Geography class partners with City of DeKalb

By Noah Johnson

DeKALB — Students in Geography Professor Courtney Gallaher’s class could change the way the city of DeKalb deals with the climate crisis.

They sat in a Davis Hall conference room on a bright Thursday morning, discussing their plan of action.

“Right now we’re in the process of data collection,” environmental studies major Andrew Miller said. “Getting in touch, finding out who the important people are in different areas of the city.”

Six of Gallaher’s students are working alongside the co-founders of 350Kishwaukee, Sandra and Dave Davis, to create a greenhouse gas inventory for the city.

A greenhouse gas inventory aims to identify the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions within a geographic region, to understand emission trends and to set goals for emission reduction, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A greenhouse gas inventory includes data relating to energy consumption, production and transportation; solid waste and waste water; animal and crop related emissions, according to the EPA.

The co-founders of 350Kishwaukee, the students and Teaching Assistant Emery Dhanens are trying to find data reflecting DeKalb’s waste management, natural gas emitted from government buildings, vehicle miles driven by public transportation and other sources of potential emissions throughout the city.

Henry Pelesh, an energy and environmental technology major, said the project is difficult since the data is coming from so many places.

“You have to incorporate all of these people and, you know, ask for the correct data, and then sum that all up,” Pelesh said. “It would be a lot easier if we just had to contact Public Works and just get their [data] but it’s like everybody needs to contribute for us to accurately show the inventory.”

Dhanens is a climate scientist by training who works directly with the students on the project.

During the discussion, she further illustrated the difficulty of getting information from various sectors of the city for the inventory.

“Sometimes they don’t keep great records,” Dhanens said. “I feel like some things go unreported. We’re going to take what they give us because that’s better than no data at all. The data isn’t always perfect you know what I mean? So, there’s an uncertainty about what we’re doing.”

Environmental studies major Ashley Broussard is working on creating data request forms to streamline the data collection process.

“Right now we’ve got templates we can use to convey what we’re trying to get from everyone,” Broussard said. “However, some of the data request forms don’t specify exactly what we need, so I’ve been trying to modify a couple of them to see if we can get things sorted out and like a more clear way.”

Gallaher has taught environmental management since 2012. She said over the years, she wanted to find opportunities for students to become more involved with the topics they were being taught.

“The class that I inherited from the previous professor was very much an academic exercise,” Gallaher said. “You’d read journal articles and research papers and that was it, and students didn’t learn any concrete skills and they didn’t have any connection to those issues.”

Gallaher said that over the summer, she contacted Sandra and Dave, to see if her students could work with them on issues related to climate justice.

350Kishwaukee is the local branch of an international climate activist organization, aims to reduce fossil fuel usage in cities, states and countries.

Dave said 350Kishwaukee has been in DeKalb since 2015, working on various projects pertaining to the climate with NIU students. He said that 350Kishwaukee members met with Mayor Jerry Smith to convince him to join Climate Mayors.

Climate Mayors is a network of mayors in the U.S. committed to upholding to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Honoring the goals of Climate Mayors, respective cities are tasked with creating a greenhouse gas inventory, setting near and long term targets to reduce emissions, in addition to developing a climate action plan.

Dave said after Jerry Smith joined Climate Mayors, the class’ project was registered with ICLEI, a software used to complete greenhouse gas inventories.

“This would be the first time that the city is directly affecting how we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in relation to the Paris Climate Agreement,” Gallaher said.

Gallaher said the project’s challenges would make valuable learning experiences for students.

“I think it’s important to go through the exercise of seeing just how complicated it is to create something like a greenhouse gas inventory because it gives them really applied tools that they can take out into the world for jobs,” Gallaher said. “It also is really empowering to feel like as a student, you get to affect change in the world. Like, this is a big deal. What they’re working on this could cause the whole city to change their transportation patterns, their waste management patterns and to deal with the climate crisis.”

She said though the general public may be unaware of the harms brought about by greenhouse gas emissions, her students aren’t.

Gallaher said the goal is for her students to finish the project before the semester ends so that 350Kishwaukee and the City of DeKalb can begin working on policy goals related to reducing emissions at the start of the new year.

“We’re looking at catastrophic loss of life globally, if we do not change our, our patterns,” Gallaher said. “And it’s incredibly depressing to be working on this issue, but you know, spouting off on Facebook doesn’t change things, doing things like this [changes] things.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated 1:30 p.m. Oct. 22 to correct an error. The story referred to a “Geology class” instead of a “Geography class.”