucial climate votes earlier in his career—including the 2008 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, regarded as the strongest climate change bill to reach the Senate floor. Despite his support of the Green New Deal, Biden initially put forth a “middle ground” approach to environmental policy in the early days of his 2020 run. Facing subsequent criticism from activists and lawmakers, including Ocasio-Cortez, he replaced that suggestion with a proposal that aligned more closely with those of his competitors, and which allocates $1.7 trillion in federal spending to climate policy over the next decade.

Biden declined to be interviewed on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change.

Polling numbers: 26 percent.

Cory Booker. Anne White. CC BY-NC 2.0

Cory Booker. Anne White. CC BY-NC 2.0

Cory Booker (US Senator, New Jersey)

Climate change is far from the hottest-button issue for Booker, who tends to focus instead on topics like gun control, racial justice, and health care. Still, he was one of the first legislators to support the Green New Deal, has voiced support for a price on carbon, and has pointed to nuclear energy (which supplies more than one-third of New Jersey’s power) as an alternative to fracking. And while such moves may be largely tactical, Booker has pledged not to take fossil fuel money in his presidential bid as well as publicizing the fact that he is a vegan.

Booker on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “It’s not going to be one person in one office—it has to be a movement, a renewed commitment in our country and across this planet.”

Polling numbers: 2.2 percent.

Pete Buttigieg. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Pete Buttigieg. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana)

As the youngest candidate in the race at just 37, Buttigieg has a personal stake in the matter of climate change, given that his generation is one of the first to substantively feel its detrimental effects. “It just gives you a very different relationship to political decision makers and decision making,” he told The Atlantic on dealing with environmental justice as a millennial. Like most of his competitors, Buttigieg has endorsed the Green New Deal, and the climate platform he released in May describes full implementation and a 100% carbon-free society. That could include a major role for the rural communities in his native Midwest: At a town hall in June, he described how improved soil management could help mitigate the climate crisis.

Buttigieg on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “This is a generational project. It’s going to have to be a national project.”

Polling numbers: 5.2 percent.

Beto O’Rourke. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Beto O’Rourke. Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0

Beto O’Rourke (Former US Representative, Texas)

On May 1, O’Rourke became the first 2020 candidate to release a comprehensive climate plan, which defines a binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. economy by 2050. Unlike Inslee’s target of 2045, however, this goal raised the ire of some environmental groups, who asserted that O’Rourke should have aimed for as soon as 2030. And although O’Rourke signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge two days after issuing his platform, he accepted more than $550,000 from oil industry sources during his Senate bid against Ted Cruz—the second-highest number among the candidates after Cruz.

O’Rourke on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “It’s going to take this entire country, and it’s going to take this country leading the entire world.”

Polling numbers: 2.4 percent.

At a point in the race where the strength of actual policy proposals is often eclipsed by intangible factors like electability and charisma, voters still have a while to wait before realistic options for environmental justice begin to coalesce. Until then, temperatures will keep ticking up, waters will continue rising, and communities in the United States and across the globe will keep hoping for a leader with the power to reverse the inevitable.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

Vietnamese Climate Activist Jailed for “Anti-State” Facebook Posts

Nguyen Ngoc Anh was recently sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” Facebook posts. 10% of Vietnam’s political prisoners gained their sentences through social media, says Amnesty International. William Iven. CC0.

Nguyen Ngoc Anh was recently sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” Facebook posts. 10% of Vietnam’s political prisoners gained their sentences through social media, says Amnesty International. William Iven. CC0.

Vietnamese shrimp farmer and activist Nguyen Ngoc Anh was sentenced June 6 to six years in prison and five of house arrest for a series of 2018 Facebook posts that criticized the Communist government, and were therefore deemed “anti-state”.

Anh was arrested in August 2018 in Ben Tre province on charges (according to Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code) of storing, making, spreading, and declaring information and documents to combat Vietnam’s government. The indictment also stated that Anh created private Facebook groups to discuss and call for protests.

