Education News

Workshop in Applied Earth Systems Policy Analysis: Summer 2010 Final Briefings

2010-08-26

On August 18, students in the Workshop in Applied Earth Systems Policy Analysis, part of the M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International Affairs and the Earth Institute, gave their summer final briefings. Their presentations were the culmination of semester-long projects focused on the scientific foundations for selected environmental management problems.

Each group had ten minutes to deliver briefings on projects that analyzed proposed but not-yet-enacted environmental legislation or treaties. “We are trying to raise the level of sophistication brought to policy and analysis,” said Steven Cohen, the program's director and executive director of the Earth Institute.  In the summer workshop, students learned to translate science and analysis for non-scientist policy makers, and to do so persuasively and succinctly. They became skilled in the rapid assimilation and comprehension of new areas of both science and legislation, and they developed the ability to work within the constraints of proposed legislation—even if they were not always in agreement with all the elements within a bill.

Faculty advisers worked with individual groups throughout the semester. The broad-ranging professional experience offered by this cadre of expert faculty gave students a sense of the challenges that they will face as future administrators and policy analysts. The faculty included Professor Kathy Callahan,  associate director of the Columbia Water Center;  Matthew Palmer, who is a former deputy regional administrator for EPA Region 2, a full-time member of the faculty, and an adviser to organizations like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NYC Parks, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and NGOs on conservation, restoration and ecological management issues; Irene Boland, a 2005 graduate of the M.P.A. E.S.P. program who serves as innovations coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 2; Howard Apsan, the director of environmental health and safety at City University of New York (CUNY); and Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and professor in the practice of public affairs at Columbia. 

The policies analyzed this summer included the Clean Estuaries Act of 2010, the Copenhagen Accord, the Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act, the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, and the Solar Roofs and Solar Water Heating Act of 2010. The presentations provided an overview of each legislation or treaty—their major goals and provisions—and provided details on the history and scientific dimensions of the environmental problems being addressed. The following are descriptions of the five student projects presented during this summer’s final workshop briefings: 

H.R. 5019: Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010
Faculty Advisor: Steven Cohen

The Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, commonly referred to as the “Cash for Caulkers” bill, provides public information services and financial incentives for energy-efficient retrofitting. This bill aims to establish a program to provide rebates to contractors to be passed through as discounts to homeowners who retrofit their homes to achieve energy savings. It will also establish a federal rebate processing system that would allow rebate aggregators to submit claims for reimbursement. The program would reimburse participating contractors and vendors for discounts provided to homeowners for retrofit work that installs specified energy-saving measures. Among other things, the bill would also establish a Home Star Energy Efficiency Loan Program to make funds available to states to support financial assistance provided by qualified financing entities for qualifying energy saving measures under the Silver Star or Gold Star programs.

Professor Cohen’s workshop team analyzed the solution represented by the bill, looking at the science behind the solution and identifying the problems that the bill addresses in order to evaluate its relative success. At the midterm briefing, the team provided a breakdown of energy use in the United States, noting that the primary use is residential heating–the electrical power for this derives from coal. The group analyzed the environmental impacts of this energy consumption, specifically ecosystem disturbance, air pollution and climate change.

S. 2993: Solar Roofs and Solar Water Heating Act of 2010
Faculty Advisor: Irene Boland

This bill creates financial incentives to decrease the capital costs of purchasing and installing rooftop solar and solar hot water heating systems. Additional benefits cited in the bill include increasing national security and promoting green jobs to create substantial economic gains. The bill builds upon the success of existing state programs in California and New Jersey for solar photovoltaic systems as well as in Hawaii and Florida for solar hot water heating systems. Over the next 10 years, the bill defines a goal of installing an additional 10,000,000 solar electricity systems, amounting to a cumulative capacity of 30,000 megawatts. For solar hot water heating systems, the bill calls for at least 200,000 additional systems, amounting to a cumulative capacity of 10,000,000 gallons. The bill would establish two rebate programs: one for rooftop solar photovoltaic systems and one for solar hot water heating systems. The payment schedules for both rebate programs are subject to adjustment by the secretary of energy to ensure deployment or to respond to market conditions.

