Saint Mary’s professor discusses environmental policy
Chris Cobb, Saint Mary’s professor of English and environmental studies, spoke to students about environmental policy in an event called “Environmental Policy Explained” on Wednesday. The event was held as part of an initiative of the Office for Civil and Social Engagement to inform the Saint Mary’s community about issues relevant to the upcoming midterm elections.
“Environmental policy itself is a broad term that describes any kind of law or rule or regulation that government would put into place in order to achieve certain kinds of environmental goals,” Cobb said. “Depending upon what the goal is, that may engage a different level of government, and there are many different kinds of laws or rules that might be set up.”
The distinction between the levels of federal, state and local governments is an important part of understanding how such policies are created, he said.
“The key thing to keep in mind when thinking about environmental policy in the U.S. is that the structure of government in the U.S. is highly influential in the way environmental policy gets formulated,” Cobb said.
Different policies are set at different levels of government, Cobb said, and this affects the ways a person might go about expressing interest in environmental matters.
“If you’re concerned about environmental policy, that means you need to be concerned about what government is doing at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level … and depending upon what questions [and] issues are of concern to you at the moment, one or another of those governments may be the one that you need to be engaging with in order to make environmental policy,” he said.
Cobb said he worked to start an organization called the Environmental Network of Northern Indiana during his sabbatical last year that began with the intention of connecting with others and building coalitions in order to influence the formation of environmental policy at the city and county government levels.
“We discovered that the economic development office of St. Joseph County was working on a plan that would lead to somewhere between 10 and 22,000 acres of farmland being converted to heavy industry, which is about 33 square miles,” he said. “It’s an area about a quarter of the size of the city of South Bend as it currently exists.”
The discovery of this plan has led to the network to work with others in the community who would be affected by this plan, Cobb said.
“It’s actually led us to start another organization with which the Environmental Network can be in coalition called the Open Space and Agricultural Alliance, which is seeking to bring people together in that part of the county … to be able to articulate their own interests in this so that the people of the other parts of the county — through the environmental network — can ally with them and support them,” he said. “They are the ones who are the most affected. They are the ones who can actually speak to the government that this is taking away families’ land and homes.”
Cobb said the economic development office is now working with consultants to see how this plan could move forward.
“The St. Joseph County Council is the one that ultimately makes the big decisions,” he said. “There are a variety of smaller decisions that might be made without their having any ability to influence it.”
At the federal level, Cobb said there are two types of routes when approving international agreements. Cobb described the route that the Obama administration took in order to agree to the Paris Accords as an example of the first route. This form of approval of an agreement would be dependent on the current President and stay within that administration. The next President could change their mind about whether they will maintain the agreement or not.
The other route the U.S. government could pursue, Cobb said, would be officially ratifying a treaty. Cobb said this process can be much more complex and difficult to accomplish depending on the administration.
“Most people, regardless of their political identification, value that things that environmentalists are seeking to protect — clean air, clean water, parks, nutritious food,” he said. “All these basic public goods that come to us through the environment are things that people want.”