Your Government and the Valley Proteins Wastewater Grant: Stealing From the Rich and Giving to … Corporations?

By Christian Baran

Valley Proteins, a chicken rendering plant in Dorchester County, is flooding the Chesapeake Bay with the byproducts of its operations, which feature harmful nutrients like ammonia, nitrates and nitrogen. The company’s water pollution permit expired years ago, but it continues to operate and discharge waste. 

Even under the expired permit’s guidelines, Valley Proteins operates in negligence. According to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance database, the company habitually fails to report wastewater discharge information. When the information does get reported, it often indicates gross disregard of the legal limits. 

The state, the company and various environmental organizations all recognize that this stripe of behavior can’t last.  The good news: change is finally here, in a planned wholesale upgrade of Valley Proteins’ water treatment facilities. The bad news: we’re (read: the taxpayers are) paying for it. 

For most of this year, Valley Proteins was slated to receive over $13 million dollars to bolster its wastewater treatment capacities. The funds come from the Bay Restoration Fund, a state-owned pot of money dedicated to upgrading Maryland’s wastewater treatment plants. Individual and industrial users of wastewater treatment plants contribute to the fund via a yearly tax, which amounts to over $100 million annually. Although publicly owned treatment plants have priority access to the money, Maryland legislators are technically permitted to consider private facilities on a case-by-case basis. Valley Proteins would be the first such case in the fund’s 17-year history.

Waste water exhaust pipe

The proposal to supply Valley Proteins with public assistance to manage its pollution was met with outrage by some lawmakers. For some, the move just didn’t sit right. One Democratic state senator said it didn’t “pass the smell test.” Others objected that private companies shouldn’t be permitted to receive money from the Bay Restoration Fund, although the action is, at the time of writing, admissible under the bill. The Maryland State Senate recently approved a budget plan that reduces the amount of the grant. It’s still too much.  

Lawmakers are right to be concerned. The decision to provide Valley Proteins with taxpayer money lands squarely in the nationwide debate over how we should proceed with a green economy, with implications beyond the fate of this particular company. It’s a local case study in the role of government in the green market, one that diverges from traditional discussion of renewable energy. 

Although limits on nutrient pollution are distinct from energy standards, both fall under the umbrella of pollution emission restrictions. The role of government in each is complicated, but arguably much simpler in the former. 

In both cases, the government is free, indeed, encouraged to, set limits on bad behavior like dumping nitrates into Chesapeake tributaries or burning coal. These pollution ceilings already exist for Valley Proteins. This grant is essentially a government subsidy to help the company meet their limits. In this sense, it’s very similar to federal subsidies for renewable energy

Those energy subsidies are meant to encourage environmentally beneficial behaviors that have significant impediments. The solar industry, for example, must overcome vast regulatory frameworks that skew towards existing energy producers like the coal and oil industries. The barriers for entry are enormous. 

Solar panels in field

This Valley Proteins grant will also, at its core, support an environmentally conscious action: mitigating nutrient pollution. However, in this case, the barriers are much smaller. In fact, the only true obstacle is cost. The renewable sector can’t control many of the prohibitive institutions that make it difficult for them to gain a foothold in the economy — cost is only one of many hurdles for them. Valley Proteins can and should control its own waste disposal and the attendant financial burden. If it can’t, it’s simply not a competitive company. 

For these reasons, it’s particularly odd to me that Democrats lawmakers seem to be more vocal in their criticism of the Valley Proteins grant than Republicans. The move does not align with the free market approach inherent in conservative beliefs. The conservative value of smaller government should, theoretically, mean opposition to what amounts to unnecessary intervention by the state. 

Regardless of political affiliation, lawmakers should oppose Maryland supplying Valley Proteins with taxpayer money to revamp its wastewater system. In this case, all the government needs to do is set pollution limits. Let private companies meet them themselves. The state should continue to support pollution reduction, but not by throwing handouts at companies violating regulations. 

A number of environmental organizations are currently planning to sue Valley Proteins for their transgressions. The point could potentially be moot if the company receives aid to upgrade its facilities. This would be a massive failure of our legal and political institutions. If the industry is in the wrong, we must hold it accountable. If you agree, write to your state senator urging them to prevent this grant.     

For A Reminder, Look to the Sea

By Christian Baran

Climate change is abstract. It can be difficult to reconcile information about changing weather patterns or large-scale biodiversity loss with your daily routine. You stagger out of bed, dump sugar in your coffee, and go to work. Your backyard isn’t being deforested. Your streets aren’t flooding. The vast majority of Americans don’t directly encounter obvious effects of climate change in their everyday lives. So, anecdotally, it can seem like our climate is just fine. This is far from the truth.

Stark examples of destruction wrought by climate change exist all around us. Maryland’s sea level rise offers some particularly poignant ones. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Maryland has the second-highest number of communities vulnerable to sea level rise, behind only Louisiana. With over 3000 miles of coastline and an economy that leans on the Chesapeake Bay, any disruptions to water levels create serious ripples. Dozens of communities on the Bay have felt these ripples. Their heartbreaking stories provide clear counters to the sentiment that climate change is abstract. The first story brings us to the quaint town of Smith Island. 

