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Living Green

Northwestern alumni, faculty and students are making strides toward sustainability in the face of climate change.

by Sean Hargadon

Gary Braasch remembers the moment when it all clicked.

In June 1997, the veteran wildlife photographer had spent a month in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hoping to catch a glimpse of the porcupine caribou. So far, he had come up empty.

That's when he accepted a spur-of-the-moment invitation and hopped aboard a Cessna bush plane bound for a remote destination along the Kongakut River in far northeastern Alaska.

The plane touched down on a gravel strip near a known caribou river crossing. As Braasch (J66, GJ67) set up his tent in the early morning light, he looked down from a bluff above the river. Amid the lifting fog he noticed brown and tan dots more than a mile away. Soon the caribou had gathered in columns, like large lines of ants, as they walked through the flood plain and surged across the river.

Braasch, winner of the Sierra Club's 2006 Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography, spent the day photographing alongside the shallow, braided river, sometimes no more than a few feet from the herd. More than 80,000 caribou crossed the Kongakut that day during the herd's annual spring migration of more than 400 miles between its coastal calving grounds near Alaska's Beaufort Sea and Canada's Yukon Territory.

A few days after photographing along the Kongakut, Braasch returned home to Portland, Ore., by way of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, site of one of the largest oil fields in North America.

Oil and gas drilled in Alaska fuels cars and heats homes thousands of miles away. Scientists say the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of such fossil fuels have helped warm the polar regions. Braasch says summer warmth dries out the tundra where caribou graze. Warmer winters bring heavier snow and more ice, burying the herd's winter food sources. Caribou that fail to pack on enough weight before the first flakes fall won't make it through the winter. So the oil drilled not far from where the caribou calve could threaten their very existence.

"Having seen one of the most amazing natural spectacles in the north one day and then to see Prudhoe Bay created this juxtaposition that I hadn't experienced before," Braasch says. "It was clear to me as an environmental photographer that I should pay more attention to the issue of climate change."

During the following eight years, Braasch visited melting glaciers in Greenland, submerged villages in Bangladesh and drought-stricken areas of China as he checked in on scientists studying the warming world as part of his World View of Global Warming web project. On a journey that took him to 22 countries on all seven continents, Braasch served as a "witness to climate change."

"It is clear to me that I am documenting a decisive, overarching event of the 21st century," Braasch wrote in the introduction to his new book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World (University of California Press, 2007). "This is truly a global change. ... And no matter how we divide the blame, we are all — all 6½ billion of us — fully at risk."

Global Emergency

At this point it's not new news. The scientific community agrees that the earth is warming and human activities are at least partially to blame.

The world's growing dependence on fossil fuels for energy sends increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Those gases form an atmospheric blanket that is causing global temperatures to rise, most noticeably near the poles. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released in late August blamed 2006's higher-than-average temperatures, the second-warmest year on record, on greenhouse gases and "human influences."

Arctic sea ice, which keeps the polar regions cool and moderates global temperature, covered just 1.59 million square miles as of mid-September 2007, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That's 460,000 square miles less than the previous low in 2005. Some scientists say all of the Arctic sea ice will be gone by century's end.

Closer to home, city of Chicago planners project that unmitigated climate change could put Chicago's climate in the same range as Houston's by 2080. Houston averages nearly 100 90-plus degree days and almost no snow in the winter.

The attention to climate change has been rising, like the temperatures, for years now. Environmental issues have garnered front-and-center space on newsstands, drawn celebrity advocates and helped sell everything from condos to cars to cleaning products. It's suddenly very good to be green.

More important, environmental concern has sparked a growing consciousness that's blossoming into a bona fide movement, and Northwestern alumni, faculty and students are taking part. They — along with the planet — face an incredible test.

"The challenge of climate change is certainly unprecedented in the history of the human species," says Henry Binford, Northwestern associate professor of history. "Global warming is arguably more universal than any other challenge we've faced.

"Climate change is also unprecedented because it's the result of human actions rather than the result of human policy. No one declared war. No one intended to create the results we're seeing."

Walk Softly Upon the Earth

Each of us has a carbon footprint. The emissions resulting from our actions have a direct effect on the environment — a mark we leave when we drive a car, turn on the lights or fly across the country. It's inevitable.

Robert Parkhurst (WCAS93) helps California utility customers address their impact as an environmental policy manager at San Francisco–based Pacific Gas & Electric Co., where he directs the utility's ClimateSmart program.

Launched in late June, ClimateSmart allows PG&E customers to balance out their carbon emissions based on their energy consumption. An additional amount is added to the customer's bill, and 100 percent of the ClimateSmart payment goes to fund new California greenhouse gas emission reduction initiatives, such as forest conservation and management.

