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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Infrastructure and the Climate Crisis with Kate Newman and Jim Hambleton

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is calling 2021 a crucial year for governments to address issues facing climate, nature, and people. Key global events, such as the UN Conference on Climate Change—COP26—are set to put the climate crisis at the top of the global agenda.

Infrastructure is key to achieving the goals of many sustainability agendas and agreements around the world. The WWF has created an Infrastructure and Nature coalition to examine how we can build new and necessary infrastructure while restoring biodiversity, fostering resilience, and creating a just and carbon-neutral future. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University – ISEN – is a member of this coalition. 

This episode explores the reasons why infrastructure needs to be addressed in the context of climate change and how Northwestern and the WWF are working together to explore important infrastructure topics such as the environmental impacts of the global sand crisis.

Guests on this episode are Kate Newman, Vice President for Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives at the World Wildlife Fund and Jim Hambleton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.

“Nature is super powerful, always will be, and we have tried to tamp it down forever, but we're now seeing that we can't really do that. So how do we work more harmoniously with nature to achieve what we need to thrive and allow it to thrive? It's a complex challenge.” ”

- Kate Newman, Vice President for Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives, The World Wildlife Fund
Kate Newman

Background reading: 

  • The World Wildlife Fund’s Infrastructure and nature website 
  • About the Global Sand Webinar Series, hosted by Northwestern and the World Wildlife Fund
Episodes focused on UN SDG 13: Climate Change are co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and sustainNU.

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. Annelise Riles, Executive Director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. The World Wildlife Fund has been one of the leading conservation organizations for over 60 years, and recently it has launched an innovative new suite of programs with a somewhat unlikely target: infrastructure. The WWF has created an infrastructure and nature coalition to showcase how we can build new and necessary infrastructure while restoring biodiversity, fostering resilience, and creating a just and carbon neutral future here at Northwestern University, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy. Now this ISEN is a member of this coalition, and here with details on this really exciting initiative is Kate Newman, vice president for sustainable infrastructure and public sector initiatives at the World Wildlife Fund. So excited to have you. Kate, thank you so much for joining us. 

Kate Newman [00:01:26] Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks a lot.

Annelise Riles [00:01:27] So let's start with your own background. What led you to devote your life to safeguarding the environment? 

Kate Newman [00:01:35] I would say my environmental science teacher when I was in high school. To be fair, he introduced me to nature. My parents loved the state park, but we didn't go beyond the state park. We had outdoor club events. And he taught us environmental science, of course, but really got me hooked. And then I tried to go to school for that. Turns out, I wasn't so great at math. Couldn't do environmental science. Switched to anthropology, went overseas. Became a Peace Corps volunteer in the most biodiverse place in Africa. Realized that conservation wasn't really about math and science only, it was about how people relate to the environment. Turns out, I had all the ingredients for a people relationship with nature and that that funny career I started to develop and came back and very fortunately got a job at World Wildlife Fund. Pretty early on in my career, I've been there 31 years now. 

Annelise Riles [00:02:29] Really excited to talk with you because I am also an anthropologist. Our anthropology students would absolutely love to do what you do. All right, so let's talk about infrastructure. So, infrastructure is probably not the first word that comes to mind when most people think about biodiversity and climate change. And yet I recently heard an estimate that climate change itself will require public and private investments in infrastructure of 90 trillion dollars between now and 2030. That's equal in value to all of the infrastructure we actually have on the planet right now as we literally rebuild the whole world in response to climate change. Getting it right is surely key to sustainability. So, tell us what is sustainable infrastructure? Why is this a priority for the World Wildlife Fund and what are you doing about it? 

Kate Newman [00:03:23] Well, WWF, as we've been saying, is a conservation organization, and that means we focus on helping maintain the integrity of natural systems on Earth, and we focus on forests, freshwater oceans, wildlife. But we also look at how the drivers of change are affecting all of that biodiversity. And one way to look at drivers of change are how they affect the Earth and the three most impactful categories, let's say, of drivers of change of resource use, whether they're on land or at sea, our food production by humans, urbanization and infrastructure. These are all going to make massive changes on the space around us, and our organization has taken on agriculture a while back. We've been working on urbanization over time. We've been working on freshwater infrastructure like dams, hydropower dams and so on and the impacts they have on rivers and streams. But we hadn't yet really pulled that all together and worked on infrastructure across the board and other kinds of infrastructure affecting terrestrial ecosystems. So that's now a shift that we're making to address that third big challenge to global sustainability. And so, by sustainability, we mean enabling natural systems to function and continue to provide services both to the planet, the intrinsic value of nature, but services to human beings and then the integrity of the ecosystems themselves. And that's the sort of biodiversity side of things. We're also looking at climate change in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions so that we reduce climate change over time. And then the third one is building resilience to climate change, which is something we've gradually come to realize is essential. And that's resilience not only to climate change for on behalf of people and our survival on Earth, but also to the ecosystems themselves.  We probably going to have to be managing that adaptation or helping nature adapt more and more over time. As we're seeing with the fires around us and the other calamities that we're experiencing more frequently.