The specific content of his social media isn’t known, but Human Rights Watch noted that the environmental activist also participated in protests in 2016 against the steel company Formosa, whose toxic waste dumping killed marine life off Vietnam’s central coast.

According to RFA’s Vietnamese service, Anh’s wife, Nguyen Thi Chau, said her husband isn’t guilty, and that he was set up. Chau described it as a “staged trial”. Chau said Anh acknowledged broadcasting 74 live videos about political and social issues, but did not admit his guilt.

The Tuesday before the verdict, HWR called for the Vietnamese government to immediately release Anh. This was followed by a call from the European Union the Thursday of the verdict, which cited the freedom of opinion as a form of social justice. The EU also asked for the Vietnamese government to release everyone imprisoned for fighting for human rights, especially since they had been expressing their views peacefully.

According to Amnesty International, Vietnam has at least 128 political prisoners, with 10% jailed for social media posts. The EU noted this sentence to be part of a crackdown on critical voices and dissent.

At the same time, the Vietnamese government is considering new laws for social media content, especially in terms of filtering content. “They have realized that Facebook was one of the last safe spaces where people could peacefully speak their mind, spread news, hold debates — everything the authorities are afraid of,” said Nguyen Truong Son, Amnesty International’s Vietnam campaigner, according to the NY Post.

This past January, a new cybersecurity law was approved by legislators, requiring technology companies who operated in Vietnam to store user data there, as well as set up local offices. This sent technology and human rights groups into a frenzy as they questioned the law, especially as to how safe users’ company information was. In the same month, the Vietnamese government accused Facebook of allowing people to post anti-government information. Facebook said that in the last half of 2018 it increased the amount of blocked content to Vietnamese users by over 500 percent.

U.S. lawmakers also called for the curbing of arrests of bloggers and journalists in the name of freedom of expression. The government is punishing people who are peaceably expressing their opinions, stated Amnesty International. For example, blogger and activist Tran Thi Nga is currently serving nine years for spreading propaganda against the Vietnamese state. Other political prisoners have been moved to different prisons, where family members are told they are being disciplined.

Unfortunately, even with other governments and human rights groups urging otherwise, it is unlikely that anything will change soon about the one-party Vietnamese government’s policy towards political prisoners. Another element of the recent cybersecurity law concerns posted information; if companies receive takedown notices for perceived offensive content, they must comply within 24 hours, or risk breaking the law. There is no date as to when the new law will be put into effect.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.


New European Parliament Tackles Climate Change, Immigration and Threats to Democracy

The European Parliament is more fragmented than ever in its history, which could lead to legislative paralysis.  Shutterstock

The European Parliament is more fragmented than ever in its history, which could lead to legislative paralysis. Shutterstock

The European Union has survived its latest contest between pro-EU and anti-EU forces.

Helped by high turnout, pro-EU centrist and leftist parties together won more than two-thirds of seats in the European Parliament elections held in 28 countries from May 23 to 26. Populist parties intent on destroying the EU from within made only modest gains, increasing their share from 20% to 25% of the 751 seats.

The European Parliament – one of the three institutions involved in passing laws in the European Union – was once a debate society with no real influence. Today, it has a significant role in shaping how EU countries will tackle climate change, threats to democracy, immigration and other matters of great concern to European voters.

The election outcome ensures that populist forces cannot form a blocking minority, which could paralyze the work of the European Parliament.

Despite hobbling populist forces, the result is messy. No single party has a majority of seats, meaning the EU will be governed by a broad coalition – one that will likely have to accommodate left, right and centrist views.

I’m a scholar of European politics. While the European Parliament relies on bargaining between its groups, this is the most fragmented I’ve ever seen it.

It is possible that the necessity of building coalitions among the varied pro-EU parties could foster compromise. But with lots of small parties and divergent opinions vying for influence, legislators may also struggle to make any concrete legislative progress at all.

Climate change

Pre-election polling showed that European voters saw climate change as a major factor in casting their ballot, citing concern over environmental conservation and global warming.

In recent months, student-led school strikes against climate change have spread across Europe.

