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Class Assignment: Building An Island Community Capable Of Thriving Amid Climate Change

Mountain Journal intern Lorea Zabaleta was given this task as a college student. And it prompted her to reflect in this op-ed on challenges facing her native Greater Yellowstone

by Lorea Zabaleta

The year is 2100 and you have been tasked with the survival of humanity…or at least 1000 humans. The Global Climate Council is going to fund one offshore settlement for one nation to attempt to preserve human life. Can you design an island not in danger of going underwater with a low carbon footprint that doesn’t sacrifice quality of life and win the funding to build a community to last 100 years? 

This was a question posed by my Colorado College Professor Ulyana Horodyskyj to a group of students during a three-week summer block entitled “Introduction to Global Climate Change,” an incredibly popular course at the school. Due to distance learning, Horodyskyj didn’t want to have her students take a final exam, as that would have created unnecessary difficulties for all parties. She saw greater merit in a more creative, real-world evaluation of how we might ponder necessary adaptation. to the end of the world as we presently know it. 

When asked about her inspiration for the project, she stated it was more organic rather than based off of anything currently occurring in the climate science community. 

“I had not actually heard of that sort of thing (building an island capable of sustaining a community of people]. I did a little bit of research into it because, realistically, in like 80 years, there is going to be sea level rise, and we’re going to have a lot of climate refugees...I got to thinking how we could do something with that as far as a project,” she said, then explained that moving inland would be “a mess” in terms of a school project but off-shore geoengineering would be a more interesting and easily designed option for the students. 

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem fits the definition of a place that qualifies as a destination for refugees moving inland. It is, as many scientists reference it, a “biological island;” still people move in and out of it with relative ease, unlike a true smaller piece of land surrounded by water, that sharpens the thinking when it comes to being a potential refuge for climate change. And, at the same time, many island nations located in a sea, or along one, are in danger of going underwater.

Geoengineering involves using the properties of the earth to create solutions to problems we have, such as carbon sequestration or sunlight redirection. My project involved ocean geoengineering as well as creating a place with the idea in mind of living in harmony with nature that had become less harmonious for most of human civilization.. 

Groups of between two and four students thus over the course of three weeks generated proposals for their own offshore settlements to house 1000 climate refugees for 100 years. Proposals included budgets, transportation plans, maps, and even outlines for government and societal structure. 

There were a great deal of similarities as well as differences amongst the groups, whose islands were dispersed worldwide. Some in areas that may have been anticipated like off the coast of European nations and others in more surprising locations like Greenland or New Zealand. Location choice, Horodyskyj said, was one of the areas that she saw groups get more creative, but it was not the only area. 

It was fascinating to interview your professor and ask her what she was thinking about how we approached survivalism.

“I thought it was quite interesting how groups came up with the idea of selling energy back. It was something I was thinking some groups would get to. It wasn’t a requirement which is why I didn’t build it in as a requirement," she said. " I wanted to see if those ideas would come about.  I made a lot of the questions open-ended a) because this is the first time time I’m trying this—there’s some beta-testing going on and b)  just to see how the creativity manifests in students.”

After discussing this with her, as well as being in the class myself, we came to the conclusion that socialism or at least not capitalism was a common trait amongst the government model of each small island created by students. Horodyskyiv stated that this gave her hope that the younger generation was recognizing the toll capitalism is currently taking upon our natural world and peoples, including causing climate change.
While coal-fired power plants at Colstrip in Montana once represented prosperity for generations of the 20th century, younger generations already are thinking well beyond viewing the burning of fossil fuels as the cause of problems that represent a major threat to their lives in the future. Photo courtesy Rachel Cernansky
While coal-fired power plants at Colstrip in Montana once represented prosperity for generations of the 20th century, younger generations already are thinking well beyond viewing the burning of fossil fuels as the cause of problems that represent a major threat to their lives in the future. Photo courtesy Rachel Cernansky
“I think it was a sign of the times, of your generation…capitalism like you guys mentioned… it’s a huge problem and has caused a lot of problems globally you know and that people are suffering from needlessly," she said. "So I really liked to see that shift… It definitely shows a mindset of your generation."

