Fighting Back Against Attacks On Climate Change
Warmly welcoming the audience, Andrew Sabin Professor Michael B. Gerrard underscored that the purpose of environmental policy in the US is "largely about taking the findings of science… and turning it into laws and regulations." It is unsurprising, then, the entities charged with creating and enforcing these regulations "sometimes fight back… in part, by attacking the… underlying climate science." Since the uptick of climate science denial in the late–2000s, "the climate science has become even more compelling," yet current ruling political sentiment continues to reject it, and, indeed, entire publications have become veritable "megaphones" denouncing it. Sobering statements notwithstanding, Professor Gerrard succinctly set the stage for the panelists with his assertion: "this evening's program is about fighting back."
Environmental Activism In A Historical Context
Keynote speaker, former EPA Administrator (2013–2017), and Harvard Professor Gina McCarthy began by emphasizing, "The US has made an incredible amount of progress." Presenting historical anecdotes that classified mid-20th Century Los Angeles as "the preeminent pollution capital of the world," Professor McCarthy explained the consequent rise of environmental action, because "people took action about pollution they could see, and feel, and taste." This eventually gave rise to Earth Day. "We still do those!" she wryly reminded the audience.
The EPA was created shortly after the first Earth Day, in 1970. Almost immediately, Congress charged the agency with administering The Clean Air Act of 1970; the resulting emergence of technologies made the world cleaner and healthier. "We took big leaps forward… because we worked together," Professor McCarthy maintained. "We will continue to take big leaps forward," no matter the political landscape, because "We are a democracy" and "it's time for us to speak."
The Detrimental Effects Of Unfounded Doubt
Professor McCarthy's enthusiasm was contagious and her optimism regarding support of the climate action movement was buoyant. Her alarm about current dynamics, however, eventually surfaced:
Underpinning the visible attacks and rollbacks [on environmental policy], there is an insidious movement… which is really about attacking the science and the scientists themselves… It could be… damaging… even if the rollbacks don't succeed, because it's continuing the mantra that government is not your friend, it's not working for you, that it is a political entity solely, that it has vested interests… which aren't based on science and reality and what humans need to be, need to have in order to ensure their basic right to clean air and clean water and clean land. That's what [the] EPA is designed to protect, and these insidious attacks on science are real challenges to the very fabric of why government exists, why a democracy exists. Nothing could be more visible in this attack, than the attack on climate.
She continued, "Science on climate is, without a doubt, the most robust science that we have available to us." At the same time, a "science issue" has been transformed into a partisan one. Professor McCarthy urged a perspective that focused on the future of the US and she issued a direct challenge to those who fixate on the historic role carbon-intensive energy sources have played. "Science," she declared, "must always be, the engine that drives prosperity and innovation. We're not just denying climate science, we're denying the economic benefits and the jobs and the leadership, internationally, that come along with embracing what we know climate science tells us, and the actions we need to take to move increasingly toward a clean energy economy."
Keep It Simple, And Keep It Going
Embracing climate science need not be difficult! When she reminded the audience, "Climate change is nothing more than carbon pollution," Professor McCarthy simultaneously articulated the simplicity of the problem and moved the audience to hope: if the US can successfully combat other pollutants, the US can successfully combat this one. Articulating climate change as a vague, far-off obscurity elicits panic and despair, whereas the country needs impetus to move forward with confidence and enthusiasm.
Based on her experience in the public sector, her message can be summarized in a phrase: successful momentum relies upon consistent grassroots activity. Focusing on "what's happening in our own communities," rather than on the action — or inaction — of the federal government, makes a difference. Although the link between planetary health and human health is certain, Professor McCarthy urged people to do two things. First, "Put a face on climate change," by appealing to what matters to humans most — themselves and their families, and, second, rally against the current attacks on science and scientists themselves. She closed with the query, which echoes the hopelessness felt by many in the fight for climate justice and environmental equity: "How do we generate momentum, rather than the anxiety we're feeling today?" Here's her answer, "Fight for the science. Defend the scientists… That's how this country has always moved forward. That is what it is going to take to turn this into an opportunity for all of us."
Prior to introducing the evening's panel, Sallan Foundation Executive Director Nancy Anderson took a moment to reflect on Professor McCarthy's thoughts, and remarked that although the current administration did not birth climate science denial, it's legitimized it. "This damage to the credibility of climate science is as much cultural as it is political, and attacks on it won't disappear" with transitions of administration. Hence, the necessity of continuing to "resist and persist in the defense of the scientific enterprise".
