Sustainability fuels science at major climate conference

by Gretchen Roecker
Oct 06, 2011

Comer farm trees

Megan Morrison/MEDILL

With two wood-fired boilers and a team of horses, Scott Travis limits fossil fuel use at the Comer complex and farm by collecting timber from the property’s forests to heat several of the buildings.

Scott Travis3

MEDILL

Scott Travis manages the Comer retreat in Wisconsin, where he's lived year-round since the 1990s. He works to make the property a sustainable haven for the Comer family and the scientists who come to an annual climate change conference.

Scott Travis - Peppers

Photo by Scott Travis

An on-site garden and greenhouse, bursting with organic produce, provided ripe vegetables for the Comer Conference scientists and guests.  

Dozens of scientists attending the Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change each year enjoy the late Gary Comer's Wisconsin retreat for a few days as they swap research updates, family stories and home-cooked meals.

But Scott Travis, a field assistant for some of the scientists, manages the 850-acre former farm and lives there year-round. Though his background is more in horticulture than glaciers, he's traveled with the researchers he befriended to Greenland and other sites to help them collect data. They present crucial pieces of the climate change puzzle at the conference, hosted by Stephanie and Guy Comer each year.

Back in Wisconsin, he keeps everyone fed, caffeinated and comfortable for all the brainstorming and presentations during the three-day conference of researchers who receive Comer Foundation support.

The scientists share a passion for studying climate change on a massive geographic and historic scale, but they recognize the impact that day-to-day individual actions can have on keeping the planet healthy.

Travis takes up the challenge to reduce the Comer retreat's carbon footprint by using horses for horsepower and building into the hillsides. Here are a few top priorities for a low-carbon lifestyle.

  • Sustainable fuel. Travis has used horses, not horsepower, to haul wind-felled wood from the forest blanketing the hills on the farm since 2005. That lumber feeds two high-efficiency wood-fired boilers capable of heating at least two buildings. And while the lights in the main building and along pathways stay on to keep guests safe during the conference, Travis shuts off all unneeded heat and electricity for most of the year.
  • Sustainable food. A garden and greenhouse bursting with beets, squash and eggplant provide enough organic produce to sate Travis, his staff and the Comer family. This year, Travis's onions, herbs and tomatoes added flavor to the hungry scientists' plates, too. (And like the food, the plates, cups and utensils used at the conference complex are all compostable.)
  • Sustainable construction. Most of the buildings at the complex, including an airplane hangar used for conference sessions, are built into a hillside. That keeps them naturally insulated in the winter and cool in the summer. Travis said little material goes to waste in updating the facility. "When we take down a building, we recycle everything that we can," he said.

The least energy efficient building is the "climate change hotel," a log cabin purchased from a neighbor that now houses 16 of the scientists during the conference, Travis said. Even though the cabin lacks the eco-friendly features of the rest of the buildings, it plays a key role in making the conference unique, Travis said.

"What it's done for the science group is pretty great," Travis said, because the cabin's secluded location, surrounded by trees, wildflower meadows, trout streams and woodland paths, gives them a chance to unwind in a natural setting.

Philanthropist Gary Comer founded Lands’ End in 1962 and ran the popular apparel company for 40 years before selling it to Sears. After that, he devoted his self-made fortune to support the Comer Children’s Hospital at the university of Chicago, climate change research worldwide and education.

Comer recruited Travis, a Wisconsin native who had been working at Lands’ End for six years, to help build and manage the retreat in 1993. Originally used for business meetings, it now gives forward-thinking climate scientists from across the world a comfortable and inspiring place to meet and hash out ideas about the planet's history and future.

"It's this non-traditional environment where you can get out and walk and talk and speak freely," Travis said. "It's this interchange of ideas and research among them that really seems to create this energy level they don’t see other places and brings them back."

The scientists, who see the impacts of climate change in their fieldwork, understand the stakes.

Irene Schimmelpfennig, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the Swiss alpine glaciers she studies could disappear entirely in the next few hundred years if the current warming trend continues. The actions she takes to reduce her emissions include composting, using public transit and conserving electricity. That's not enough to avert the melting but individuals do have a role to play in slowing warming trends.

"If everybody had the consciousness to make this effort, it could have a significant impact," Schimmelpfennig said.

Another Lamont scientist, Aaron Putnam, said taking personal responsibility for carbon emissions isn't just a nice thought. It's a necessity.

"We need to ultimately find a way of leveling emissions off," Putnam said, "so it's going to require everyone to work together."

And as long as Putnam, Schimmelpfennig and the other scientists keep coming back to work together, Travis will be there to welcome them with local Wisconsin beers and cheeses, hugs and how-are-you's, and a space built to sustain their work and the planet they study.