Smith Island, a small smear of land rising out of the Chesapeake Bay, has captured the heart of every Marylander for good reason. The Smith Island Cake — a 9-layer yellow cake with mouthwatering chocolate icing — is Maryland’s official dessert.  The island has been inhabited for over 350 years and is embedded in Maryland’s culture and history. It’s also rapidly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay.  

Due to the unique geology and location of the Chesapeake Bay, sea levels there are rising twice as quickly as the global average. This sea level rise, combined with the indomitable force of erosion, threatens to put most of Smith Island underwater by 2100. In 2012, the Maryland government tried to buy out homes on the island in the hopes of avoiding future problems with flooding and relocation. Almost all Smith Islanders refused, instead choosing to cling to the hope that erosion controls will save their home. Other Chesapeake islands clung to the same hope, with fateful outcomes. 

Just a century ago, Holland Island was the most populated landmass in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, it’s little more than a patchwork of marsh poking out of the swells. In 2010, the last house standing on Holland Island collapsed, setting the scene for one of the most poignant portraits of sea level rise to ever be captured (pictured to the right). In 2019, rising sea levels and erosion caused the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to close its educational facility on nearby Great Fox Island. Other landmasses, including an atoll called Tangier Island, are barreling towards similar futures. 

Tangier Island is a tiny patch of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, famous for being the world’s leading supplier of soft-shell crab. Its 500-odd inhabitants are primarily crabbers — most of them can trace their ancestry back to one man who arrived on the island over 250 years ago. At an elevation of only about four feet, Tangier Island is being eaten alive by a deadly combination of erosion and sea-level rise. According to one study, Tangier Island could become completely uninhabitable within just a couple of decades, marking its residents among the first climate refugees in the continental United States. The island and its people are running out of time. 

Despite the water inundating their home, most of Tangier Island, staunchly conservative, takes a dim view of climate change. Residents concede that their island is sinking, but they argue that it is due to erosion, not climate change. Scientists disagree, but findings do little to sway popular opinion on Tangier Island.

If Tangier Islanders don’t see climate change as a threat as their homes disappear under their feet due to sea level rise, it’s easy to see how those even further removed from its impacts brush it off so easily. Even Tangier Islanders, despite their conundrum, can see climate change as an abstract concept and their plight as an isolated incident. After all, erosion is a much more intuitive concept than invisible gases trapping heat in our atmosphere. But, like climate change, the cases I’ve mentioned above are not isolated, and climate change is far from abstract if you let yourself trust the science behind it. 

Rising waters and erosion have swallowed hundreds of Chesapeake islands over the last several centuries. Because sea levels are rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than anywhere else on the East Coast, the situation there is a good indication of what we can expect to see for coastal cities in years to come, as sea levels gradually catch up. The quandaries of the Chesapeake Bay islands are providing a glimpse into the future of the rest of the Atlantic Coast. It’s not promising. 

Maryland is taking action to address climate change. Just last month, the Maryland Senate passed measures to combat climate change, including committing to more electric vehicle usage and mandating larger decreases of greenhouse gas emissions. Some officials, including Sen. Paul Pinsky, say the actions aren’t enough, specifically citing rising sea level rise and sinking islands as examples of clear and present danger. 

Pinsky is right on the money: halfhearted government action simply isn’t enough — especially when citizens either don’t believe climate change is happening or feel untroubled by its impacts. It’s impossible to address the problem with that kind of public attitude; until we have a united front against climate change, governments and communities will continue to drag their feet.

To create a united front against climate change, people need to see it breaking others’ hearts. For confirmation of the real, painful destruction climate change is bringing to our states of Maryland and Virginia, turn your neighbor’s head to the sea. They may be able to catch a glimpse of a Chesapeake island, bursting with culture and life, before it slides beneath the waves.   

Breaking Boundaries and Re-imagining them: Deb Halaand and the Turning Point for Equitable Land Use.

By. Emily Muniz

For too long, the secretary of the interior has been an agent of unjust extraction. The appointment of Deb Haaland offers a promising start to re-writing this historic narrative. The way the government uses federal land is about to change. With Haaland’s recent appointment to Interior Secretary , the treatment of indigenous people is about to change. She will also serve as the chair of Native American Affairs, a position created under the Obama administration with the goal to “provide improved coordination of Federal programs and the use of resources available to Tribal communities”. As a key liaison, Haaland will lead inter-agency collaboration to ensure equitable policies regarding Indian affairs. Trump’s crippling administrative orders promoting fossil fuels are about to change. Deb Haaland is bringing change. And it’s about time. 

(Source: worldoil.com)

Under the Trump administration (and for long before then), public land has been seen as a resource to be exploited. While the debate over the ethical use of natural resources may never conclude, it is without argument that the fossil fuel extraction that occurs on public lands is THE lead contributor to natural gas emissions that promote climate change. As climate change worsens due to increased emissions from extraction industries, health in frontline communities everywhere worsens. Change, which is well within the reach of the Interior Secretary, is needed or else federal land will continue to be used to poison the American people and the planet. 

The Secretary of the Interior heads the Department of the Interior and is responsible for the management of federal lands and waters- whether that be National Parks, coastal waters, etc. While historically focused on areas in the western United States, this position represents the nationwide devotion to stewardship through science. One of the most important components of the job description that has been heinously ignored until recently, is the secretary’s duty to managing Native American relations. 

