The event aimed to build next generation infrastructure to embrace the times ahead through science-based environmental decision-making

NCSE conference

Organized by the National Council for Science and the Environment, the conference on “Sustainable Infrastructure and Resilience” took place in Washington, D.C. on January 7-10, 2019. It gathered scientists, students and academics from the country’s leading universities, and representatives of various non-profit organizations. Based on the assumption that investment in a broad range of next generation infrastructure can help establish more sustainable communities and enhance resilience during a period of accelerating socio-environmental and security threats, the conference’s goal was to spotlight the importance of new research, innovation, and collaboration through partnerships in the area of sustainable infrastructure and resilience.

In their opening addresses, Mike Carvalho, NCSE Chair of Board of Directors and President of Carvalho and Associates, and Michelle Wyman, NCSE Executive Director, insisted that the solution to today’s global warming challenges can be found in the study of nature and in science. They were succeeded by keynote speaker Jeff Nesbit, Executive Director of Climate Nexus, who spoke about his recent trip to Antartica, describing its richness and abundance of wildlife, pointing out that right now civilization is at a climate tipping point, and that “water is more important than economy.” It is significant from his perspective that Yemen is out of water, that Saudi Arabia has turned to US for water, and that Pakistan has turned to India and the US for water.

Climate change matters for big companies

The first plenary, “Transforming How Companies Operate in a New Carbon Economy: Industry Leading Innovation,” was moderated by Elizabeth Cantwell, CEO of Arizona State University Research Enterprise (ASURE). Speakers including Grace Bochenek, Lead, Energy and Environment Center of Excellence, The SPECTRUM Group, Bob Dixon, SVP and Global Head of Efficiency and Sustainability of Siemens Industry, Inc., Kevin Etter, Director, Humanitarian Relief and Resilience Program, UPS (Retired) and Rohan Patel, Director of Policy and Business Development at Tesla all agreed that “most change is occurring within companies,” as the majority of companies now have CSR programs as part of their operations.

Rohan Patel from Tesla stated that his company’s goal is to accelerate the movement towards sustainable energy, although there are many cost barriers. Several speakers in the opening plenary emphasized that huge infrastructure issues need to be addressed in the environmental decision-making process. They all agreed that it is important for all countries to move towards sustainability, extensive investments in research and create extra avenues of revenue that would be used to expand the scope of investments in infrastructure and allow for complex projects. The speakers shared the opinion that it is important to utilize innovation in business model adaptation, as well as systems adaptation.

Engineering and science working together

Speakers at the session called “Building Forward: Closing the Gaps between Climate Science, Decision-Making, and Engineering” which I attended included Susanne Moser, Ph.D., Principal Researcher of Stanford University, Dan Cayan, Ph.D., Climate Researcher, University of California, James Deane, Senior Supervising Architect of the Rail Operations Group, CA High Speed Rail Authority, Robert Lampert, Ph.D., Principal Researcher and Professor, Pardee Rand Graduate School. Statistical analysis techniques were suggested, as well as other methods of putting together ways to effectively “build infrastructure taking into account climate change.” Extreme heat was mentioned as a public health issue that puts strain on roads and water supply. Priorities in terms of building forward include: infrastructure investments and reduction of inequality. The final step in infrastructure building is implementation, accountability, training and development. In that context, the significance of cost and benefit assessment for green infrastructure was emphasized.

Investments in Infrastructure: a Long-Term Strategy

Another session I attended was on “Private Sector Roles in Building Community and Infrastructure Resilience” featuring Yoon Kim, Director, Four Twenty Seven, Ksenia Koban, VP, Payden and Rygel, Samantha Medlock, SVP, Willis Towers Watson, Lisa Schroeer, Senior Director of S&P Global Ratings, Thomas Barr, Founder and CEO, Infrastructure Services Group. It focused on the corporations assigning credit ratings to cities and regions according to, among other factors, the likelihood of disasters, as well as a number of elements pertaining to disasters. It was noted that climate change effects are taken into account in bond ratings.

Innovation for Good

On the second day of the conference, I attended the Keynote 2: “Cultivating Productive Optimism in Environmental Science.” The speakers were Carl Page, President, Anthropocene Institute, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her powerful opening statements, said: “Science and environment give us the belief in something greater than ourselves.” Carl Page, an investor in clean tech and high tech ventures, spoke about the importance of the project of cleaning up pollution using cheap energy. He talked about the increased pace of technology adoption and “the race of de-carbonization.” He also addressed the issue of nuclear energy, which is often considered safer than coal. One of the reasons for opposition to nuclear energy is overpopulation. Having said that, the atomic innovation space is vast. Being an investor, Page made an observation that innovation in finance is accelerating, and investment in companies with environmental goals is becoming prevalent.

I also attended Plenary 2: “Information and Decision Making: Response, Recovery, and Resilience” with Evan Lehmann, E&E News, Shirlee Zane, Sonoma County Supervisor, and Ryan Lanclos, Director, Esri. This session addressed helping NGOs understand what it means to be resilient and how to run a disaster response program. The speakers warned about the effects of exacerbating effects of acute shocks to infrastructure. Economic development and resilience were also a theme of the discussion. The participants reiterated again and again that it time for vigorous and positive action in addressing climate change.

On the “Community Science 101: Practical Tips and Real-World Strategies for Engaging with Communities”, sessions, the speakers were Sarah Wilkins, Thriving Earth Exchange Project Manager, and Zack Valdez, Thriving Earth Exchange Contractor. During this session, the audience participated in an interesting assignment. They were placed on a team as scientists and community leaders in a city that recently experienced a heat wave and asked to address the issue of the changing climate and assess the ways to resolve the issue. To solve this problem, the audience examined the community values, available resources for infrastructure and the existing constraints. Some of the points included asking the right questions to the community leaders, providing better protection to people from the effects of the heat wave, addressing the problem of lack of air conditioning and figuring out the geography and the size of the affected area. The participants had an effective brainstorming session and proposed their solutions.

The final plenary was called “Applying the Convergence of Knowledge, Technologies, and Science to Resilience Thinking,” were professors and researchers made a strong case that when the community is working together, using its knowledge in combination with technology and science (convergence), it is much more effective compared to working independently.

At the end of the two-day conference, Gary Geernaert, Ph.D., US DOE delivered the John H. Chaffee Memorial Lecture on Science, Policy and the Environment in which he emphasized the need for the scientific community to be connected to decision-making process and for the public to have trust in science and scientific data. He addressed the rapid development of new science, including artificial intelligence, machine learning (ML), and robotics, and the importance of new science to be partnering with communities to make things happen. He also touched upon community priorities, state priorities, and scientific priorities and the importance of the “collective vision” in applying science to environmental decision making.

Discussions were very intense, going on for two days with students, professors, and leaders from non-profit space expressing their opinions and giving their suggestions on today’s most crucial issue that society is facing, climate change and the need to act quickly and collectively

Written by Elena Tarrassenko

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