Author Archives: Philip Wolfe

About Philip Wolfe

I am a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I work in the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment and the Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction, an FAA Center of Excellence. My research focuses on decision-making frameworks at the science-policy interface and investigating the impacts of global policies on air quality, climate change, and noise pollution.

Thoughts and reflections (from Philip)

This blog has been an incredible opportunity to share information about environmental policy and science from the broad institutional frameworks to the minute details of mercury chemical transport pathways. However, in 60 or so blog posts, it’s hard to encapsulate and communicate even a small percentage of the knowledge gained in preparing for and attending INC5. Instead of attempting a comprehensive summary, I’ll leave a few stray thoughts and reflections on the last few weeks.

I have always been allergic to chocolate, but never have I been so acutely aware of my immune system’s deficiencies than I was in Geneva.  Chocolate is everywhere in Switzerland, and apparently it is delicious.  Grocery stores have entire chocolate sections, and the flavors available range from the expected (hazelnut) to the bizarre (wasabi).

Reading peer-reviewed journal papers is insufficient when it comes to learning science policy. In the first day alone we saw scientists, government agencies, and NGOs use documentary film, personal narratives, long form journalism, and collective demonstrations as ways to share information. In the negotiations themselves, rhetorical metaphors were often more common than mentions of scientific models.

There is no such thing as a one-off negotiation in environmental policy. Every decision and every word choice in the treaty text was scrutinized for how it reflected historical precedence or how it would used to set a precedent in future treaties. When carving out a space for mercury regulation, linkages of concern are not just to already existing institutions but also to institutions that may exist in the future.

Perhaps someone needs to apply the inter- and cross-disciplinary systems-level approach in science and engineering to international policy and governance systems.  Does it make sense to silo treaties into bins like “trade” or “human rights” when these issues are more closely interwoven? The dedicated article to health aspects in the mercury treaty, while its language may not be strong enough to compel parties to act, speaks to the need for a more comprehensive approach to environmental policy.

A Burger King Whopper is the cheapest meal at the Geneva Airport, and it will cost you $16. There is no dollar menu. Start saving now.

The treaty text does not adequately communicate the hard work, compromises, and nuanced deliberations that went into its crafting. As UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said after the text was adopted, “If people could see how hard delegates worked, maybe they would have a better appreciation for international treaties.” I agree with him, but I think it raises a question often asked of scientists: whose job is it to communicate this work?

I have a great idea for a science documentary/reality television show/educational experience. I’m not going to give out all the details because I don’t want somebody to steal it, but the title of the show is “SCIENCE TRAIN!” If you would like to produce it, feel free to contact me.

How much would it cost an NGO to attend INC5?

By: Philip Wolfe

Let’s say you run a small, mercury-relevant NGO in Washington, DC, and you want to come to the final round of the mercury treaty negotiations at INC5. Let’s also assume you’re bootstrapping here, no big splurges. How much is it going to cost you?

Flight: 700-1100CHF for a roundtrip ticket if you book in advance and are flexible with timing and connections (FareCompare).

Hotel: Single or double occupancy mid-range rooms run 140-240CHF/night (wikitravel).

Getting Around: Free access to public transport comes with a hotel stay, and free public transport is available from the Geneva airport to the hotel. However, with late nights in contact groups, you might need to call a taxi in the evening. Expect to pay 12-20CHF per trip if you are staying in a central location. (numbeo).

Breakfast: Best-case scenario: it’s included with your hotel room. Next best case, you can stop at the Coop or Manor. An apple, a croissant, and a yogurt will run you about 3,50CHF. Add a coffee for another 2CHF. Want a real breakfast? It’ll run you 10,50-16,50CHF on a budget. (lonelyplanet)

Lunch: A medium plate at the convention center is 7CHF (add a side for 3CHF), or expect to pay 15-20CHF at a restaurant or café at places like Café des Art’s or Espresso club (wikitravel). Add another 2-3CHF for a soda or juice. You’ll want another coffee for the afternoon meetings; tack on another 2CHF.

