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The Future of Environmental Politics and Communication: A First of Many Conversations

Bethany Bella | Dec 5, 2016

Since the results of the 2016 United States presidential election, many students at Ohio University are concerned about the direction of their future careers. Conversations in environmental studies classes in particular have left students "clambering for more" -- more spaces and more opportunities to openly discuss what the future may hold for those pursuing a career in environmental services under a Trump Administration.

On Tuesday, November 29 in Alden Library's Friends of the Library Room, four panelists, representing both natural and social science backgrounds at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, led an open discussion on "Environmental Policy and Politics: What's in Store with a Trump Administration Nationally and Internationally?"

"This is a stop along many conversations," Dr. Geoffrey Dabelko, professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the Voinovich School and one of the evening's panelists, said to open the event. "There's going to be lots to talk about and to grapple with" in the months to come.

A diverse array of environmental science interests were represented at the panel, with insight from Dr. Nancy Stevens on international considerations for current biodiversity challenges; Dr. Sarah Davis on changing energy and land use issues and principles of engagement; Dr. Derek Kauneckis on state and local environmental policy implementations; and Dr. Geoffrey Dabelko on domestic and international climate change policy responses.

Stevens, a full professor in the Ohio University Department of Biomedical Sciences, began the night's discussion with a perspective on historical extinction patterns and the current projections for global biodiversity loss.

Citing current species decline, with one conservative estimate at approximately one species going extinct every 20 minutes, Stevens said this 'unprecedented' rate "far outstrips previous mass extinctions that we've seen on the planet. Even the K-T extinction, where [many of] the dinosaurs went extinct, pales in comparison to what we're seeing right now."

"Even before this election, what we were doing wasn't really working," Stevens said. "I'm thinking about context, I'm thinking about how we got to the place where we got today, and what it all means in the context of our political system."

Davis, an assistant professor at the Voinovich School, addressed the implications of an alarming -- and largely unexpected -- "movement against rejecting science" in Washington politics.

"There's a disconnect between science and policy, and it's been going on for a long time," Davis said.

Instead of calling for an increase in scientific rhetoric as a defense mechanism, Davis encouraged her students to embrace basic communications lessons as a strategy moving forward in the environmental sciences.

"I think that we're entering an era where data is probably off the table for a little while for a lot of issues," Davis said. "Throwing science at contentious policy debates I don't think is going to work. This extends beyond just the policymakers -- it's all the people who voted for this."

Kauneckis based some of his 'glass half-empty' projections on a historical analysis of American politics, and a belief that the bureaucratic inertia often associated with Washington politics will continue throughout the next four years.

"We need to keep in mind that this has happened before - we had a Republican-controlled Congress under President George Bush," Kauneckis, an associate professor at the Voinovich School, said. Though an opening up of federal lands and reduced environmental restrictions are "almost a given … again that's a very slow process."

Kauneckis sees state and local governments -- and the promise of renewable energy -- as the new havens for environmental progress in America.

"The state of local governments are critical under a Trump administration," Kauneckis said. "And renewables aren't going to disappear."

Rounding off the panel discussion with an international perspective to provide a reminder of a larger context, Dabelko cited an overwhelming support for last year's Paris Agreement from a variety of climate change change-agents, including new environmental leaders (China being one) and private sector companies, as reasons to believe environmental progress may still continue under a Trump Administration.

"The history of progress on the environment in the United States is largely driven at the local level with the 'feds' as followers, not as leaders," Dabelko said. "It's a more complicated story, and one that gives us tools to engage in ways that impede the facile notion that we're going to roll all this [environmental progress] back."

Students from a variety of academic disciplines also participated in the discussion following the panel, including graduate students enrolled in the Voinovich School Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) program, and undergraduate students representing History Environmental Geography departments, as well as those earning the Voinovich School Environmental Studies Certificate.

At the end of the discussion, Dabelko and his colleagues reinforced the importance and value of communications in a mass media world and a public skeptical of climate science consensus.

"I think we need to listen to very basic things," Stevens said, emphasizing the art of conversation as an important tool for connection with audiences.

"We have to get good at the art of storytelling," Dabelko concluded. "How do we tell complex scientific stories in ways that we can have an engaged dialogue with a wide group of communities, that's not just talking to ourselves? Messengers really matter."