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Making Sense of Sustainability and Climate Change

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A Discussion with Robert Brinkman, Director of Hofstra University’s Sustainability Studies Program
Making Sense of Sustainability and Climate Change

If there was one single moment in the past few weeks that exemplified how strange climate and renewable energy policy has gotten in Washington, D.C., it was when word came that President Donald Trump's re-election campaign was seeking a list of "climate change victories" he can tout on the campaign trail.

According to the McClatchy newspaper group, which based its report on information from two sources familiar with the campaign, the desire to be able to point to "victories" was a direct result of recent polls that show the climate is one of American voters' top concerns heading into the 2020 presidential contest, consistently ranking third, right behind health care and taxes.

Then came the Green New Deal, a measure touted by many of the most left-leaning Congressional Democrats, which was killed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill was mostly illusory, a list of goals without any direction -- or funding -- to bring those goals to fruition.

Less than 24 hours after the Green New Deal died, moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a new bill that does propose to do something -- stop the Trump administration from spending any money on programs that will facilitate the United States' departure from the Paris Climate Accord.

Hoping to make some sense of all this, Renewable Energy Magazine reached out to Robert Brinkmann of Hofstra University in New York.

Brinkmann, who arrived at Hofstra in the fall of 2011, is the University's director of the Sustainability Studies Program.

In addition, he is a professor in Hofstra University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability, and also the director of sustainability research in the National Center for Suburban Studies.

REM: The Green New Deal promulgated mainly by the left-leaning members of the Democratic caucus in Congress has been a lightening rod since it was introduced. Some say it is nothing more than a list of aspirations with no funding attached. Others say if the aspirations ever were to become a reality, it would bankrupt the federal government. What's your take on it?

Brinkmann: Well, you know it's funny. If you look at what nations around the world are doing on sustainability, it's pretty impressive. You have, places like the Bahamas that are working on a 30 year sustainability plan and they get all the stakeholders involved and people are taught to talk about economic issues, social issues, environmental issues and what their goals are for the next 30 years. We don't do that here. And a lot of countries are doing what The Bahamas are doing. And so there's been a real absence of leadership on sustainability and this goes back even to the Obama days when they brought Van Jones on and there were some other initiatives going on, certainly President Obama was supportive of climate change legislation, but there wasn't an effort to have a national conversation around what is sustainability.

I mean the EPA did a little bit here and there, but there wasn't a broad overarching attempt to look holistically at what we were doing as a country and what that meant and how we could do a better job managing the situation for the nation in the future. I think the Green New Deal is an attempt to refocus attention on that. It certainly is not the fix or the kind of realistic law that that could be initiated right away. It is unfunded. A lot of the goals are unclear. A lot more needs to go into it before it would move into something a little bit more practical. But I think that that's where it's coming from.

REM: In a sense, I guess, what we're really talking about is messaging. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate killed the Green New Deal by voting not to consider it. The next morning, moderate House Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduce a bill to force the Trump administration to abide by the Paris Climate Accord.  What's interesting about that bill is, rather than endorsing spending money, it actually forbids the White House from spending money on measures that would advance our departure from the climate deal. The White House, of course, insists it is all about oil and gas, and yet the U.S. Energy Department under Secretary Rick Perry funds a great many renewable energy projects. Isn't there a sense of unreality about all this?

Brinkmann: I would agree that the message that we're getting from the federal government is really unfocused and it's all over the place. It doesn't really have a clear message. A great example for that is the oil and gas industry itself. I do an exercise with my students where I ask them to go and look at the websites of various large oil and gas industries. Most of the major ones are investing in green energy. They're all engaged in some type of green energy activity, whether it's wind or solar or some other large project ... because they know energy diversification is really important to the future. Certainly oil and gas are important to the economy of the United States, but there's also been this growing green economy where there are a lot of jobs in wind energy and a lot of jobs in solar, and you can't discount the significance of that in the country anymore. So I think that when it comes to some of this stuff that you hear from the government, it really needs a reality check for what is happening at the ground level. I think most Americans understand that. It's just that there's a lot of blustery language going on around climate change and in oil and gas that just doesn't make a lot of sense.

REM: What do you think of this move by Congress regarding the Paris Climate Accord? President Trump has said he wants out. But he can't act unilaterally under the terms of the agreement. The United States is committed to being a party to the agreement until the day after the 2020 election. And along with that first question, how are we doing, in terms of fulfilling the accord's objectives?