These environmental concerns contributed to the surge of Green Party representatives, who won 9% of the vote – increasing their parliamentary seats from 52 to 69.

Greens were particularly effective in Western Europe and with younger voters, capturing one-third of all German voters under the age of 30. Their campaign pledges to push for urgent climate action, social justice and civil liberties were less successful in Central and Eastern Europe.

“We will need to see much more serious climate action, a real change of attitude: a price on CO2, properly tackling aviation, the greening of agriculture,” said Bas Eickhout after the election. Eickhout is a leading member of the Greens in the European Parliament.

Pressuring EU countries to meet these environmental goals, however, will not be straightforward.

While 77% of Europeans surveyed in a recent study want to see meaningful action on climate change, European politicians are dividedon the issue.

Germany and Poland have refused to endorse a bold plan to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050. That has put them at odds with many of their partners in the EU, such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

A sign erected by climate activists outside the European Parliament in Brussels before the European elections, May 26, 2019.  AP Photo/Francisco Seco

A sign erected by climate activists outside the European Parliament in Brussels before the European elections, May 26, 2019. AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Any legislative action on the environment, such as reforming EU agricultural or trade policies, will require agreements between parliamentary groups. The likely coalition of the center-right, liberal, center-left and Green parties would bring together groups with very different environmental records.

That will likely mean more compromise and less ambitious policies.

Rule of law

The members of this fractious likely alliance also hold divergent views on how – and indeed whether – to grapple with the decline of democracy across Europe.

The populist leaders of Hungary and Poland have both undermined the rule of law in recent years, curtailing the independence of key institutions like the press and the judiciary. Both countries have also passed harsh laws that reduce civil liberties, restricting the ability of human rights organizations to operate.

Such laws violate the values of the European Union, a political and economic alliance founded in 1957 with a clear commitment to protect liberal democracy and the rule of law.

But efforts by the EU to sanction Poland and Hungary have hit roadblocks. Populist parties view EU punishment as an infringement on national sovereignty, and even the more centrist European People’s Party also refused for years to censure Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbánbecause he is a member of their group.

In September 2018, European Parliament members eventually voted 448 to 187 to recommend that Hungary’s EU voting rights be suspended – the main tool available to rebuke European countries that violate EU rules.

However, for this severe sanction to take effect, all EU member states except the offending country must vote in favor of the punishment. That’s an impossibly high bar to clear, especially since Poland and Hungary have been protecting each other.

But unless the EU and the European Parliament can find some way to reprimand Hungary and Poland, it could embolden illiberal-leaning Romania and the Czech Republic to follow in their footsteps.


Immigration is another controversial topic that the European Parliament will want to act on in the coming years.

The number of undocumented migrants entering Europe has dropped significantly since the 2015 refugee crisis, but pre-election polls showed that many European voters saw immigration as a top campaign issue.

Immigration policy remains a contested issue across Europe. Here, riot police try to stop migrants from crossing Greece’s northern border to journey farther into Europe, April 6, 2019.  Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis

Immigration policy remains a contested issue across Europe. Here, riot police try to stop migrants from crossing Greece’s northern border to journey farther into Europe, April 6, 2019. Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis

After years of discussion about reforming Europe’s shared asylum system, EU member states remain stubbornly divided on this subject.

In both national politics and the European Parliament, centrists and leftists across Europe generally seek to collaborate on a regulated approach to immigration that fairly shares responsibility across the region. But populist parties want closed borders, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled their rise.

Given Europe’s divided new Parliament, finding agreement on how to proceed on this issue will be hard.

Europeans have high expectations of their leaders. Polls show that 68% of Europeans view membership in the EU as beneficial. The high turnout in European Parliament elections and strong showing of pro-EU parties confirm that the contested union is experiencing something of a resurgence.

If the EU’s parliamentarians can forge agreement across the political spectrum, they may foster a renewed, pluralistic defense of European integration that will satisfy voters on immigration and other critical everyday matters.

If paralysis results instead, anti-EU populists may well triumph the next time around.

GARRET MARTIN is a Professorial Lecturer at the American University School of International Service.


