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Past and present activities of the Environmental Studies Institute (ESI).
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Leaders of 150 Heads of State and Government assemble for a group photograph at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
Leaders of 150 Heads of State and Government assemble for a
group photograph at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

President Bush at the Leaders' luncheon at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
President Bush at the Leaders' luncheon
at the 1992 Earth Summit
Fidel Castro at the Leaders' luncheon at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
Fidel Castro at the Leaders' luncheon
at the 1992 Earth Summit

A worldwide ban on ocean disposal of nuclear wastes

ESI was founded in 1981 in response to dumping of radioactive wastes into the ocean from 1945-1970 at the Farrallon Islands off San Francisco. ESI was asked by then-supervisor Quentin Kopp to evaluate scientific data gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The conclusions were somewhat less reassuring than the official government claim at the time, prompting Congressional Hearings in which ESI was asked to testify. These hearings led to local, state, and national legislation to prohibit future dumping of radioactive wastes at sea.

A South Pacific beach
A South Pacific beach

ESI was then asked by Guam Governor Paul Calvo of the Association of Chief Executives of the Pacific Basin to evaluate a comparable plan proposed by the Government of Japan. At the same time, a consortium of European nations continued to dump radioactive wastes into the North Atlantic. ESI represented the Pacific Island Nations of Kiribati and Nauru in the London Dumping convention (now the London Convention), which led to an international ban on all radioactive waste dumping at sea in 1994. The multi-billion dollar High-Level Subseabed Nuclear Disposal Program for high-level nuclear wastes in the U.S. was immediately terminated, protecting the global ocean commons from potential harm. This ban is scheduled for re-evaluation, however, in 2014. (publications)

Nuclear non-proliferation

Pacific Island nations, concerned about past nuclear weapons testing at Bikini Atoll, and ongoing testing by the Government of France at Mururoa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia, asked ESI to represent them in the 1985 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. ESI prepared several written interventions during this meeting, including a detailed history of Article VI of the Treaty, which compels nuclear nations to reduce their commitment to nuclear weapons in exchange for cooperation by non-nuclear nations. ESI continued working on nuclear matters through the 1990s. (publications)

Understanding nuclear dispersion in hypothetical reactor and weapons accidents

Continuing its involvement in nuclear matters, ESI developed expertise in nuclear dispersion methodology (the Rasmussen Report), and performed several quantitative analyses of the effects of reactor and weapons accidents on urban areas, from Sydney harbor in Australia to Vancouver and San Francisco to several European coastal cities. These studies were commissioned by local and environmental groups, including Greenpeace International. The primary conclusions were that even minor accidents could cause significant human casualties and vast economic harm owing to low-level radioactive contamination of large urban areas, inside and out. Decontamination could cost billions, and threaten abandonment of large urban areas. These early studies remain fully relevant to the ongoing threat of terrorist activities entailing the use of "dirty" bombs. ESI was also invited to testify before Congressional hearings on the shut-down of the Hanford nuclear facility in the state of Washington. (publications)

Prohibiting nuclear submarine disposal at sea

The Government of the United States and the U. S. military developed a plan to scuttle worn-out nuclear submarines--including their decommissioned nuclear reactors--into the deep ocean. ESI evaluated the risks of this practice, and concluded that the potential costs far outweighed the potential benefits. Further consideration of nuclear submarine disposal at sea was immediately added to the prohibition on dumping of radioactive wastes at sea by the Parties to the London Convention. (publications)

Sustainable development

The catch-phrase of the 1990s, sustainable development, culminated in the U.N. Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June of 1992. ESI had the privilege of participating in preparatory meetings for this historic conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Earth Summit itself, as representative of Pacific Island States. ESI also participated in all related U.N. Conferences on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States.

Sustainable fresh water fish and watercress culture
Sustainable fresh water fish and watercress culture

As one of the lasting legacies of these activities, ESI continues to assist developing nations interested in establishing sustainable economies. The Pacific Island Republic of Nauru, for example, was devastated by mining of rock phosphate initiated by colonial powers in 1906. ESI was asked to perform a feasibility analysis of rehabilitating the small island country and establishing an industry based on pinnacles of limestone left behind by the phosphate mining. ESI recently completed a 700-page report that establishes this feasibility and points the way to the development of a fully sustainable solar society that will restore this tropical paradise of "Pleasant Island." (publications)

Climate change

Ambassador Robert Van Lierop of Vanuatu, Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, and Professor Davis at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
Ambassador Robert Van Lierop of Vanuatu,
Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, and
Professor Davis at the 1992 Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro.