Annelise Riles [00:05:35] Do you find a receptive audience among policymakers around the world to the idea of sustainable infrastructure? Is this what are some of the pressure points in this work? 

Kate Newman [00:05:49] Infrastructure is I'm finding absolutely fascinating; I didn't start out an infrastructure. It's only been in the past sort of five or six years that I've really been able to focus on it in my career, but it's so broad it touches everybody. We all rely on it. Nobody is against the road that they need to go to the market or go to work. It's not about being against infrastructure, it's about understanding how we get the infrastructure services we need while maintaining intact ecosystems available and equitable benefits to all members of society and mitigate the climate change, we're all experiencing. So, these these are all now part of looking toward a future of new norms and infrastructure development. Sadly, one of the ways that policymaker’s kind of wake up and smell the coffee is when there's disasters and they lose their infrastructure because the infrastructure was built too close to a sea level rise areas or is on the downside of a slope where it's been denuded of trees like we saw in California. We experienced landslides, horrific landslides that we tend to see in other parts of the world. United States was experiencing the complex relationship between more rain denuded landscapes because of fires, mudslides onto roads and homes, and these are all related to how we manage our relationship to the natural systems around us. Nature is super powerful, always will be, and we have tried to tamp it down forever, but we're now seeing that we can't really do that. So how do we work more harmoniously with nature to achieve what we need to thrive and allow it to thrive? It's a complex challenge. Let me just say. 

Annelise Riles [00:07:31] Well, you have created this really exciting coalition of more than 25 organizations working on this, and Northwestern Institute for Sustainability and Energy is one of those institutions in your coalition. In a moment, we're going to hear from one of our faculty members who has been a partner with you in this work. Interested to hear your thoughts on the role of universities in this work? Why partner with a university like Northwestern? What can we do to further the cause? 

Kate Newman [00:08:02] You know what we work on together? It's the little, tiny grain of sand. It's the the recognition of the role of one of the most common substances on Earth, which is now scarce in the places people need it. It's driving murders and mayhem and stealing and bad behavior and demise of ecosystems, all because we need now. Why do we need sand? The engineers at Northwestern helped me understand that I was giving a talk at at a different university and was talking about how the head of railroads of Nepal was talking about how the fact that he and his whole career has never had to say the word biodiversity that he can recall and has never actually had a meeting with any of the environment people in that country until recently. So therefore, didn't really understand the implications of where the railroad was going. Rails needs to go straight and flat. And we then worked with him and his team and eventually were able to justify moving a rail around the park instead of straight through it after several years of negotiation, a huge benefit to the country. But the issue of I never talked to nature folks was really resonant to me, and I said during the speech, how could the engineering school over there? Talk to this ecology school over here. They're in different buildings. Somehow, we have to start talking together at the basic level of our education. Of course, a professor walks up to me. Several did. And one of them from Northwestern said, 'Come and speak to our engineering school'. And that started a question of, so what is it that you want the engineers to do and what do you need to understand? And it was so interesting how we'd been lamenting sand mining because of the destruction it had in the Mekong region, for example, removing sediment from the river. So, the flow of sediment is not landing on the deltas, which are highly productive agricultural zones, adding in sea level rise and you get a sinking delta, which is no longer as productive as it was and quite a disaster for the region. But why are people going after sand so rapacious elite? And so, we started to talk to the engineers at Northwestern about what is the role sand plays? Are there alternatives to sand? What about cement? How does cement work? Why is it so carbon producing? How is the future of construction going to look if we don't have enough sand? All these really detailed questions enable us to then go back out into these policy arenas and those advocacy situations, and even to the ministers that we work with more and more to talk much more clearly and precisely about what change is going to be needed and what it will take and what codes need to. Be shifted in order to have more sustainable products. It's that type of intensive and deep understanding of an issue that allows us to do better conservation, and we can't do all that science ourselves. So, we have to work with universities and particularly in areas that are relatively new to us, like infrastructure development. We've been extremely grateful for the relationship we've had, especially on the intricacies of building materials related to construction of infrastructure, and it's helped us have a stronger voice in these other arenas with this coalition, for example. And be clearer about what's needed. 

Annelise Riles [00:11:26] What are you most worried about at this time? And what makes you hopeful? 

