Solving the world’s environmental problems

This article, originally published in @theu, February 11, 2020, was written by the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program

Acclaimed American essayist and novelist Jonathan Franzen will be the 2020 recipient of the Utah Award in the Environmental Humanities.

Franzen’s environmental essays have stirred audiences on the subjects of climate mitigation, the importance of birds, interspecies ethics and human resilience in a changing world. Jonathan Franzen has been an outspoken voice for the environment in his fiction and nonfiction across five novels and five works of nonfiction including “The Corrections,” “Freedom” and “The End of the End of the Earth.” In 2010, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

“Bringing a writer of Jonathan Franzen’s status to campus is a rare opportunity for our students and for the broader community,” said Jeffrey McCarthy, director of the Environmental Humanities Program. “We are especially excited to underline the important environmental contributions Franzen has made with his essays and his novels. This award is the world’s first prize in the field of environmental humanities. It celebrates our recipients while putting their goals in the spotlight. It also puts the U on a national stage and further distinguishes our Environmental Humanities Graduate Program.”

The Utah Award in the Environmental Humanities celebrates environmental leadership and expression. The $10,000 award honors those who solve the planet’s environmental problems using tools of the humanities, such as creative expression, scholarly research, popular art forms and advocacy.

The Environmental Humanities Graduate Program at the University of Utah invites the public to celebrate Franzen’s environmental accomplishments on March 4, 2020, at the Nancy Tessman Auditorium at the Salt Lake City Main Library at 7 p.m.

Media Contacts

Morgan Aguilarcommunications specialist, University of Utah Communications

Converting my commute

This article, originally published in @theu, February 11, 2020, was written by Andy Lambert, MA Student, Atmospheric Sciences

As a graduate student in Atmospheric Sciences, many of my discussions and much of my research fall under the umbrella of air quality and climate. Conversations with colleagues and others inevitably turn to the topic of driving improvement within these realms, whether that’s collectively or individually. And yet, after almost six years as a student at the University of Utah, I had not commuted from my home in Bountiful by any other means than a personal vehicle.

Of course, through my education, I’ve come to understand quite deeply the sources of pollution and its hazardous health effects. But there were a number of things preventing me from actually commuting in a cleaner way: My trip from home to campus was already quite long and frustrating, and public transportation seemed like it might make both of those things worse. There didn’t seem to be any reliable options for public transit from where I live in Bountiful. Finally, could I really count on public transit when getting to or coming from work/school was time-sensitive?

Three weeks ago, through a combination of personal climate guilt, impactful discussion with colleagues in a climate change communication course, and invitations from a number of peers, I decided to finally test out the public transit system on my commute.

It was scary. I mapped out my trip on several web applications the night prior for fear of not being prepared or getting lost and eventually decided to just go with Google Maps. Then I grew even more indecisive when it came to picking the best route. “Do I walk 7 minutes this way and take the 470?” “No, maybe I should walk 9 minutes the other way and take the 455.” “Oh wait, but then I would have two bus changes to make for that route.” All of it was a little overwhelming for someone who had never done this before. Eventually, I just picked the one that took the shortest amount of time. Turns out, it was a good choice.

The morning arrived and it came time to head out. It felt weird leaving the house with my backpack and walking through a neighborhood to go to work instead of getting in my car. But it went quickly, and the bus was right on time. I got on, sat down, opened up the New York Times on my phone, and read the news. Then it hit me. “This is actually pretty nice!” Normally, my morning routine includes roughly 30 minutes of news and social media time before I can actually leave the house. But with public transit, that 30 minutes can just be moved to time on the bus. How’s that for convenience and efficiency? To make things even better, the whole trip only took 45 minutes. I’m cheap and normally park far away from my building because it’s free, so the trip using public transit was actually faster than my normal commute!