The True Effects Of Attacks On Climate Science
New York Times climate beat reporter and panel moderator John Schwartz began by asking about the effects of attacks on climate scientists — especially women. Professor Robin E. Bell of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was the first to spell out that to fully understand the extent of the Earth's reaction to anthropogenic climate change, "we need the smartest… most diverse brains at the table." Attacks succeed in driving talent from the fields of science and technology — at the most vulnerable time. TedEd Science Curator David Biello followed up on Professor Bell's thoughts by noting the treatment of climate scientists, and using that as a proxy for, "what's coming in our future." Biello drew parallels between Climategate and the US's most recent presidential election, remarking that the public should "keep their eye on the climate scientists" to monitor politically motived "tricks that may be tried in our broader democracy." Lisa Garcia, Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities stressed that such attacks could have consequences not only for today's climate science practitioners, but also for future scientists. As well, such behavior undermines educational initiatives encouraging young girls to pursue careers in STEM.
"Fear Does Not Work"
Given the shared understanding about the importance of science-based action, Schwartz asked panelists about the importance of effective scientific messaging, and how best to oppose climate defeatism. Biello was quick to dismiss any value in defeatism, citing only two possible outcomes to that train of thought: inaction or negative action. Professor Bell continued, stressing, "Fear does not work." It doesn't elicit conversation — in fact, quite the opposite. Executive Director of Climate Nexus Jeff Nesbit agreed. "When people feel like they can't… make a difference, they're going to go do other things." For people to abandon the cause would be unfortunate to say the least; Nesbit insisted, "We still have time to turn this around… I believe we will turn this around [and] see an energy transformation." Despair will only inhibit our ability to catalyze real change, which, as Garcia aptly noted, does not happen overnight and often takes a long time.
So, What Does Work?
Schwartz and all panelists agreed: Doom and gloom does not work." What then, he asked, comprises a compelling and motivating statement?
According to Nesbit, honest conversation is the most effective. "You have to talk about the problem… then you deliver the treatment. They go hand-in-hand." Though a "doom and gloom" approach doesn't work, "it certainly wakes people up." Conversely, naive optimism, given the gravity of our climate challenge, doesn't work either. Only collective knowledge will deepen an honest public and professional discourse and aid in finding solutions.
Professor Bell uses a threefold approach in her communications: she engages data-driven conversations, she describes her personal actions, and she focuses on tangible effects that resonate with people. For example, coupling the beauty of the planet with a scientific understanding of how the planet works.
In Biello's professional experience, contrary to the currently polarizing political situation, climate science denial has not been as much a political issue as a regional one; talking to people "where they are" has proven effective. Indeed, Professor Bell noted the difficulty of explaining climate change when its effects aren't geographically ubiquitous. "Everybody is not seeing our planet, and how it's changing, the same." Nationally and globally, "there are places where it's actually not getting warmer."
Schwartz pressed on: if personal experience plays a large role in climate change discourse, what reaches people who are "set" in their disbelief?
Nesbit concentrates on (often otherwise conservative) voters under 35. This younger demographic, once its members begin truly voting in numbers, gives him hope for positive movement on climate change.
Garcia underscored the importance of focusing on a bipartisan narrative that is engaging and personal with everyone in the US's diverse population. Garcia observed, people aren't "Publicly connecting the dots," so she talks to people in ways that "don't politicize" the issue. She won't "talk about 'climate' and certainly won't talk about whether it's a Democratic issue or a Republican issue." Instead, she focuses on heightened economic benefits, advances in technology, which concurrently reduce pollution, and the effect environmental degradation can have on public health. "Usually," she explained, "when you talk about children and public health everyone kind of agrees, we want to reduce pollution, we want to protect the children." She finds that these methods elicit a less angry conversation.
The take-away: the consequences of attacking climate science are damaging to academic legitimacy, sound and effective public policy making, journalism, public health, ecological welfare and our collective future. Professor Gerrard, Professor McCarthy, and Dr. Anderson's call to arms, to fighting back, was motivational, and the panel brought an optimism, humor, and poignant relatability that was both concrete and inspirational. While the US has much work to do, our panelists reminded us to be neither hopeless nor despondent. We owe dedicated engagement to what we hold dearest and to which we believe in: our families, our homes, our communities, and our nation. We are fortunate, as Nesbit noted, that given the US' "temperate zone," climate change has not affected us as it has some countries, such as "sub-Saharan Africa." In return, we must persevere by engaging in kind, civil, personable discourse and, in the words of Gina McCarthy, by "turning the climate change challenge into an opportunity."
Shruti Nayar is an Analyst at GoldenSet Capital Partners. At GoldenSet, she supports the investment team in the underwriting of new investments and the monitoring of the existing portfolio. In addition, Shruti supports GoldenSet's environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives as well as the firm's commitments as a Signatory of the Principles of Responsible Investing (PRI).
