ENVS 210: Current Topics in Environmental Studies

Public Research Presentations

Fall 2015


Dr. Christopher Bacon, Assistant Professor, Santa Clara University
"Coping with Cumulative Hazards: Smallholder Vulnerability and Response to Drought and the Coffee Rust Outbreak in Nicaragua"

Recurrent food insecurity in the highlands of Central America has been exacerbated by the convergence of a rapidly spreading coffee pathogen and drought. In this context, we explore how the occurrence of seasonal hunger is related to smallholder organizational affiliation, farm and farmer characteristics, and household-level coping strategies. Our study integrates qualitative research, hydro-climatic data analysis, and a participatory survey of 368 households. The survey compared households affiliated with a farmer-to-farmer institution promoting subsistence-oriented production with those affiliated with cooperatives prioritizing sales of fair trade and organic coffee to international markets, and a control group of unaffiliated neighbors. We found that current coping responses to the coffee leaf rust outbreak are comparable in intensity to those used to endure Hurricane Mitch and the 2009 drought. Statistical analyses show that a number of household capacities correlate significantly with shorter periods of seasonal hunger: families with larger farms, off-farm employment, produce more than half of their food, maintain more fruit trees, and harvest more coffee reported fewer lean months. Households that reported severe coping responses to previous hazards tended to have higher coping indices in later hazards and, to a degree, greater seasonal hunger. Affiliation with different farmer institutions was not strongly correlated with the number of lean months or coping mechanisms. However, findings suggest that livelihood strategies that combine diversified production oriented towards subsistence with off-farm employment could enhance resilience to future hazards. *co-authors for the paper related to this project: William Sundstrom, Santa Clara University, Iris Stewart-Frey, Santa Clara University, David Beezer, Santa Clara University



Dr. Will Russell, Professor, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"Trillium ovatum and the recovery of coast redwood forests after logging"

The coast redwood forest is widely acclaimed for its extraordinary beauty, its’ ability to sequester more carbon than any other terrestrial system, and the unparalleled height of its’ dominant species – Sequoia Sempervirens. While the eyes of most visitors to coast redwoods forests are drawn upward to take in the stature of the majestic mega-flora, equally charismatic micro-flora on the forest floor, such as western trillium (Trillium ovatum), often go unnoticed. This modest species may be a key to understanding the recovery of the coast redwood forest following timber harvest, a disturbance with which this forest type is all too familiar. More than 95% of the original old-growth, where Trillium is most abundant, has been harvested. And with logging continuing at higher levels than have been seen in decades, the fate of the coast redwood forest, and its’ community of associated species, is uncertain. The best hope for this forest type is the slow but steady recovery of protected second-growth stands. In these stands, some of the features found in old-growth begin to emerge after decades. As Trillium is sensitive to disturbances such as logging, it may serve as an indicator of forest recovery. Preliminary studies indicate that the abundance of Trillium is positively correlated to the years since the last timber harvest, with the greatest abundance found in the oldest and least disturbed stands. A great deal more needs to be known about the relationship between Trillium ovatum and Sequoia sempervirens however: How closely related are their ranges of ecological tolerances? How does Trillium respond to a variety of different management regimes such as multiples entries, selective harvest, and restoration forestry?




Ben Pearl, Thesis Defense
"Factors affecting Western snowy plover winter foraging habitat selection in San Francisco Bay ponds"

Within the San Francisco Bay Area, western snowy plovers (Alexandrinus nivosus nivosus) nest and winter in former salt ponds. They face a number of threats including human-altered habitats and high levels of predation by mesopredators and raptors. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (Project) is a large wetland restoration project that will change and potentially eliminate snowy plover habitat in the region. As the Project returns salt ponds to tidal wetland, there will be less of the dry, flat, and sparsely vegetated habitat that plovers need for breeding and wintering habitat. A greater understanding of the specific microhabitat requirements for high quality plover foraging sites is needed. In particular, it is important for managers to understand what constitutes high-quality wintering habitats for snowy plover numbers. I studied the characteristics at sites where snowy plovers winter in former salt ponds, especially habitat traits related to promoting plover foraging. I found that plovers were associated with increasing plant height, water cover, and distance from perches and levees. This information is designed to help managers meet snowy plover recovery goals in the South San Francisco Bay.



Dr. Alexander Gershenson, Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions from US Federal Fossil Fuel Leasing"

We undertook an examination of the potential greenhouse gas emissions of all fossil fuels that the US Federal Government is either currently leasing for exploration, or could lease for exploration in the future. Our results indicate that a cessation of new federal fossil fuel leasing could keep up to 450 Gt CO2e from the global pool of potential future GHG emissions. This is equivalent to 13 times global carbon emissions in 2014 or annual emissions from 118,000 coal-fired power plants. This has a significant potential for GHG emissions savings that is best understood in the context of global limits and national emissions quotas.

Major findings are:

  • The potential GHG emissions of federal fossil fuels (leased and unleased) are 349 to 492 Gt CO2e, representing 46% to 50% of potential emissions from all remaining U.S. fossil fuels. Federal fossil fuels that have not yet been leased for development contain up to 450 Gt CO2e.
  • Unleased federal fossil fuels comprise 91% of the potential GHG emissions of all federal fossil fuels. The potential GHG emissions of unleased federal fossil fuel resources range from 319-450 Gt CO2e. Leased federal fossil fuels represent from 30-43 Gt CO2e.
  • The potential emissions from unleased federal fossil fuels are incompatible with any U.S. share of global carbon limits that would keep emissions below scientifically advised levels.