Parkhurst, who received a 2007 Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stresses that such projects are the third step in a series of actions. First, he says, individuals should reduce energy consumption through use of energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and then consider installing as much clean power as possible. Finally, individuals should make the remaining energy "climate neutral" with programs such as ClimateSmart.

3Degrees, a California-based firm owned by Steve McDougal (KSM95), specializes in verified carbon emission reduction programs as well as renewable energy certificates — clean energy projects that help displace fossil fuel generation. The sale of the RECS in addition to the electricity itself, helps guarantee a premium price for the clean electricity. Both VERs and RECs help channel more capital to support projects that help reduce greenhouse gases.

Here's an example of how emission reduction programs work: 3Degrees contracts with large-scale dairy farms, often with more than 1,000 head of cattle that produce millions of tons of manure each year. Rather than let the manure sit in lagoons, where it releases methane — 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere, the methane capture project uses microbial anaerobic digestion to reduce the amount of methane released and produce a biogas that can be converted to electricity.

"We only choose projects we feel are really dependent on the stream of revenue from the carbon credits," McDougal says. "We also strongly encourage our partners to become as energy efficient as possible and explore renewable energy options first before looking at offsets. We'd hate to see people drive a Hummer and buy offsets and think that's just fine.

McDougal, the executive vice president of 3Degrees who negotiated with Northwestern on a four-year contract for RECs in February 2006 (see "Northwestern Turning Green,"), says carbon emission reduction projects have recently received some negative coverage in the media. "They are seen as a way for someone to alleviate their guilt," he says. "But people are convicting the mechanism. There is nothing wrong with supporting programs that reduce carbon.

"These are all weapons in the same war."

And the war on climate change is one that will have to be fought on many fronts.

"Everyone knows there is no one answer or magic bullet for climate change," says John Parsons (G82, 86), an economist who serves as executive director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Parsons, also executive director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Climate Change, is part of a team working on a 14-month–long study of the European cap and trade system to seek a solution to curb carbon emissions in the United States. Cap and trade systems put a limit on emissions. Entities that emit pollutants are given or purchase credits to emit a specific amount. Those that pollute beyond their allowances must buy credits from those that pollute less. Results of the study are due in August 2008.

CEEPR is also studying the economics and policy aspects of carbon capture and sequestration, which proposes piping captured carbon emissions underground.

Power House

During three days in early August, civil and environmental engineering professor Kimberly Gray (WCAS78) (see "Good Chemistry for the Good Earth," fall 2005) led a crash course on sustainability during the School of Continuing Studies' annual Green City Summer Institute. (Watch "The Green City: A Field Study," a video webcast on the School of Continuing Studies web site.)

About 30 participants heard the latest on the finite supply of fossil fuels and the possibilities for alternative energy sources. They also learned that the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, uses a quarter of the world's energy. Interestingly, buildings — residential and commercial — account for about 40 percent of the nation's primary energy usage.

"Unless we address buildings and the way they're owned and operated, we cannot address the energy issue," Gray said during the institute.

So how much energy goes into a home? That's the question driving Marshall Lindsey, one of Gray's doctoral students who is developing a computer-based modeling tool to calculate the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of a residence — from construction to demolition — as well as the costs of day-to-day operations and the associated transportation required by its residents.

Lindsey is exploring how minor shifts in the construction phase have effects throughout the life cycle of a house. For example, the choice to use energy-conserving windows will reduce the amount of energy needed to run the heating and ventilation and lead to greater efficiency.

The model, tailored for low-density and high-density developments, will be one of the first tools to allow homeowners to survey the energy costs of living in a particular house, considering aspects of all life-cycle phases and occupant transportation, and make changes before it's built, the first step in creating more sustainable communities.

"If you use a house as a basic building block, how should you build a community? And then if you can do that, how do you scale up to a city?" asks Lindsey, who grew up on Chicago's South Side. "We want to explore how we can build a city more sustainably."

Lindsey is one of a number of Northwestern students pursuing research that might alter the approach to climate change. Carla Ng, who studied the effect of invasive species on contaminant accumulation in Great Lakes fish species as one of Gray's doctoral students, hopes to expand her focus to explore the increasing strains that global warming presents for the world's oceans.

"It's predicted that in 50 years all currently fished seafood stocks will be gone," says Ng, who grew up in Brooklyn. "With all that we've seen recently in terms of climate change forecasts, the effect on oceans will only be worse."

With the warming waters and increasing acidity, entire ecosystems and organisms — such as a type of coral used for medicinal cancer research in Australia — could be dramatically altered or eliminated.

"Untapped resources are getting lost before we know what they are," says Ng, who spent the summer in Australia looking at the impact of oil drilling on the deep-sea floor with the SERPENT Program at the University of Sydney.

Using the oil industry infrastructure — drilling platforms and cameras aboard remotely operated vehicles — Ng and her colleagues looked at the effects of drill spoil (the materials that are deposited in the environment after drilling an oil well) on seafloor habitats and the effect of drilling fluids — ether-based lubricants used to facilitate drilling in the deep sea — on the marine life. (It turns out the fluids were largely nontoxic.)