Kate Newman [00:11:33] Well, what I'm going to start with is what makes me hopeful. Even though people lament the global agreement says being ineffective or nobody pays attention, there is major momentum at this financing level, and they have a lot of influence over decision making. As you know, in our country, we need the private sector to be involved in the development of our infrastructure, and there are barriers right and left bringing them in. But there are incentives now, and it's getting clearer and clearer to the private sector and the investment community and the builders that they need to change their norms and deliver what society will accept as a sustainable infrastructure option to meet our needs. It's just becoming more and more possible to talk about these things with folks who have enormous influence and the countries where we work rely on the future of private investment coming in and helping with them meeting their needs, and they're listening. So that kind of incentive leveraging spreading of messaging throughout the systems that produce infrastructure is looking good. I mean, and it's looking hopeful in this hugely complex sector. It's looking hopeful. What I fear is that we get bogged down as we are observing in our own country in the immediacy of so many of the decisions we have to make, and we start to lose sight of the implications in infrastructure. It means so much to make the right decision. You look at the Roman roads, we're still using those Roman roads. Thousands of years later, they decided to put them here. And that's where we still have roads. Often infrastructure is a permanent decision. There's not much we do in our lives that are permanent decisions forever. But an infrastructure development project will often be permanent. And so, if we get these decisions wrong the next 10 years to push out jobs and get stuff going really quick around the world because of the recession. There's a term in the climate change world called lock in. We're going to lock in forever climate changing model of infrastructure. We don't need that. We have options now. There's science, there's methodologies. There are ways that we can do it better while still keeping us comfortable and happy and fed. And we just need to get them more widely known and understood and stop the decisions from being bad as early as possible. 

Annelise Riles [00:13:53] Well, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for all that you are doing. 

Kate Newman [00:13:58] Oh great. It's great to be able to talk to you about this. Thank you so much. 

Annelise Riles [00:14:13] We just heard from Kate Newman about the World Wildlife Fund's Infrastructure and Nature Coalition. Here to talk about Northwestern University's role in this coalition is Jim Hambleton, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. His research group studies how structures and machines interact with soils and how to make moving the Earth more efficient. Welcome. Jim, you don't know this, but as the daughter of someone who built Earth moving equipment, I never thought that I'd meet another person who was interested in the subject. So, it's great to meet you. So, tell me you're a civil engineer. So, what is that exactly for people who don't understand? And why is this what you've committed your life to? 

Jim Hambleton [00:15:00] I'm actually a dyed in the wool civil engineer. Broadly speaking, I, you know, as as one does, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Originally, I thought I was going to be a structural engineer. I was mesmerized as a kid with skyscrapers and thought I'd be designing those and making sure that they didn't fall over, and I didn't go too far from that. But my bachelor's degree, I was emphasized structural engineering and mechanics and more of that side of civil engineering. And then it was graduate school. And as it would turn out my professional life now as a researcher that I really got interested in geomechanics. And this is the world underground as opposed to the world above ground. The things that we build on are the the things that we build on the soil, and it's so complex, interesting environment I'm interested in in this process of Earth moving. Most recently in my work, I spend a lot of time focusing on sort of traditional failure. I'm a plastician by training, which means I focus on how materials fail. That would usually be things like in the context of gym mechanics, landslides, foundations, you know, excavations if you dig too deep or don't support things adequately while tunneling work. As Kate mentioned, if wildfires come through and burn off vegetation and the precipitation come, then all of that soil tends to go downhill and those create problems, but actually flip that later and discovered that there's this really interesting world of, well, what happens if you want to intentionally fail the soil, meaning those are all catastrophes. But if you're trying to get at the minerals underground or you're trying to create this opening, if you're trying to move large amounts of Earth for, say, a roadwork construction, then you actually want to fail the soil and the objective there is completely turned on its head. It's about how can you optimize the process of Earth moving and Earth manipulation? And that has created some very natural links with the World Wildlife Fund through this global sand crisis webinar series that that they recently organized. 

Annelise Riles [00:16:54] What does all this have to do with climate change? 

Jim Hambleton [00:16:57] We move so much Earth, and we build so much with natural materials like sands, and we'll just jump right into the sand crisis. The issue there is is that we use a lot of concrete and in building as we know it, we don't use that many materials. Traditionally, we use concrete, and we use steel, and we might use some timber. We might use some masonry to make concrete. You need a lot of sand. The process of making the cement binder that goes into concrete is a very energy intensive, carbon intensive process. So, it turns out if we could, we use a lot of sand to go into the concrete as one of the key ingredients. And we use a lot of cement the binder, which uses a lot of carbon. So, this brings us to sustainability by if we could move away from that mining so much sand for concrete production and move to some alternative to the way that we build right now. One of that being one of the keyways there are other ones than we could save a lot of energy. We could save a lot of carbon. 

Annelise Riles [00:18:00] Your relationship with WWF. So how did that come to be? Why are you doing it and what are you hoping to get out of it? 

