CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

India makes two clean energy breakthroughs


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The Topaz Solar Farm in California was the largest in the world prior to the completion of southern India’s solar power plant, which has the capacity to generate 648 Megawatts of energy. (Sarah Swenty/USFWS)
Jenna Ladd | January 5, 2017

The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has recently established two breakthrough clean energy projects.

The first is the world’s largest solar power plant, which was completed in early December. Built in just eight months, the solar plant is expected to power up to 150,000 homes and is comprised of 2.5 million individual solar modules. Located at Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, the solar plant’s area tops the previous world leader, Topaz Solar Farm in California. The operation has the capacity to generate up to 648 Megawatts of energy.

As a whole, India generates more than 10 Gigawatts of its energy from solar power and is expected to become the world’s third leader in solar power generation, behind only the United States and China.

Just 60 miles away from the solar farm is the world’s first large-scale industrial plant to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and utilize them to make a profit.

The factory, funded by London-based investors, Carbonclean, captures carbon dioxide emissions from its own coal-powered boiler which are then used to make baking soda, and other chemical compounds found in detergents, sweeteners and glass. Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) at the 3.1 million dollar plant is expected to keep 60,000 tons out of the atmosphere each year. Previously, CCU was too costly for many business owners.

In an interview with BBC news, Ramachadran Gopalan, owner of the chemical plant, said, “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.”

Two young Indian chemists developed the new way to strip carbon dioxide from emissions using a form of salt that binds with carbon dioxide molecules in the boiler’s chimney. According to the inventors, the new approach is less corrosive and much cheaper than conventional carbon capturing methods. Carbonclean expects that systems like these have the potential to offset five to ten percent of the world’s total emissions from burning coal.

These developments follow the presentation of India’s ten solutions for breathable airIndia’s ten solutions for breathable air at the World Sustainable Development Summit in New Dehli during October 2016. The goals are a part of a larger governmental initiative called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission.

Plan to curb air-pollution in India released last week


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Haze and particulate matter are visible in this photo taken west of New Delhi. (Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 11, 2016

Ten solutions for breathable air in India were presented at the The Energy and Resource Institute’s World Sustainable Development Summit last week in New Delhi.

The National Clean Air Mission follows a recently released World Bank report which announced that air pollution led to 1.4 million deaths in 2013. The report, which was presented by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) along with University of California-San Diego, is a part of a larger governmental initiative called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission. Seventeen authors from institutions around the world including the University of Iowa, IIT-Kanpur, Stockholm University, University of Maryland, Max Plank Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the California Air Resource Board contributed to the report.

The report said, “This Clean Air Mission should…mandate…government policies for air pollution mitigation across several ministries dealing with transport, power, construction, agriculture, rural development and environment as well as across city and state jurisdiction.” The document also emphasized the need to address the burning of agricultural residue as a major source of air-pollution. It said, “This strategy aims at reducing open burning of agricultural residue and instead of using them as a source of energy.”

Beyond agriculture, the report noted that transportation is a main contributor to air-pollution in the country. Sumit Sharma from TERI said, “Shifting freight transport from road to lower-emission modes like rail and inland waterways and coastal shipping is required.” It also suggested that India scale up its emission trading schemes (ETS), which are government-mandated, market-based systems of controlling pollution. The report read, “The government is already working with ETS in three industrial clusters in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, which needs to be scaled up.”

The report’s authors also suggested the development cleaner fuel options while focusing on larger particulate matter and ozone in the air.

Scientists use solar energy to make salt water drinkable


The sun sets in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. Oceans cover approximately 70 percent of the earth’s surface. (Mike/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | April 28, 2015

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered a way to make salt water drinkable using solar panels.

This innovation recently won first place for the U.S. Agency for International Development‘s  2015 Desal Prize because of its potential to provide clean drinking water for millions around the world. MIT and Jain Irrigation Systems came up with a photovoltaic-powered electrodialysis reversal (EDR) system which can desalinate water by “using electricity to pull charged particles out of the water.” Ultraviolet rays are then used to disinfect the water. The system functions using relatively low energy consumption in areas that may be off the grid.

The research team was awarded with $140,000 to continue their research. To be eligible for the prize money, designs had to be cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and energy efficient. The system is capable of removing salt from 2,100 gallons of water within 24 hours. It is also capable of converting 90 percent of salt water into drinking water, compared to reserve-osmosis systems which purify 40 to 60 percent of water.

The researchers have been developing this technology across India since 2014. This filtration system is expected to alleviate water shortage issues in California and other drought-stricken parts of the developed world while improving living conditions in India and other underdeveloped parts of the world where clean water can be scarce.

“The water scarcity challenges facing India in the near future cannot be overstated. India has a huge population living on top of brackish water sources in regions that are water-scarce or about to become water-scarce,” said Susan Amrose, a civil and environmental engineering lecture at the University of California-Berkeley. “A solution with the potential to double recoverable water in an environment where water is becoming more precious by the day could have a huge impact.”

Research finds that carbon emissions from power plants are being underestimated


Nick Fetty | August 27, 2014
A power plant in Avedøre, Hovedstaden, Denmark. (Martin Nikolaj Bech/Flickr)
A power plant in Avedøre, Hovedstaden, Denmark. (Martin Nikolaj Bech/Flickr)

Scientists from Princeton University and the University of California-Irvine published a report earlier this week which suggests that carbon emission estimates are likely higher than previously estimated.

The study states that all of the world’s power plants will produce an additional 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide during their lifetime which “isn’t taken into account by current schemes to regulate these emissions.” Developing countries such as China and India are constructing new power plants which is dwarfing efforts by the U.S. and European countries to reduce carbon emissions.

The study’s authors Robert Socolow (professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton) and Steven Davis (professor of earth system science at UC-Irvine) developed a system they called “commitment accounting” which “assigns all the future emissions of a facility to the year when it begins working.” This method suggested that fossil fuel-burning power plants built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide over a lifetime, factoring in that the plants operate for at least 40 years.

Prof. Socolow said the “Chinese power plant construction binge” has been going on since 1995. Power plants in China make up 42 percent of committed future emissions. India accounts for 8 percent while the U.S. and Europe combine for 20 percent.

Prof. Davis said that these projected emissions rates are not set in stone and could be lessened with the implementation of carbon capture technology or by retiring plants early.