Another student in the class, a rising senior majoring in International Political Economy (and minoring in Environmental Studies), Spencer Wirth, elaborated on this idea, “I think most groups trended away from a capitalist structure, in its most simple explanation, because capitalism demands limitless economic growth within Earth’s very finite ecological limits. Capitalism is rooted in competition, and competition within finite resource bounds can, and has, led to large-scale tragedies of the commons [in which self-interested people do things that stand in contrast to the common good].” 
“I think most groups trended away from a capitalist structure, in its most simple explanation, because capitalism demands limitless economic growth within Earth’s very finite ecological limits."  — Spencer Wirth
Both of these perspectives, while they certainly cannot speak for an entire generation do lend insight into why it is more common amongst the younger generations of the world, and particularly the United States, who have experienced in their formative years what can really only be described as the failing of a neo-liberal capitalist state.

Even before 2020, many members of Generation-Z and younger millennials were sympathetic to socialist ideologies or the at the very least the inclusion of social welfare into a market system.  But watching their own nation, and a  supposed world leader bungle a response to a pandemic further exposed the flaws in ourhealthcare system. And we have witnessed mass human rights violations in response to civil disobedience (a founding ideal of our nation), and then couple that with the fact that the Arctic literally caught on fire, it’s not difficult to understand why those who are still at the beginning of their life on this planet might want a different system—a system that didn’t lead to this

For me, another interesting aspect of this project is the viability of its concept and how it applies to our current situation. How many of our towns, our states and regions are really thinking and planning ahead other than in generalities or abstract ways? 

I’ve been thinking about this as a summer intern for Mountain Journal which is focused on the Greater Yellowstone bioregion that already is confronting the challenges of sustaining nature in the face of ever-expanding human impacts. 

Can our island of natural processes survive? If the sustainability of “wild” places isn’t really being addressed in a systemic way, then how can the region expect to sustain the livelihoods and quality of life for people who depend upon protection of nature?
Can our island of natural processes survive? If the sustainability of “wild” places isn’t really being addressed in a systemic way, then how can the region expect to sustain the livelihoods and quality of life for people who depend upon protection of nature?
As humanity now confronts the climate crisis via nations and coalitions of nations, and of those with more influence and others with less, we are seeing some smaller groups being more receptive to the idea of being foresighted. If this pattern continues, perhaps it will also be small, isolated communities that lead the charge and create the momentum needed. But can islands persevere all by themselves, particularly in an age when “globalism” and an inter-connected larger world has been the mantra?

These are questions my generation is asking and I would imagine they are different from how earlier generations did.

As we watch US states individually respond to the Covid-19 epidemic as opposed to having a cohesive national response, it’s not difficult to imagine that this trend of de-centralized approaches could continue for other issues, such as what to do with a finite supply of fresh water in arid regions like the West with a lot of people.

In terms of climate change mitigation there are already cities in the United States dedicated to going 80-100 percent carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest. Still unclear is what that means and how they get there off the encumbrances of the current grid.

How could Montana, and other states involved in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem become a part of these movements? And how would they benefit? To begin, as mentioned above, this important ecosystem will not escape the effects of climate change. I write this as a realization coming from a young person.

An obvious problem already facing Greater Yellowstone is, on average, an increasing severity and length of wildfire season, registering over the past few decades, but that is merely one example. Wildlife and plantlife will also be impacted, as will agriculture that depends on the watersheds of the ecosystem. And the landscape I was raised to love and play in is going to be different.  In short, while this natural area and Montana as a geopolitical entity may not have to fear flooding and being a destination for “climate refugees” fleeing from high water, lower flows caused by less snowpack is very much a Montana issue. And already, if a parallel can be drawn, we are seeing Covid-19 refugees.

Luckily, much like the small islands in my class project, Montana could sustain itself in green energy if it adopted a systematic approach of shifting away from fossil fuels to a wide array of renewables becoming ever more efficient with technological advancement. Already, and I didn’t know this, Montana is the fifth largest producer of hydroelectric energy in the nation, and it ranks among the top five states for wind power potential (as of 2018). And, innovations in solar, both rural installations and rooftop to form urban grids, could markedly complement the supply from renewables.