From its early involvement with Small Island Countries in the Pacific, ESI was asked to represent countries in the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1990. This Conference led to the formation of the U.N. Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which continues to this day. Following this association, AOSIS asked ESI to serve as its Scientific Advisor throughout the U.N. climate negotiations, up to and including the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol.

During this period, ESI prepared a draft protocol to the Climate Convention, which was submitted formally by AOSIS to the Parties to the Climate Convention and became a primary negotiating platform for developing countries throughout the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. This AOSIS Protocol, as it came to be known, included both the rationale for targets and timetables, proposed specific numbers, and exempted developing countries who had not been responsible historically for emission of carbon dioxide thought to drive global warming. All of these features, and many more contained in the AOSIS protocol, were incorporated eventually into the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1994. On this basis, ESI has been credited as the "author of the first draft of the Kyoto Protocol," although in practice multilateral treaties are negotiated by many individuals and countries working together.

ESI continues its long-standing interest in climate change, although its focus has changed considerably. True to its dedication to evidence-based public policy, ESI analyzed the same paleoclimate records that formed the evidentiary basis of Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore's award-winning documentary "Inconvenient Truth" and discovered that the relation between carbon dioxide and global warming is more nuanced than previously thought. The results of this analysis are currently being peer-reviewed for publication and will be posted on this site following publication. If confirmed, ESI's scientific findings will help point the way to a different, more adaptive, and more cost-efficient environmental policy response to climate change. (publications)

Professor Davis signs the Earth Pledge at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
Professor Davis signs the Earth Pledge at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro

Protecting biodiversity

The most remarkable and unique property of Planet Earth is life itself. The President of ESI is a biologist by training, and has been motivated by a life-long reverence for living things. ESI had the opportunity to contribute to the negotiation of the U.N. Conference on Protecting Biodiversity, and remains dedicated to its aims while disappointed at its prospects. Species continue today the fastest and most devastating extinction in the history of Earth, owing primarily to loss of habitat by human incursion combined with overuse (fishing) and pollution. ESI's response to this circumstance is to focus where it can on small patches of the planet, such as the Pacific Island Republic of Nauru, in the hope of creating model sanctuaries that can illuminate a more hopeful future. (publications)

Protecting biodiversity, photo courtesy of Hans Dieter-Hensel
Protecting biodiversity, photo courtesy of Hans Dieter-Hensel

Ban on persistent organic pollutants

Perhaps the most noxious substances to which the Earth has ever been exposed is a class of organic chemicals called "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs) or "volatile organic compounds" (VOCs). This class of chemicals includes such familiar substances as DDT, which nearly extinguished brown pelicans and the bald eagle. ESI had the privilege of participating in early negotiations that led to the establishment of the U.N. treaty to ban the "dirty dozen," known as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Representing the Island Republic of Nauru, ESI proposed the early wording for prohibiting POPs and other land-based sources of ocean and atmospheric pollution at U. N. preparatory meetings in Reykjavik, Iceland. (publications)

Reducing marine pollution

The defining physical feature of Planet Earth is its ocean--a single, interconnected beautiful body of water and life that covers three-quarters of its surface. ESI began its life protecting the ocean environment from radioactive waste dumping at sea, and has returned repeatedly to ocean protection throughout its three decades of environmental analysis.

Stone beach pinnacles in the South Pacific
Stone beach pinnacles in the South Pacific

One of ESI's signal contributions was the early demonstration that the open sea, far from the pristine natural environment that we preferred to believe, was in reality compromised by contamination from sources of pollution originating from human activities on land. These findings have helped to raise awareness in the global community of the fragility of the ocean environment and the continuing need to protect this "remote" treasure--the source of life on earth and half of the oxygen we breathe.

Humanity has yet to learn how to limit its damage to the ocean environment by sustainable fishing and reduction of land-based sources of ocean pollution, although promising steps are being taken such as the establishment of no-take zones in U.S. fisheries. (publications)

Restoration ecology

"Heal the Earth" has been the common denominator of all of ESI's activities for the past three decades. Preventing nuclear contamination of the globe, protection of the climate and the marine environment from human activities, establishing global and intergenerational equity, and sustainable development--all are necessary conditions for healing the earth.

Sustainable tropical agriculture: low-water eggplant crop
Sustainable tropical agriculture: low-water eggplant crop

Perhaps the most direct approach is to restore ecological systems that have been damaged by human activities, which remains one of ESI's central goals. The Pacific Island Republic of Nauru--the world's smallest country--was devastated by mining that left behind a moonscape of lifeless rock that persists to this day. At the request of the Government of Nauru, ESI designed a rehabilitation plan and process that can restore the tropical paradise that Nauru once was, leading to a sustainable future for Nauru's people living in harmony with Nature's plan. (publications)

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