Originally published on May 2, 2023 at news.fiu.edu.
Written by Lisa Kleinman
“If you’re serious about climate but you’re also serious about democracy, you’re going to have to figure out how to make them work together.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens made that remark during a conversation following his lecture at the annual FIU Environment Forum — a succinct way to sum up a packed two-day conference that explored the forefront of environmental science and policy.
“From Science to Public Choice” was hosted last month by the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of FIU’s Institute of Environment in partnership with the College of Law’s Environment, Law and Economics Initiative.
Scientists, economists, diplomats, former government officials, lawyers and others discussed obstacles and opportunities associated with sustainable energy and the successes and challenges of the Endangered Species Act, which turned 50 this year, among other topics.
A panel on environmental justice brought together former senior officials at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, some of them going back as far as the Reagan administration, to share observations around the topic of environmental justice – a social movement that examines the exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harms from hazardous waste, resource extraction and other land uses from which they do not receive benefits – and how to address related issues via a cost/benefit analysis of environmental regulations.
Four colleges at FIU and several departments were represented at the forum in addition to the presence of invited speakers from other academic institutions. A dinner at FIU International Center for Tropical Botany on Biscayne Bay featured a keynote from Kevin Guthrie, Florida’s director of emergency management, at which the deans of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education and the College of Law were present, a testament to the wide-ranging nature of the gathering.
“This kind of academic exchange is part of the core mission of FIU,” said Professor Mario Loyola, who organized the conference. A respectful dialogue among diverse viewpoints was possible, Loyola stressed, because there were experts from so many different fields present in the same room. “Experts learned from each other. They expressed diverse viewpoints on very contentious questions, but when you put yourself in the mode of listening and learning, you can avoid contentious arguments.”
Loyola, a research assistant professor and director of the Environment, Law & Economics Initiative at the College of Law and director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program in the Institute of Environment, has worked on environmental policy and regulatory issues for many years, both in and out of government, including as associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Trump Administration.
Matthew G. Burgess, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures at University of Colorado Boulder, participated in the session “Climate at the United Nations: Science, Policy and Diplomacy.”
“The panel underscored the importance of understanding the physical science, social science and politics of climate change together to address this issue at the international level,” he said. “This was one of the only academic conferences I have ever been to where cultivating a genuine diversity of views was clearly prioritized and achieved. It was memorable in its insight, richness and rigor. I hope to be able to return in future years.”
Michael Sukop, professor of Earth and Environment at FIU, who took part in the session on Financial Engineering and Environmental Data Analytics, commented, “The ideas presented here point towards some of the possibilities and challenges associated with leveraging more private capital. I was completely unprepared for the complexity of the interplay of fiduciary responsibility as set forth by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and ESG disclosure and investing, for example.” He added, “I found the entire forum fascinating! There is broad recognition that the government alone cannot afford to save us from many of the issues we face.”
The conference closed with the inaugural VoLo Foundation Lecture, featuring Bret Stephens, who has written some controversial columns for The New York Times about climate policy and climate science. His talk, focusing on science, free speech and public choice, will be published as the lead article in a symposium issue of the FIU Law Review.
“Should the public take an active and vigorous role in vetting scientists’ work?” he asked. “Even if we’re not experts, many of us can raise important questions…We can be gadflies, prompting scientific establishments to address questions they hadn’t thought about or would prefer, for various reasons, to avoid…forcing the kind of robust discussions that sharpen our reasoning.”
He concluded, “Free speech is not much use when people are afraid to speak freely. It’s even more useless when people are told that the only opinions that matter are those of experts. If we don’t have courage to exercise the right, we will lose it, and in doing so, we will lose the things that go with it—science, reason and freedom among them.”
Stephens’ lecture was made possible by support from VoLo Foundation, a private family organization that exists to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education and improving health.
“VoLo Foundation is proud to support the pioneering work of Florida International University combining science, finance mathematics, law and policy to push the boundaries of environmental finance and coastal resilience,” foundation co-founder David Vogel said. Co-founder Thais Lopez Vogel added, “At this critical time, when everyone must do their part in protecting against the danger of climate change, it was wonderful to see scholars and students from across Florida International University engaging and learning from each other at the FIU Environment Forum.”