After her 53 predecessors, Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as secretary of the interior. Her role in the federal government grants her responsibility to look after federal land and natural resources. She has already been active in indigenous affairs, serving as both the chair of Democratic Party of NM Native caucus and the vote director for Native Americans in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. 

Haaland promises to be fierce for all of us, which she has already shown in her recent visit to Bears Ears National Monument, where she plans to address historic environmental injustices by giving Biden all necessary information to “get this right” in regard to restoring protections of the sacred indigenous land that were stripped under Trump. 

So, with her indigenous background, experience, and the immense power her title carries, Haaland is in the perfect position to carry out Biden’s campaign promise to ban new permits for gas and oil production on public lands. 

The current tale of a country priding itself on its “energy dominance”, does not tell of the immense harm fossil fuels bring to communities everywhere; from the devastating wildfires in California, to the rising sea levels displacing Virginia coastal communities, the effect of fossil fuels cannot be escaped and burdens everyone, everywhere. How these burdens are addressed varies drastically dependent on where the land is. Policies in the eastern US, for example are not governed the same as the western BLM lands, leaving land management on the eastern side of the country more vulnerable in some ways. Time and time again, CCAN has held local policymakers accountable by urging them to promote legislation, pass bills, protect land from pipelines and utilities, and back overall efforts promoting the fight against climate change. 

Deb Haaland just took another huge step with her directive to revoke orders issued under the Trump administration that promoted fossil fuel use and development on federal land and waters. With this, she issued an additional directive to federal agencies that will put climate change at the forefront of agency decisions. This means finally putting the well-being of the planet and people most susceptible to the effects of climate change first. This is part of a larger effort to restore natural carbon sinks, meaning that these orders rebuke the notion that drilling is permissible on public lands. Fossil fuel development will likely face a steep decrease in the coming month/ years due to these actions, which will strengthen community resistance to climate change and pave the way for clean energy to replace fossil fuels. 

Haaland’s deliberate shift away from fossil fuel promotion at the federal level is huge, and can propel our fight at the local level to keep natural gases out of frontline communities. We can utilize the new federal initiative to ensure state governments follow Haaland’s lead in their land-use choices and fossil fuel divestment. In Maryland, there is a push for No New Fossil Fuels, which reiterates Haaland’s fight to stop drilling and prevent the revitalization of the coal industry. You can sign the petition HERE

In Virginia, we are pushing to stop offshore drilling once and for all. In 2020, CCAN helped pass the Clean Economy Act, which brought a carbon-free electric grid to VA. While we have seen some success, the fight continues to stop pipelines and toxic fracking. 

In MD, CCAN helped to ban fracking statewide. But is this enough? As we continue to fight to keep pipelines off the Eastern Shore, the need for accountability has never been stronger. 

Biden’s blocking of new permits is essential, but so is the need to fully embrace offshore wind energy resources– which bring clean energy and the promise of thousands of new jobs. We must support Haaland in her efforts to not only prevent what harms the environment, but also push for clean energy development. There are two sides of the story here- ending the reliance on natural gas means opening our economy up to embracing the transition to clean energy. For this transition to become a reality, the structure of public land management must change and Deb Haaland is key to ensuring an equitable transition to a clean energy economy.

Changing federal policies regarding land use sets the precedent that the following administrations must adhere to. It’s too late; we need people like Deb Haaland and we need to act now, and we need you to act today to support our Clean Energy Standard (CES) campaign by signing this petition and reaching out to your senators. The clean energy transition has begun, and now we must begin the work of ensuring that it is equitable, rapid, and comprehensive. Only through the responsible management of our lands and waters can we come close to achieving the change we need.

A Sky [Not so] Full of Stars

By. Christian Baran

Do you remember the last time you saw a night sky filled with stars? Not just a couple littered throughout a hazy sky, but the glittering sea of diamonds set against an inky black expanse that we now only associate with extremely remote areas or planetariums? I’m going to guess that, for most of you, it’s been awhile. 

This is of no fault of our own. For almost a century and a half, our world has been soaked with artificial light so thoroughly that many of us don’t know anything different. In 1994, when power went down in Los Angeles following a devastating earthquake, emergency services fielded dozens of calls from residents worried about a “giant, silvery cloud” in the sky. It was the Milky Way.

Our starless skies are a direct result of light pollution, an insidious form of pollution that goes unnoticed by most. Although much artificial light is helpful, even necessary, it can quickly become a pollutant when it turns excessive or inefficient. And light pollution doesn’t just spoil the night sky. It also wreaks havoc on our climate and the ecology of our world.

Unshielded streetlights diluting the skies above may seem far removed from an issue like climate change. But think about the sources of that light. Electricity production is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States, just barely lagging behind transportation. Almost 20% of that production goes toward powering our lights. That gas station you pass on your drive home isn’t just spewing artificial light into the night sky. It’s also letting greenhouse gas production go to waste. 

But wait. Artificial light isn’t all bad. We need it to see at home, illuminate our offices and feel safe walking around our cities. How much actually qualifies as light pollution? According to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the number is shockingly high. Almost 30% of all outdoor light goes to waste, escaping into the sky from unshielded or improperly placed bulbs. This wasted light has devastating impacts for our climate, causing about 21 million tons of carbon emissions per year.  That’s equivalent to over the emissions of over 4.5 million cars being driven for one year. It’s a number we can’t afford in a climate crisis. Unfortunately, light pollution’s trail of destruction doesn’t stop there. 

