“A Better Planet” Panel Highlights Three Ideas to Build a More Sustainable Future

October 19, 2020

Charles Harper

This month marks the paperback release of A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, a book edited by Center for Environmental Law & Policy Director Dan Esty and featuring 40 contributions from sustainability leaders at Yale and around the world. In celebration of the release, the Yale Environmental Dialogue convened a panel with three contributors to the book, held on Tuesday, October 6.

Tatiana Schlossberg, a former climate change and environment reporter for the New York Times, moderated a panel featuring the authors of three of the books’ most engaging chapters on oceans, international climate agreements, and hip-hop sustainability. A Better Planet draws on an interdisciplinary array of thinkers, each with unique solutions to the sustainability challenge. That diversity of ideas was reflected during the event.

Jane Lubchenco is a renowned environmental scientist who served as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009 to 2013. Now a University Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University, Professor Lubchenco presented a new narrative for thinking about people’s relationship with the ocean, which she terms “People and the Ocean 3.0.” Initial frameworks posited that the ocean was too vast and resilient for human-caused depletion or disruption (the 1.0 version) or that the ocean was fatally polluted and depleted and too big to fix (version 2.0, which reflects current thinking). Neither notion is quite right. Professor Lubchenco proposes a new narrative: the ocean is too important and too big to ignore. Furthermore, if we heal the ocean, we can solve many global problems at once. The ocean offers many solutions for humanity. It provides food security and protein for millions, serves as a sink for carbon dioxide and heat caused by the greenhouse effect, and offers clean energy such as offshore wind. As Professor Lubchenco puts it, “in healing the ocean, we can heal ourselves.”

The ocean is a global resource, and protecting it requires global cooperation. Susan Biniaz presented the case that the Paris Agreement alone cannot solve all of our global environmental challenges. Biniaz is a lecturer at Yale Law School and formerly served as the lead climate lawyer at the U.S. Department of State. Having helped negotiate the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States, Professor Biniaz clearly lays out its strengths and limitations. The Agreement set several requirements for countries to regularly communicate their self-determined emissions targets and their progress in meeting them. However, the very nature of self-determined targets means that high and increasing ambition is not automatic. Several additional steps, from financial assistance and capacity building, are also required according to Professor Biniaz. Several other international regimes—including aviation, shipping, food, and trade—will also need to come along. This year has seen promising developments, including China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and delays, such as the postponement of the COP 26 climate change conference until next year due to the pandemic. The future success of the Paris Agreement and international climate cooperation is still undetermined and, amongst other things, likely depends on the results of the United States presidential election and how much countries’ economic recoveries prioritize climate change.

Environmental issues, such as climate change, affect all of us, but people of color in particular face elevated risk from environmental harms. However, people of color are underrepresented in environmental conversations and organizations. Thomas RaShad Easley, Assistant Dean of Community and Inclusion at the Yale School of the Environment, proposes a solution. Dr. Easley, a hip-hop artist himself, has pioneered the concept of hip-hop sustainability: Environmental communicators should speak the same language as the audience with which they are trying to communicate. This doesn’t mean that an audience cannot understand other forms of communication but that using a medium an audience already knows will likely lead to more interest. Often, environmental issues are communicated in the language of the academy, which can be opaque to the general public and is itself disproportionately white. For environmental communication to be inclusive, environmentalists should use tailored, entertaining messaging that is built on an understanding of people’s lives and acknowledges past and present racism.

Each of the three panelists and moderator closed the event with a message of encouragement. Dr. Easley suggested focusing on your own values, which you can then share with your network and the world. Professor Lubchenco recommended we all find evidence-based sources of information that we can trust, talk about issues like climate change with others, and vote. Professor Biniaz highlighted the emergence during the Trump Administration of coalitions of U.S. states and companies that have taken the lead on climate change. As she puts it, “you can do a lot even when your government is doing the wrong thing.” Schlossberg suggested we should not feel individually guilty for climate change but instead feel collectively responsible for building a better planet. Implementing the ideas presented during this event—and the 37 others found in A Better Planet—would be a great start.