Dinner: A main course, a glass of juice, and a side salad is about 32CHF at Café du Soleil. Brasserie Bagatelle is about 40CHF for a dinner of tartar with fries and a soda, if reviews are to be believed. Fondu at the Bains de Paquis and a drink will run about 27CHF.  Add in a dessert or an appetizer and your looking at 50-60CHF, easily.

Snack: It’s a long day, and you’ll be hungry either in meeting or when you get back to your hotel. Add 3CHF a day for a snack of fruit and a granola bar. Add a bottle of water and make it 5CHF.

On a tight budget, average daily basic living expenses will be around 80CHF. Anything unexpected happens (and don’t forget about ATM fees!), and you’re looking at 110-130CHF minimum daily expenses. If you need to grab a train or want to visit a museum the cost only goes up from there.

TOTAL BUDGET: 3100CHF or $3300 USD (range 2400 – 3900 CHF) per single occupancy person.

Even on a tight budget it is not going to be a cheap trip, and these big costs have big implications. First, NGOs attending the negotiations will have a minimum amount of funding. Second, NGOs attending the negotiations will be heavily invested in an issue. What does this mean for minority groups, especially those groups that are disadvantaged? Also, does the amount of investment required to come to a negotiation lead to an NGO contingency dominated by the most extreme viewpoints? How can we ensure equity and credibility in this process?

Mercury Poisoning in Popular Culture

By: Philip Wolfe

In writing for this blog, I’ve been considering the role of communication and message-building in science and science policy. I’m often surprised about the extent of people’s scientific knowledge. Last year I was in a bar in Cambridge that was having a trivia contest, and 90% of the trivia teams there were able to correctly identify the isotope of cesium used to define the second as a unit of time measurement. Now, this was not a random sampling of the US population at large (it was a heavy MIT crowd), but I still think that’s pretty amazing.

Yet, while I’ve been prepping for these negotiations, I have been speaking with friends and colleagues and many of them have no idea about the problems mercury poses to the world. How can the same group of people, a group that clearly has a good science foundation, be so unaware of something that is such a significant policy issue?

I don’t have a great answer (and I would love to hear thoughts from other people), but I thought it might be fun to look at how mercury and mercury-related health impacts are portrayed in popular culture to perhaps gain some insight.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

It turns out there may not be a whole lot of insight to gain. Over 177 episodes of House, not once was mercury the final diagnosis, and its not like the show shied away from outré solutions. Gold, cadmium, cobalt, lead and even selenium poisoning all make it on the final diagnosis tally sheet.

In fact, mercury poisoning is rarely mentioned as even a possibility for whatever pain or illness the primary patient may have. I’ll give the writers credit, when it comes up the details are pretty accurate. In “Son of a Coma Guy,” the team guesses that seizures and visual problems could be caused by mercury exposure at a luxury yacht factory. It’s a neat throwaway fact, as mercury was formerly used in mildew-resistant paints, but that practice has been discontinued in the US since the early 90’s.

One episode of the CBS Drama The 11th Hour, in which a brilliant biophysicist solves science crimes for the FBI and stops deadly experiments (yes, that really was the premise), did look at the long lasting and potentially devastating consequences of mercury releases to lakes and watersheds. I haven’t seen the episode, but judging by the fact that the series was cancelled after just 18 episodes, I think its fair to say it wasn’t part of the cultural zeitgeist.

In movies, mercury is not represented much more. While toxic chemicals have been covered in “based on true events” movies like A Civil Action (trichloroethylene) and Erin Brockovich (hexavalent chromium), Hollywood seems to be pretty silent on mercury. The glaring exception is a wonderfully bizarre environmental agitprop horror film from the 1970s called Prophecy. In it, mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit. What it lacks in accuracy (and it lacks a lot in accuracy) it more than makes up for in terrible special effects.

