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Environmental leaders explore path forward on sustainable policies

Hands holding soil with plants growing.

As public concern over the environment escalates, many gathered at a recent conference hosted by the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) discussed what it will take to move the agenda forward to adequately combat the many environmental and energy challenges facing the nation and the world.

“We know we are going to have to be innovative about technologies, about relationships and policymaking, about the kind of data we collect and analyses we do,” said Daniel Fiorino, director of SPA’s Center for Environmental Policy.

At the event co-sponsored by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, leaders from the public and private sector talked about how innovation in environmental policy has expanded with use of economic incentives, information disclosure and new technologies. 

There was a call for more systems-oriented change and integrated solutions that leverage the latest advances in science. Speakers described pollution as both a moral and economic starting point for public policy. There was an emphasis on the needed for regulations so industry can compete fairly with one another and make decisions about investments.

Yet, debate about these issues has become polarized and the challenge is to get people to come together as the 50th anniversary of the launch of the modern environmental movement approaches, said Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center on Environmental Policy and the Law and editor of the newly released A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future.

“The moment is right, two generations into thinking about the environment in its modern form, to ask: How is the world going to move forward?” said Esty. “Too often the answer seems to be, on the one hand, simplistic deregulation or a senseless return to the nostalgia of the 20th century status quo on the other. Our view is that we have to do things in new and better ways, reflecting the learning of the past 50 years and data available.”

In her comments at the conference, Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of Children’s Environmental Network in Washington, D.C., underscored the urgency of protecting children from environmental hazards and framing the issue as one of public health. She noted over 80 environmental regulations are in jeopardy of being rescinded that have implications on the quality of water and air.

The conference included discussion of the need to involve farmers in climate change solutions, systemic approaches when evaluating sustainability and rewards in the marketplace for promoting environmental practices. A panel on communicating environmental issues included Paul Bledsoe, SPA adjunct professor at AU, who suggested the messaging has been too pessimistic and the evidence is clear that it is in people’s self interest to act on climate change.

“I don’t see climate change as an environmental issue at all. It’s a matter of protecting public safety, reducing economic costs and protecting national security,” Bledsoe said. “We need to take it out of the cultural political context that is seen as an issue of importance to the left and the environmental movement. We have to talk about all the tools we have to solve the problem.”

Experts gathered talked about ways to democratize environmental protection through community right to know, use of new monitoring and sensing technologies, and citizen science. It was noted that the U.S. falling behind countries, such as China, that are investing in the clean industries of the future including energy storage. There is a strong conservative and rural American case to make for a greener economy, clean energy, and smart agriculture.

In his remarks at the event, Former EPA Administrator William Reilly gave his predictions on the environment landscape 20 years into the future, which included the dominance of electric cars, huge infrastructure investments to protect coastal cities from rising sea levels, and the loss of many songbirds and certain trees in the northern U.S. because of the earth’s projected warming. Still, he noted improvements that have been made, a new generation of young people are mobilized, and he encouraged a commitment to the challenges ahead. 

“The national story has to be about the transformation for climate and the environment,” said Reilly. “It’s a story of success. That’s the American story. We need to revisit is, remember it and repeat it.”