Dr. Dustin Mulvaney, Associate Professor, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"Green civil war: Sacrifice zones for climate security and conflicts over public lands in the California desert"

California energy systems are undergoing an unprecedented transition in response to environmental pollution, energy security, and climate change. Fueled by landmark energy policies and drawing on key technological innovations in energy production, this shift is transforming communities, landscapes, and infrastructures across the state. Solar energy is at the vanguard of this transition. In 2014, California generated over 50 times more solar energy annually than just ten years ago. Yet, proposed utility-scale solar energy projects have encountered resistance from environmental groups as many landscapes slated for solar energy development also are home to numerous endangered, threatened, and special status species. Projects have also met resistance from affected local and Native American communities. This research seeks to explain the persistence of the “social gap” in renewable energy deployment—the gap between those who support renewable energy generally to those who support specific projects in particular places. The generalizable findings from this body of scholarship include the importance of the structure of public participation, the acceptability of the major impacts in the decision-making context (the qualified support hypothesis), self-interested NYMBYism, values and beliefs, degree of collaboration with stakeholders, and inequitable power relations. While there is a growing literature explaining the social gap, there is little empirical research focusing on public lands and the role of resource management agencies in shaping project outcomes. This is a severe shortcoming in our understanding of conflicts over siting renewable energy given the large proportion of such current and planned projects on public lands. The US Bureau of Land Management, who manages over 250 million acres of land across the west, is mandated to lease out land for 20 GW of solar energy, corresponding to the agency’s mission of “multiple use.” This research will help us understand how resource agencies might better plan for and cooperate on new project proposals as California moves toward a goal of 50% renewable electricity by 2030.




Dr. David Wrathall, Associate Academic Officer, United Nations University
"Selling labor, selling cocaine: adaptation options for impoverished populations on the front lines of climate change"

One of the chief concerns about the long-term impacts of climate change is the extent to which it will render  spaces uninhabitable for human populations. My research searches for demographic signals of such shifts that are   already underway. As a physical environment shifts to a state that is characteristically uninhabitable, my work   describes the social shift that accompanies it, which includes the "disassembly" of local livelihood systems, and   rapid adoption of urban wage labor. Wages are the primary avenue for adaptation among a dwindling set of   alternatives; however the ability to participate in urban labor markets is not equally distributed among all   households. In this talk, I will provide empirical case studies in support of this argument: flooding in Honduras,   glacier recession in Peru, and cyclones in coastal Bangladesh –ground zero of climate vulnerability. In my current   work in Bangladesh, I am using massive, anonymized sets of mobile network data from the Grameenphone   network (>6 million users) to investigate migration flows around cyclones in unprecedented spatial and temporal   resolution. Findings suggest that migration flows around cyclones disappear into the massive cyclical draw of   urban labor markets --capitalism (not climate) explains migration, even in the most climate stressed environments,   supporting the "double exposure" hypothesis. Of course, the causal mechanisms for social-ecological shifts are   complex, and for Honduras I will describe the role of cocaine transit and money laundering in rapid deforestation   across the northern corridor, which partially explain flooding events there.




Dr. Rachel O’Malley, Professor and Acting Chair, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"From Canaries in the Coal Mine to Native Species in the Santa Cruz Sand Mines: Quantifying the Environmental Effects of Human Activities"
SJSU College of Engineering GreenTalk Speaker Series

A critical problem in the field of environmental studies is how to measure and assess the environmental effects of human actions. At a small scale, gross indicators of system failure – the dead canary in the miners’ cavern – may be adequate warning of environmental danger. As human activities permeate every corner of the globe, however, the planet’s continued habitability is contingent on identifying and responding to subtler indicators of environmental decline, before the situation becomes catastrophic. In this presentation I give examples from our local Central California ecosystems that show how understanding the smallest and most vulnerable creatures in our environment, the insects, plants and even the rats, can help us measure, anticipate and respond to environmental degradation before it creates conditions that could ultimately threaten humans ourselves.




Dr. Jason Douglas, Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"The Production of Youth, Nature, and Knowledge"

Systemic inequities frequently manifest in a variety of disproportionate outcomes, including inequitable access to forest resources in the global south and uneven distribution of greenspace in the urban U.S., particularly in low-income communities of color. These inequities are social and environmental indicators of a widening race and class gap. In this presentation, I will 1) briefly elucidate environmental inequities by race and class, 2) describe my work with youth in a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project that worked to redress inequitable access to recreational space in New York City, and 3) review my current and future research in urban and rural contexts regarding environmental determinants of public health inequities.




Dr. Lynne Trulio, Professor, Environmental Studies, SJSU
"How do burrowing owls spend their winter?"

Much of the research on western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) has focused on breeding birds in the spring and summer. How birds were spending their winter   was a mystery. However, recent data from studies in Canada, the mid-west and west are   beginning to shed light on this critical question. In our region, my colleagues, Phil Higgins,   Debra Chromczak, and I have begun a study of our local wintering burrowing owls. I'll   summarize the literature on wintering western burrowing owls and provide preliminary   data from our first year of the Santa Clara County wintering burrowing owl study.