The group addressed the science behind the proposed solution: solar photovoltaic systems and solar water heaters used to reduce negative environmental impacts. They analyzed the scientific issues and controversies of solar electric generation and did a quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of the policy outlined in this bill. At the prior midterm briefing presentations, this group had addressed the science behind several environmental problems touched on in the bill, including the emission of harmful greenhouse gases, the negative effects of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, and the inherent inefficiencies in electricity production and transportation.

S. 1933: Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act
Faculty Advisor: Matthew Palmer

The Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act is designed to integrate federal agency activities to respond to the impacts of climate change by protecting, restoring, and conserving the natural resources and associated ecosystem services of the United States. It provides financial incentives for activities to protect, restore, and conserve natural resources and associated ecosystem services in response to climate change.  The agencies involved include NOAA, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and several others. If the bill becomes law, it would issue a climate change impact survey identifying natural resources adversely affected by climate change. Using a natural resources climate change adaptation strategy, the bill it would also establish the National Fish and Wildlife Habitat and Corridors Information Program to develop a national database of fish and wildlife habitat and corridors.

The group analyzed the bill, using the Colorado River Basin in its case study and focusing on freshwater, vegetation and wildlife. Students analyzed the effects of climate change on the Colorado River Basin, noting warmer temperatures, less snow, earlier and quicker snowmelt, and a decrease in precipitation.

Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD Plus) via the Copenhagen Accord
Faculty Advisor:  Kathy Callahan

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests. It would provide incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in sustainable development in these countries through low-carbon approaches. “REDD-plus” was developed out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen in December, 2009. The Copenhagen accord acknowledges the crucial role of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emission by forests. REDD-plus incentivizes these actions, enabling the mobilization of financial resources from developed countries. The REDD-plus program fully supports monitoring and verification that is transparent and accurate. The United States’ pledged funding could result in a significant reduction of carbon emissions; support new, sustainable development; help conserve biodiversity; and secure vital ecosystem services. Preserving, maintaining and restoring forest ecosystems can contribute to increased resilience to climate change. Implementing REDD will require full engagement and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities.

The group analyzed the proposed solution in REDD, including the incentives it provides, and summarized the science behind these environmental rewards. In their midterm presentation, they focused on the significance of forest function and deforestation as a global issue, examining the processes of carbon sequestration, carbon reservoirs and carbon sourcing, and outlined global CHC emissions by sector.

H.R. 4715: The Clean Estuaries Act of 2010
Faculty Advisor: Howard Apsan

The Clean Estuaries Act of 2010 is an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act), whose purpose is to reauthorize the National Estuary Program. Its key goals include expanding the requirements governing conservation and management plans and using collaborative processes to develop a new plan or update existing plans through a management conference. The Clean Estuaries Act also requires the EPA to evaluate conservation and management plan implementation every four years to determine the degree to which the goals of the plan have been met. The results of these evaluations would be submitted to the appropriate management conference for review and comment and the report would be made available to the public. Among other revisions of management, the Clean Estuaries Act also aims to redefine the terms for estuaries and estuarine zones and reporting on the effectiveness of programs and practices for improving water quality, natural resources and sustainable uses of estuaries covered by the conference.

In their presentation, the team explained to their fellow students and faculty how the legislation addresses climate change and how it increases accountability for evaluation, response and approval. They addressed the ways the Clean Estuaries Act supports sustainable management of estuaries and evaluated the challenges to implementation. In particular, they outlined ecological functions and services, water quality degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change impacts. One of the outcomes of the amendment to the Clean Water Act would be to include the Great Lakes in the category of estuarine zones, potentially impacting conservation strategies to deal with environmental degradation in that area.