Environmental issues in politics: A discussion with faculty experts Cindy Isenhour and Preston Miles
Cindy Isenhour and Preston Miles are two of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11.
Q: What environmental/sustainability issues would you like the candidates to address, both on the campaign trail and in the debates?
Cindy Isenhour, ACS Post-Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies: Climate change needs a bigger platform. This is not a conspiracy theory—several highly respected media sources, journals and presses have documented oil and gas industry support for a small but vocal minority of climate skeptics. Several peer-reviewed publications suggest that between 97-98 percent of working climate scientists agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is at least partially due to human impacts. Yet according to a 2011 Gallup Poll, less than 50 percent of Americans believe that humans are responsible for climate change, the lowest percentage in any developed nation.
Preston Miles, John C. Walkup Professor of Chemistry: My personal recollection that public dimensions of scientific issues have always had more attention than they do in this cycle. In the 2008 election, there was significant attention to strategies to affect climate change. Certainly in 2000, both national parties spoke to the issues, disagreeing but engaging the issues. In 2000, both parties acknowledged climate change and made suggestions of how it could be addressed. It’s a little surprising that it’s received as little attention as it has.
Isenhour: Many skirt around the issue by talking about energy independence. But we can’t afford to take this stance much longer—we need leaders who are willing to do the politically unpopular in the best interests of the people.
Miles: The public does not engage in scientific questions well. There is an organization of scientists (sciencedbeate.org) trying to bring science issues into the national political discussion, made up of mainstream, traditional, big name science organizations. Their goal is to push our leaders to engage these questions appropriately.
Q: There are two important events coming up related to the Vice Presidential Debate at Centre: the Environmental Issues Forum at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25 in Young 113, featuring four expert panelists; and the Centre Environmental Issues Debate at 7:00 p.m. on Oct. 3 in Young 113, where representatives from political organizations on campus will debate sustainability issues. What will people be talking about at the environmental issues forum and the environmental issues debate?
Isenhour: The forum is essentially centered on questions related to energy use, climate change and sustainability. What is exciting is that it comes at these questions from four different perspectives. We have one panelist who specializes in the life sciences—biodiversity and conservation; one who specializes in the physical sciences—climate and geography; one who focuses on human development—economic and social sustainability; and one who focuses on policy. We wanted to be very careful not to exclude important discussions about the economic and social future of our region, which has historically depended on fossil fuels. Economic, social and ecological sustainability is certainly a possibility. We hope that this conversation will help students and community members to imagine what a more sustainable future might look like in this region.
Miles: The debate—which will be a convocation—is going to feature a representative from both the Centre Democrats and Centre Republicans, and we’re working to create half a dozen important questions that they’ll respond to in a debate format. Thomas Becker [Public Relations Chair for the Centre College Republicans] and Nathan Shuler [Secretary for the Centre College Democrats] will discuss such issues as the Keystone Pipeline, offshore exploration and drilling; the role of public and private conservation; climate change; the EPA and its role in regulation; extraction and the environmental impact of coal, among others.
Q: Why are events like the ones mentioned above important, especially during election season?
Miles: Some important sustainability concerns are not being addressed at the national level to my satisfaction, and that’s the real motivation for this forum and debate: to try to bring more attention to those questions. It’s our little attempt to bring them to the national level. These events also help our students see and understand these important issues, and they also communicate to the nation the interest that students have in these issues.
Isenhour: Events like the forum are incredibly important, helping to build awareness and social momentum for these issues that affect us all.
Q: How can the electorate keep candidates accountable for addressing environmental issues?
Miles: Unfortunately, our issues—whatever they may be—are seldom engaged by national political leaders. And not just environmental and sustainability questions, but questions of all kinds: justice questions, social and economic questions, equal opportunity questions, educational opportunity and quality—these are not part of those national platforms. Often, they dictate to us what the issues are, which are often not what we think the issues are.
Isenhour: Be vocal with your concerns. Buying natural cleaners and shopping at the local famers’ market are important, but they send signals to the market. We need more signals sent to our political leaders, those empowered to make decisions about our collective future. Send letters to your politicians, sign petitions, be active.