Light pollution’s reach extends to ecological systems around the world. Most animals, including 70% of mammals, are nocturnal. They’ve adapted over millions of years to forage, socialize and hunt in the dark. Even slight changes in lighting patterns can set off chain reactions in delicate ecosystems, disorienting food chains and mating cycles. Human society has brought a bit more than slight change over the past 200 years, resulting in drastic alterations to ecosystems everywhere. One poignant example involves sea turtle hatchlings. 

Although sea turtles spend the majority of their lives in the ocean, most of them hatch from nests on beaches. Hatchlings have evolved to head for the brightest spot around once they’ve broken free of their eggs, which has historically been the ocean reflecting moon and star light. However, as society has congregated around the coastlines, building cities and other bright developments, it’s had the inadvertent effect of confusing sea turtle hatchlings. Disoriented, baby sea turtles turn their backs on the ocean and crawl instead toward bright lights further inland to be crushed by a car or die of dehydration in a concrete jungle. In Florida alone, light pollution is responsible for millions of sea turtle deaths each year.  

Luckily, light pollution prevention is simple, if not necessarily easy. Outdoor lighting should be fully shielded and directed downward. If people would focus their lighting on where they needed to see, rather than into the sky, light pollution would for the most part cease to be an issue. As a rule, then, no light should be emitted above the horizontal plane. There’s simply no need in most cases, and it’s easily accomplished by installing shields. 

Other solutions are equally as intuitive. Outdoor lighting should only be turned on when needed. Commercial buildings that are unattended after the workday can be retrofitted with motion sensors and timers to cut costs and prevent light pollution. Cost-effective LED lights are good options for those on a budget as long as they avoid blue-light bulbs, which are more damaging to the night sky than light with lower color temperatures. Solutions like these are easy to implement; the small costs are well worth the ability to see our night skies in all of their primordial glory.

As long as humanity has existed, we’ve been able to look up each night and see a dazzling array of stars lighting up the night. The heavens have served as inspiration for countless pieces of art, literature and folklore since our Ice Age ancestors began scribbling star maps on walls. Now, 99% of people living in the United States or Europe are unable to see the Milky Way due to light pollution. Light pollution is slowly killing our planet and taking our night sky heritage hostage. For the sake of our planet and its magnificent view, please take action on light pollution and support local organizations. If you’re interested in getting involved in community action, check out the Facebook page for the Washington, DC Chapter of the IDA. If you’re located elsewhere, find a nearby IDA chapter here.

Without Local Action on Solar, Climate Action Plans Speak Hollow Words

Solar energy. The term conjures images of savvy-looking panels on rooftops and promises of clean futures void of polluting power plants. In recent years, though, communities and their governments have repeatedly failed to make meaningful progress in solar implementation. This unfounded opposition is stifling climate movements across the country. It’s condemning our planet. 

After four long years of Trump and the war against climate action, America is seemingly poised to begin a new era of commitment to our Earth. We’ve re-entered the Paris Agreement, in doing so committing to holding global temperatures to a 2° C increase. Renewable energy, namely solar, will have to replace a lot of fossil fuel use to make that happen. America needs to embrace solar to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. We now see promising actions with our new federal government. Unfortunately, that’s not happening at a local level.  

A clear and recent example of local solar opposition can be found right here in Maryland. Several weeks ago, the Montgomery County Council decided against a proposal to allow some solar production — about 2 percent of land area — in the county Agricultural Reserve, instead passing a far more restrictive bill. This effectively bans solar development in Montgomery County by slashing the amount of land eligible for solar and creating a series of legal hoops for any new projects. 

The opposition in Montgomery County argues that some solar implementation will open the floodgates for even more solar and other forms of development. They fear that allowing solar energy is the beginning of the end for the Agricultural Reserve. This concern, though laudable in its intentions, is misinformed and damaging. 

No party in the solar energy debate is advocating a takeover of the Montgomery Agricultural Reserve or, for that matter, any place in the United States. Rather, advocates of all forms of renewable energy recognize the benefits of a balanced approach. 2 percent of total land area is by no means an invasion, especially for those farmers who welcome solar.

Further, farmers should not see solar development as the greatest threat to their land  and operations. That title goes to climate change. By resisting renewable energy implementation — a vital ally in the battle against climate change — farmers are shooting themselves in the foot. Local government and citizen groups must recognize that enacting small-scale sustainable development now will abrogate the need for costlier, higher impact solutions in the future.

This stripe of opposition is being replicated across the country. The Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law recently compiled a report that details the creative ways each state is resisting solar development.  

In California, officials in the city of Livermore have halted all solar development because it conflicts with scenery. In Georgia, multiple counties have passed laws that institute ‘moratoriums’ on solar development that have no definite end.  In Massachusetts, citizens of Amherst successfully blocked a solar project by claiming it would threaten the endangered grasshopper sparrow (of which no mention was made in their original complaint). 

Some governments aren’t even attempting to be creative. For example, Connecticut passed a law in 2017 that effectively banned all solar on any land that contained forests or farms. 

