In advance of Earth Day 2021, I reached out to Holly Buck, PhD, Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at UB College of Arts and Sciences. I wanted to know if she had some suggestions pertaining to ways that we could all get behind Earth Day.
I figured that Buck, who is an expert on the social and political dimensions of environmental policies, as well as on strategies for preventing and adapting to climate change, would be an ideal person to discuss the problems at hand, as well as emerging technologies that might help to control and even combat them.
But first, I asked Buck how she came to be so interested in her studies. “When I was a kid, I remember reading about saving the planet. It was still relatively new in the 80’s,” she told me. “In the 90’s, there was an ‘Earth Summit’ held in Rio de Janeiro, that made a big impression. It was becoming a world wide issue – a wake up call. Then, in 2009 I attended the The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. There was hope that the conference, attended by so many world leaders, would bring about change, but that didn’t pan out.”
Throughout the years, Buck always had her ear to the ground, hoping to hear word of new technologies that would help to combat climate change and other planetary problems, but not much was happening. “Why was there no more progress?” she wondered.
Buck knew that we had the power, the ability, and developing technologies to make sweeping changes, but little was actually being applied. Why?
As a social scientist, Buck is especially interested in seeing broader participation from all members of the community. At the same time, she attributes much of the disengagement on how the message is delivered. On one hand, there are groups that discuss the importance of planting 1 million trees at a time, to make an impactful difference. How can an individual wrap his or her head around such a staggering number? Where is the land to plant these trees, who owns the land… and who is using it? Where does the responsibility fall, and who has the resources? Buck feels that often times people are confused by the information, and left with a sense of hopelessness.
Buck believes that it won’t be the companies that come to the rescue in the end, as they have a priority to “get stuff built.” That leaves the environmental justice and community organizations, which have limited resources. Therefore, government should be funding the dialogue. Technologies must reach a certain scale for people to get behind them. Sweeping policies must be enacted, so that these game changing technologies become cheaper, easier, and more readily available.
Buck cites President Biden’s new infrastructure plan as a good start, with new standards, broader investment, and more standardized procurements for, say, electric post office vehicles. We must also be aware of the public backlash against renewable industries from different communities – what are the choices and what are the trade-offs? While some of the short term battles might be difficult to fight, it’s especially important to plan for the longterm where energy transition is concerned. Not to mention the global conversation, which is tricky at best.
Ultimately, Buck believes that the future of a healthier planet is dependent upon the oceans. She feels that ocean-based approaches to carbon dioxide removal, including the implementation of industrial seaweed farms, is a good start. We must continue to look at seaweed for fuels, and as a source of food… and as a call to creating new industries in place of those that are harmful to the planet. Already, numerous large companies are planning for “net zero,” but, Buck warns, we must pay attention to potentially escalating carbon emissions as the companies implement their plans for carbon removal, all in the name of “net zero.” It’s a slippery slope.
On a similar “be wary” front, we must be mindful of the sci-fi-esque advancements and potential pitfalls of geoengineering, which is the act of altering the atmosphere to reverse the impacts of global warming. What are the longterm impacts of stratospheric aerosol injections or solar radiation management? That’s some pretty heavy stuff to consider, and also a topic for another day. Today, we’re focusing on what each and every one of us can do on Earth Day – Thursday, April 22.
I asked Buck what her students were feeling about Earth Day, and the current planetary climate crisis – were they in tune and onboard with all of this?
Yes, her students are aware of many of the issues at hand, and are concerned about climate change as an existential threat. They are also willing to consider different approaches to the dilemmas. That’s good to hear, because it’s going to take fortitude, understanding, investment, and inventiveness to get to a better place than where we are now.
To that end, Buck tells me that one of her students is looking at ways to replace Styrofoam with mycelium. She also notes that aside from clever and caring individuals (such as her students), there are plenty of companies out there that are moving in the right directions. Take L’Oréal, for example – the cosmetic company is launching a plastic bottle that is made from recycled carbon.
“We must take a moment to look at all of the different scales,” says Buck. “From our houses, to our neighborhoods, to the cities and states – there are different ways to get engaged. Earth Day is ‘a moment’ when we can come together, to appreciate the larger planetary project.”
It’s going to take efforts from everybody “big and small” to turn things around. Buck acknowledges that New York State is one of the leaders in the space, thanks to Cuomo signing into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLPCA). This will allow more people to become engaged, while providing green jobs and investing in frontline communities. Already we’ve seen some demonstrable advancements in realms such as offshore wind, and a plan is being developed to implement a carbon free electricity system by 2040, with an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (in NYS).
“Another piece of legislation currently under discussion, the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA), would go even further to make polluters pay for a just transition,” says Buck, reassuring us that we’re off to a good start.
At the same time, we must remember that we’re still at the starting line.
Buck has written extensively on geoengineering as well as carbon capture. Her 2019 book, “After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration,” examines topics such as industrial seaweed farms, large-scale carbon sequestration, restoration of wetlands and reforestation. She also co-edited, “Has It Come to This? The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink,” a collection of essays, articles and interviews on the social, ethical and political considerations tied to deliberate, large-scale interventions in the planet’s climate.
Buck is an appointed member of an ad-hoc committee of the National Academies that explores ocean-based approaches to carbon dioxide removal.
Lead image: Photo by Anne Nygård