Mercury’s absence in music is a bit more understandable. “Big Issue” songs, like Joni Mitchell calling for farmers to put away their DDT, have not been in vogue over the past few decades. The Dead Kennedy’s song “Kepone Factory,” about a chemical quite similar to DDT, references the Minamata disaster. In Minamata, Japan, over 2000 people have been diagnosed with a severe neurological impairments from mercury exposure. Japanese-American composer Toshiko Akiyoshi has written a jazz suite about the Minamata disaster, but unfortunately the LP with the most acclaimed recording of this piece has not been released in the US.

I’m not sure why mercury has not been more prevalent in popular culture. The potential dangers are chilling enough and the real-life tragedies (here for example) are certainly deserving of greater acknowledgement and provide compelling narratives for art. It certainly makes it harder for scientists and policymakers to enact real change, or for victims to be compensated for that matter, because there’s such a dearth of awareness of the underlying problem.

I wonder if some celebrity took up mercury as a personal cause if it could raise the public consciousness about the issue. There is evidence that it could. In late 2008, Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, citing hydrargaria from sushi consumption. When the news broke, Google searches for “mercury poisoning” nearly doubled.

Getting a high-profile public figure to support a global treaty on mercury could be one way to improve public awareness. As a scientist though, I fear the flip side of that coin. If mercury becomes a cause célèbre overnight, there may not be enough scientifically-sound publically-available literature to properly support any nascent movement. Ask a scientist studying vaccine safety how they feel about Jenny McCarthy for an idea of how scientists can quickly find themselves unable to control a scientific conversation.

How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps
 (Part 3): A Simple Dictionary for Complex Concepts

by Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Amanda and Philip here with a handy guide to navigating the world of intergovernmental negotiations. In Part 2, we looked at the problem of treaty implementation. In Part 3 we define some key concepts and themes when it comes to institutions and implementation.

While most of the documents for INC5 are in English, it can sometimes feel like they are written in an arcane, impenetrable language. It would take an entire dictionary (or at least a decent glossary) to really unravel all of the words and acronyms of the mercury negotiations. Here, to at least get you started, we are going to highlight four terms that will come in handy when thinking about global institutions and treaty implementation.

Bureaucratic politics

Is policy making really just well informed rational parties figuring out what’s best for the common good, or is there also an aspect of it that’s a little less… altruistic? Graham Allison, an influential political scientist, argued that policy decisions are also shaped by power struggles between different actors within a bureaucracy. These actors have different bureaucratic interests, and want to extend their influence where possible. You might not see the term “bureaucratic politics” often in official documents or hear it in floor discussion, but its important to know that it’s a strong undercurrent to the whole proceedings.

How might bureaucratic politics show up in the mercury treaty negotiations? First, there’s a question of who should be (and has the authority to be) responsible for what. For example, can the mercury treaty address health aspects explicitly (Article 20 b, up for consideration), or should this solely be the purview of the World Health Organization? The US, the EU, and Canada have taken a stance against explicitly including health concerns in the treaty, while broadly supporting global health in other domains. Some human rights groups have attacked this position as being more about bureaucratic politics than reasonable decision making in the world’s best interest.

At the level of the treaty itself, how are responsibilities going to be divided amongst committees and subsidiary bodies? What committees are needed (e.g., implementation, compliance, scientific assessment)? Who gets to sit on these committees? The answers to these questions may be as much about bureaucratic politics as they are about mercury pollution.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

In 1992, the UN held a Conference on Environment and Development (often called the Earth Summit), and established a set of 27 principles to guide sustainable global development—the Rio Declaration. One of these principles refers to nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). This phrase has since become a standard part of many environmental treaties and, despite being very compact, it packs a mean punch in terms of political and equity implications. CBDR acknowledges that, while working towards common environmental goals, different parties have different responsibilities for two reasons:

1.     Different states have had different contributions to global environmental degradation. Developed countries have typically, over time, contributed more to environmental degradation than less developed nations as a result of their historical development trajectories and current consumption patterns.

