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    Empowering people to adapt on the frontlines of climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fifth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    In the coastal south of Bangladesh, rice paddies that farmers could once harvest three times a year lie barren. Sea-level rise brings saltwater to the soil, ruining the staple crop. It’s one of many impacts, and inequities, of climate change. Despite producing less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions, Bangladesh is suffering more than most countries. Rising seas, heat waves, flooding, and cyclones threaten 90 million people.

    A platform being developed in a collaboration between MIT and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based global development organization, aims to inform and empower climate-threatened communities to proactively adapt to a changing future. Selected as one of five MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects, the Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet) will forecast the local impacts of climate change on people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods. These forecasts will guide BRAC’s development of climate-resiliency programs to help residents prepare for and adapt to life-altering conditions.

    “The communities that CREWSnet will focus on have done little to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place. However, because of socioeconomic situations, they may be among the most vulnerable. We hope that by providing state-of-the-art projections and sharing them broadly with communities, and working through partners like BRAC, we can help improve the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate change, significantly,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Eltahir leads the project with John Aldridge and Deborah Campbell in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners across MIT include the Center for Global Change Science; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

    Predicting local risks

    CREWSnet’s forecasts rely upon a sophisticated model, developed in Eltahir’s research group over the past 25 years, called the MIT Regional Climate Model. This model zooms in on climate processes at local scales, at a resolution as granular as 6 miles. In Bangladesh’s population-dense cities, a 6-mile area could encompass tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people. The model takes into account the details of a region’s topography, land use, and coastline to predict changes in local conditions.

    When applying this model over Bangladesh, researchers found that heat waves will get more severe and more frequent over the next 30 years. In particular, wet-bulb temperatures, which indicate the ability for humans to cool down by sweating, will rise to dangerous levels rarely observed today, particularly in western, inland cities.

    Such hot spots exacerbate other challenges predicted to worsen near Bangladesh’s coast. Rising sea levels and powerful cyclones are eroding and flooding coastal communities, causing saltwater to surge into land and freshwater. This salinity intrusion is detrimental to human health, ruins drinking water supplies, and harms crops, livestock, and aquatic life that farmers and fishermen depend on for food and income.

    CREWSnet will fuse climate science with forecasting tools that predict the social and economic impacts to villages and cities. These forecasts — such as how often a crop season may fail, or how far floodwaters will reach — can steer decision-making.

    “What people need to know, whether they’re a governor or head of a household, is ‘What is going to happen in my area, and what decisions should I make for the people I’m responsible for?’ Our role is to integrate this science and technology together into a decision support system,” says Aldridge, whose group at Lincoln Laboratory specializes in this area. Most recently, they transitioned a hurricane-evacuation planning system to the U.S. government. “We know that making decisions based on climate change requires a deep level of trust. That’s why having a powerful partner like BRAC is so important,” he says.

    Testing interventions

    Established 50 years ago, just after Bangladesh’s independence, BRAC works in every district of the nation to provide social services that help people rise from extreme poverty. Today, it is one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, serving 110 million people across 11 countries in Asia and Africa, but its success is cultivated locally.

    “BRAC is thrilled to partner with leading researchers at MIT to increase climate resilience in Bangladesh and provide a model that can be scaled around the globe,” says Donella Rapier, president and CEO of BRAC USA. “Locally led climate adaptation solutions that are developed in partnership with communities are urgently needed, particularly in the most vulnerable regions that are on the frontlines of climate change.”

    CREWSnet will help BRAC identify communities most vulnerable to forecasted impacts. In these areas, they will share knowledge and innovate or bolster programs to improve households’ capacity to adapt.

    Many climate initiatives are already underway. One program equips homes to filter and store rainwater, as salinity intrusion makes safe drinking water hard to access. Another program is building resilient housing, able to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, that can double as local shelters during cyclones and flooding. Other services are helping farmers switch to different livestock or crops better suited for wetter or saltier conditions (e.g., ducks instead of chickens, or salt-tolerant rice), providing interest-free loans to enable this change.

