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Zero Hour Story: Emily, Atmospheric Science Student & Earth Advocate

emily in the woods

Emily is a second year PhD student at the University of Michigan studying atmospheric science. Her research involves quantifying carbon dioxide emissions from urban regions, with a focus on the Middle East, using both satellite data and models.

What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?
Sustainability refers to practices we can continue to do to maintain the Earth and the environment over a long period of time –– all in a manner that keeps the air and the water clean, doesn’t cause unmitigable climate change, and doesn’t harm the poor or people of color around the world.

Why do you think it’s important to implement sustainable practices?
I know this gets said a lot, but I do think it’s a moral thing. We can all do whatever we like and it may not necessarily hurt our generation, but it will hurt the generations that come after us, as well as the many other species that inhabit our planet. Sustainable practices will enable us to have the quality of life we have right now, for the generations after us –– and for all the cute animals.

How do you personally incorporate sustainability into your life?
There are a bunch of ways I try and incorporate sustainability into my life. I try not to buy a lot of stuff. Consumerism in general is terrible for the environment, and in my opinion, it is better to not buy something than to buy something and reuse or recycle it. When I’m out, I like to carry a stainless steel water bottle and my utensil kit. This keeps me from having to use plastic water bottles or disposable utensils. The less we buy, the less we waste.

Additionally I’ll turn off the lights when I’m not using them. I also try and save energy by using LED light bulbs. I’m not as good about taking short showers, but in my head I would like to take shorter showers. I try to eat less meat when I can –– but sometimes that can be hard. In the warmer months, I’ll hang dry my clothes.

“As far as we know, Earth is the only place in this very large universe that possibly holds complicated life, and we should do what we can to sustain this precious and unique life.”

What initially sparked your interested in protecting the environment? How did that contribute to your current career path?
In my junior year of high school, my AP Physics teacher gave our class excerpts to read from a book called Rare Earth. The readings focused on how unlikely there is to be multicellular, complicated life in the universe. The book detailed very specific things that have allowed for life like ours to develop in the way that it has. For example, if you look at other planets in the solar system, the moon is tiny compared to the mass of their planet. But our moon is 1/3 of the mass of the Earth, which is not common at all. This balance has helped stabilize the rotation of the Earth and the seasons that helped life develop. I was really fascinated by that idea and thought, “Wow, the Earth is really special.” As far as we know, Earth is the only place in this very large universe that possibly holds complicated life, and we should do what we can to sustain this precious and unique life.

You studied in Germany for some time. How did the experience change your perspective and views on sustainability, especially when compared to America?
It was very obvious that in Germany they incorporate sustainable practices in a lot more ways than here [America]. I learned to hang dry clothes when I was there. Everything is also smaller in Germany, and it made me think about how wasteful the lifestyle in America is. If you go to Germany and other countries in Europe, all the appliances are much smaller, and so are the living spaces. While in America, we buy large quantities of things (like food, a large fraction of which just gets thrown away), and we take up a lot of space in terms of land usage per person. Germany also has different bins set up for trash, multiple types of recyclables, and compostables –– something that is not yet common in America. I don’t think Europeans would even consider themselves environmentalists, it’s just what they do. The level of wastefulness is just culturally less.

Do they believe in climate change?
In most, if not all other countries, they are well aware that climate change is happening and that it is anthropogenically [human] caused. Here, it’s still a “debate.” People in Europe don’t understand why Americans don’t get it. The summer of 2017, I was in Finland for a summer school course that focused on the challenges of measuring greenhouse gases. The lecturers would sometimes make jokes about Americans not believing in climate change. While I was there, Trump also pulled out of the Paris Accord, and the people around me didn’t understand why the heck America doesn’t believe in climate change. It is real and it is happening.

What do you plan to do with your PhD after you graduate?
I’m hoping to go into science policy. While I’m still in school, I plan to get a Science, Technology, and Public Policy certificate. There’s always more science to be done, but given where we are right now in terms of what we know, I think it’s important to do something with the knowledge we already have. Especially in this country, we’re not using the knowledge to the extent that we should be. I would like to make change in America with science-based policies.

“I want to do the best I can for the environment because it’s the right thing to do.  It’s not an issue of ‘this is so hard, I’m not going to do it,’ rather, ‘this is what I think is right so I will do it.’”

What keeps you motivated to stay in the fight for a more sustainable world?
It comes down to the moral argument again. I want to do the best I can for the environment because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think most people do things and think to themselves, “This is the wrong thing to do, but I’m going to keep doing it.” Environmental practices follow my own moral code. It’s not an issue of “this is so hard, I’m not going to do it,” rather, “this is what I think is right so I will do it.”

What would you say to someone who doesn’t think their individual impact can make a difference?
In terms of individual impact, it is true that little things won’t make the biggest difference. But if it is something you think is worthwhile, you should do it. If a lot of people think that one thing is worthwhile, then people together will make a difference. Every little bit helps and it all adds up. One person acting alone may not have a huge impact, but when an individual joins a collective movement their impact multiplies, and together that collective can change the world.

Do you have advice for someone who is looking to make a bigger difference?
If you are concerned about making a bigger difference, one thing you can do is reach out to your members of Congress. Every phone call to your members of Congress matters. Not very many people bother to do it, but if just something like four (or more) people make calls about issues they are concerned about, that could be enough to make your members of Congress start paying attention to that issue. The unfortunate fact about our members of Congress is that they care about being re-elected. If we, as constituents, show that we care a lot about something, it can sway their policies so that they can get re-elected by doing what their constituents want. So grab a buddy and start calling.

Any last words?
I’m just going to reiterate that you should call your members of Congress (use this link to find yours: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials/). However, there is a lot happening at the federal level right now, and it might be hard to effect change there in a manner we would like. If things aren’t moving along at the federal level in the way we want, we should remember that we have more power at a local level. The more involved you are at the local level, the more power you’ll have. States and cities might be the most important levels in government right now that are able to effect change. Contact your local and national representatives. Send letters or postcards. Write emails. The more noise we make collectively, the more politicians will pay attention.

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*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.

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