Clearly, at least in regard to solar development, Montgomery County is a microcosm of the United States. The vote there, in one of the bluest counties in a blue state, bodes poorly for the future of solar throughout the country. The decision is especially stinging when you consider Montgomery County’s recently released climate action plan, which promises to lead the county to zero carbon emissions by 2035. That will not occur without a transition to solar energy.

To me, the words in that plan are now meaningless. If the county can’t pass a simple, minimally intrusive solar plan, it will certainly not push for the meaningful, difficult legislation necessary to lower carbon emissions to zero by 2035. 

As a college student soon setting out to establish a future and a family, the clear lack of concern displayed by those in power is especially disheartening. They have the luxury of ignoring the damage their decision will bring decades from now. They have the luxury of saying, “not in my backyard.” My generation does not. 

The United States cannot let the Paris Agreement and other large-scale climate action strategies go the way Montgomery County’s plan is already heading. The words contained in those agreements must not ring hollow, for the sake of our climate and our future. One of the first steps in ensuring that they do not is to embrace solar development at the local level with open arms.  

By. Christian Baran

A Scientist’s Fight for Environmental Policy in Virginia

By Omar Rosales-Cortez

As a CCAN Policy Fellow, I have had the opportunity to help support major 2021 legislation and campaigns in Virginia. My experience in policy was limited before joining CCAN, and jumping into the realm of policy as a scientist felt like being a fish out of water at first. I am used to letting science speak for itself so I never thought there was a need for people to speak up for science in the real world. 

However, with a political climate that has many Americans questioning facts, we’re already seeing people dismissing science and in turn climate change as well. In response, I started seeing many of my colleagues and professors begin to speak up in the name of science. Their goal is to prove to the world that climate change is real. We all had the necessary knowledge to push for meaningful climate policy. The hard part was making our knowledge accessible to the public and crafting personal stories for the largest possible impact. 

My motivation to join the fight for our planet was to make an impact as a science advocate and to learn how to communicate effective solutions for issues like clean transportation, sustainable infrastructure and environmental justice to the public and policy makers. As a policy fellow with CCAN, I got first-hand experience having critical conversations with community and statewide leaders to pass legislation like the Clean Car Standards bill (HB 1965). 

This clean car bill isets a state-wide mandate to get more electric vehicles (EVs) to Virginia and on the road. This legislation was a key step in modernizing transportation and infrastructure in Virginia, and will have countless benefits for people and the environment by creating cleaner air and more affordable EVs.

Making this legislation appealing to the masses, however, was anything but easy. The real work behind getting this legislation passed by the General Assembly included many nights of nonstop work between organizations, as well as various community outreach events to mobilize constituencies to hold their elected officials accountable. There were many times when I thought this bill was doomed. Yet it managed to escape death time after time, and it was through the teamwork of the Virginia Conservation Network, CCAN, the Sierra Club, and many more that the bill stayed alive. 

It took a limitless amount of energy and grit to keep defying the odds. The bill’s passage was something I am proud to have been a part of and witnessed. This bill was also only one fight during the 2021 legislative session. There were dozens of other bills that the network of green organizations were fighting for, some ending with victories and some as losses. But I can say that everyone gave it their all and will continue to do so as the fight to protect Virginia’s environment and health carries on. 

My time as a Policy fellow was rewarding to say the least. I had the opportunity of a lifetime to help make a historic impact in Virginia’s growth towards a sustainable future. I got to do outreach, distill dense policy, and help coordinate a lobby day for the public. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, that was not an easy feat. 

I plan to take what I have learned to further my career in science and environmental policy. I plan to advocate for solutions based in science to promote a healthier, more informed society. 

Dispatch from a Hampton Roads Organizing Fellow

Hi, my name is Zion Claude and I just completed the inaugural Hampton Roads organizing fellowship for CCAN. I am a Savannah, Georgia native, so I was excited to work on climate issues during my time at CCAN. I am also a sophomore political science major at Virginia State University, a state also threatened by numerous climate impacts. During my time at CCAN, I’ve worked on a few different climate-related projects and I’m excited to share my findings with you! 

Transportation

My first big project revolved around the Hampton Roads public transportation system – more specifically, what needs to be done to improve it. Most climate activists understand that reliable public transportation is essential to fighting climate change — it cuts pollution from single passenger vehicles, and would reduce overall carbon emissions by taking more cars off the road — resulting in less traffic congestion. The coronavirus pandemic has caused public transit rider numbers to plummet, causing revenue shortages and forcing local transit agencies to make tough decisions. Our reasoning behind this project was: residents need an accessible, reliable bus service — this is essential for climate but it is also a matter of justice — as low-income folks urgently need reliable transit for school, work, and childcare. 

I began by researching public transportation in Hampton Roads in search of a community organization or city-run website that allowed for resident feedback on the public transportation system. Such a forum could not be found so instead I gathered information about all the problems reported by residents from news articles and surveys and made sure they were on our data compiling form. After completing this, I worked with CCAN’s communications team to create a QR code poster for the survey to be dispersed around Hampton Roads. I traveled between Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton hanging posters up at 40 different bus stops. During this time, I noticed that most bus stops did not have shelter or even a bench! Some stops with benches were inaccessible due to trash overflow or the stop being on someone’s private property. Most of the bus stops looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in months, they were unsanitary and there was litter everywhere. These are the problems that inspired us to create our public transportation data survey. CCAN hopes that bus riders will take this survey, and then share these data findings with elected officials so we can reform our transit system to be sustainable, equitable, and reliable.

