March 2016

Meeting the Challenge

By Matt Gray

C26_Feature_360_Williamslimate Change: Science and Politics, one of Bryn Mawr’s latest 360° offerings, held a particularly compelling, and particularly personal, attraction for Chanel Williams ’16.

The Growth and Structure of Cities major hails from the Bahamas, and few nations have as much to lose to climate change as does that tropical paradise. With estimates as high as 80 percent of the land being at risk due to rising sea levels, the Bahamas might literally cease to exist if global temperatures continue to rise.

“Climate change is not just some amorphous topic in the Bahamas,” says Williams. “If the world doesn’t commit to slowing down the rate of change taking place, some of these places will disappear, perhaps within my lifetime.”

So when faculty members Don Barber (geology), Robert Dostal (philosophy), and Carol Hager (political science) teamed up to offer the Climate Change 360°, Williams signed on.

First offered in the 2010-11 academic year, Bryn Mawr’s 360° program offers students a unique opportunity to participate in a cluster of multiple courses in a single semester or academic year to focus on complex problems and themes in an interdisciplinary manner.

For her project in Barber’s Energy Resources and Sustainability unit, Williams decided to compare the benefits of setting up offshore wind turbines in her home islands to the benefits of a similar setup on an East Coast island in the United States.

The challenge was finding someplace with a comparable population. “I looked at Long Island, but that’s like a million people, and the Bahamas population is only about 360,000,” says Williams. “To do the comparison, I needed someplace where the numbers were relatively close.”

However, there was one New York island that fit the bill with about 460,000 residents—Staten Island. Williams looked at a number of factors and was surprised to discover that the turbines could be more productive as alternative sources of electricity for the borough than they’d be in the Bahamas.

Reasons for the lower generating potential in the Bahamas include lower average wind speed and reduced air density. In other words, the famously gentle, humid, and warm Bahamian breezes detract from wind-power electricity production.

The distances between Bahamian island population centers also complicate the delivery of electricity from large isolated wind turbines. In contrast, the existing infrastructure of densely populated Staten Island could link to offshore wind power with relative ease.

Although Williams’ feasibility analysis addressed wind power, she notes that distributed electricity from residential solar photovoltaic installations could help supply some of the Bahamas’ electricity, and solar PV would not be as vulnerable to hurricanes as offshore turbines.

For Hager’s unit Global Politics of Climate Change, which was also part of the 360°, Williams again focused on the Bahamas. For this political science course, she compared the Bahamian government plan to derive 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources to the efforts in the developing African island-nation of Mauritius, which has already hit the 20 percent mark.

“Right now, the Bahamas is still almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels,” says Williams. “The question is, why has this less-developed African nation been able to make so much more progress in terms of renewable energy? And it turns out that what it comes down to is not technology or resources but policy.”

And as part of the 360°, Williams and 14 other students joined Barber, Dostal, and Hager for a Fall Break trip in and around Freiburg, a German university town known for its progressive environmental policies and innovations.

In a region where solar panels are the norm, students visited one community that gets more than the electricity it needs from renewables and they toured an international soccer stadium, fueled by solar energy.

Williams is looking into options for graduate school and is interested in studying how cities rebuild after disasters, including those caused by climate change.

“Climate change is the pressing issue for mygeneration,” says Williams. “Hopefully we’ll be remembered as having met the challenge.

BMC students visited Freiburg, Germany, to get a close-up look at a model of sustainability, with an extensive network of bicycle routes, a robust car-sharing program and tram system, and solar panels everywhere. Photographs by Lauryn Ishak.

BMC students visited Freiburg, Germany, to get a close-up look at a model of sustainability, with an extensive network of bicycle routes, a robust car-sharing program and tram system, and solar panels everywhere. Photographs by Lauryn Ishak.

More 360°s

Given the urgency surrounding the issue of climate change, it should come as little surprise that nearly every semester has seen a 360° cluster dealing with the topic. Among those offerings were Perspectives on Sustainability (bringing together education, growth and structure of cities, and mathematics); Renewable Energy (chemistry and geology); Transforming the Legacy of Oil (economics, cities, and history); China and the Environment (East Asian studies, economics, and philosophy); Perspectives on Sustainability: Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan (cities and Swarthmore’s Japanese and art history programs); and Temperate and Tropical Coasts in Transition (biology and geology).

“360°s allow students and faculty to grapple with complex societal issues from multiple perspectives,” says geology’s Barber. “In this latest 360°, we saw that the potential technological and political responses to global climate change are as diverse and multifaceted as the problem itself. While no one-size-fits-all solution exists, sustained dialogue across boundaries offers a way forward.”