In India, Using Plastic Waste as Tuition at a New School

A school combines accessible education with environmental responsibility through a creative program.

Photo of plastic waste by  John Cameron  on  Unsplash .

Photo of plastic waste by John Cameron on Unsplash.

In 2016, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar founded Akshar School in Assam, a state in northeast India. Initially, the school struggled to enroll many of the children living in the area. Most families could not afford private school tuition, and relied on the $2.50 per day wage their children could make working in the nearby stone quarries.

In the winter months, many families in Assam burned plastic waste to keep warm, unaware of the health and environmental hazard this created. The fumes would often linger in Akshar’s classrooms, and ended up giving Parmita and Mazin the idea that would transform the school.

Instead of tuition, Akshar began requiring students to bring 25 plastic waste items to school every week. “We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area,” Parmita told Better India.

Through the use of plastic waste as tuition, students who would not have been able to attend the school were able to learn, and the surrounding environment benefitted. Under the new tuition system, the school blossomed, and now enrolls 100 students ages 4 to 15. Before the tuition program was implemented, Akshar had only 20 students.

To compensate for the wages that children could be making working in the mines, Akshar established a tutoring program, where older students can help younger ones with their work in exchange for currency tokens that can be used to purchase snacks, toys, shoes, and clothing. The students can even exchange the tokens for real money to purchase items online. But financial compensation isn’t the only rationalization for the tutoring program. Through teaching, older students are able to develop useful life skills, practicing communication, leadership, and compassion.

Tuition isn’t the only unusual aspect of the school. Parmita told Better India that the goal of the school is to break with traditional curriculum. Students take class in open areas, and grades are divided by level rather than age.

“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children,” Mazin told Better India. That would mean not only providing an accessible education, but one that would enable children to find jobs after graduation. To this end Akshar offers career focused classes alongside traditional ones, enabling students to gain skills in cosmetology, solar paneling, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics, and more. The school is also willing to adapt to create the best education for its students. Mazin told Better India that when the school noticed a spike in landscaping in Assam, they began to draft plans for a sustainable landscaping course.

Mazin and Parmita’s success with Akshar has inspired them to create more schools that follow the same philosophy. They hope to implement the Akshar model in 5 government schools over the next year, and 100 government schools in the next 5 years.

Emma is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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The Teenager Schooling World Leaders on Climate Change

For hundreds of thousands of young people, Greta Thunberg is an icon. At only 16, she’s proving you don’t have to be an adult to make a world of a difference. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee is among the most influential voices speaking out about Earth’s dire climate crisis. 

The teen first learned about the devastating, lasting impact of climate change when she was just 11 years old. Dismayed by adults’ unwillingness to respond, she decided to take action herself. She began by making small changes in her own life—cutting meat and dairy from her diet and convincing her parents to also live more sustainably

Frustrated by the lack of attention from policymakers, Greta held a strike in August 2018, missing class to sit in protest in front of the Swedish Parliament with a sign that read “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” (“School Strike for the Climate”). She vowed to hold strikes every Friday until Sweden was in alignment with the Paris Agreement

People in Sweden (and now, the world over) began to take notice of Greta’s stance. After a viral TED Talk where she explained her call to action, others began to join in her protests. Today, #FridaysforFuture has grown to be a global phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of young people from over 125 countries standing alongside Greta. 

In addition to her Nobel Peace Prize nomination, Greta’s actions have earned her speaking engagements at the World Economic Forum and COP24—but most importantly, they’ve ignited a new generation to create change and stand up for the future. 

Greta says she owes her dogged determination in part to being on the spectrum: “I think if I wouldn’t have had Asperger’s I don’t think I would have started the school strike, I don’t think I would’ve cared about the climate at all… That allowed me to focus on one thing for a very long time.” 

Her #FridaysforFuture protest on March 15, 2019 drew 1.6 million strikers, from 2,000 locations, across all seven continents. She wants world leaders to know that change is coming, whether they like it or not.

Fighting Human Extinction in London and Beyond

Over the past week, governmental officials and police say, protesters have wreaked havoc in London—but it’s all part of an effort to address the sociopolitical factors wreaking havoc on our planet.

