For all the urgent environmental challenges facing the U.S. in the coming decades the response from policymakers seems stuck in “slow motion,” says Daniel Esty, the Hillhouse Professor of Law and Policy at Yale.
The Yale Environmental Dialogue, an initiative of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), is trying to do something about that. Created last year, the Dialogue aims to inject new energy and fresh thinking into the national conversation and to identify future solutions to these challenges.
On Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C., the Dialogue hosted the first in what will be a series of national events. The event, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute, examined the “pathways to a sustainable future” from the perspectives of two F&ES faculty members: Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and Karen Seto, the Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization.
Speaking to a group of leaders in business NGOs, and government, Leiserowitz discussed trends in climate change knowledge and attitudes in the U.S. public, the extent to which American support clean energy policies, and strategies that could help build political will for climate action. Seto discussed the rapid pace of urbanization worldwide and its implications for protecting the world’s ecosystems, agricultural lands, climate, and biodiversity.
Afterward they participated in a panel discussion with Elliot Gerson, vice president of the Aspen Institute.
Future events, including a workshop that will take place at F&ES in February, will introduce other leading thinkers from Yale and from other institutions.
“There are so many challenges we’re facing as a nation in terms of the environment and how we manage our natural resources,” said F&ES Dean Indy Burke. “But we see an opportunity for Yale to be a leader in tackling them. Through this initiative we will promote conversation on these difficult topics, across the country, in a way that is productive and impactful.”
The Dialogue was conceived during a recent strategic planning process, initiated soon after Burke’s arrival in 2016. The final plan called on the School to leverage its standing as a respected source of environmental knowledge and leadership to create a space “to explore contentious issues as part of efforts to identify areas of shared values and ways forward.”
In addition to the series of national events, the Dialogue will also produce a book in Fall 2019 that will incorporate the writings of more than two-dozen leading thinkers, from Yale and elsewhere, on the most pressing environmental issues. Specifically, the authors will be asked to come up with “their biggest, best idea” to tackle a significant environmental challenge — typically, a challenge they’ve been studying for their entire careers.
The book, which will be published by Yale University Press, aspires to set the agenda for the environmental debate and direction over the next decade including the 2020 presidential election.
In February, those authors will be invited to participate in a workshop in which their ideas will be discussed by their colleagues. “In the typical academic workshop spirit, we’ll tear them apart, take them down and put them back together,” said Esty, a professor at F&ES and Yale Law School. “Then we’ll send our thinkers back with some additional thinking to do to refine their ideas.”
Speaking to the audience at the kickoff event in Washington, Esty said this initiative is happening at an important moment. “There is a chance to bring fresh thinking to bear, to bring innovative thoughts into the conversation, and to try to shape and influence both the public dialogue and the policy conversation that flows from that,” he said.
“There is a real need… for serious conversation, to dig into hard topics — including among people who don’t agree and come at [these issues] from different perspectives. And that is part of the effort we’re going to undertake over the next couple of years.”