Now, the trip home took a bit longer because of heavy traffic, but it still wasn’t bad. Besides, I was able to enjoy some social media and gaming time on my phone on the way. Since then, using public transportation for my commute has not become a daily habit, but it does remain a surprisingly convenient and efficient way to travel that I will continue to utilize. For anyone who has the same concerns and roadblocks I did regarding commuting via public transportation, I say give it a try. Like me, you may be surprised by how silly those concerns actually were! And now, as I continue my research and conversations with others in the realm of air quality and climate, I do feel a little bit better about myself and a great deal more motivated to find other ways to contribute to solutions toward these important local and global issues.

Throughout February, consider a car free commute. Take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

Slow Your Commute

How shifting your commute can add to the journey (and clear our air)

By Kate Whitbeck, Communications, Sustainability Office

We have all heard of slow food and fast fashion, and how we want to seek out the first and avoid the second. What about slow transportation? It’s a concept that suggests getting to your destination as quickly as possible shouldn’t be your primary goal. Your commute can serve many different purposes. Slowing your commute can add to the journey (and clear our air).

Before I started working at the university, I was a slave to my vehicle, racing off each morning to drop my kids at school then driving 25 minutes to my office—which was in a public transit desert—and then racing back to pick up my kids, fitting in a few errands and driving home. I arrived home stressed from dealing with traffic, frustrated that I hadn’t fit in any exercise and anxious that I hadn’t had time to finish my work at the office.

When I started working at the university I had the great fortune to became a regular public transit user. There were a number of factors that made it work: 1) I live within a few miles of the campus; 2) There are at least three bus routes that travel to the U within about 4-5 blocks of my house; and 3) All my children could get to school using the same bus route. It didn’t hurt that my university ID also covered my fare.

Admittedly, for me it does take longer to get from place to place using public transportation. At first, I struggled thinking that this was wasted time that I could spend doing other things until I realized that my commute brought me home at the end of the day without the frustrations of dealing with traffic and had allowed me to fit in my 10,000 steps, connect with my children in a relaxed way and saved me money. This is when I shifted my attitude around my commute and embraced slow transportation.

Slow transportation is about rejecting speed as the objective and reimagining our transition from one place to another as an opportunity to check off other boxes.  Your morning commute (in something other than a single-occupant vehicle) can serve as the following:

Exercise Time: Depending on what your commute looks like it can take the place of a trip to the gym.  The bus route that runs to the U most frequently is further from my house. It also drops me further from my office. This could be viewed either as an impediment or as an opportunity to get in more steps.  Biking or walking to work serve that same purpose.

Work Time: Taking the train and the bus can allow you to put in extra work time. An uninterrupted hour at the beginning and end of the day can allow you to use your time in the office more effectively.

Relaxation Time: Taking TRAX, FrontRunner or the bus allows you to listen to your favorite podcast, catch up on the news, or scroll through social media. If you own a good set of noise-canceling headphones you can turn your transit commute into a meditation session. Doing absolutely nothing but staring out the window and letting your mind wander can also feel incredibly liberating. You arrive feeling refreshed and ready to get to work.

Connection Time: In my case, my commute allows me another 15 minutes of uninterrupted, undistracted time with my children. I am not fighting traffic, thinking about where to park, or battling unsafe road conditions. I get that not everyone’s lives allow for this intersection, but it can allow for connection of a different sort.

Slowing down your commute, especially by walking or biking, allows you to connect to your city and its inhabitants in a new way. When you walk the last few blocks to your destination you notice things that you wouldn’t see when whizzing by in a car. You notice the new businesses that have opened, those that have shut down. You notice that the neighbor two blocks away painted their house blue. You begin to recognize other slow commuters. You interact with strangers giving directions or chatting at the bus stop. These interactions help us feel grounded and connected to our community.

Sometimes I think we weren’t meant to move so quickly from one place to the next. When we are dependent on our own two feet to get places, we are far from the fastest species on the planet. For the majority of the millennia our species has inhabited this planet it took time to get from one place to another, enough time to mentally transition so that when we arrived at our destination we were present in a different way. Maybe we haven’t yet evolved to travel so quickly from one place to another.  Maybe we all need to try a little slow transportation.