Another engineering student, James Wilson, hopes his research on fuel cells might help bring an end to fossil fuel reliance once and for all.

Fuel cells, which convert fuels such as hydrogen or natural gas into electricity through an electrochemical reaction, offer increased energy efficiency and reduced air pollution. Best of all, they produce only water (and carbon dioxide when using natural gas) as waste.

Wilson (WCAS99), a materials science and engineering doctoral student, worked with materials science professor Scott Barnett's research team to produce the first 3-D images of the interior of a fuel cell, providing a new tool for the study and development of the power source.

The size of a fuel cell depends on its overall power. A fuel cell has a certain power per square area, so to get more power, you need more area of fuel cell. The cells that Wilson tests in the lab are button single cells, which are about the size of a nickel and produce approximately 1 watt.

Solid oxide fuel cells, arranged in stacks, could serve as a source of power for a residence or commercial building. Fuel cell stacks are functional, though they are currently too expensive. Wilson hopes his research will improve technology leading to more efficient, durable and cost-effective fuel cells.


To paraphrase Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins, most people want "cold beer and hot showers." They don't often ask where energy comes from. Considering consumers' indifference to the origins of energy, there is an increasing emphasis on improving efficiency and developing renewable resources.

"I really do think we need a revolution in the way we get energy," says Earth Under Fire author Gary Braasch. "A lot of people think this means we have to go back to sitting in the dark. But we're not talking about a life of deprivation with changes to clean energy. It's a better life in terms of wealth and health for individuals, society and the planet."

Renewable energy makes up only a tiny fraction of the U.S. energy portfolio — wind and solar power accounted for less than half a percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2006 — but renewable forms will power the future.

"Global energy needs will double by 2050 and triple by 2100. An increase in the use of solar energy is essential for meeting this need in an environmentally responsible manner," said Michael R. Wasielewski, professor of chemistry and director of the new Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center, a partnership between Northwestern and U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

Researchers at the center, from both Northwestern and Argonne, will examine new economical ways to use sunlight to produce clean fuels, such as hydrogen, from water and to produce electricity directly from low-cost photovoltaic and thermoelectric systems.

Improving automobile energy usage will be the focus for another new University institution, the Center for Energy Efficient Transportation. In the United States transportation accounts for 35 percent of primary energy usage and consumes more than 80 percent of the nation's crude oil imports.

Improved efficiency in transportation will reduce demand for fossil fuels, cut carbon emissions into the atmosphere and conserve natural resources, says Harold Kung, professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the new center.

In addition to plans for a new generation battery that's lightweight and has a high-energy density and rapid charge-discharge characteristics, the center will also focus on developing lightweight, strong, energy-absorbing structural materials that are easily manufactured and recyclable. The center will also explore improved communication applications.

"We envision a day when cars and other vehicles will communicate with each other with minimum human intervention," which will result in safer roads, less traffic jams and less energy consumption, Kung says.

He says improving transportation is one star in the constellation of climate change and energy conservation solutions. "It's a broader issue than transportation," says Kung, who focuses on the interrelation between carbon dioxide emissions and global temperature changes and human behavior, governmental policy and business strategy in his 300-level Sustainability, Technology and Society class. "Energy has been equated with economic well being, with growth, with quality of life. How do you ask people to reduce energy use without sacrificing quality of life?

"To solve the global warming issue takes more than one answer. It will take a coordinated effort of all the stakeholders involved. We need everyone working together, but we need leadership for that to happen effectively."

Green Makes Green

Corporate America might seem an unlikely place to look for leadership in the fight against climate change.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, many of the alumni who have a real passion for progress in the environmental movement also have a real stake — a financial investment — in its future.

Businesses can make major environmental changes and take a leadership role in the movement if they're properly motivated, says economist John Parsons. "One of the most effective ways we can solve potential challenges is to make it profitable for companies to pay attention."

3Degrees executive vice president and principal owner Steve McDougal says the growing renewable energy market in California illustrates the economic opportunities in a carbon-conscious world. Earlier this year, California, the world's fifth-largest economy, set aggressive targets for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The associated job creation and technology development offer "a tremendous opportunity to alleviate fears that the economy is going to suffer as a result of these measures," he says. "The thought that taking action on climate change is going to kill the economy, that's ridiculous."

Part of David O'Donnell's (C93) responsibilities as intergovernmental affairs liaison with the city of Chicago's Department of Environment is to cultivate new green businesses in the Chicago area.

He's helped grow the city's Waste to Profit Network, a collection of 80 Chicago manufacturers that take the waste stream from one company and turn it into industrial feedstock for another. For example, the city contracted with Curb Appeal to produce car stops (the bumper at the head of a parking space) from mixed plastic waste from Baxter Healthcare and computer casings harvested from the city's electronics recycling program.

