Environmental Resilience Institute Externship Grant Reflection: Environmental Justice at Aspen

Joy Collins

Internship Location: Environmental Justice at Aspen

As tumult and crises unravel the world around us, I often wonder what can be done to resolve these
challenges and who—if anyone—would surrender themselves to such a task. The members of the
Aspen Institute are those such people. Confronting issues like education reform in the US, the health
of the nation, and the future of clean energy, this research powerhouse challenges the status quo and,
in the process, improves the quality of life around the globe.

This past week, I had the opportunity, as an extern for the UVa Environmental Resilience Institute, to
observe the inner workings of Aspen’s Energy and Environment Program (EEP) and hear what leaders
around the nation had to say about resolving the climate crisis. Rotating through the office, Ginny,
another UVa Extern, and I sat in on staff meetings that revolved around planning meetings and events
for the think tank. During one convening, the EEP members discussed how to get the word out about
their work at the Earth Day Festival for the spring. Armed with an outsider’s perspective, I suggested
that they convene a panel of experts who share with their audience what the average person can do to
help solve climate change. I noted that many, like myself, have the desire to make a positive
contribution but can feel a bit powerless in the face of the climate crisis.

Ginny and I also had the opportunity to help put together issue briefs to inform some talking points
and decisions of the EEP staff. One project concentrated on the transportation, production, and
flaring off of natural gas. We demonstrated how this practice often cuts costs for oil and gas companies
while emitting large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Later during the week, I took some time
to chat with the EEP executive director, Greg Gershuny, about how to make reducing negative
externalities, like carbon-emissions, the cost-efficient option for energy companies. Additionally,
Ginny and I performed some research on the long-term environmental impact of the Belt and Road
project around the globe. Having spent some time living in rural China, I shared with Aspen an acute
knowledge of the cultural significance and controversy surrounding “One Belt One Road” both in
East Asia and around the globe.

During our final day in the DC office, we had the chance to sit in on the Aspen Institute Water Forum
alongside members of congressional committees, energy executives, climate activists, and chairs of
government departments. Each visiting member spoke to how they best thought to address the issue of
access to clean water in the US, with some suggestions conflicting with others. Attendees, like
Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development
Corporation (ACRE), trail blazed a path towards promoting environmental justice for low-income
communities around the country—a theme that would become the central goal of the Water Forum.
People like Greg and Catherine showed me that one doesn’t travel the road to solving the climate crisis
alone. Communities from around the globe have begun to come together to create solutions to
climate-related challenges, like access to water. Organizations like the Aspen Institute give me hope
that proceeding generations will live in a habitable and thriving Earth, and provide the world with a
fighting chance for a sustainable future.