 

Throughout February, consider slowing your commute. Take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

Mark your calendar for Winter Bike to Work Day – February 13th, 4-6 pm. Cyclists are invited to stop by our two pop-up locations on Guardsman Way and the Legacy Bridge for hot drinks and free resources on their commute home.

Humans of the U: Piper Christian

This article was originally published in@theu on November 14, 2019.

“At the age of 16, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris during the COP 21 climate accords. As a junior correspondent for a Utah news station, I was tasked with reporting the events of the accords back to my home state. I wanted to know, ‘How are ordinary people confronting environmental threats in meaningful ways?’ To answer this question, I interviewed dozens of strangers throughout the city.

By the end of my project, the stories I gathered spanned six continents. My favorite story came from Melati Wijsen, a student who, with her younger sister, Isabel, convinced the governor of Bali to ban plastic bags when she was only 12 years old and Isabel was 10.

When I returned to Utah, I collaborated with students statewide to pass a climate change resolution through the Utah State Legislature, in 2018. Utah was the first predominantly Republican state in the country to acknowledge climate change in this capacity.

As an adolescent, I was troubled by the fact that Utah’s leaders were not speaking about climate change despite the threat it posed to our state. As we experience warmer winters, our yearly snowpack is shrinking, which not only hurts our world-renowned ski industry but also reduces our water supply that we depend on as one of the driest states in the country.

As a student, I believe that I, and others, can and should pressure our leaders to take action since ultimately my generation and generations to come will carry the greatest burden of climate impacts.

Looking to the future, I hope to pursue environmental law, serve as a city planner or study environmental economics.

Currently, I am the vice president of a new club on campus called Utah Climate Advocates. Our club focuses on projects pertaining to climate action and environmental justice. We have been meeting with congressional staffers to discuss climate policies, and we are exploring environmental justice projects in the Salt Lake area.

This semester, I helped organize the University of Utah’s involvement in the Global Climate Strike. On Sept. 20, more than 100 U students walked out of class to demand global action to address climate change. We guided students to the City and County Building, then marched with a crowd of over 2,000 to the state capitol.

While I’m daunted by the future of our planet, it is the stories of my fellow climate activists that help me persist.”

—Piper Christian, U student double majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science

We’ll be featuring Humans of the U and sharing their stories throughout the year with the university community. If you know someone with a compelling story, let us know at ThisWeek@utah.edu.

Changing Behavior to Improve the Air

This article by University of Utah Communications was featured in @theu on November 19, 2019.

Sometimes even well-meaning people contribute to air pollution (exhibit A: the majority of attendees at the University of Utah’s “The Air We Breathe” symposium arrived by car). So how do you inspire people to change?

Take a look at the way obesity rates have risen even though people know that diet and exercise help, said Robin Marcus, and “we’re quite naïve to think if you just give people knowledge it will change their behaviors.” Marcus, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training and chief wellness officer at the University of Utah, was part of the symposium’s Environmental Health Literacy panel, moderated by Beth Krensky, U professor of art education.

Of the people who commute to the U, 50% live within eight miles of the campus, she said, yet a very small percent use mass transit. “We’re bringing people to this campus every day contributing to the problem.” As the U’s wellness officer, Marcus said her staff is looking at whether incentives work to bring about change. “Do we incentivize people to not buy a parking pass? Or pay people $2 a day to not drive to campus?”

“We need experts on our campus who are implementation scientists,” she added.

“There’s a big gap between attitude change and behavioral change,” said Danielle Endres, professor in the U’s Department of Communication. Technology alone won’t solve the problem either, she said.

Some of the things Endres wonders about: “How can our decisions about air quality be as democratic and just as possible? How can we foster broad public participation in air quality decision-making?” She urged conference attendees to remember that “there are many communities outside of academia that have vast stores of expertise.”

