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Looking back, looking forward: Reasons for hope in the new year

We’re looking back at important environmental research and news in 2022 – and looking ahead with hope for the future.

Image Credit: Nathan Mitchell Photography

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment joined the newly launched Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in September, marking a new chapter in the university’s journey to deliver sustainability impact at scale. In November, a delegation of Stanford faculty, staff, and students traveled to Egypt for the annual UN climate change conference to participate in a wide range of discussions about implementing solutions for a just and sustainable future.

“What gives me hope about solving the world’s pressing environmental challenges is the inspiring young people who are making this their life’s work,” said Woods director Chris Field. “When people from all regions of the planet, diverse backgrounds, and immense skills and ambitions commit to solving a problem, progress is ensured. They need resources and encouragement, for sure. But they also need the space to pursue their dreams. I’m confident that the seeds for solutions are among us. We just need the patience, confidence, and optimism to help them grow."

A few of the reasons faculty, staff, and scholars at Woods are feeling hopeful about the environment and sustainability as we enter the new year:

Vital funding to reduce water stress in the Colorado River basin

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will put $4 billion toward efforts to reduce water usage in the Colorado River basin – now in its twenty-third year of megadrought. Philip Womble, a postdoctoral scholar with Water in the West, studies how investments in water transactions that pay water users to leave water in the river can be leveraged to also restore imperiled fish habitat. While significant challenges remain, these funds present greatly expanded opportunities to conserve water, raise reservoir levels, reduce future mandatory water cuts, and restore imperiled freshwater ecosystems.

In an August study, Womble and his colleagues analyzed all previous environmental water transactions in recent years in Colorado River basin states. They found that recent environmental water transaction activity would be insufficient to stave off future curtailment of critical water users under the Colorado River Compact (an agreement between the seven Southwestern U.S. states within the Colorado River drainage basin). Nearly $90 million annually in new investment would be required to do so. The historic funding dedicated to Colorado River water conservation under the Inflation Reduction Act is a positive step towards scaling up water conservation in the basin.

Philip Womble

Philip Womble: "While the Colorado River basin faces unique challenges that have so far proven very difficult to overcome, the basin also has the opportunity to illustrate how to adapt to climate change in an equitable, efficient, and environmentally beneficial manner."


Growing engagement in environmental justice work on campus

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which launched in September, created a new initiative to support environmental justice – a growing body of scholarship and research that seeks to address and understand the inequitable distribution of environmental harms across marginalized communities. Rodolfo Dirzo, the Associate Dean for Integrative Initiatives in Environmental Justice, says that these new commitments represent “a significant hope to bring this crucial topic to the level of development and visibility it deserves within the university – and beyond.”

Dirzo is looking forward to a number of exciting projects with an environmental justice focus, including collaboration with the Amah Mutsun Tribal band for eco-cultural restoration. These partnerships aim to restore Indigenous cultural burning, impart community resilience to catastrophic wildfires, protect sacred landscapes, and repair relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Other projects include engaging with communities in Stockton, California, where air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income groups and research to inform new practices that could improve biodiversity, food security and a just revenue stream for growers of oil palm in Costa Rica.

This year, the initiative will continue to grow with an eye toward increasing faculty hires to deepen and expand environmental justice scholarship and developing strategies to attract and support top students in this field.

Rodolfo Dirzo

Rodolfo Dirzo: "Our hope rests on the excitement to intentionally integrate scholarship on power, justice, and race with questions of environmental justice and sustainability."



A new Uncommon Dialogue for envisioning a just energy transition on tribal lands

Uncommon Dialogues are the Woods Institute’s signature method for bringing together cross-sector experts and actors to explore critical issues and analyze data together that can lead to exciting opportunities to inform policy change, develop guiding principles for land conservation challenges, and other climate solutions. Kimberly Yazzie is a postdoctoral scholar at Woods working on community-engaged research and tribal renewable energy development.

This year, she will participate in a new Uncommon Dialogue convened to discuss pathways for co-developed solutions to address emerging issues in the energy transition on tribal lands, including leveraging federal funding programs. Yazzie looks forward to collaborating with a wide range of community members and stakeholders, including tribal experts, energy and climate policymakers, and representatives from tribal, federal, non-profit, and private organizations.

Kimberly Yazzie

Kimberly Yazzie: "I anticipate tribal engagement at the community and leadership levels using methods such as ethnography and case study analysis to improve understanding of pathways to climate solutions that would benefit tribal economies and increase tribal climate capacity."


Blue foods playing a critical role in healthy, sustainable food systems

Fiorenza Micheli and Jim Leape, co-directors of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, note that “a growing number of governments and development agencies are recognizing the importance of blue foods – foods produced in lakes, rivers, and the ocean – to create the healthy, sustainable food systems we need.” The Blue Food Assessment (BFA) is a joint initiative of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, and EAT. In 2022, BFA created a policy brief outlining pathways toward low-carbon food systems and scholars discussed the role of blue foods at COP27.

From collaborations around the design and deployment of technologies for better management and market access of small scale fishers, to coalitions supporting blue food system transformations, the hope and ambition for the next year is to scale action through partnerships.

Fiorenza Micheli
Jim Leape

Fiorenza Micheli and Jim Leape: "We see growing evidence that marine protected areas and aquatic food system transformations play important roles in climate adaptation and mitigation. These findings provide hope that investments in expanding marine protection and in climate smart fisheries and aquaculture will be part of the solution to the interconnected climate, food and biodiversity crises."

Breakthrough in nuclear fusion as a rallying point for stakeholders

Earlier this December, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully achieved a nuclear fusion reaction with a net energy gain, sparking a wave of excitement around the potential for clean, renewable energy. Lily Hsueh, an Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy in the School of Public Affairs at the Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at Woods, finds hope in the development, saying that, “​​this major technological breakthrough will require all hands on deck – from scientists, engineers, and policymakers to others in the public and private sectors – to help scale up the fusion projects, and also bring the cost down.”

Hsueh is looking forward to completing her book this year on how corporations respond to climate change and continuing conversations with other Woods scholars about how to incentivize and reward companies to participate in and be accountable for nature-based solutions to climate change.

Lily Hsueh

Lily Hsueh: "The prospect for catalytic collaborations between the private and public sectors for driving climate solutions like nuclear fusion excites me as a scholar who studies the economics and political economy of corporate environmentalism (i.e., corporate self-regulation in the environmental area) and the interactions between firms, policymakers, and other stakeholders."


Fostering the next generation of environmental leaders

The Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP) is a year-long program hosted by Woods to help graduate students and postdoctoral scholars hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research. Lea Rosenbohm, associate director of policy and engagement at Woods, notes the long-term impact of the program on participants’ careers.

Lea Rosembohm

Lea Rosenbohm: "It gives me hope that RELP Fellows are increasingly applying for and receiving prestigious science-policy fellowships such as CCST fellowships within California and AAAS and Sea Grant fellowships within the federal government and going on to work in public service."


Alejandra Echeverri is a postdoctoral scholar with the Natural Capital Project and a 2022 RELP participant.

Alejandra Echeverri

Alejandra Echeverri: "There are many opportunities for scientists like me, trained in ecology and biodiversity science, to work with agencies that are protecting and better stewarding the planet that we share with many beings. Moving forward, I am excited to keep working on the science-policy interface to help guide better policies, so that we can protect nature and people in the future."

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