Should governments make emerging technologies a priority?

Read the full story in GreenBiz.

It’s been 20 years since Newt Gingrich sacrificed one of the most inspirational and educational 20th century institutions — the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment — on the altar of federal budget cuts. What a sad day that was.

Founded in 1972, the OTA ran for 23 influential years, employing a staff of about 200, two-thirds of them professional researchers. Of these, 88 percent had advanced degrees, mainly in economics, engineering and the physical, life and social sciences. They did heavy-duty investigative work on emerging technologies — and, as a tiny sidebar effect, had a profound impact on my own thinking and work.

University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment Frontiers in the Environment Events for March

The spring 2015 Frontiers in the Environment event series is in full swing, asking BIG QUESTIONS in solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery. Held at noon Wednesdays in St. Paul or online, each hour-long session includes a lively 30-minute presentation followed by Q&A and a networking reception. Talks are free and open to the public – please join us! Here’s the March schedule.

3/4 – Is drawing down aquifers really so bad?
Close to 70 percent of Minnesotans drink groundwater everyday and many of our crops are irrigated with it. Concerns about overpumping are making headlines. So what’s the right way to manage this resource? Kate Brauman, lead scientist for IonE’s Global Water Initiative; Steve Polasky, project lead for IonE’s Natural Capital Project and IonE resident fellow; Sherry Enzler, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources general counsel; and Perry M. Jones, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, will explore the question, “Is drawing down aquifers really so bad?”

3/11 – Government action on the environment: what does “success” look like?
There are many pathways to sustainability but few overall strategies that do not include some action by local, state and national governments.Eric Lind, postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences; Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light; Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director and former Minnesota State Representative; and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign, examine case studies of successful government action at state and national scales, from multiple perspectives inside and outside government, that can serve as models for future efforts in “Government action on the environment: what does “success” look like?”

3/18 – Spring Break: No Frontiers

3/25 – How do we make advanced heat recovery in buildings commonplace?
Large commercial and institutional buildings consume a lot of electricity which degrades into heat, ultimately expelled as waste. Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives; Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager of BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter M. Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority, evaluate the hurdles and tipping points to the more rapid adoption of advanced heat recovery to deliver a suite of environmental and economic benefits in “How do we make advanced heat recovery in buildings commonplace?”.

Get the complete list of scheduled talks and watch any you’ve missed in the archives.

Ensia’s top 10 stories of 2014

Read the full story at Ensia.

Like most things in life, environmental issues live in a gray world, even if we often try to put them in black-and-white boxes. This reality prompted us to do something with a few stories in the second half of 2014: Take a 35,000-foot view of issues for which many people have either already made up their minds or the story has been fragmented to a point where people have missed the forest for the trees.

These efforts seemed to resonate with readers. Take our recent story on solutions to the palm oil problem — a complicated issue often presented as anything but. Rather than beginning from the negative point of view of palm oil that is so often the default starting point for other stories, environmental journalist Michael Kodas chose to look at why it’s so widely used and what can be done to fix the huge issues associated with it. The story quickly became one of our most-read stories of all time, and was picked up by Quartz and other outlets. In another story, we saw water expert Cynthia Barnett shine a light on the meta-issue lurking behind all the water stories of 2014, including quality issues in Ohio and water infrastructure issues in California: dysfunctional water pricing. Similarly, author Edward Struzik looked in detail at all the things we’ve been hearing about the Arctic over the last decade, painting an intense picture of a new future at the top of the world.

Other stories in the top 10 looked at controversial issues, such as GMOs and the environmental impacts of eating meat. And we dove headfirst into environmental health stories with pieces by journalist Elizabeth Grossman on why certain chemicals are banned in Europe and not in the U.S., and the possible dangers lurking in food packaging.

As always, our focus was not only on the problems we face, but also on possible ways to address those problems. This is at the core of our reporting, and we saw readers responding positively.

