Environmental roundtable: journalist, lawyer, scientists

By Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications

One highlight of the (Dis)Locations conference was a roundtable where a mix of academics and practitioners addressed some of the journalistic, legal, scientific, and theological issues associated with the environment.

New York Times environmental journalist Andrew C. Revkin’s opening presentation served to put in context the recent public spats over the perception that global warming and climate change science is being manipulated. Revkin urged his listeners not to be overly distracted, saying, “The basic bedrock science is that we are headed toward centuries of warming, rising seas and climate change. That is the science part. When you get to the solutions part, there is still a fundamental debate.”

Solutions, even when mandated by a country’s constitution, can be elusive, reported environmental law scholar Nick Robinson in his presentation, “Environmental Law Norms for Climate Change.” Robinson, University Professor for the Environment at Pace University, reported that “75 to 80 nations have amended their constitutions to include environmental rights.” He added, “The supreme court of India is perhaps the most progressive in the world, but it has become more pragmatic with the economic downturn.” Ultimately, Robinson predicted that environmental law will be used more “robustly” to facilitate the relocation to higher ground of those coastal cities that will be threatened by rising sea levels.

The impact of rising seas in the present day was the subject of a compelling description of the predicament of indigenous Alaskans by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change based at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Leiserowitz described his fieldwork with one coastal village and the villagers’ struggle to adapt to a life that likely will not include a proximity to the sea. His prediction for the Arctic region’s future was grim: “The Arctic continues to warm at a much greater severity and intensity than the rest of the earth. In the next seven to eight years, it could warm by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Environmental scientist Daniel Hillel delivered the roundtable’s only religiously themed presentation as he discussed  his recent book, The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hillel described five different environmental regions that figure in the Bible, noting that environmental factors helped shape the worldview and theology of indigenous people living in those regions. This, in turn, helped mold the Israelites’ views. “You can see a progression of how these people came into contact with each of these five domains in their wanderings. They were able to fuse the different perceptions of these different competing gods,” he said. “They fused them into a conception of the unity of nature.”

Fusing different points of view is absolutely necessary for those pursuing environmental justice, argued roundtable participant Giovanna Di Chiro in her presentation, “Intersections of Gender, Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice.” Di Chiro, an environmental health activist in western Massachusetts who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, elaborated, “Sustainability is largely about reproduction although it is rarely talked about in those terms. …I encourage a dialogue between advocates for reproductive rights and those for the environment.”