    But adapting in place will not always be possible, for example in areas predicted to be submerged or unbearably hot by midcentury. “Bangladesh is working on identifying and developing climate-resilient cities and towns across the country, as closer-by alternative destinations as compared to moving to Dhaka, the overcrowded capital of Bangladesh,” says Campbell. “CREWSnet can help identify regions better suited for migration, and climate-resilient adaptation strategies for those regions.” At the same time, BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund is helping to prepare cities for climate-induced migration, building up infrastructure and financial services for people who have been displaced.

    Evaluating impact

    While CREWSnet’s goal is to enable action, it can’t quite measure the impact of those actions. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a development economics program in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the climate-adaptation programs.

    “We conduct randomized controlled trials, similar to medical trials, that help us understand if a program improved people’s lives,” says Claire Walsh, the project director of the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL. “Once CREWSnet helps BRAC implement adaptation programs, we will generate scientific evidence on their impacts, so that BRAC and CREWSnet can make a case to funders and governments to expand effective programs.”

    The team aspires to bring CREWSnet to other nations disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Our vision is to have this be a globally extensible capability,” says Campbell. CREWSnet’s name evokes another early-warning decision-support system, FEWSnet, that helped organizations address famine in eastern Africa in the 1980s. Today it is a pillar of food-security planning around the world.

    CREWSnet hopes for a similar impact in climate change planning. Its selection as an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project will inject the project with more funding and resources, momentum that will also help BRAC’s fundraising. The team plans to deploy CREWSnet to southwestern Bangladesh within five years.

    “The communities that we are aspiring to reach with CREWSnet are deeply aware that their lives are changing — they have been looking climate change in the eye for many years. They are incredibly resilient, creative, and talented,” says Ashley Toombs, the external affairs director for BRAC USA. “As a team, we are excited to bring this system to Bangladesh. And what we learn together, we will apply at potentially even larger scales.” More

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    Architecture isn’t just for humans anymore

    In a rural valley of northwestern Nevada, home to stretches of wetlands, sagebrush-grassland, and dozens of natural springs, is a 3,800-acre parcel of off-grid land known as Fly Ranch. Owned by Burning Man, the community that yearly transforms the neighboring playa into a colorful free-wheeling temporary city, Fly Ranch is part of a long-term project to extend the festival’s experimental ethos beyond the one-week event. In 2018, the group, in conjunction with The Land Art Generator Initiative, invited proposals for sustainable systems for energy, water, food, shelter, and regenerative waste management on the site. 

    For recent MIT alumni Zhicheng Xu MArch ’22 and Mengqi Moon He SMArchS ’20, Fly Ranch presented a new challenge. Xu and He, who have backgrounds in landscape design, urbanism, and architecture, had been in the process of researching the use of timber as a building material, and thought the competition would be a good opportunity to experiment and showcase some of their initial research. “But because of our MIT education, we approached the problem with a very critical lens,” says Xu, “We were asking ourselves: Who are we designing for? What do we mean by shelter? Sheltering whom?” 

    Architecture for other-than-human worlds

    Their winning proposal, “Lodgers,” selected among 185 entries and currently on view at the Weisner Student Art Gallery, asks how to design a structure that will accommodate not only the land’s human inhabitants, but also the over 100 plant and animal species that call the desert home. In other words, what would an architecture look like that centered not only human needs, but also those of the broader ecosystem? 

    Developing the project during the pandemic lockdowns, Xu and He pored over a long list of hundreds of local plants and animals — from red-tailed hawks to desert rats to bullfrogs — and designed the project with these species in mind. Combining new computational tools with the traditional Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute designs found in brush shelters and woven baskets, the thatched organic structures called “lodgers” feature bee towers, nesting platforms for birds, sugar-glazed logs for breeding beetle larvae, and composting toilets and environmental education classrooms for humans. 

