Expecting the Unexpected

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
Strolling along Angell Street, it's easy to miss Brown's Urban Environmental Laboratory (UEL). The large green building is set back from the street, partly hidden by a community garden blooming with bleeding heart, wild blue phlox, and creeping jenny. The garden, first dug up and planted by students in the 1980s, has gradually taken over what was once a concrete parking lot; the result is a tiny world-within-a-world, a patch of vibrant greenery set apart from the bustle of the city and the campus.

In the UEL's single first-floor classroom, though, the concerns of the wider world are very much present. There, on a steamy September morning, Senior Lecturer Caroline Karp is pressing a small group of students to think about a host of environmental surprises: Dangerous ultraviolet radiation, for example, penetrates the Earth's atmosphere, thanks to a hole in the ozone layer. Or a sudden, devastating drought hits Texas, due to the vagaries of El Niño. Or monkeypox, an illness usually found only in monkeys and small rodents, is found to be contagious among humans. Such shocks to the status quo happen all the time, Karp reminds her students, and the lawyers and scientists who write environmental laws must be prepared for them.

Welcome to Problems in International Environmental Policy, ES 51, a course that provides what graduate student Shivani Chaudhry calls "a good introduction to how legal issues interplay with nature and with people."

Sound a little vague? Like other classes offered by the Center for Environmental Studies, ES 51 draws on a collection of disciplines - mainly biology, chemistry, political science, and sociology - to explore possible solutions to the world's environmental problems. Two mornings a week, Karp and her students ponder such wide-ranging issues as the sovereignty and use of common resources (oceans, for instance), the impact of pollutants on the atmosphere, and how nations distribute and use their land. Add in the turmoil that exists among governments, multinational businesses, and public-advocacy groups as all try to hammer out environmental treaties and you get an idea how messy this subject can get.

Karp, on the other hand, leads the class with the precision of a scientist and the ingenuity of a lawyer. She first introduces her students to the various factions that create environmental policy, then explains the shifting playing field. "Nature and technology move so fast that human institutions like the law can't keep up," she says. While the uncertain terrain causes headaches for policymakers, who must predict future crises based on often-incomplete scientific information, it can actually be an advantage for students. With everything constantly in flux, Karp points out, newcomers to the field have the potential to make a difference.

The UEL classroom buzzes with possibility while ES 51 is in session. Clean white walls, blond woodwork, and leafy potted plants give the room an open, airy atmosphere. More than thirty students crowd around a semicircle of tables, and with the lecture punctuated by short stretches of group discussion, the class has the casual feel of a workshop. But Karp's lesson plans are anything but casual. She routinely asks students to read more than 200 pages a week in preparation for class. During her lecture she constantly prods them to answer questions more fully, to think harder about how fast environmental policy can change.

Karp should know. For twenty years, she researched environmental quality and then wrote environmental laws before embarking on a teaching career. After graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in biology and geology, she worked for fifteen years as a marine research scientist, devising methods to detect and evaluate human waste in the waters along the Eastern seaboard. Switching coasts, Karp attended law school at Golden Gate University while simultaneously heading the San Francisco Oceanographic Program, a water-monitoring project for the city and county of San Francisco.

She came to Rhode Island in 1987 as a legal intern in the state Department of Environmental Management but soon was named director of the Narragansett Bay Project and was charged with drafting regulations to protect the state's marine environment. In 1992, after her proposed rules became law, Karp accepted a post at Brown."What I'm doing in the classroom is applying what I know about domestic and international environmental issues," she says. "I think it's very valuable for students to be exposed to a practitioner, to learn how a policymaker thinks."

Late in the semester, Karp's students take on the roles of policymakers themselves and negotiate a mock treaty on global climate change. Karp breaks them up into groups that would be typical at an international bargaining table: industrialized nations, developing nations, nongovernmental environmental groups, and transnational businesses. "The students participate in structured negotiations with one another from their organizations' perspective," Karp says. "They have to learn the science and be able to use it."

Modeled after the United Nations' World Conference on Environmental Development, the mock treaty requires students to develop voting and procedural rules as well as regulations - all aimed at reducing harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Negotiations, conducted via e-mail and in the classroom, can be unexpectedly challenging. When Shelley Ratay '98 took ES 51 last fall, she was assigned to defend the interests of multinational corporations. "I learned a lot because it forced me to represent somebody I had always thought of as 'the bad guys,'" Ratay says. "You really have to know your strongest arguments, and that gets everyone engaged."

This semester the mock treaty exercise carries special weight. It's taking place simultaneously with the U.N. environmental conference, in session in Rio de Janeiro in late November and early December. Students are comparing their homework assignments with real negotiations, which they're tracking on the Internet. "They can use the positions the actual countries are using, or they can deviate from them," says Karp, "but they must demonstrate that they understand the arguments."

In preparation for the mock negotiations, Karp steers her students through previous U.N. environmental summits, pointing out that in even a few years policies can change substantially - and unfairly. Read the treaties from the Stockholm conference in 1987 and the Rio meeting in 1992, she says, and it becomes clear that industrialized countries began to take over the proceedings, even though most of the nations participating in the conferences have been from developing countries.

This combination of environmental protection with international politics, though messy, is what attracts many students to ES 51. Alissa Barron '01, a leader of the Brown Environmental Coalition, likes the fact that the class draws people into environmental studies who might not otherwise get involved. "There are students here who have sampled environmental studies," she says, "but there are also people majoring in political science or government who've never taken an environmental-studies class before."

For that reason, Karp considers ES 51 a "gateway" course. "Students can't possibly have a command of all the disciplines involved," she says. Even so, some class members are eager to apply what they're learning. Chaudhry, the graduate student, hopes to return home to India "to work with nongovernmental organizations on biopiracy issues," she says. "That's when international corporations patent pharmaceuticals in the developing world and deprive the local people of access to these resources." For Grey Sample '01, Karp has demonstrated how to combine his two seemingly disparate concentrations. "Environmental studies," he says, "is where international relations and aquatic biology click together."

"This field is a frontier discipline," Karp adds. "There really aren't any rules."

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November / December 1998