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The Metric

Sep 28, 2015

Meet Amy Weinfurter, Our New Fellow

The Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group is pleased to introduce Amy Weinfurter as one of its new Research Fellows. Amy explores the growing role that cities, states, businesses, and investors play in addressing climate change.
Amy Weinfurter, Joanna Dafoe, and Mohammad Aatish Khan represent the EPI at the June 2015 Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Amy graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES) this May, where she focused on the overlap between climate change, environmental planning, and water resource management. Her work with the Environmental Solutions Group focuses on quantifying the national mitigation potential impact of state and city climate action, and identifying the drivers of successful renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in developing countries. She has a background in watershed monitoring and remediation, and has supported capacity-building and communication efforts for a range of non-profit organizations.

How do your graduate school studies and previous professional experience relate to your current work?

My work with the Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group focuses on the back-and-forth between big-picture strategies and specific success stories in efforts to combat climate change. Along with a team of other researchers, I’m currently exploring how expanding innovative city and state climate actions to the national level could cut these countries’ carbon footprints. For example, how would Brazil’s emissions change if the country adopted Belo Horizonte’s waste management strategy? What would scaling up British Columbia’s carbon tax mean for Canada?

Another project involves honing in on the lessons learned in implementing renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in developing countries. Our goal here is to draw out the underlying factors that made these programs work, so that other governments can learn from and build on this success. We’re also conducting bigger-picture research to characterize the larger landscape of renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but my work in watershed restoration led to my engagement in climate mitigation and adaptation. I returned to school, in large part, to better understand how the local watershed restoration work I had supported in Colorado, as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America), fit into regional and national efforts to protect water resources. Climate change is a key part of understanding how natural resource management strategies will shift across all of these scales.

At Yale, I explored different strategies for integrating climate change into natural resource management, and began to see fundamental parallels between the challenges confronting these two fields. Climate action and water resource management confront many of the same core questions: how should state and national governments support adaptation strategies that are often inherently local, and tailored to the nuances of specific locations? What will motivate people to address an environmental problem that often only becomes visible after it’s aggregated, in the form of downstream pollution, or global temperature rise?

Finding ways to create specific and targeted approaches, that also help address broader efforts to reduce emissions or prevent water pollution, is at the heart of both fields. As a result, there seems to be a real hunger for research that identifies successful responses to change, and analyzes if and how other areas can adopt them. Work like highlighting a successful strategy that Hamburg, Germany, is using to lower its emissions, or bringing attention to the monitoring needed to better pinpoint the mitigation impact of city, state, and business action on climate plays an incredibly exciting part in mapping and feeding this exchange.  

Collecting water quality samples along a Colorado Stream. Photo by the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition.  

Climate action from sources other than national governments – from cities, states, businesses, investors, and citizens – is drawing more and more attention. Why is this issue taking off, and what could it mean for efforts to curb climate change?

While cities, states, and business have been engaged in climate action for years, over the past decade, their participation and recognition has risen dramatically. Many factors have helped drive this, a lot of which are strictly pragmatic. Investors and businesses see the markets shifting. Cities want to buffer their citizens from the risks and costs of bigger storms, hotter summers, and rising seas. Hurricane Sandy’s near-miss of Boston, for instance, helped motivate the city’s climate action strategy. More and more, many of the governments and organizations acting on climate are implementing solutions that also save money and protect public health.

Part of the excitement around new kinds of climate action also seems to stem from frustration with the slow pace of change at national and international levels. At once, there’s a sense that the world cannot wait for countries to act, and the hope that the growing list of climate pledges, from big companies like IKEA and leading cities like Rio de Janeiro, will give countries more confidence in their ability to make meaningful emissions reduction commitments.

The Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group, and many other think tanks and NGOs, have done initial research which suggests the truth lies in the middle. City, state, and business pledges can significantly narrow the gap between what countries have pledged to do, and what scientists believe must happen to avert the most damaging and costly impacts of climate change. But it’s not an either/or narrative; it will take both regional and international action to shift to a low-carbon economy.

For many, no issue embodies the disconnect between science and the popular political discourse more than climate change. How can we improve the communication of this issue?  

One reason voluntary climate action has sparked so much interest and attention might lie in the way it changes how climate change is typically communicated. Global temperature rise affects people in local, personal ways, but its challenges and solutions are often described very abstractly. The big picture take and global back-and-forth on this issue is important to communicate, but focusing solely on this facet of climate change makes it more difficult to establish a concrete sense of the stakes of global temperature rise. When the problem seems so nebulous, visualizing specific solutions also becomes more challenging.  

Place-based action makes this issue more digestible. An approach that grows out of a business sector or city enables these communities to take ownership of their response. This specificity also fosters very creative and resourceful responses, that also produce other benefits, like cheaper energy, additional jobs, or cleaner air. For instance, the Kuyasa Project, in Cape Town, South Africa, installed solar water heaters, insulated ceilings, and distributed compact fluorescent light bulbs, to expand energy access in a low-emitting way. The growing attention on the overlap between climate mitigation and sustainable development is one of the most exciting frontiers for communicating, and for responding to, this often overwhelming threat.