    But it wasn’t until they visited Fly Ranch, in the spring of 2021, that Xu and He’s understanding of the project deepened. For several nights, they camped onsite with other competition finalists, alongside park rangers and longtime Burners, eating community meals together and learning first-hand the complexities of the desert. At one point during the trip, they were caught in a sandstorm while driving a trailer-load of supplies down a dirt road. The experience, they say, was an important lesson in humility, and how such extremes made the landscape what it was. “That’s why we later came to the term ‘coping with the friction’ because it’s always there,” He says, “There’s no solution.” Xu adds, “The different elements from the land — the water, the heat, the sound, the wind — are the elements we have to cope with in the project. Those little moments made us realize we need to reposition ourselves, stay humble, and try to understand the land.” 

    Leave no trace

    While the deserts of the American West have long been vulnerable to human hubris — from large-scale military procedures to mining operations that have left deep scars on the landscape — Xu and He designed the “lodgers” to leave a light footprint. Instead of viewing buildings as permanent solutions, with the environment perceived as an obstacle to be overcome, Xu and He see their project as a “temporary inhabitant.” 

    To reduce carbon emissions, their goal was to adopt low-cost, low-tech, recycled materials that could be used without the need for special training or heavy equipment, so that the construction itself could be open to everyone in the community. In addition to scrap wood collected onsite, the project uses two-by-four lumber, among the most common and cheapest materials in American construction, and thatching for the facades created from the dry reeds and bulrush that grow abundantly in the region. If the structures are shut down, the use of renewable materials allows them to decompose naturally. 

    Fly Ranch at MIT 

    Now, the MIT community has the opportunity to experience part of the Nevada desert — and be part of the process of participatory design. “We are very fortunate to be funded by the Council of the Arts at MIT,” says Xu. “With that funding, we were able to expand the team, so the format of the exhibition was more democratic than just designing and building.” With the help of their classmates Calvin Zhong ’18 and Wuyahuang Li SMArchS ’21, Xu and He have brought their proposal to life. The ambitious immersive installation includes architectural models, field recordings, projections, and artifacts such as the skeletons of turtles and fish collected at Fly Ranch. Inside the structure is a large communal table, where Xu and He hope to host workshops and conversations to encourage more dialogue and collaboration. Having learned from the design build, Xu and He are now collecting feedback from MIT professors and colleagues to bring the project to the next level. In the fall, they will debut the “lodgers” at the Lisbon Architectural Triennale, and soon hope to build a prototype at Fly Ranch itself. 

    The structures, they hope, will inspire greater reflection on our entanglements with the other-than-human world, and the possibilities of an architecture designed to be impermanent. Humans, after all, are often only “occasional guests” in this landscape, and part of the greater cycles of emergence and decay. “To us, it’s a beautiful expression of how different species are entangled on the land. And us as humans is just another tiny piece in this entanglement,” says Xu. 

    Established as a gift from the MIT Class of 1983, the Wiesner Gallery honors the former president of MIT, Jerome Wiesner, for his support of the arts at the Institute. The gallery was fully renovated in fall 2016, thanks in part to the generosity of Harold ’44 and Arlene Schnitzer and the Council for the Arts at MIT, and now also serves as a central meeting space for MIT Student Arts Programming including the START Studio, Creative Arts Competition, Student Arts Advisory Board, and Arts Scholars. “Lodgers: Friction Between Neighbors” is on view in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery through April 29, and was funded in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community. More

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    J-PAL North America announces five new partnerships with state and local governments

    J-PAL North America, a research center in MIT’s Department of Economics, has announced five new partnerships with state and local governments across the United States after a call for proposals in early February. Over the next year, these partners will work with J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative to evaluate policy-relevant questions critical to alleviating poverty in the United States.

    J-PAL North America will work with the Colorado Department of Higher Education, Ohio’s Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, the New Mexico Public Education Department, Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and Oregon’s Jackson County Fire District 3. Each partner will leverage support from J-PAL North America to develop randomized evaluations, which have the potential to reveal widely applicable lessons about which programs and policies are most effective. 

    State and local leaders are vital stakeholders in developing rigorous evidence in order to understand which policies and programs work to reduce poverty, and why. By supporting each government partner in developing these five evaluation projects, the voice of policymakers and practitioners will remain a central part of the research process. Each of this year’s selected projects seeks to address policy concerns that have been identified by state and local governments in J-PAL North America’s State and Local Learning Agenda as key areas for addressing barriers to mobility from poverty, including environment, education, economic security, and housing stability. 