2.     Developed countries command significant financial and technical resources (sometimes due to environmentally exploitative development trajectories).

The Precautionary Principle

Another legacy of the Earth Summit is the Precautionary Principle. The Rio Declaration, principle 15, states: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Since the Earth Summit, the principle has been invoked in many regulatory contexts for both environmental and health reasons, often with slightly different definitions. At its heart though, the principle shifts the burden of proof: those who want to take preventative action don’t need to definitively prove harm. Instead, the burden falls on those conducting potentially environmentally or health threatening activities to prove that their actions are benign.

An interesting procedural note: the Preamble of the text of the mercury treaty regulation has yet to be formally discussed. Currently in the draft text, there is a suggestion for including a reaffirmation of the Precautionary Principle from the Rio Declaration, but there’s no indication of how that reaffirmation could be written.


Transparency may be the easiest concept on our list to define, but its no less complex or important in implementing a global regulatory instrument. Transparency is the openness, communication extent, and accountability of signatory states. Transparency promotes regulatory compliance because it allows for coordination between parties, it provides reassurance to certain parties that other parties are following through on their responsibilities, and it disincentives actors from considering non-compliance. The UN highlights the importance of transparency with respect to success of achieving good global governance.

Transparency is a crucial part of the mercury negotiations, especially with respect to reporting and monitoring emissions. One of the issues that remains to be settled is the level of transparency built into the treaty regarding trade. Because some parties involved in the mercury negotiations have ratified the Basel Convention and others have not, trade is likely to be especially tricky to reach agreement on.

Now you’re armed with a couple key terms that, we hope, will help you make sense of the current mercury negotiations. Put this knowledge to work by following our blog and Twitter (@MITMercury) as we track the developments of the INC5.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 1 —Sunday, January 13

by Philip Wolfe

Today marks the official start of INC5. Registration has been going on since Friday at 2:00pm, and yesterday was full of opportunities for bilateral and regional working group coordination meetings.

Morning: The first morning is of great importance for NGOs trying to get their messages out to decision-makers. We will be at the MIT Joint Program table to discuss our poster as delegates arrive. We also expect there to be some advocacy demonstrations. For instance, IPEN is sponsoring an event in the morning at the conference center called “Honoring Minamata”.

The schedule is quite broad, so we won’t have a good idea of how the meetings will progress until we actually get to breakout groups. To provide a sense of how broad the schedule currently is, here’s the provisional agenda:

1. Opening of the session.
2. Organizational matters.
a. Adoption of the agenda.
b. Organization of work.
3. Preparation of a global legally binding instrument on mercury.
4. Other matters.
5. Adoption of the report.
6. Closure of the session.

Agenda items 1 and 2 are the biggest part of the schedule for the morning, and while this seems like a brief formality, I assure you this is no small matter. At INC4, the first morning was dominated by opening ceremonies and country opening statements.

Lunch: the official host country reception will be held during lunch of the first day. Formal invitations were given out during registration. And yes, we were invited.

Lunch invitation_Philip

Contact groups will break out, possibly as early as the morning and, if energy and enthusiasm run high, they will work through the night streamlining text and showing signals of movements on difficult and interconnected issues.

Be sure to follow the progress on twitter @MITmercury. While we expect most of the #MITmercury team to be in plenary in the morning, look for Mark Staples and Danya Rumore to potentially follow contact group sessions on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASGM) or storage and waste in the afternoon and for Philip Wolfe and Amanda Giang to provide updates on the contentious issue of how to include health impacts in the final text.

How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 1 of 4—more to come!)

By Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Amanda and Philip, here, with a 4-part handy guide for implementing a global treaty on mercury.  We’ll be walking you through the problems, issues, and potential pitfalls of carrying out a global regulation and how this new regulation will interface with already existing treaties, protocols, and institutions.

Let’s say you want to create a global treaty regulating mercury… easy, right? Here’s a guide to give you the best shot of getting that done.