So, here are our 10 most popular stories for 2014:

Mapping the World’s Problems

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Nearly a decade ago, an environmental group in Brazil grew concerned that government data and maps about Amazon deforestation were out of date and hard to view. The group, Imazon, decided to create its own monitoring tools, using information from satellites.

Imazon’s efforts caught the attention of Google, the search engine giant. Now, monthly reports on the Brazilian Amazon are produced through Google Earth Engine, a technology platform within the company. The partnership has made data processing faster and the information more accessible, according to Carlos Souza Jr., a senior researcher at Imazon.

Drucker Nonprofit Innovation Awards spotlight social ventures

Read the full story in GreenBiz.

Innovation starts with being curious. Calling all the curious!

In its 23rd year, the prestigious Drucker Nonprofit Innovation Awards had 687 applications and 10 finalists, naming one winner last week: HopeLab, a nonprofit that develops games to improve human health and well being.

The finalists have helped to make society more sustainable by addressing pressing human health, education, environmental, and social challenges, such as the availability of safe water.

Report: EPA Should Use Sustainability Tools, Embrace Collaboration

Read the full story in Environmental Leader. I posted a link to the report, along with a summary, last week. This article provides a good overview. If you’re interested in the original NAP report on sustainability and the EPA, there’s a link here.

The EPA should incorporate sustainability tools in its decision making and collaborate with private-sector companies and non-government organizations, according to a report by the National Research Council.

The report was created at the EPA’s request, and builds on a 2011 report by the National Research Council, Sustainability and the EPA, which recommended that the EPA develop a “sustainability toolbox” of analytic tools that would help the agency implement a more holistic assessment of environmental, economic and social factors in its decision making.

The report provides several case studies to illustrate how the EPA can incorporate sustainability tools into decisions. One case study illustrates how to build consideration of the “three sustainability pillars” — social, environmental and economic concerns — into the criteria used to select a remedy for a site remediation project.

Big questions: Frontiers’ fresh look

Read the full post from the University of Minnesota Institute on Environment.

This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Below is the schedule from the web site.

Frontiers in the Environment: Big Questions

Solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Wednesdays, 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST
IonE Seminar Room R380, Learning & Environmental Sciences Bldg., St. Paul
Free and open to the public; no registration required
Join us online via UMConnect

September 24 — Can We Build a More Resilient Food Distribution System?

Matteo Convertino, IonE Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health

Despite being a global concern, food safety is addressed in a systematic way only in some developed countries. We need an integrated ‘”system science” approach to managing the global food system that considers multiple needs and constraints, as well as an efficient system for transporting food and rapidly detecting food contamination and adulterations. Matteo Convertino and Craig Hedberg will describe a project that’s using computer modeling to predict and deal with food-borne disease outbreaks worldwide based on food supply chain structures and epidemiological data.

October 1 — How can the University of Minnesota assist the energy transition?

Hari Osofsky, IonE Resident Fellow, Law School Professor and Energy Transition Lab Faculty Director; and Ellen Anderson, Energy Transition Lab Executive Director

Our energy system is transitioning in ways that create critical challenges. Evolving approaches to sources of energy, electricity and transportation, energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, climate change, and environmental and energy justice affect every community and region and every sector of the economy. We need to remove barriers to needed change at local, state, regional, national, and international levels, and identify a holistic strategy for moving forward. Energy Transition Lab faculty director, IonE resident fellow, and Law School professor Hari Osofsky, and Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson see Minnesota and beyond as a living laboratory for finding innovative solutions. They will explore how the lab will collaborate with business, government, NGO, community leaders, and university-based experts to make progress on these challenges.

October 8 — How Might the Twin Cities Help Catalyze Needed Global Urban Innovations?