Researching a Fracked-Gas Pipeline Project

In between my work with public transportation, I also researched the Header Improvement Project (which CCAN aptly renamed the Header Injustice Project), a natural gas pipeline project comprising of three pipelines totaling 24 miles from Northern Virginia to the Richmond area to Charles City County, as well as three gas compressor stations, which pressurizes the gas for transport through the pipeline system. These two massive plants would be located in communities with majority-minority populations, far higher than the Virginia average.

I wrote a Letter-to-the-Editor (LTE) for my local newspaper about how the Header Injustice Project will pollute drinking water, negatively affect the climate, cause excessive noise pollution to Virginia homeowners, and endanger water quality, as well as raise concerns for public safety. 

Sea Level Rise

My next project is focused on sea level rise in Hampton Roads. Sea level rise is a climate threat in many places in Virginia, causing flooding issues that impact quality of life for residents. Flooded streets make it difficult or impossible for residents to travel to school or work, and this issue also damages property values. The sea level around Hampton Roads is up to 14 inches higher than it was in 1950. This increase is mostly due to Virginia’s sinking land, and it’s causing major issues. Hampton Roads is second only to New Orleans as the largest population center at risk from sea level rise in the country.

I helped CCAN draft a sea level rise educational webinar, and researched community stories of first person experiences of flooding. I also helped CCAN create social media content and strategy to be used moving forward to raise community awareness and engagement. 

Conclusion

I was very excited to be the inaugural Hampton Roads fellow, it was an amazing opportunity and I look forward to seeing the results of these campaigns and what projects CCAN will work on after me! I would love to stay involved with CCAN in the future as a possible Student Climate Ambassador at Virginia State University, which I believe would make a great impact on my campus. Thank you, CCAN!!

Just Senior Year of College Things: Navigating Unpredictability, New Chapters, and A Global Pandemic

Written by Ravena Pernanand

Unexpected emails and last-minute packing

When the first whispers of COVID-19 were emerging in the United States, I was packing my luggage and boarding a 4am flight at JFK airport. An impending pandemic was the last thing on my mind. Rather, I was preoccupied with the tasks that awaited me at the commencement of my semester abroad in Amsterdam: grocery shopping, introductions, and a much needed nap. Needless to say, I slept like a log when orientation activities came to a close. 

Honor, a best friend from my school at home, was also taking part in the same exchange program as me. I constantly reminded myself of how thankful I was for her presence throughout the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. Her guidance and serene disposition always balanced my moments of frantic anxiety and paranoia, these traits were most apparent when the universe threw a wrench into our semester. The weeks leading up to the dreadful email from our home institution were surreal. In the rainy Amsterdam mornings, we dragged our bodies out of bed and trudged along the cobblestone streets to class, pointing out our favorite houseboats lining the canals. On the weekends we filled ourselves to the brim with cheap wine and stroopwafel and navigated the tram system to newly discovered destinations. I often felt like I was watching my life occur from the outside as I shed old skin and re-emerged as a happier and more resilient version of myself. Somehow, five weeks managed to feel like a lifetime.

A continual buzzing sound always existed in the background of these newly formed moments, growing in volume until we had no choice but to acknowledge it. It started with reports of the virus, dubbed “corona,” circulating around Europe. “Use precaution when traveling” our program directors would say in emails that ended in soothing reassurement that the semester would proceed as planned. The background noise seemed to have a blinding effect as well. Even when friends on exchange programs in China and Italy began packing their luggages 15 weeks early, there was a disconnect between our perceived world and theirs. “Yea, it happened in Italy, but we’re totally fine–it won’t spread  here.” But slowly, the sound filled every room, every conversation, and previously suppressed thought. 

On a Wednesday morning in March, I awoke to emails of US schools closing. Twitter memes and angry Instagram stories emerged from the recesses of the digital world. When I put my phone down, I could re-enter the alternate reality that COVID-19 had not yet managed to fully consume.

On a Thursday morning, only five of the twenty wooden chairs in my Dutch language class were occupied. It seemed that many students had returned back to the States, instructed by worried parents and fast acting educational institutions. I walked home in a confused haze. Looking back on this moment, it’s laughable that I had the audacity to be shocked by these events. In the last three weeks, exchange students all around me had been falling off the European map and into airplane seats headed home.

On a Friday evening at 11pm Central European Time, the upper lefthand corner of my pillowcase began to glow. I turned my phone from its facedown position to find an email from my school: “Important Notification for Hamilton Students in Europe,” flagged red, an endless scroll of instructions for returning home, demands bolded in black, the gravity of the situation underlined in the sender’s tone.

On a Sunday morning I awoke as Amsterdam lay in a pre-dawn slumber. Sluggishly, Honor and I cleared the remaining boxes and trash bags from our studio apartment, filled with uneaten stroopwafel and recyclable glass bottles once filled with cheap wine. In a time before N95 surgical masks were added to the list of things to grab before heading out the door, (phone, keys, wallet…what am I forgetting? Ah, facemask!), I stood outside my apartment building and filled my lungs with air. 