With several projects in development, O'Donnell anticipates that the project will top out at nearly 90,000 tons diverted from the landfill in its first year, outpacing the 20,000-ton goal.

O'Donnell says it's essential to combine business motives and environmental initiatives. "With the scale at which we need change to happen, given the real dangers of climate change, altruism isn't going to cut it," he says. "We need to have profit motives and environmental motives in sync."

On the Policy Front

O'Donnell, who earned a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Chicago, left a career in puppet theater for a position shaping policy for one of the nation's greenest cities. He works on environmental initiatives with Chicago's City Council and the Illinois General Assembly. (He also works with Suzanne Malec-McKenna [GC99], the city's new commissioner of the Department of Environment.)

O'Donnell recently shepherded an ordinance that requires that 50 percent of construction and demolition debris be recycled. Currently construction debris accounts for 40 percent of the city's waste stream.

The ordinance brought new businesses to the city, including the ReUse People — "deconstructionists, and I don't mean the French philosophers," O'Donnell quips. The company claims 80 percent recycling rates.

O'Donnell, who co-founded Chicago's Green Drinks — a monthly gathering of environmental-minded professionals who discuss issues at Chicago's Jefferson Tap — says cities have a huge impact on the environment and serve as ground zero for sustainable changes.

"When it comes down to it, the federal regulations or national policies on the environment get worked out in cities," he says. "Mayors, if not the policymakers, are the policy implementers. They understand the issues on the ground."

O'Donnell, who hosted the Green City Summer Institute for a tour of the rooftop garden on Chicago's City Hall, says Chicago's actions on climate change "are important because of the vacuum of leadership at the federal level on these issues."

That's one area where nearly all of Northwestern's faculty and alumni climate change thinkers agree: There is a disappointing lack of leadership from the nation's capital.

Michael Stavy (KSM69), a consultant in private practice who specializes in renewable energy and global warming, says policy decisions must be made in Washington, D.C., — and Beijing — to create real progress on environmental issues.

"Global warming is an observed scientific fact," he says. "Even if China and the United States, the two largest emitters of CO2 on the planet, join the Kyoto Protocol or its successor, it'll be a long, big effort to reverse global warming.

"This challenge requires a policy change. Chinese and U.S. corporations will not make significant voluntary carbon emissions reductions in markets that do not require them to do so. Households making voluntary changes will not reduce carbon emissions enough. The rules of the game have to change."

Moving Toward Sustainability

John Huston (WCAS99) won't even engage in an argument about the reality of climate change. The polar explorer has seen its effects on his journeys to both ends of the Earth. Huston (see "Climate Change from a Polar Explorer's Perspective") is much more concerned about where we go from here. He's not alone.

"It's time to move beyond the Al Gore effect," says climate change chronicler Gary Braasch, who says he greatly admires the efforts of the man who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. "Thanks to him, people get the basic idea. Now we have to move forward."

Northwestern engineer Kimberly Gray says the solutions require that we think about human life in a completely different way. "That's the challenge. Look at our society. Everything is disposable. We drive everywhere. Since World War II, we've built our society to be fossil fuel–based and highly energy inefficient, because we didn't know we had to be efficient.

"Sustainability requires that you have a fundamentally different attitude about resource use. You have to acknowledge they are finite."

Some suggested solutions include building pedestrian-friendly, walkable communities with reliable public transportation. The auto industry must continue to improve fuel efficiency and produce cars that run on alternative fuels. Renewable energy development is a priority. A carbon tax, though politically unpopular, might be the impetus needed to wean the country from fossil fuels.

"The climate is changing, and you're not going to roll it back," Gray says. "The talk is not about how we are going to reverse climate change but about how can we avert a tipping point. How do we dampen the impact? You need decades to make real changes — 50 years."

Ultimately, the United States must show some leadership on climate change — largely because it's our mess. We need "a long period of attitude change to the point that a significant number of people are willing to make political change," says historian Henry Binford. "And I think we've already embarked on that to some extent.

"But I think we're in for a long, difficult period. In terms of consciousness we're already way ahead of where we were 20 to 30 years ago. In terms of doing anything about it, we have leagues to go."

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Porcupine caribou cross the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted more than 80,000 caribou that day in June 1997.Photo by Gary Braasch
An ice cave in a receding glacier in Antarctica. Not long after the photo was taken in 2000 the cave melted away.Photo by Gary Braasch
Marshall Lindsey.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)
Former postdoctoral researcher Shai Arnon, left, and Carla Ng at the Chicago Botanic Garden.Photo by Cari Ishida (GMcC01, 06)
Steve McDougal in San Francisco.
David O'Donnell in the rooftop garden of Chicago's City Hall.Photo by Bill Arsenault