A veteran enviro leader answers questions
What should be the role of academics in supporting environmental causes and policies? Do you think that just doing the research is enough, or should they advocate from their conscience? — Roger Smith, West Hartford, Conn.
Scientists have got to become more outspoken. Today’s issues demand leadership from the scientific community. It’s simply not enough to publish and assume one’s job is done.
I’ve been deeply involved in the climate issue for about 35 years at the Department of Defense, the NRC, and the World Meteorological Organization. The consensus that the atmosphere and climate are changing, that human activities are the dominant cause, and that future changes will be dangerous has steadily strengthened. However, as with all science, uncertainties remain, and those are exploited by a corps of paid professional “skeptics” and used as excuses for inaction by political leadership.
How can responsible scientists most effectively communicate their understanding of the issue — including the irreducible uncertainties — to policymakers without compromising their scientific integrity? None of the mechanisms employed thus far seem to be doing the job! — John Perry, Alexandria, Va.
I could not agree more. I believe we need new “scientists and citizens” organizations across the country, and, on climate, we need a bridging institution with impeccable scientific credibility to take the reports on climate in Science and Nature every week and move them into the mainstream media.
As a soon-to-be graduate (UPenn, B.A. in Environmental Studies), I often wonder where to go from here. I want to work for a better environment and put my energy to the best possible use. I am hoping that you have suggestions on what areas or issues are most important, or where young people are most needed today (activism? law? policy? research? international organizations?). Thank you! — Brennan Quinn, Philadelphia, Penn.
You have a wonderful person now leading your state environment agency — Kathleen McGinty at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Go work there for starters, but you may need a graduate degree first.
Do you believe that we need a World Environmental Organization to stand in contrast to world economic institutions such as the World Bank and IMF? The history of attempts to implement environmental treaties has shown that environmental policies are difficult to follow through on due to lack of coordination in enforcement and monitoring. However, will creating a World Environmental Organization solve these problems? It seems that such an organization would have less power and influence than global economic institutions because the nature of its work would not be economically self-sustaining. — Shoko Takemoto, Saint Paul, Minn.
A WEO will not remedy all the shortcomings, but it is part of the answer. My book, Red Sky at Morning, talks about this issue in some detail.
Regarding sustainable development, in light of your UNDP experience, how do you reconcile the development push from developing nations with the sustainable push from U.S. and European NGOs? This might be a better way of framing the North-South debate, and it seems like every set of negotiations has this problem, that some folks focus on the sustainable and others focus on the development. How do we get everyone talking on the same page? — Kristen Hite (fellow fan of Lake Junaluska), Kingsport, Tenn.
I am not going to write the 1000th essay on the internal cross-pressures within “sustainable development.” We just have to keep our focus on two goals — alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. A group of us are thinking about a new program the theme of which would be something like, “To hell with the North-South divide.” Let’s get beyond it.
How is Lake Junaluska today?
What is your opinion on and reaction to the recent report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists charging the Bush administration with deliberately slanting science and science advice in a range of areas including the environment? — Harvey R.
The UCS report was very solid. This issue has been building for months.
I am a wife and mother and I practice sustainable living in my community. In your opinion, what are one or two important things that a person like me can do to help turn the tide of global climate change? — Pam Campa, Durham, N.C.
Go to the Resources for Citizens section of the Red Sky at Morning website. Good ideas are there.
How important are independent professional voices on the environment and what can they and others do to reduce the high levels of quackery in environmental activism? — John Modra, Colac, Australia
There are so many credible, sound environmental groups!
Since the future belongs to the younger generations, what is the best way of involving young people in environmental work today? In your opinion, what do you see as the greatest barriers to/opportunities for their participation? — Lisbet Kugler, Washington, D.C.
The greatest barrier is that they are “inexperienced.” But if someone had said that to our group that helped start NRDC right out of law school, we’d never have gotten it off the ground!
I would like to hear your answer to this question posed by Theodore Roszak: “Why are so many of us bad environmental citizens even when we ‘know better’?” He suggests that people are overburdened with guilt and gloom and doom and we may need new ways to motivate people to make real changes in their lives. Do you agree, and if so, how? — Larry Chamblin, Pensacola, Fla.
Only the saints among us are willing to lead pure environmental lives when most people aren’t. If it’s a drop in the bucket, why do it, they say. That’s why we need rules and laws.
We have so many environmental, health, and human-rights groups pulling in so many different directions. In the quote you share from your book, you write, “But the clear evidence to date is that, absent some new force in the picture, [our leaders] will be much too late in [promoting needed transitions]. The best hope we have for this new force is a coalescing of a wide array of civic, scientific, environmental, religious, student, and other organizations with enlightened business leaders, concerned families, and engaged communities, networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life.”