One way to change hearts and minds might be to let people see more clearly how bad the air is, and how undemocratically it’s spread across the Salt Lake Valley. That can include providing low-cost PM2.5 sensors to individuals and public schools, said Kerry Kelly, assistant professor in the U’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

“We need dense measurements” that complement existing, sparser measurements supplied by the state, she said. These “community-engaged measurements” can also be a way to bolster STEM education, she added. In one experiment, young students were taught to build their own pollution sensors out of Legos, LED lights, photo detectors and computer fans as a low-cost hands-on way to measure light scattering.

Not everybody absorbs information identically, noted Whitney Tassie, senior curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “Not everybody is inspired by graphs in the same way.” One solution: Art that is visceral—for example, adding smog to whipped egg whites, “so you can taste it.” Tassie is in the research and development phase of a six-month exhibit that will open in January 2021 that she hopes will bring air and air pollution to life.

Policy, Media and the Public: Driving the Agenda for Change

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

How much impact does the media actually have on policy change?  How much impact does the public have?  Knowing the answers to these questions is absolutely critical in a global moment where the effects of climate change necessitate a swift environmental policy or regulatory response. Knowing what the components of change are and how they work together is crucial in identifying the intersections of influence needed to pressure government to take appropriate and constructive action. Dr. Juliet Carlisle’s work looks at how the public, media and government officials attend to a slow-moving crisis (like drought, for instance), and how this attention shifts across the slower lifespan of the crisis. Looking at the relationships between corresponding streams of attention can help explain how windows for policy change open. Dr. Carlisle shows that even a crisis that takes years to unfold can capture attention and produce policy change. This underscores the significance of our roles as producers and consumers of media and citizens of a nation. 

On Tuesday, January 28th,  Professor Carlisle will help explain how the recent California drought captured and sustained attention to yield policy change in her lecture, “Driving the Agenda?: California Drought in the 21st Century,” from 4-5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Carlisle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Utah. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Washington and both her M.A. and Ph.D., also in Political Science, from the University of California Santa Barbara. She has investigated public attitudes around environmental issues like offshore oil drilling, large-scale solar development and vaccines. Her work seeks to explain the causes and characteristics of public opinions, attitudes, knowledge and behavior regarding politics, the environment and energy development. In this lecture she will focus on the ongoing drought in California over the last two decades, engaging with the interplay of attention given by the government, the public and the media and the corresponding policy change that has occurred.

“Policy is for the most part fairly static,” says Carlisle, “not all problems result in policy change.” Her research, therefore, looks at how and whether politicians respond to environmental crises and what factors explain policy change when it does happen. Sudden, devastating, catastrophic events demand immediate attention from the public. Large-scale tragedies like plane crashes, hurricanes, or earthquakes affect a lot of people instantly, and the resulting attention creates opportunities for policy change.  However, slow-moving crises that can take years rather than minutes to unfold tend to be more complicated and are often harder to define. The effects on most people’s daily lives may be comprehended gradually, if at all. A slow-moving crisis gives rise to questions like: Do we even notice a crisis is occurring? Can it capture the attention of the public? To what extent is the media covering it? Does the crisis have the potential to produce a significant policy impact or change? What Professor Carlisle wants to know is how and when policy change is affected for a slow-moving crisis.   

Dr. Carlisle looks at how the media’s coverage of the more recent California drought correlates to the public’s views and potential to propel policy change, helping prove that even a slow-moving crisis can shift policy. Her findings point to the need for more research on what types of media stories are most effective in creating urgency around regulatory change. “The public has a lot of power to push change,” Carlisle reminds us. When we are aware and mobilized, the pressure on our political systems can be hugely effective. 

To hear her speak and learn more about the co-mingling relationships influencing policy change come by on Tuesday, January 28th from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210.  As always, there will be coffee and treats for you, so bring a mug and enjoy!