Students and researchers from around the country are envisioning a new age of sustainable technology in the tropics as part of the 17th annual International Society of Tropical Foresters conference.

Hosted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the conference kicked off Thursday night with a keynote address delivered by Harvard Professor Dr. Calestous Juma at Kroon Hall. Speaking to an audience of about 200 students, faculty and visiting scholars, Juma proposed the human race’s use of technological innovation as a way to prepare for global climate change.

Entirely student organized, this year’s conference is themed “Communities, Commodities and Carbon,” co-chairs Ian Starr FES ’12 and Tina Schneider FES ’12 said. They said they were inspired by the growing global interest in tropical resource development and the ensuing commodity and community problems it causes.

During his speech, Juma used examples of past technological revolutions, such as the mobile phone, to demonstrate how changes in our lifestyle can radically affect the environment. The introduction of cell phones, for example, precluded the installation of millions of telephone poles across Africa, he said. Juma said they are also now the biggest medium for the transfer of money on the African continent.

“Our technologies already exist, the question is how do you get technology into the economic system?” Juma said.

An increasing global interest in investing in sustainable resources has produced economic problems in small tropical communities, Schneider said. When they receive too much money too fast, Schneider said, villages may find their traditional ideas about local resources supplanted by those of foreign investors.

Starr said that studies on carbon are particularly important in the tropics because of the potential to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in plants and soil. It is a hot topic — there are a lot of studies being conducted on sustainable forestry, Starr added.

“We’ve been getting medicines and building materials from the tropics since we developed on earth,” Starr said.

Juma said the way to prepare small communities for new technologies would be to build strong local civic leadership.

He added that this development strategy holds particularly true in Africa where many territories offer the opportunity for urban planners to design cities from scratch that meet environmentally sustainable specifications.

“[In Africa we can] create cities from scratch, new cities that will be more ecologically designed,” Juma said.

There are dangers in relying on technology, Juma said, but not to take advantage of the tools at our disposal and ameliorate the acceleration of climate change would be more dangerous. This means we must more efficiently harness technology that already exists, Juma said, in order to build new sustainable industries.

Though attendees agreed that the keynote presentation was well-designed, Tony Ma, attendee and Yale School of Nursing data manager, said he thought the talk was too ambitious in its scope.

Audience mambers came for a range of reasons, from idle curiosity to career development.

While Ma explained that he came because he had nothing else to do with his evening, Gillian Cesbu of the University of Freiburg registered because the study of sustainable forestry directly relates to her own work. Others like Gillian Baine FES ’12 came out of intellectual curiosity.

The conference will conclude at 12 pm Saturday.