Sustainability Scoop — November 2019

From Doorsteps to Data Centers, Climate Change Is Here

melting sea ice in the ArcticWhen talking about climate change, people often refer to the impacts and consequences we will experience in the future. However, the effects of climate change are happening now, and they are impacting people across the world. More frequent, severe weather events have destroyed homes and businesses and caused major economic losses. Rising sea levels have already threatened coastal economies and displaced thousands of people from their homes. During the Opening Plenary at the 2019 International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) Annual Conference in Denver, Colorado, last month, industry experts and a student from the Marshall Islands discussed their professional and personal experiences with climate change and shared their thoughts on how the laboratory community can move forward to better address its carbon footprint.

Taking a Toll in the Pacific

As the keynote speaker at the Opening Plenary, Benetick Kabua Maddison, a Marshallese Community Health Worker at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science and a Project Specialist with the Marshallese Educational Initiative, spoke of his experiences as a “climate refugee.” Born in Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Benetick and his family moved to Arkansas when he was six due to poor employment opportunities and the increasing climate crisis at their doorstep.

Maddison warned that the climate emergency is creating a cultural genocide in the Marshall Islands, as the loss of land erases years of Marshallese culture and tradition. The Marshall Islands, a U.S. nuclear testing site and waste repository in the 1950s, are situated about two meters above sea level, which make them very susceptible to rising sea levels. A sea level rise of only 63 centimeters would put much of Majuro, the Islands’ capital, underwater. Severe storms and flooding have already caused major coastal erosion and destroyed parts of arable land on the Islands, threatening the Marshallese way of life. As sea levels continue to rise, the Marshallese people are at increasing risk of losing buildings, landmarks, and spaces that represent their history and culture on the Islands. Maddison spoke about his deep connection to the Marshall Islands and how he will continue to devote much of his time to raising awareness of the ongoing climate crisis in his home country.

Getting Data but Storing it Sustainably

Dr. David Gallaher, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, has spent a lot of time in the sky collecting climate data. Flying over polar regions, he has witnessed the direct effects of climate change. Rising temperatures have caused ice to melt from Northern Greenland to the North Pole during the winter—a season when sea ice should be expanding, not melting.

While conducting his research, Gallaher realized that the centers used to store his data use too much power for cooling and could slash their energy consumption by 40 percent or more. To mitigate the data center energy problem, he built a green data center prototype that reduces power consumption for cooling by 91 percent and total energy by 70 percent. The system has several advantages, including precise control of temperature and humidity, expandable and modular indirect evaporative units, and greater reliability due to not using compressors in the design. Dr. Gallaher’s advice to the audience was to ignore those who say something isn’t possible. The creative ways you reduce energy use can and will make a difference, he said.

Industry Experts Weigh In

Along with Maddison and Gallaher, several other industry professionals participated in a plenary panel on the impacts of climate change, discussing how the laboratory community can continue to work together to address climate change-related problems.

All five panelists emphasized the urgent need to put Earth first. Dana Etherington, founder of Earth First Alliance, pointed out that in the United States, “We are always thinking about profit first. I think we need to put our planet first.” Premnath Sudharam, from DLR Group, also noted that, “Planet Earth is our first client.” In order to shift people's thinking from profit to planet, the panel agreed that we humans must come together to develop a shared commitment to conduct our work in the best interest of the Earth, our shared home.

Culture change is not easy, and it doesn’t happen right away. David Kang from the University of Colorado Boulder used the changes in ultra-low temperature freezers as an example of the science community working together to introduce new technology and change laboratory culture. Gallaher advised attendees to “Think differently. Embrace something new.”

Now is not the time to stick to the status quo, because climate change is not waiting for us to catch up. As Maddison illustrated during his presentation, climate change is already challenging the livelihoods of many people. The panelists and other speakers encouraged attendees to prioritize the environment, pursue creative solutions, and look for collaboration and partnerships in spaces they may not have previously looked.