It was my graduate advisor that first pointed out the irony: the same passion that motivated me to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, to live in rural Panama with no electricity and no cell phone service for two years, is motivating me to go to Paris, a well known tourist destination with five star hotels. That passion, of course, is climate change.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I decided I wanted to dedicate my education, my career, to climate change, but I do know that living and working in Panama solidified this goal. I spent my four years as an undergrad taking a variety of science classes, from chemistry 101, to watershed hydrology, to environmental planning and policy. I left undergrad knowing I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, knowing I wanted to work in the environmental field, and knowing I would eventually have to attend graduate school, but I still had no idea WHAT I would study in graduate school.
In January of 2012 I packed up my life into a few bags, and headed to Panama with the exceptionally vague title of "Community Environmental Conservation Extension Agent." Now, as all my friends (who probably now cringe every time I say "This one time in Panama. . .") know, it is impossible to sum up my two year Peace Corps experience in a few sentences. But what I want to focus on here, is one of my major projects in Panama: Eco-stoves.
So, what in the world is an eco-stove? In Panama women traditionally cook by placing a large pot on top of a few rocks, and light a fire underneath the pot. This method is not very efficient because a lot of heat escapes and requires a great deal of firewood which causes immense amounts of deforestation. The traditional cooking method also emits a great deal of smoke which has negative health impacts. This is where eco-stoves come in. Eco-stoves enclose the flame, causing the fire to burn hotter and emit less smoke making the cooking process more efficient (and in turn requiring a lot less firewood). To complete this project I received a nearly $2000 grant from the Environment and Climate Partnership of the Americas, an organization that gives funds for projects that help mitigate climate change. With this money, and a lot of effort from community members, we built 30 eco-stoves.
While my community members loved the stoves, and these stoves do help mitigate climate change by reducing deforestation, I had a revelation during this process. The members of my small, 300 person community in rural Panama, while feeling the impact of climate change (in the death of coffee trees and increased plagues on their orange trees, in changes in the length of the rainy season etc.), are contributing very little to the cause of climate change. And this community is not an anomaly; across the globe the people who are experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change, are those contributing the least to the source of the changing climate. While I am proud of the stoves I helped my community build, and I believe that change at the grassroots level is an important component to combatting climate change, grassroots initiatives alone will not solve the problem. Climate change also needs to be addressed at an international level. This is why I have chosen to focus my masters research on how incorporating different knowledges can benefit climate change policy and management plans, and why I am excited to attend COP 21. Attending COP 21 is giving me the opportunity to learn more about international efforts, and share these efforts with others!
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