Shouldn’t political campaign reform be the primary action to develop this “new force” for all interest groups, so that each activist would have the same influence on our elected officials as a Fortune 500 CEO? — Jack Pipkin, Fort Worth, Texas
We’ve got a long way to go to take the big money out of politics. Campaign reform has just started, I hope.
In the quote from your book, you point out that there needs to be an international movement of people for the environment. I was wondering what you thought of the development of civil society that has been showing up at events like the World Social Forum? Although these events have gotten the tag of anti-globalization, to many of these people there is no distinction between globalization, environmental sanity, or social justice. To many of them, what they are trying to build is a world focused on life rather than money. Is this movement something that could turn around the current environmental crisis? — Bryce Mathern, Seattle, Wash.
Some of my favorite students have gone to the World Social Forum, this year in India. It’s a sign that things are changing.
I understand that your favorite food is South Carolina barbeque, but, respectfully and with much appreciation for so much that you are doing, isn’t it essential that environmentalists move toward plant-based diets and encourage others to do so as well, since the raising of billions of animals annually contributes to so many environmental threats? — Richard Schwartz, Staten Island, N.Y.
I know you are right. I tried for a while, but fell by the wayside.
I just wondered if you were married. — Mary Jane, Blacksburg, Va.
My book is dedicated to my wife of 39 years. Why do you ask?
Was it a pure coincidence that several years ago you won the prize for catching the biggest fish in a charitable fundraising contest managed by your daughter and having many other contestants? — William Butler, Chevy Chase, Md.
It was clear: The luckiest fisherman won. (Bill, join me this year and we’ll ensure that you win this time. Best to Helga.)
What is your opinion of Ralph Nader’s decision to run for president as an independent in 2004? — Griffin Roberts, Seattle, Wash.
Why was Clinton’s environmental performance so lackluster, and what makes you think another establishment, corporate-trough-feeding Dem like Kerry will or can do any better? — Kipchoge Spencer, Nevada City, Calif.
The Clinton Administration did well on domestic environmental issues, but they didn’t expend enough political capital on the global ones. Their biggest problem was the Congress elected in 1994.
I am a doctorate-level geologist with two small grandchildren. Because of my professional background, I am acutely aware of the potential catastrophes that await us as a result of imminent global climate change. I’ve become so depressed about the lack of prospects for real change in environmental and energy policies that sometimes I just want to give up and die. I supported Howard Dean because I believe he alone among the Democratic candidates has the leadership skills to move the U.S. in the right direction and push through the necessary legislative reforms. It was very depressing to see how his campaign was viciously attacked by the powerful interests who stand to lose if real energy reform occurs.
Meanwhile, I recycle religiously, select fuel-efficient vehicles, and try hard to live as lightly as possible — but I feel that all the efforts made by my family and me are for naught in the face of the enormous pollution and greenhouse gas emissions of very large, completely unresponsive industries.
My questions are these: How can one keep from being suicidally depressed given the really dire prospects for our planet’s future? How can you be so sure that John Kerry will have either the guts or the ability to push through the necessary reforms? Do you really believe he is capable of accomplishing real changes in the way this country gets and uses energy? — Sarah Hoffman, Corvallis, Ore.
Being from Oregon, you know that there are great things happening at the state and local levels. There are lots of positive things going on, which I call “JAZZ” in my book, Red Sky at Morning, because they are unscripted, improvisational, bottom-up. My book deals with some of the questions you raise better than I can here — I hope you will read it.
As for Kerry, we have every reason to believe he’d be much, much better — our greenest president since Carter. But he’ll have to contend with Congress, which is split down the middle. The changes we need are deeper than those that can be accomplished by voting in a new slate of political leaders, as important as that is. We need more people like you helping to force change as consumers and citizens.
I am an environmental scientist by trade, have worked on political campaigns at the local, state, and national levels, and actively make efforts against the corporate capitalist onslaught coming from every angle, every day. I find myself either wanting to crawl under a rock, or start throwing them, depending on what the daily news tells me. It’s hard to maintain a sense of direction, devotion, and drive when so much is working counter to my beliefs.
Your list of accomplishments is astounding and amazing. How have you maintained your course over so many administrations, so many difficulties, and continued to persevere? Thanks for your efforts. I applaud you! — Adrienne Boer, Austin, Texas
I’ve had too many privileges and too much fun to be applauded. Joining with people you admire to fight a good fight — what could be better?
I am curious about how people like yourself, who know a great deal about what is going on in the environment, and particularly the threats facing both human and non-human life, manage their emotional lives. It seems that there are some people who can know about very serious problems and still “keep going” and muster the energy to be proactive. Others, often young people vulnerable to despair about the future, can feel very numb, apathetic, and cynical.
So the question is, how do you manage feelings of overwhelm, anger, and other negative emotions when it comes to environmental degradation? What have you observed that enables people to keep going? — Renee Lertzman, Alameda, Calif.
I think I believe at some deep level that the good guys will win in the end and that our job is to hurry that day.