Brinkmann: My feeling about the Paris Accord was that it was the best deal they could do at the time. In that way it was like a lot of international agreements. It didn't really do enough to halt climate change or solve the problems associated with it. Yes it can slow it. It can mitigate some of the impacts. But we have a very serious problem on our hands that I'm not sure the world, or at least the folks in this country, fully understand. I mean, well, let me restate that. Many people understand the threats posed by climate change; however, I don't think that in our country people have come together across the board, as a nation, to fully come to grips with the problem.

REM: Somewhat amazingly, we're already in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign. The latest national polls suggest climate change is coming in third to the cost of healthcare and taxes as issues most on the minds of voters. Voting starts with the Iowa caucuses in nine months. Do you think climate will still have legs as an issue then?

Brinkmann: I think it depends on the region of the country you're talking about. That said, we know what the elephant in the room is in this election. It really is about whether Donald Trump will be president for another four years. So I think that people are focused on that, and then you sort of have to drill down to get to the policies people care about. One candidate who is running an issues-oriented campaign is Pete Buttigieg , the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Other candidates are squarely running against Trump and therefore are a little more bombastic. And, of course, with 16 people currently in the race, you've got everything in between.

Having a conversation on policy right now almost feels like a palate cleanser ... but I think people want to get their brains around a thoughtful policy discussion and in that there are opportunities to bridge some political divides.

If you look at the Great Plains, a region in which there are a lot of red, Republican states, there are a lot of people making a lot of money off of green energy. Now, granted, there is a lot of oil and gas exploration in those states as well, but I think the conversation has to be a little more tempered regarding issues of energy and how we talk about energy. Oil and gas will continue to be important, even in a green future of the United States. It's a part of the natural resources that we have. The question is, how do we use them in a much more green way? And then, how do we deal, appropriately, with the emissions from the oil and gas that remain a part of our energy mix. I think, given the proliferation of wind and solar in those red states, people are ready to look at things in a less black and white way. I think we're approaching a point where people can come together, across party lines, and say green energy is good. They feel their  city is cleaner because of green energy or they are spending far less money on gas because they have an electric car.  All of those things are being said as society continues to change more and more.

REM: One thing that I've heard said is that the discussion of climate change and by extension, renewables, got off on the wrong foot in the U.S. because of the early proliferation of the phrase "global warming," as opposed to the more accurate, "climate change." Are we talking about this subject better than we have in the past? Has that been one of the factors in moving this conversation in a positive direction?

Brinkmann:  Absolutely. I mean, there's no doubt about it. The graphics we see in the media help. I think the clear message from the climate scientists helps. One of the great communities in this whole conversation is the meteorological and climatological community, the professional community of men and women who are delivering the weather reports every day. I mean they are not mincing words about this stuff out in the trenches of the news media. As a result of all this, I think people are coming to terms with the fact that things are different.

One thing I find fascinating is the information coming out of the profession of sustainability planning and management. What we're seeing is more and more people are realizing, "Okay, we have not come together as a society on global climate change. How do we personally adapt and become more resilient?"

I'm hearing a lot these days about groups that are working on things like urban resiliency planning or urban adaption planning. People are asking, how we plan for gradual or even severe sea level rise. How do we handle that? So people are looking at things like that at the same time that other people are working on climate change policy. Now when you have people looking at real serious issues like how do we make our cities more resilient to climate change, that message gets out to the citizens and it becomes a real thing. As a result, there is now a mentality of accepting climate change that's starting to occur across the country.

REM: You interact with students all the time. You research this subject deeply. Do you feel confident that we're moving towards a more sustainable or more sustainability-conscious future?

Brinkmann: Well, I always have hope. And you know, you can't get a more hopeful group than young people. They are always ready to take on the kinds of problems a generation faces. I've been working on environmental and sustainability issues my whole career and every new class, from the late 1980s to the present, has been willing to take this stuff on. So I always have hope that we'll be able to solve this in the next generation and that we'll move forward.

At the same time, while young people are always hopeful, as we get older, every generation is a little bit different. We're at a time where we seem to be at war with ourselves over these cultural divides that don't really exist as much as we think they do. I mean, it's played out in the media, but, you know, I have friends who were Trump voters and friends who were Obama voters and we can all sit down and break bread and discuss policy issues without screaming at each other. I think we need more of that. We need to get out of the moment we're in and start really focusing on the issues that confront us.

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