Patrick Hamilton, Ione Resident Fellow and Director, Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives; Anne Hunt, Environmental Policy Director, City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, Lecturer, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

By 2050, more than 6 billion people will live in cities. The quality of life in these cities of the future — and, by extension, our planet — is being shaped by decisions we make today. Patrick Hamilton will engage panelists Anne Hunt, Peter Frosch, and Mike Greco in a lively discussion of how the Twin Cities — one of the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and most innovative, creative and connected urban centers in the world — might use its considerable academic, nonprofit and business acumen to shape initiatives that directly benefit its residents while also helping to advance creative urbanism everywhere.

October 15 — Should Society Put a Price Tag on Nature?

Steve Polasky, Ione Resident Fellow; Project Lead, Natural Capital Project; and Professor, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Natural environments such as grasslands, forests and wetlands provide ecosystem services —benefits such as clean air and water and eye-pleasing landscapes. We value these amenities in the abstract, yet rarely figure them into a budget or balance sheet when developing a shopping mall or planting a cornfield. Steve Polasky will moderate a discussion about whether society could or should place a monetary value on nature — and if so, how to incorporate that value into decisions about resource management, conservation and environmental regulation.

October 22 — What Does a Sustainable Clean Water Future for Minnesota Look Like?

Bonnie Keeler, Lead Scientist, Natural Capital Project; Deb Swackhamer, Program Director, Water Resources Center; and John Linc Stine, Commissioner, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Minnesota has a reputation as a land of abundant, high-quality lakes and rivers. But is our water clean enough? Addressing surface water quality problems is expensive and not without trade-offs, such as lost industry, agricultural production and development. Bonnie Keeler, Deb Swackhamer and John Linc Stine will share their visions of a sustainable clean water future for Minnesota.

October 29 — What Is the Role of the Environment in This Year’s Minnesota Elections?

David Gillette, Special Correspondent, Twin Cities Public Television; Amy Koch, Small Business Owner and Former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader; and Mark Andrew, President, Greenmark

With all the statewide constitutional offices up for grabs — plus a federal senate seat — it’s a busy election year in Minnesota. Surveys show that while people care about the environment, they often don’t make it the top issue when voting. How important are environmental issues in this fall’s elections? How are environmental issues being framed? What impact might the election have on environmental policy in the state? And what can University of Minnesota faculty, staff and students do to help voters understand what’s at stake?

November 5 —  How Can We Make the Most of the Agriculture’s 21st Century Transformation?

Nicholas Jordan, IonE Resident Fellow and Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Carissa Schively Slotterback, Associate Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Agriculture is in the midst of a revolutionary transformation. Output is rapidly shifting from a few predominant crops and commodities to a wide array of new foods, feeds, bioproducts and biofuels. At the same time, emphasis is shifting from minimizing adverse impacts to capitalizing on the potential of agriculture to improve soil, water, biodiversity and climate. Nicholas Jordan and Carissa Schively Slotterback will describe emerging opportunities and explore how one initiative in southern Minnesota is bringing science, social science and humanities together to develop and test a process for helping rural communities make the most of the economic and environmental benefits of the new bioeconomy as it develops around them .

November 12 — How Can We Help Children Connect to the Natural World?

Cathy Jordan, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota Extension Children, Youth, and Family Consortium

These days, kids spend more time staring at a computer monitor or playing with electronic games than they do interacting with nature. Cathy Jordan will address questions such as: What effect does this have on children’s well-being and, ultimately, the well-being of our planet? What are the benefits of connecting children to nature? What can urban planners, landscape architects, educators and parents do to foster engagement between children and the natural world?

November 29 — Environmentalists and Corporations Make Strange Bedfellows . . . Or Do They?

Steve Polasky, Ione Resident Fellow; Project Lead, Natural Capital Project; and Professor, College Of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences with [panelists to be named]

When we think of a group of environmentalists fighting to protect fragile habitat, we may imagine an angry mob outside the gates of a manufacturer, chanting and waving signs. Or circulating an online petition. Or maybe boycotting a product. But the times, they are a-changin.’ Modern-day environmentalists are taking seats in boardrooms and influencing business practices on a global scale. Steve Polasky and panelists will share insights, challenges and successes in this lively conversation about these 21st century partnerships.