Prior to joining GoldenSet, Shruti was the Director of Asset Management at Green Street Power Partners, a solar project developer and financier. While at Green Street, Shruti was responsible for overseeing the performance of the company's portfolio, investor reporting, and maintaining the company's financial models.
Shruti acquired her undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester, where she dual-majored in Economics and Environmental Studies, and researched under faculty members of the University Council on Sustainability. She holds an Advanced Diploma in Energy Finance from NYU and serves on the board of NYC's Young Professionals in Energy.
Missed our Climate Week NYC 2018 Official event on 24 September — Watch it now.
Attacks on both the message and the messengers of climate science have been disturbingly resilient. Why is that? What are the best ways to reconnect sound science with clear-thinking public action on climate change? What strategies are climate scientists and science communicators developing now?
Where To Go To Find Out More
Official Event of Climate Week NYC 2018
- Climate Week NYC 2018
By providing an international platform for government, business and civil society to work together on low carbon solutions, CWNYC once again showed the world that organizations and individuals can play a pivotal role in advancing the debate, driving awareness, and keeping climate action at the top of the global agenda.
- Columbia Law School, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law
- The Earth Institute, Columbia University
- Climate Science Legal Defense Fund
- the Sallan Foundation
- John Schwartz, New York Times Science Reporter
- Michael B. Gerrard @MichaelGerrard, (Event Host) Professor and Director, Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia University
- Gina McCarthy, (Keynote) Executive Director, former EPA Administrator, Director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
- Nancy E. Anderson, (Introducer) Executive Director, the Sallan Foundation
- Robin E. Bell, (Panelist) Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Earth Institute
- Lisa Garcia, (Panelist) Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities, Earthjustice
- David Biello, (Panelist) Science Curator, TEDEd
- Jeff Nesbitt, (Panelist) Executive Director, Climate Nexus
Sallan Curated Links
- The Silencing Science Tracker is a joint initiative of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. It tracks government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information, since the November 2016 election. [Link to Silencing Science Tracker]
- John, Courtney St. "The Role Of Media For Advancing Discourse On Climate Change | Courtney St. John | Snapshot Column." Sallan.org, The Sallan Foundation, 2 July, 2018 [Link to Sallan Snapshot]
- Climate Engineering and the Law. (2018). In M. Gerrard & T. Hester (Eds.), Climate Engineering and the Law: Regulation and Liability for Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Dioxide Removal (pp. I-Ii). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Link to Cambridge University Press]
- Nesbit, Jeff. "This Is the Way the World Ends | Jeff Nesbit | Macmillan." US Macmillan, Thomas Dunne Books, 2018, us.macmillan.com/books/9781250160461. [Link to This Is the Way the World Ends]
- Leber, R. (2018, November 03). Tom Steyer and the link between hate groups and climate denial. Retrieved November 8, 2018, from [Link to Grist]
Nancy E. Anderson, Executive Director of the Sallan Foundation, is a life-long New Yorker. After obtaining both her B.A. and Ph.D. from New York University, she served as an environmental advisor in City government for two decades.
Since opening the doors of the Sallan Foundation in 2005, she has worked to advance useful knowledge for greener cities. Making high performance building New York's "new normal" and seeking sustainable solutions to urban energy needs are among the Foundation's key campaigns. Dr. Anderson writes a regular column and organizes conferences and lectures on subjects core to the Foundation's mission. Her most recent project was advising on the development of Underwriting Efficiency: A Mortgage Lender's Handbook for realizing energy and water efficiency opportunities in multifamily housing.
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Michael B. Gerrard is Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, where he teaches courses on environmental and energy law and directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He is also Chair of the Faculty of Columbia's Earth Institute.
Before joining the Columbia faculty in January 2009, he was partner in charge of the 110-lawyer New York office of Arnold & Porter LLP. He practiced environmental law in New York City full time from 1979 to 2008 and tried numerous cases and argued many appeals in federal and state courts and administrative tribunals. He formerly chaired the American Bar Association's 10,000-member Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. He has served as a member of the executive committees of the boards of the Environmental Law Institute and the American College of Environmental Lawyers.
Gerrard is author or editor of eleven books, two of which were named Best Law Book of the Year by the Association of American Publishers. His most recent book is Global Climate Change and U.S. Law (with Jody Freeman) (2d ed. 2014).
Gina McCarthy, former EPA Administrator, Director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Gina McCarthy's 35-year career in public service has been dedicated to environmental protection and public health. As Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, she was the nation's leading advocate for common-sense strategies to protect public health and the environment, including efforts to address the challenge of climate change and ensure the protection of the country's water resources. Her leadership led to significant federal, state, and local actions on critical issues related to the environment, economic growth, energy, and transportation.
