Last night the Ecological Society of America’s 95th Annual Meeting was off to a rousing start as an audience of over 500 applauded Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania, this year’s winner of ESA’s Regional Policy Award. The award recognizes a regional policymaker who uses ecological science to help inform policy decisions.
Since 2005, Mayor Fetterman has used innovative approaches—including encouraging green technology—to turn Braddock around, a town that is a mere shadow of what it was during the heyday of the steel industry. In his acceptance remarks, Fetterman noted that climate change shouldn’t be a political issue but that unfortunately when a divisive figure like Al Gore becomes a spokesperson for the issue, that automatically “turns off” half the population. Fetterman said that it’s hard to hear the message when the messenger is someone who is someone you may not like.
Fetterman has been advocating for alternative energy sources, such as wind power, which would also be a natural fit for Braddock, as a former steel mill town. Fetterman described the ESA award as a great honor and also said that he really believes that “environmental justice is social justice.”
Directly following the award presentation, panelists of the Opening Plenary explored the topic of environmental disasters and risk perception. David Dzombak (Carnegie Mellon) reviewed the response of the Environmental Protection Agency to contaminated sediment sampling after Hurricane Katrina, David Lodge (Notre Dame) highlighted the story of invasions in the Great Lakes, culminating in the recent advances of Asian Carp, Robert Twilley (Louisiana State University) spoke of the long history of “hardening the landscape” along the Gulf Coast, especially in reaction to crises, and Baruch Fischoff (Carnegie Mellon) gave his perspective as an expert in risk perception and its effects on decisions affecting environmental and other big issues society faces. ESA Vice President for Public Affairs Laura Huenneke (Northern Arizona University) moderated.
Panelists noted that the “reactive crisis mode” is the worst time for people to devise long-term, thoughtful, collaborative plans. Panelists Twilley and Lodge pointed out that other interests (such as navigation or flood control) can sometimes help advance another cause such as restoration. Fischoff reminded the audience that people have trouble integrating information that is non-intuitive or non-linear but that “running the numbers” and explaining what they mean can help clarify such issues. Dzombak described the various “publics” that often have very diverse interests and come at an issue with their different perspectives and that each setting is colored by its own political dynamic.
Once the audience participated in the discussion, the discourse very quickly shifted to engaging in policy. Advice from panelists included: “Be persistent and consistent,” and “build trust and find ways to maintain the dialogue.”