Photo C/O Jin Lee, Dan Kim, and the Faculty of Engineering

By Wei Yan Wu, Contributor 

It is becoming increasingly important to plan and prepare for the future consequences that the climate emergency will bring to our planet. Zoe Li, a civil engineering assistant professor at McMaster University, has set out to tackle this need. 

As someone who works with scientific models, Li does not work in an experimental laboratory. Instead, she works with different simulation models to analyze the water  cycle. Through her research, Li is attempting to quantify the unpredictable by forecasting the likelihood of droughts and floods in certain regions. 

Li conducts a process known as climate impact analysis to assess the impact of climate change on water resources. Recently, her research has involved working with a Master’s student and two undergraduate students on an algorithm that will be able to collect weather and climate data from numerous climate centres around the world. This will help produce climate projections for specific regions and aid in informing preventive measures. 

For an area at risk of flooding, for example, there will be structural or non-structural measures; a structural measure would entail diversions to modify flood runoff, while a non-structural one would involve practices like flood proofing in order to decrease the damage susceptibility of certain floodplains. 

Through climate impact analysis, Li and her team aim to use advanced machinery and techniques to provide reliable evidence in support of methods of adapting to climate change. To accomplish this, they are working with colleagues in computer science.

While Li and her team are aware that running a physically-based climate model requires a great deal of time and resources, they are able to help meet their need for mass amounts of information by collecting output from various climate centres around the world. These include, among others, the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and the Université du Québec à Montréal. 

Moving forward, Li intends to use projections, machinery and algorithms to generate a customized projection specifically for Ontario.

“I’ve always known that there’s a research gap. People have been developing global and regional climate models, but there’s nothing that’s reliable just for Ontario. Since I live in Ontario, I thought we should provide a more reliable climate projection for Ontario because this is a very important issue,” said Li.

Li has been contacted by another professor in the civil engineering department at McMaster, who, alongside one of his students, now uses Li’s results as foundation for their own model. Using information that attempts to measure future environmental phenomena, such as predicted temperatures, this professor and his student have been able to quantify the energy consumption of buildings.

Li states that her model can be applied to anything that is affected by a change in temperature and precipitation. She believes that it is necessary to have a projection of what the environment’s future will entail in order to fully analyze the possible impact of climate change. 

“We are trying to provide projections so that people will know what the precipitation is, what the temperature is. For example, for the design of buildings and bridges, they will need to know whether there will be gusts and what the wind speed is, things like that. That’s the input information we can provide,” said Li.

Climate impact analysis is only one part of Li’s research. 

“For the other half, we focus on how to quantify the uncertainties in different environmental systems so that we can better manage different kinds of environmental risks,” she added. 

Due to the fact that model inputs, parametres and structures come with their own uncertainties, Li currently has students working to address these issues by developing quantification methods that could provide more support for risk assessment and management. 

Through her research and by collaborating with different sectors at McMaster, Li demonstrates the potential benefits her work could bring to the community. She also has another project dedicated to analyzing wastewater treatment as she continues to work on environmental solutions for Ontario.

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Photo by Cindy Cui /  Photo Editor

By Ember, Contributor

Recently, there’s been a lot of push for individual initiatives to combat climate change. This can be considered admirable and noble – but they hardly scratch the surface of the problem. These initiatives tend to overlook industries as the largest contributors to climate change, the Global North’s role in plastic pollution and they place misdirected blame on disabled people.

In a scientific paper that outlines that the Pacific Ocean is rapidly accumulating plastic, Laurent Lebreton et al. states the following findings.

“Over three-quarters of the [Great Pacific Garbage Patch] mass was carried by debris larger than five cm and at least 46 per cent was comprised of fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for eight per cent of the total mass but 94 per cent of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area,” they say.

Almost half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s mass is abandoned gear from industry fishing. Another 20 per cent of the mass is thought to be remnants from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In comparison, Seth Borenstein, a journalist, noted the extremely small proportion of plastic waste made up of plastic straws.

“Straws on average weigh so little – about one sixty-seventh of an ounce or .42 grams – that all those billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tons of the nearly nine million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits the waters,” Borenstein said. 

Banning plastic straws seems pretty asinine when you consider a few different factors. It’s interesting how alternatives like the new Starbucks lids were created to replace the use of plastic straws, but they have been found to contain an equivalent amount or more plastic than what a plastic straw contains. Christian Britschgi, an associate editor at Reason, described the miniscule impact of the Starbucks nitro lids.  

“Right now, Starbucks patrons are topping most of their cold drinks with either 3.23 grams or 3.55 grams of plastic product, depending on whether they pair their lid with a small or large straw. The new nitro lids meanwhile weigh either 3.55 or 4.11 grams, depending again on lid size,” said Britschgi.