Jim Hambleton [00:18:10] It was a very organic connection that was made through the Institute for Sustainability and Energy there, the organization that sort of sits above or outside of departments and brings departments together. So, it's the institute that brought WWF and I together it and several of my colleagues. The collaboration with WWF was really on this issue of what's the big deal with sand? They had started to get interested. This in this and had these conversations is a fascinating book written by a journalist, Vince Beiser. He was the keynote speaker for this global sand crisis series that was a joint effort between the Institute for Sustainability and Energy and the World Wildlife Fund that I was one of the sorts of core organizers you might say at the beginning of that, helping to track down people that could speak to some of the issues that are there. And what is the question, I guess we started to touch on? I mean, why is faith seen so fascinating and why is it that it's so instrumental in what we build and, you know, talks through many speakers to kind of unravel that? And maybe the short story is I can give you that my version as a civil engineer is that it's t's just a really easy material to work with its flow able. You know, everybody, you play with it as a kid, you know what it's like to be in a sandbox, you can build stuff and it's amazingly strong. Yeah, under the right conditions, meaning that it's got enough confinement, or you've dumped in a glue like a cement binder to put it together to hold it together. And it's got this remarkable compressive strength. And the flip side of that, which we don't really think about is civil engineers. That's the brilliance of this partnership is World Wildlife Fund is more thinking about communities thinking about biodiversity, the ecosystems, how it impacts on the people, on marginalized communities in particular. And that's where it turns out this was a real recipe for disaster. All of the sand has to come from somewhere. And even in a developed country, you know you're taking it out of the best sand comes from from riverbeds. It doesn't come from these beaches, which are the sand is too too weathered based on our current design standards for how we build with things. And then if you go to other countries, you know, it's it's a scarce enough resource that people are actually fighting over it and people are there's a black market for sand in these surprising things. So, it's it's a huge problem. We need so much of it that we have to get it from somewhere. Where are we going to get it? And that was really the theme. And you already asked the question, Well, what else? And we don't really know the answer to that, other than that's going to require real systemic change in how we design and build infrastructure really a big shift in thinking and where we put the priority if we put the priority on profits, say, I mean, that's a lot of what drives drives buildings at the moment and the companies that do that, or if we prioritize things like health of ecosystems and well-being of people, 

Annelise Riles [00:20:54] What soft infrastructure? 

Jim Hambleton [00:20:56] Well, a really good example. That's a very timely use with sea level rise storms being such a concern year after year. The question is, do we armor ourselves by putting up concrete barriers? We know how to do that. Essentially that the, you know, erect some wall and back to this crisis with sand erect, erect a wall of concrete that's going to stop the waves and stop the water from infiltrating into New Orleans, for example, or Miami. That's one way to do it. But is is it the right way to do it? Maybe not. If you look back through history and geologic history, that is an ecological history. It would be wetlands and plants, and nature has a very different way of coping with inundation, and it might not even cope with it. It might just let the water come in. So, we're seeing a lot more interest now in wetlands and as an alternative to a hard engineered barrier like a breakwater and the wetlands are, it's a it's a really interesting place. It's not just one material, it's it's actually a living. It's an ecosystem, right? It's soil and the plants that grow on top of it. And people are kind of having those conversations around the biodiversity of the of the plants as well as the soil that's beneath. And how does this all coupled together in a storm event where you have erosion, infiltration of water? And you know, those are really exciting opportunities, but that's an example. Long answer to your what's an example of soft infrastructure would be rather than create that concrete barrier, build a wetland or, you know, facilitate the natural barrier that's going to actually perform better than a hard barrier. 

Annelise Riles [00:22:35] So final question, I always ask everyone, what worries you the most at this moment and what are you most hopeful about? 

Jim Hambleton [00:22:43] You know, what worries me more than more than anything is that it's just so out of control. This kind of problem, realizing the impact that human beings are having is it just was kind of a model for growth that we were on. And you know, that's that's been our relationship with carbon has just consume, consume, conserve, consume and burn. You know, we weren't we weren't really concerned with it at all. So, we really are in truly a crisis. I mean, it's hard. It's hard to internalize the level of of that crisis. And the good thing is that we are having conversations about changing it. I think growth models are being questioned. Should we always be on a growth trajectory, or should we be selectively slowing down? The flip side of that is whether my hopeful about we are aware of the magnitude of this problem. We are having conversations in my sector, in the agency sector, architecture, engineering and construction, for example. Carbon is a real discussion point. Now it's happened. And you know that adage about that which gets measured gets managed. It's wonderful to see that now we're having these conversations about carbon footprint. And it's not just the design and construction of buildings, it's the use of buildings. And it's it's kind of pervasive. 

Annelise Riles [00:24:02] Your work is such a powerful example of the contributions that universities can and must make to addressing this challenge really with. Out universities, we won't have those new alternatives to sand, so we just really appreciate all that you do and thank you for being with us today. 

Jim Hambleton [00:24:22] Thanks, Annalise. 

Annelise Riles [00:24:25] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at.