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Town leaders, researchers discuss local, global environment

by Richard Veilleux - November 13, 2007

The degradation of the environment is a human rights issue, according to Richard Hiskes, director of the University’s minor in human rights, whose writings lean heavily toward the environment.

During a conference Nov. 1 on climate change and strategies for life in a changing world, Hiskes suggested the world should view the damage being done to the environment today “as a violation of the human rights of future generations.”

“We need to adopt the more powerful language of human rights” to make inroads in the fight to control greenhouse gases and contain other destructive practices, he said.

“We can use the moral vocabulary – caring, duty, sacrifice … they’re all great words. But I guarantee you that if those are the words we use in this fight, the environment will be at the back end” of any conversation.

Hiskes was one of the speakers at the conference, which featured a panel of UConn faculty, town officials, and a representative from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Mansfield and UConn leaders discussed what was being done locally to help the environment, while the professors looked largely at what was being done globally to hurt the environment.

While much is being done locally, the global picture is more challenging.

Climatologist Anji Seth, a faculty member in the geography department, and Dan Civco, a professor of natural resources management and engineering, offered compelling video evidence.

First, Seth showed satellite and other images taken through the years that allowed the audience of about 100 students and community members to watch the polar ice caps disappear, one slide at a time.

Then Civco, who is also a land use specialist, ran through a series of slides that also showed the damage caused by greenhouse gases and, in dramatic footage from the sky, allowed the crowd to watch as, decade by decade, the footprint of Atlanta, Ga. grew.

He noted that the massive building and population boom contributes to greenhouse gases.

“I could show you dozens of similar situations,” Civco said. “The urban footprint is exploding in cities all over the world.”

Richard Parnas, chair of the chemical engineering department, and Kathy Segerson, a professor of economics, said that reducing greenhouse gases, limiting energy use, and creating more efficient fuels that don’t pollute can be done – just not at the right price.

“Economic factors are driving the increase [in greenhouse gases],” she said. “Increasing wealth leads to increased consumption and increased energy use. But as wealth increases, people also tend to demand environmental changes.”

Segerson said increasing gas taxes, while anathema to most Americans, would help decrease the dangerous gases because it would force people to drive less or purchase more efficient vehicles.

Parnas, head of the UConn Biofuels Consortium, said, “Replacing diesel with biodiesel could reduce the greenhouse gases [emitted by an individual car] by 90 percent, without having to change the vehicle’s engine.”

Parnas is currently discussing the construction of a biodiesel facility at UConn that could produce as much as 1 million liters of biodiesel fuel annually.

The Biofuels Consortium now produces about 50 gallons every other week. That amount is added to the University’s diesel fuel tanks at the motor pool and allows most UConn vehicles to run on at least a 2 percent mixture of biodiesel, according to Richard Miller, UConn’s director of environmental policy.

There are many other ongoing efforts at the University, he said: the year-old cogeneration plant, for example; outreach efforts to encourage students to conserve water and use compact fluorescent light bulbs; and contests between residence halls to see who can be more energy efficient.

The Town of Mansfield also puts a lot of effort into staying green, said Town Manager Matthew Hart. He listed hybrid town vehicles, the recycling coordinator, green cleaning supplies in the schools and town offices, organic products to maintain town athletic fields, and a long-running partnership with the University to provide free fare buses for townspeople and students as some of the ways the town tries to help the earth.

Other efforts are in the works, he said.

“We’ve begun to construct sidewalks to encourage people to walk more,” Hart said, “which is something you don’t often see in small towns.”

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