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

In the early afternoon of Monday, April 22, about 100 people entered London’s Natural History Museum and made their way to Hintze Hall. As sunlight streamed in from the skylights and illuminated the Romanesque arches that punctuate the stone walls, the protestors positioned themselves underneath Hope—the enormous blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling—and lay down on the ground. After about half an hour, most concluded their “die-in,” but a few remained; wearing face paint and crimson robes, they gave a classical music performance on the steps beneath the skeleton.

This unusual demonstration was part of a massive mobilization by Extinction Rebellion (abbreviated as XR), a non-partisan movement aiming to revise environmental policy with the goals of slowing climate change and minimizing the possibility of imminent human extinction. The group launched in the United Kingdom in October of 2018—in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report announcing that we have just 12 years to halt catastrophic change—and quickly proliferated worldwide.

Today, the movement boasts about 130 groups across the UK, and is active in countries from the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. Its core demands are threefold: Honesty and transparency from governments regarding the ecological crisis; reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and the implementation of a participatory democracy to monitor progress towards these goals.

The current actions in London, advertised on XR’s website as “UK Rebellion—Shut Down London!,” are the focal point of a constellation of protests planned in 80 cities across 33 countries. Beginning on April 15, thousands of protestors poured into the heart of London, blocking five major landmarks: Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus, and Piccadilly Circus. From the beginning, group members made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere, filling the bridge with trees and flowers and even setting up a skate park and stage. Live music emanated from Oxford Circus, and a life-sized model of a boat with “Tell the Truth” painted on the side blocked the center of the bustling junction.

Nearby at Piccadilly Circus, younger protestors chalked messages on the pavement, while inside an open-sided truck at Marble Arch, bands entertained hundreds of onlookers. In Parliament Square on April 15, Jamie Kelsey Fry—contributing editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine—encouraged demonstrators from an octagonal stage.

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

The audience waved flags and banners emblazoned with the symbol of the movement, dubbed by Steve Rose of The Guardian as the ubiquitous logo of 2019. According to Rose, the “X” signifies extinction, and the horizontal lines suggest an hourglass—reminding us once again that time is running out.

A high point for protestors was a visit from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg on Sunday, April 21. The Swedish teenager, who staged a “School Strike for Climate” at Sweden’s Parliament last year and initiated the weekly #FridaysforFuture school walkouts, received chants of “We love you” as she took the stage at Marble Arch.

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

While the protests have in some ways resembled a modern-day Woodstock, full of music and goodwill, London authorities—who have deployed some 9,000 police officers in response—see a different side of the story. As of April 22, more than 1,000 people had been arrested since the demonstrations began; the youngest to be charged was 19, and the oldest 74.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said that the protest was taking a toll on London’s police forces and businesses, commenting, “I'm extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime.” Protestors, for their part, view the stress on police as unavoidable: “We wish we didn’t have to distract police resources,” their website states. “80 year old grandfathers would rather not be putting themselves in the physically uncomfortable position of being in a police cell and children don’t want to be skipping school  – but 30 years of government inaction have left us with no choice.”

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

As protesters continue to be removed from the scene one by one by the police, with more rushing in to take their place, the question is whether or not the government will be responsive to XR’s message. On the first day of the mobilization, XR wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining its demands, requesting talks, and issuing a stern warning: Failing government action, the group’s disruptive demonstrations would only escalate over the coming weeks. On April 22—the day of the Natural History Museum die-in, and also Earth Day—the group said that they would soon hold a “people’s assembly” to determine next steps. The next day, protesters marched on Parliament in a renewed push to open dialogue with government officials.

London’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit has said that XR’s demand for carbon neutrality by 2025 “technically, economically and politically has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled,” but nevertheless supports the message behind the movement and the actions it has engendered. For XR, surmounting the impossible is the only way forward to ensure that human beings can continue to inhabit the earth: Their website reads, “Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst case scenarios and restore a safe climate.” Only time will tell whether those in power agree.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.