Self care, community, and silver linings

Upon landing home and resettling into both the familiar and unfamiliar, I’ve had time to do nothing but contemplate. In fact, it feels like the universe has forced contemplation upon me like undeserved purgatory. I’m all for self reflection, but the lines between insanity and deep thought can become blurred, a spell that can only be broken by preheating the oven and willing the premature bananas on the counter to quicken their process. 

Ironically enough, in self isolation the importance of community has never felt more powerful to me. As I struggled to mold a routine from quicksand and my anxiety reached an all time high, the zoom calls and group chats kept me afloat. My friendships were silver linings: a source of calm and comfort. Though in a time when teetering from one extreme to another can become habitual, the notion of self care began to redefine itself for me: How much time was too much screen time when the outside world is only accessible through a screen? Could I interact with my friends while still taking time for myself? Was I comfortable with being alone? Do I really need to make another loaf of banana bread this week? 

This time of reflection has allowed me to understand the things that remind me of my humanity and that make me feel connected to others. Quarantine can feel stagnant and cold, but it has also been a time of extreme change. Babies have taken their first breath, couples have tied the knot, and social movements have erupted since the world has shut down. In a constant effort to feel and exist and breathe freely again, people have managed to reach each other from all ends of the world. Empathy has managed to persist even when leadership and institutions have shown callousness and ignorance. Working at CCAN this Summer has been another silver lining, an opportunity to feel connected to this outside world, a community built on a foundation of empathy. Though the physical distance and computer screens attempt to muffle this experience, my superiors and co-workers have filled this void with communication, warmth, and morale. 

As I ready myself to return to campus in the coming weeks, these concepts float around in my head: empathy, community, care, communication. I can choose to view my senior year as an experience hindered by a global pandemic. Many people are angry at lost opportunities and muted versions of their old lives, they are entitled to this anger. But in times of adversity people manage to be the most resilient versions of themselves. They shed old skin and re-emerge stronger. 

Finding Hope in the Unglamorous Climate Fights

Written by Alice Bell

I’ve always been drawn to the weird, kinda-niche parts of fighting climate change; divestment, the ins and outs of building energy codes, and so on. They’re deeply necessary, but feel sneaky because they can be very complex and don’t always get lots of airtime – they’re less obvious than renewable energy, bicycles, or LED bulbs. 

And I’ve been looking for these hidden bits my whole life. When I was in elementary school, I was a “Recycling Ranger” for two years, staying after school with other students to collect and sort the recycling from all the classrooms in the building to ensure the school kept up the program – my parents still ask me if certain things can be recycled or not. They did give us little hats with the recycling symbol on them, but it still wasn’t glamorous – it just needed doing and it was small enough for a nine-year-old to help with. 

From Recycling to Divesting

I heard about the divestment movement as a first-year at Smith College in 2017. Divestment at the college level is a topic and a strategy full of minute contradictions, multi-school organizing meetings, bureaucratic wrangling, and incredibly obscure jargon – so, of course it interested me. To divest from something refers to the choice to remove one’s investments from fossil fuels, and can be interpreted narrowly or broadly – it can also apply to other issues, such as private prisons and gun manufacturers. 

Divest strategy meeting 2019 (Alice is on the right)

My role for two years has been as a student representative to the ACIR, the advisory body for the investing committee of the board of trustees. The gulf between the students and the trustees is comically large, and also not – they are tasked with keeping Smith endowed for decades to come, while we are trying to graduate with a livable planet. Smith has a very large endowment, and as an historically women’s college, likes to think of itself as somewhat revolutionary – educating women in the 1890s and 1900s certainly went against the grain. But investing in fossil fuels is the antithesis of “being revolutionary” – in fact, it goes directly against everything we need to be doing about climate change. 

While working on divestment, my fellow students and I had to get really smart about economics, endowment structures, and institutional investing really quickly, and it was stressful and hair-raising. Spending all those hours online reading articles and jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get the board to even consider our ask took teamwork and a lot of dedication, from generations of students — but it worked. The divestment movement at Smith was twelve years old when we won a commitment from the board in October 2019 to divest the school’s endowment of fossil fuels

COVID Summer

Jules making dinner after work

Jules, one of my best friends, and I had big plans for summer 2020. We met during an eight-month political science intensive in DC last year, and we were planning to live in DC again, together; she would continue her public defense work, and I would continue my work on climate change. We would compost, bike, read, watch bad movies, and get to know this city that I grew up in and that she was transplanted to. Make no mistake, we were blindingly privileged to be able to have such plans, in part because Smith has funding for unpaid internships. 

But then the pandemic hit and her position was canceled and other internships became very thin on the ground. And out of this came my internship with CCAN, an organization that I’d been hearing about since childhood, as a communications intern, allowing me to use my love of writing and art in service of environmental activism. 

Behind the Scenes at CCAN

Every organization has a personality and an environment behind-the-scenes. Before this summer, I had spent a lot of time doing research and working on federal environmental policy. The problems there are connected but incredibly different, and the approaches are consequently different. 