Point blank, this “solution” is performative – it is a cheap tactic spearheaded by a corporation to make the common folk feel like they’re making a difference in regards to climate change when it really amounts to nothing. 

Then why not use paper straws or reusable straws? Well, because these options are awful. Often times, banning plastic straws does not take into account how alternative straw materials can be detrimental to disabled people. 

 “Biodegradable [straw] options often fall apart too quickly or are easy for people with limited jaw control to bite through. Silicone straws are often not flexible – one of the most important features for people with mobility challenges. Reusable straws need to be washed, which not all people with disabilities can do easily. And metal straws, which conduct heat and cold in addition to being hard and inflexible, can pose a safety risk,” said Godoy.

Another thing to keep in mind is that biodegradable straws can also be made of soy – a common allergen – and because it isn’t food, corporations aren’t required to disclose ingredients on the packaging. 

Putting the responsibility on disabled people to survive in public without plastic straws because you don’t believe stores should offer straws is venomous. 

It’s not that disabled people don’t care about the environment – we absolutely do. But instead of demonizing us for existing, shouldn’t able-bodied people help create an accessible, environmentally friendly alternative to plastic straws? 

Currently, I am a student studying earth and environmental science, and I’m aiming to get a minor in sustainability. I am also disabled and I realize that climate change is larger than any one of us. 

However, it’s important to note that often disabled people are the ones being accused of holding the environmental movement back, while corporations are conveniently cropped out of the frame. The big picture of climate change and environmental collapse is large enough for all of us to fit inside – so please don’t forget that industries play a large part, too.

 

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Photo by Kyle West

Ontario Public Interest Research Group McMaster is focusing on more efficiently empowering students to make a difference in the community following a referendum in January 2018 that lowered students’ contributions to our OPIRG chapter from $8.07 per student to $5.50.

The organization tackles social and environmental issues through funding student projects and other community organizations.

This year, OPIRG McMaster has made two main changes: cutting staff costs and splitting the single project category of “Working Groups” into mainly “Public Interest Projects” and “Community Partners.”

The most significant effect of the decreased funding has been major cuts in staff funding. This year, salaries and benefits for the three staff members will amount to $89, 342, according to the budget.

The second change entails establishing two types of project groups to improve efficiency and accountability.  

“Streamlining the Working Groups into either Public Interest Projects or Partnerships allows us to hold groups more accountable and also better provide them with the support they need,” said Parnika Godkhindi, director of publicity at OPIRG McMaster.

OPIRG offers up to $1,550 in funding for public interest projects, which are student-run and make change through clear goals and measurable results. Community partners typically have a less measurable impact, are more established and work not as closely with OPIRG, receiving less funding.   

Two examples of public interest projects are Bleed Free, which supports sustainable reproductive health and awareness, and Threadwork, which calls for students to think more critically about the impact of clothing on the environment.

According to Godkhindi, historically, actively supporting the working groups was not a main priority for OPIRG. Instead, they raised money for other organizations and played more of an oversight role for groups.

That has changed this year, with more resources and attention being given to supporting public interest groups.

“We realized that getting students actively involved on campus is one of our main priorities,” said Godkhindi.

OPIRG hopes that creating public interest groups based on definitive actions and results will increase transparency and more recognition of OPIRG’s role as well.

“Before, when people used to think of OPIRG, you would know what the working groups were, but you didn’t know what they were doing,” said Faris Mecklai, OPIRG director of policies and procedures. “Changing it to public interest groups where you are able to measure results and see what is happening just makes it a lot more clear.”

This year, the group has placed a larger focus on promoting the role that OPIRG plays in supporting student initiatives that students might see.  

“Lots of rebranding goes with that,” said Godkhindi. “We just want to make sure that that connection is established more clearly so people know that we are actually on campus and doing things with their tuition fee.”

OPIRG McMaster is also re-evaluating annual programming they hold. They see the lowered budget as a chance to make sure what they do is producing results. Godkhindi pointed to the annual Making Connections Week in September as an example.

In light of the funding change, OPIRG sees this year as an opportunity to shift their strategic goals to get back to their core mission: empowering students.

“There is so much potential here. Our thing is trying to harness the potential to make it more effective,” said resource centre director Katerina Simantirakis.

The deadline for public interest project applications was Oct. 22. Applications for community projects should be open in early November.

OPIRG McMaster will be presenting a report on their activity this year at the Nov. 11 Student Representative Assembly meeting. With changes to their projects, OPIRG is trying to figure out how to best use all the resources they have to enable students to ignite change in the community.

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