While there are certainly obstacles to overcome to achieve a greener Montana, it is well within the realm of possibility and could even lead to profit, as an export to other states, due to our high potential of energy creation versus low population. 

As a whole, Professor Horodyskyj is cautiously optimistic about this individualistic (or state or regional) approaches to climate change as she believes that places that strive to be innovative have greater potential to withstand disruptions that are coming but fears what could happen if there is lack of cooperation with other communities. 

This stands in opposition to the potential global approach. She referred to the Paris Agreement for which the goal is worldwide collaboration and while acknowledging the benefits of individual cities and countries going carbon neutral, she said,  “I worry about these cliques [of power] forming. What’s that gonna set up? Can we actually function as these mini societies that are more altruistic?” 

On the more optimistic side of things, Horodyskyj said that perhaps it is these smaller movements or "individual pockets" as she calls them, that will overcome the intense social inertia we seem to be experiencing in stopping or minimizing climate change. Horodyskyj compared making progress to doing taxes: extremely difficult to begin but not particularly challenging to actually complete the task at hand once rules and a direction are in place.

States that reward and strive to be innovative would get ahead and be rewarded and states that resist making the shift and remain dependent on a fossil fuel economy would lag behind.

Wirth echoed this idea and said: “I do see small pockets of civilization becoming more eco friendly and being beneficial since, in the long run, it helps combat the collective action issue by showing that investing in a sustainable future is actually economically and socially beneficial through competitive advantage," he explained. "If smaller pockets of civilization were to succeed in their blueprints for eco-consciousness, I would think larger civilizations would be incentivized to do so as well since there would be less uncertainty and greater opportunity to spearhead development in new, more eco-friendly and sustainable economic sectors.”

As Horodyskyj said, and it is easy to see given the current political environment, there is a serious lack of motivation to actually take the steps necessary to combat climate change. She  prefers to call it “climate destabilization” as that more accurately represents the variety of volatile climate effects humanity could soon be facing and perhaps it is the little things like that that could mobilize people. 

Perhaps it is the fact that we do not really have the option of ocean utopias to flee to in the future and that if we did they would only be available to the ultra-rich. No matter how it is spun, something needs to be done and quickly.  My student colleague Wirth wisely said “there is no planet B to Earth. Earth is not some optional investment, rather it is our extended body, our one and only home as a species, and we have to keep it healthy.”

Epilogue: While that is the approach to energy that I, and many others, would like to see carried into climate change policy, there still remains the matter of wondering if the islands created by the class were even feasible as an option. Would the plans we created actually have been able to provide for 1000 individuals in perpetuity? Of the options, Professor Horodskyj did select “a winner” which received the funding and go-ahead to be constructed. 

This was not my group’s island, although we did receive honorable mentions. As I reflect back on why we may not have won, I realize that we (and many other groups) didn’t address the issue of freshwater— beyond assuming we would be purchasing it from the mainland, which would be a vulnerability.  In the post class discussion I had with Horodskyj and during the presentations, it became apparent that this  was not an issue many groups considered despite freshwater scarcity likely on its way to becoming a major issue in the world. A few groups, however, did have solutions such as rainfall collection and desalination, processes I think many to do not even consider currently but Horodskyj says may be more common in the future as need and technologies develop.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We welcome responses from members of GenZ. What do you think is the most effective way to confront the climate crisis in general and trying to protect the woodlands of Greater Yellowstone in particular?

Lorea Zabaleta
About Lorea Zabaleta

Lorea Zabaleta is a writer who grew up in Bozeman, Montana as the daughter of a professional conservationist mother who has also been an elected member of the local school board and a European father who is well known as a climber, carpenter and advocate of human rights. Lorea herself is an avid mountaineer, skier, wildlife advocate and lover of the great outdoors. After attending prep school in the East, she enrolled at Colorado College where she is studying international political economy and journalism. She is Mountain Journal's summer intern for 2020.
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