I’m the communications intern, and while I love writing (even final papers), I had never done the kind of serious social media work that CCAN has taught me. Communication is a central part of the climate fight, but so is the minutiae of social media; understanding what kinds of tweets do and don’t work; how to write an event invite that engages people; refining op-eds; preparing live tweets for protests and rallies; creating and tweaking graphics for every event. Without devoted attention paid to these kinds of issues, a crucial link is lost. 

Despite working out of my parents house, never once seeing the office, and connecting with others at CCAN primarily over Slack and in Zoom happy hours, I’ve been able to build new relationships and contribute to this immense problem in my own small way. CCAN works in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the DMV region I love so much and have been so lucky to grow up in. But this work also reflects the need to stay small; not everything can be addressed at the federal level, and we need local and regional work to really ensure communities are being adequately supported, and unique problems are being properly addressed. 

Sitting in on weekly team meetings, I’ve been able to see the tiniest hint of the work that goes into each campaign, each ask, each article published, and event hosted. Each victory, from passing the VCEA to stopping the ACP and whatever comes next, is the product of huge behind-the-scenes work and specific knowledge gained from all those who have been in this fight longer. More even than that, working specifically on communications for the first time has taught me more about how to make those shadowy topics and distinctions, the niche and sneaky parts of climate change clearer and more accessible. 

Staying Small

It can be hard to see the importance of “smaller” battles and these hidden dimensions can feel very removed from the bigger problem; I struggle against the frustration that we even have to fight on the small scale like this, when climate change should have been dealt with as the massive, urgent problem it is. After I got the news that Smith was divesting, I went back to my desk at work, struck by the incredible tension between this victory and the bigger, more stubborn needles that hadn’t moved. 

But the small battles keep you in community. I’ve met some incredible friends working on divestment, and been able to see the impact of that victory in life on campus. I got to hang out with my friends and run in the halls while collecting the recycling, big stuff for an elementary schooler. We can’t all lead marches or speak to congressional committees, nor should we, but there are a million levels to work at and a million connections to climate in everything we do. And there are local battles going on everywhere, uncountable and ever-changing – it feels like being part of an army I may never see entirely, who’s power we can only guess at because it’s bigger than anything we’ve ever seen before. 

Mountains around Smith College

Facing the COVID-19 Crisis as a College Student

Written by Abbey Kolf

Adjusting to the New Reality

It seems like just yesterday I was celebrating the new year with my family on vacation, my only cares in the world being about seemingly trivial things now: my spring break trip with friends in a few months, my resolution to use less single waste plastic that I swore would stick this time, and the Wisconsin Badgers (my parents alma mater) winning the Rose Bowl football game the next day (I should have known where 2020 was headed when they ended up losing). Little did I know, half way through the second semester of my sophomore year at college I would have to pack up everything and finish out the year back in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah along with the rest of my family of five due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

At first, the complete absurdity and newness of being a college student from home was not so bad, and maybe even a bit exciting. I got to spend some rare time with my whole family, have home cooked meals every night, and have an excuse to not leave the house all day (a dream for an introvert like me). This mindset soon faded once it became apparent that having three young adults trying to attend school virtually and a parent working from home all under one roof was going to be quite the challenge and would last longer than anticipated. While wifi issues were constant and too much time together led to petty arguments, my family and I eventually adjusted to the new “normal”.

Moving Forward into more Uncertainty…

After being home for the last 5 months, I am now preparing to head back across the country to start my junior year of college on campus (shout out Villanova University). It is safe to say that it is going to be a semester unlike any other. The majority of my classes will continue to be online, social interactions and events will be sparse, and masks will (hopefully) be worn everywhere.

While I am excited to see my friends and be back on the campus that I know and love, I am also overwhelmed. I’m someone who has always hated traveling into uncharted territory. There are so many unknowns about the rest of my year: Are we going to be sent home again if things go south? Am I going to be miserable and want to kill my roommates? Will college even be fun anymore? It has been hard to stay optimistic about what’s next when unanswerable questions like these are repeatedly brought to mind.

…And Looking Back

As the time with my family in Utah during this pandemic is coming to a close, I am reflecting on how my life has changed over the past five months. While it is easy to dwell on all of the parts that the COVID-19 outbreak may have taken away, I have found that there are a lot of amazing things in my life that were made possible because of the unfortunate circumstances.

Sure, I lost a few months of making memories with my college friends and cannot look forward to having a traditional college experience this fall, but I got to spend (probably too much) time with the people that I love who I normally don’t get to see during the school year, including my pet cat whom I adore.

The places I could go and things I could do have been limited because of social distancing guidelines, but these limitations pushed me to get outside more. I fell back in love with the omnipresent natural beauty of my home state through scenic drives up the canyon, hikes in the majestic mountains, and watching the vivid sunsets from my local park. I am reminded of where my intense love for the environment and devotion to protect it started.

I missed out on a summer of working in D.C., but going virtual gave me the opportunity to join the Empowher BA Women’s Alliance where I made lasting connections with other inspiring young women. I became a trained Climate Reality Leader, furthering my knowledge of climate change and how to fight it. I even interned with CCAN, an unknown nonprofit to me when I started but which I’m now passionate about supporting.

Moral of the story, 2020 may have turned life completely upside down and taken a lot of things from us all. However, as cliche as it may sound, it is important to recognize the challenges as opportunities for growth and ask yourself: What has this year given me?