By: Ed Wäisänen
I recently attended a panel on Advancing Environmental Sustainability in the Trump Era, put on by the School of Natural Resources and Environment at UM. The conversation echoed a wider discussion among liberals and the Left about how to respond to the 2016 election and was, at the very least, an opportunity to frame the debates that must take place among those of us who care about maintaining a livable planet in the coming months.
The beginning of the event was reminiscent of conversations I overheard at COP 22 following the election: speculation as to how terrible the next few years will be for the environment and reasons why we shouldn’t completely despair. There’s apparently some hope in the fact that government moves slowly and the professional class within the federal government is fairly entrenched. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, for example, would take four years, and certain rules enacted at the executive level cannot be overturned without a protracted legal battle. Still, progress on environmental issues, like everything else, will be stalled and possibly reversed.
Professor Joe Arvai, of the Erb Institute, sees green business as a buffer between Trump and climate; citing consumer demand and the willingness of professionals to work for less money for companies that care about sustainability. Apparently some companies favor a carbon tax, and there is some momentum towards sustainability in the energy sector. This is good news if true, but without real systemic change its difficult to see how this is will be enough to save us. At the moment, the businesses funding campaigns of nearly all of our politicians in order to create a favorable regulatory environments for themselves seem unconcerned about recruiting top talent and Energy Transfer Partners seems as willing as ever to build the Dakota Access Pipeline.
David Uhlmann, a professor in the law school, pointed out that we should be more worried about the Congress than Trump, and that the 2018 election will be critical. These days, because of his out-sized awfulness, it’s easy to forget that our problems are bigger than Trump alone. While he didn’t explicitly mention that the Democratic Party has utterly collapsed over the last few years while completely ignoring its base, it seems worthwhile to mention that here.
There was a lively discussion as to whether, as students who soon enter the workforce, we should focus our efforts on doing more science or on communicating science. Someone made the point that a lot of the science is settled, insofar as we already know that we need to take certain actions, and that the real roadblock is support. Keith Creagh of the Michigan DNR remarked that we still need people in agencies solving technical and social problems with science. There was a lot of talk about how to communicate climate change to the public along with some fretting about fake news, as is customary nowadays. Towards the end, Keith also made the point that we don’t need to win everyone over, just enough people to win. Several people noted that a lot of science communication is really boring. Several of the panelists pointed out that it is possible to tell the truth in a captivating way, especially if you connect it to the experiences and concerns of your audience.
There was also a discussion of whether we should rally around single issues or build mass-movements. Rosina Bierbaum, from SNRE, defended simultaneous work on multiple issues in response to a student who was concerned that we might alienate Republicans. Rosina noted that we, all too often, “eat our siblings” when organizations working in different areas are forced to compete for scarce funding. Mass movements grow the pie, and we are stronger together in her view.
In a weird exchange, someone from the audience asked if we should pursue “nasty” tactics like the Right has used. David Uhlmann immediately set about lamenting the state of politics and encouraging us to use “every trick in the legislative book” but never stoop to the level of our opponents. Laura Rubin, from the Huron River Watershed mentioned activism in her younger days, gently opening up the possibility for direct action, and was rebuked by Ulhmann, who pleaded with the audience not to do anything illegal. It was unclear to me what the questioner was even advocating and what Ulhmann feared he was advocating.
There was a great deal of hand-wringing from everyone involved about the need to reach “outside of the bubble” of the University, which tends to happen at these sort of events. Joe Arvai encouraged the audience to leave Ann Arbor, pointing out that he had recently ridden his motorcycle across the US. The reasoning was that we need to build support for environmental causes among non-white people and people from different backgrounds and income-levels. This is true, but there was little talk of what we should do once we get outside the city limits. Keith Creagh, a career bureaucrat and generally moderate-seeming guy, was the only one who I heard suggesting that we link the environment with improving people’s well-being and outlook for the future. Bernie Sanders comes to mind as someone who recently got “outside off the liberal bubble” and engaged millions of people on these terms: by articulating a vision of a better society for most people.
It was nice to see a packed room for the event and the panelists struck a good balance between conveying the gravity of our situation and inspiring action. The most salient point I heard said was that you can’t have your own set of facts about the climate. The question that remains is what we should do about it: Last year at this time, many of us (myself included) believed that we could manage ourselves away from looming tipping points, without having to engage in messy politics. In 2017, it should be clear that we can’t rely on ‘woke’ corporate leaders, and appeals to decency to save us. Bill Humphrey recently made the point that you can’t triangulate with the climate either: “There’s no middle ground. There’s realism or doom.” Without a strong movement behind us, I fear that we will find ourselves negotiating from an imaginary middle ground. Here’s to the first of many gatherings!