Environmental Policy: Pizza & Politics Series

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By Kate Collins

At the latest Pizza & Politics event, students, professors and experts organized to talk about environmentalism and policy actions.

A series of discussion questions were given to three panelists in order to get the event started.

After the panelists answered, the floor was open and students around the room were able to ask relevant questions and give their opinions, offering an alternative to the typical lecture style of presentation that students are familiar with.

The first panelist was Professor of Political Science Tony Dell’Aera, who teaches classes focusing on American government and public policy. He mentioned an experience that he found to be one of the most “gratifying experiences” relating to environmentalism and public policy.

This was the act of involving himself in the role of urban land use and planning. He has been involved with his local planning board for the last 12 years, dealing with issues related to inland wetlands, the preservation of open-space and creating opportunities for sustainable development, whenever an opportunity presents itself.

The next panelist was Director of Federal Government Relations at the Nature Conservancy in New York David Higby, who is an alumnus of Union. His job is to represent the interests of the Nature Conservancy, which focuses on maintaining healthy air, land and water, on behalf of the animals that depend on them (including humans).

Previous to his current job, he worked with the Environmental Advocates of New York, which is the state affiliate for the National Wildlife Organization, where he worked on a full range of environmental issues.

A specific issue which Higby worked on was cleaning PCBs out of the Hudson River, pertaining to the Superfund Law and toxic cleanup. Higby now focuses on conservation work and trying to get the Federal Government to provide New York with money in order to conserve wilderness and open space in the state. His job is to bring the scientists involved in the Nature Conservancy to bring their information and bear it on public policy in Washington.

The third panelist was Rob Smith, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He was hired as an alternative energy expert, and he leads the environmental policy course for seniors at Union, focusing on uses of energy (such as a SmartGrid).

A large topic that was addressed during the discussion was activism regarding environmental policy and specific ways to get involved and see results.

One of the first things to consider regarding environmental activism and policy is what it takes to enact policy change.

In American politics, a key component of our society is a general resistance to change. American populations generally don’t embrace reform, and the government system presents a great deal of red tape for activists to break through.

Often, even after policies are adopted, we still have incredibly challenging administrative rules, which simply make getting things done extremely difficult.

Professor Dell’Aera stated that the first thing that has to be done in environmental activism is to figure out a way to make policy change compatible and possible within this system. This includes providing incentives to policymakers, in order to break through and not embrace the default position of maintaining the status quo.

Activism is an opportunity for people to weigh the stakes and create a vision that policymakers can begin working with so that it’s not only in society’s best interest, but in the best interest of officials as well, thus engaging all affected parties. Activism is a good first step in a policymaking process of creating a scenario where change is feasible.

It was then further discussed how the United States specifically obtained the “best environmental laws in the world,” which clearly makes a significant difference in the quality of life in this country.

It was stated that usually there is an event that triggers public awareness and then, from there, it is communicated to people that make decisions (politicians and the people that answer politicians — agency officials).

An example of this was the issue of smog and air pollution in Los Angeles and other cities in the U.S. in the 1960s, ultimately creating an event where the government enacted the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Then, there was the pollution of the Cuyahoga River as a result of which the Clean Water Act was implemented.

Each one of those events required a change in public awareness, which then had to be communicated to officials, which is where activism comes in. In each one of those examples you will be able to find people who brought the issue to the forefront, involving the media, whom were involved in the change — and that’s how the United States has been led to adopt many new acts and regulations.

The discussion provided an open stage for the students at Union who see opportunity for change in the United States and hope to see it through.

With the guidance of leaders such as Higby and the professors that influence the courses from which we learn, any student can take a stand for what he or she believes to be fair in the legislative system and take action.

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