1.  Prove that the substance poses a real threat, and that the threat is global in nature. Good news. Somebody has already done that legwork for you. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) produced a mercury assessment in 2008 that summarized the state of science on mercury and its impacts. It turns out, mercury is toxic and bio-accumulative (i.e., a real threat!), and it can be transported miles away from where it is emitted (i.e., a global problem!). Done.

2.  Decide upon the scope of the regulation. Are you only going to regulate current mercury emissions or are you also going to regulate the use of mercury in commercial products? Do you regulate mercury waste in the trash stream and, if so, how? How do you control mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining? How do you regulate mercury trade? Defining the scope of the regulation is essentially the meat and potatoes (or the seitan and broccoli, for our vegan metaphor friends) of the treaty. Our MIT team has broken down the current scope into three primary areas: 1) emissions, 2) products and processes, and 3) small-scale gold mining, waste, and trade. Other members of our team will be covering each of those issues in more detail over the following days.

3.  Get somebody to pay for the regulation. The goal of the regulation is to benefit society over time. However, it often takes significant investment of time and resources to achieve that societal benefit. And investment of time and resources are, well, an investment: they don’t come free! Additionally, when countries with starkly different economies are involved in the same treaty, their level of investment and benefits from the regulation will often differ significantly. For example, Suriname and Sweden will most likely require different types and levels of support in order to effectively limit their mercury emissions, and the benefits of the treaty to each country will be felt in different ways. Some countries will need financial support to comply with strict goals. Others will have to pay for this support. This raises the often-contentious question of how should the costs be divided when different countries are responsible for different shares of the global pollution burden – now and historically? Alice and Julie will be covering the financial assistance issue in depth over the next week, as international negotiators try to reach agreement on this tricky subject.

4. Design how the regulation will be enacted in practice. Once you have identified the problem, you have a good sense of its extent, and you think you’ll be able to pay to fix it, how do you get countries to actually follow your regulation in practice? This is the “implementation problem”. You need to develop steps by which countries can follow through with the treaty, as well as methods that allow you to hold those countries accountable to do so. This area, the arena of institutions and implementation, is where we (Amanda and Philip) will be focusing our attention over the next week. In Parts 2 through 4 of this blog series, we’ll examine a variety of issues and concerns related to the implementation problem, different practical strategies for implementing a global treaty, and the views of different parties at the INC5 on issues related to implementation.

5. Negotiate! You’ve made it through steps 1 through 4 unscathed, but here’s where it gets tricky. While you were designing this treaty the best way you see fit, it turns out there were 100 other countries doing the exact same thing. Here’s why INC5 is such an important forum. Each country may agree that mercury is a problem, but no country is going to agree to the treaty if they think signing it will make them worse off then not signing it. Hence, all of those important little details you thought you had settled in step 2 or step 3 are back on the table.  We told you there were 6 easy steps involved in regulating mercury, but we may have forgotten to tell you that once you start negotiating, those steps become iterative, and reaching agreement among different countries may not be easy.

6. Sign, ratify, implement, hold accountable, review, and revise.  This is the goal! We’re hoping that by the end of the INC5, we’ll have a global mercury treaty ready to go.  However, even after signing, there is still work to be done. Funds need to be dispersed, progress needs to be monitored, and rules need to be reviewed as more information becomes available and the world changes over time. Furthermore, you’ll have to work with already existing institutions (the World Bank? the World Health Organization?) and within the bounds of already existing treaties (The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals? The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal?). Amanda and Philip will also be discussing and looking at these institutional linkages with respect to INC5.

There you have it! Easy right? In Part 2 of “How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps”, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the “implementation problem” and explore the kinds of questions that come up when trying to implement a global treaty.

In the meantime, continue to follow our blog and track us on twitter (@MITMercury)

Amanda Giang studies how we quantify the benefits of environmental policies in the face of uncertainty. She is terrified of Legos. Philip Wolfe studies how people make policy decisions in one environmental domain (like air quality) when there are tradeoffs in another domain (like noise pollution). His spirit animal is the puffin.