    One project looks to mitigate the emission of carbon co-pollutants, which cause disproportionately high rates of health problems among communities experiencing poverty. 

    Oregon’s Jackson County Fire District 3 will investigate the impact of subsidies on the uptake of wildfire risk reduction activities in a county severely affected by wildfires. “Wildfires have become more prevalent, longer lasting, and more destructive in Oregon and across the western United States. We also know that wildfire is disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable populations,” says Bob Horton, fire chief of Jackson County Fire District 3. “With technical support from JPAL North America’s staff and this grant funding, we will devise the most current and effective strategy, deeply rooted in the evidence, to drive the take-up of home-hardening behaviors — methods to increase a home’s resistance to fire — and lower the risk to homes when faced with wildfire.” 

    This project is in alignment with the priorities of J-PAL’s Environment, Energy, and Climate Change sector and its agenda for catalyzing more policy-relevant research on adaptation strategies. 

    Policymakers and researchers have also identified programs aimed at increasing opportunity within education as a key priority for evaluation. In partnering with J-PAL North America, the Colorado Department of Higher Education will assess the impact of My Colorado Journey, an online platform available to all Coloradans that provides information on education, training, and career pathways. 

    “As Colorado builds back stronger from the pandemic, we know that education and workforce development are at the center of Colorado’s recovery agenda,” shares Executive Director Angie Paccione of the Colorado Department of Education. “Platforms like My Colorado Journey are key to supporting the education, training, and workforce exploration of Coloradans of any age. With support from J-PAL North America, we can better understand how to effectively serve Coloradans, further enhance this vital platform, and continue to build a Colorado for all.”

    Similarly, the New Mexico Public Education Department proposes their intervention within the context of New Mexico’s community school state initiative. They will look at the impact of case management and cash transfers on students at risk of multiple school transfers throughout their education, which include children who are experiencing homelessness, migrant children, children in the foster care system, and military-connected children, among others. “New Mexico is delighted to partner with J-PAL North America to explore visionary pathways to success for highly mobile students,” says New Mexico Public Education Secretary (Designate) Kurt Steinhaus. “We look forward to implementing and testing innovative solutions, such as cash transfers, that can expand our current nationally recognized community schools strategy. Together, we aim to find solutions that meet the needs of highly mobile students and families who lack stable housing.”

    Another key priority for the intersection of policy and research is economic security — fostering upward mobility by providing individuals with resources to promote stable incomes and increase standards of living. By adjusting caseworker employment services to better align with local needs, Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC) looks to understand how individualized services can impact employment and earnings. 

    “The commitment of the government of Puerto Rico is to develop human resources to the highest quality standards,” says DEDC Secretary Cidre Miranda, whose statement was provided in Spanish and translated. “For the DEDC, it is fundamental to contribute to the development of initiatives like this one, because they have the objective of forging the future professionals that Puerto Rico requires and needs.” J-PAL North America’s partnership with DEDC has the potential to provide valuable lessons for other state and local programs also seeking to promote economic security. 

    Finally, Ohio’s Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services seeks to understand the impact of an eviction prevention workshop in a county with eviction rates that are higher than both the state and national average. “Stable housing should not be a luxury, but for far too many Franklin County families it has become one,” Deputy Franklin County Administrator Joy Bivens says. “We need to view our community’s affordable housing crisis through both a social determinants of health and racial equity lens. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with J-PAL North America to ensure we are pursuing research-based interventions that, yes, address immediate housing needs, but also provide long-term stability so they can climb the economic ladder.”

    Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services’ evaluation aligns with policymaker and researcher interests to ensure safe and affordable housing. This partnership will have great potential to not only improve resources local to Franklin County, but, along with each of the other four agencies, can also provide a useful model for other government agencies facing similar challenges.For more information on state and local policy priorities, see J-PAL North America’s State and Local Learning Agenda. To learn more about the State and Local Innovation Initiative, please visit the Initiative webpage or contact Initiative Manager Louise Geraghty. More