John Foley – climate change is a ‘civilization problem’

By Terence Houston, ESA policy analyst

Jon Foley at ESA 2013

Jon Foley at ESA 2013. Credit: N. Lymn

In the face of what he called an “inflection point in history,” on issues such as climate change and natural resources consumption, opening plenary speaker John Foley called on Ecological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting attendees to reexamine and build upon the traditional methods of public engagement.

Noting that traditional modes of governance (such as Congress) are “broken and inadequate,” Foley suggested that we reexamine our theories and methods of influencing policy changes, asserting that relying on grassroots activism, international support or free markets alone are “theories of change” that need to be re-evaluated in favor of a new frameworks. He stated that we should not “pigeon-hole” an issue like climate change as an environmental problem, but as a “civilization problem – do you get to have one?”
We often get stuck focusing on the aspects of climate change that are more polarized, namely the 60 percent of carbon emissions generated from energy production, said Foley. He suggested mitigating global warming through a focus on the 35 percent of carbon emissions that come from agricultural production. Addressing human diets, biofuels and food waste would put a significant dent in what we need to grow, putting a dent in the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming. He noted that China, India and the United States contribute 60 percent of the world’s nitrogen oxide from fertilizer and make up 77 percent of irrigation water use.
Foley called on scientists to “get out of your bloody cage” and interact with individuals with different areas of expertise, such as people in the business community or governance. He applauded the work of ESA and other scientific societies to engage their members in policy, referencing the work of the Leopold Leadership program in helping scientists gain skills to better share their scientific information with the media and decision-makers.  Referencing author Barbara Kingsolver, he reminded attendees not to forget to hope: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for.”
ESA president Scott Collins and Ellen Anderson. Credit: N. Lymn

ESA president Scott Collins and Ellen Anderson. Credit: N. Lymn

Foley’s message was a refrain on 2013 ESA Regional Policy Award recipient Ellen Anderson, Energy and Environment Senior Advisor to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. She touted the role scientific understanding has in helping us as a society gain understanding and wisdom so we can “fear less” and asserted there is hope for the future, given that a majority of millennials when surveyed, stated that they are unlikely to support a candidate who does not believe the scientific consensus regarding human-influenced climate change.