Since leaving Washington, McCarthy has been a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics and the Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and joined Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm, as an operating advisor focused on sustainability and wellness investments. McCarthy now also serves as Professor of the Practice of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of Harvard Chan's Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, leading the development of the School's strategy in climate science, health, and sustainability.
John Schwartz is a science writer for The New York Times, focusing on climate change.
Writing for The Times since 2000, John has covered law, technology, the space program, infrastructure and more. His work has appeared in nearly every section of The Times, including the Book Review, Science Times and the Arts section. He writes a humor column for the business section's mutual funds quarterly. He is the author of four books, including a financial memoir and guide, "This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order." Before coming to the NYT in 2000, he worked at The Washington Post and Newsweek. He was born in Texas, and is married to his college sweetheart, Jeanne Mixon; they have three grown children.
Robin E. Bell is the PGI Lamont Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a core component of the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Bell received her undergraduate degree in geology from Middlebury College in Vermont and her PhD in geophysics from Columbia University in 1989. Since completing her doctorate she has lead research Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on ice sheets, tectonics, rivers and mid-ocean ridges.
Currently Bell is the PGI Lamont Research Professor at where she directs research programs in Antarctica, Greenland, and developing technology to monitor our changing planet. Bell has coordinated ten major aero-geophysical expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland, studying what makes ice sheets collapse. She has discovered a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, several large lakes locked beneath 2 miles of ice and demonstrated that ice sheets can thicken from below. Bell lead a Lamont team to map the Hudson River from Staten Island to Albany. In 2006 Bell received an honorary degree from Middlebury College and had an Antarctic Mountain named for her.
During the International Polar Year, Bell lead a major expedition the Antarctica to explore the last unknown mountain range on Earth, the Gamburtsev Mountains completely covered with ice. Here the Team discovered that water hidden beneath the ice sheet runs uphill. Using the new IcePod and gravity technologies, Bell's team is presently exploring the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating piece of ice the size of France that covers the least known piece of ocean floor on our planet.
Bell is President-elect of the American Geophysical Union, the largest organization of Earth and Space scientists on our planet. Bell is a passionate sailor. Bell and her husband have crossed the Atlantic four times, sailed the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and chased icebergs in the Labrador Sea.
David Biello is the author of The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. He is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999 — long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed. He is the Science Curator for TED as well as a contributing editor at Scientific American. He has also written for publications ranging from Aeon and Foreign Policy to The New York Times and The New Republic. Biello hosts the documentary series Beyond the Light Switch as well as The Ethanol Effect for PBS.
David Biello received a BA in English from Wesleyan University and a MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He currently lives with his wife, daughter, and son near a Superfund site in Brooklyn.
Lisa Garcia, as the Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities, Lisa Garcia charts Earthjustice's course in groundbreaking and high-impact litigation to protect communities and families from the wide range of pollution issues that confront them on a daily basis.
For decades, Earthjustice has worked at the regional and national levels to ensure widespread protections from air and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals. Lisa works to continue and strengthen Earthjustice's legacy of winning protections for these families and communities.
Prior to coming to Earthjustice, Lisa served in the Obama Administration as Senior Advisor to the Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, a role where she elevated environmental justice issues to the highest levels of the agency. She helped draft and implement Plan EJ 2014, EPA's roadmap to integrating and strengthening environmental justice throughout its programs, activities, and decisions.
Garcia also worked to promote meaningful, working relationships with overburdened, low income, minority and tribal communities, as well as build strong partnerships. She led the Environmental Justice Interagency Workgroup with other Federal agencies — including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce — to address some of the country's most persistent environmental challenges.
Previous to her role at the EPA, Garcia served as the Chief Advocate for Environmental Justice and Equity at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In that position, she developed statewide environmental justice initiatives to tackle critical environmental challenges, and served as co-chair of the Governor's Environmental Justice Interagency Task Force.
Garcia also served as Assistant Attorney General for the New York State Attorney General, where she represented various state agencies in environmental litigation matters and defended New York's Brownfields Cleanup Program.
Jeff Nesbit is the executive director of Climate Nexus, a non-profit communications organization that works on climate and clean energy issues and solutions. He was the director of legislative and public affairs at the National Science Foundation during the Bush and Obama administrations. He was also former Vice President Dan Quayle's communications director at the White House, and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler's public affairs chief at the Food and Drug Administration. He was a national journalist with Knight-Ridder newspapers and others prior to that, and currently writes opinion pieces for The New York Times, Time and U.S. News & World Report. He's written multiple books and novels. His newly released book is THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press.
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