by Whit Gibbons

October 31, 2004

Ironically, the environment, which is going to affect all communities, all nations, and all people for longer than anything else, has received minimal attention from the two most visible presidential candidates this election year. Ecological research and environmental education are essential for maintaining the peak of environmental health. All environmental changes affect us either directly or indirectly. No matter what happens with wars, economics, or public health, the environment we have to live in afterward will shape the future quality of all our lives. Giving careful consideration to various outcomes should be of political concern.

One simple approach would have been for each political candidate to openly address the challenges in environmental sciences offered by the National Research Council in a 2001 book. Collectively, these challenges define the direction of future environmental investigations and provide indicators of where the country must focus its efforts to maintain a high quality environment.

1. Biogeochemical Cycles—According to the book, the first challenge is to determine how human activities can disrupt the world's major chemical and biological cycles and then to predict what the consequences of these impacts might be. An additional consideration is to search for ways to restore cycles to their natural condition.

2. Biological Diversity and Ecosystem Functioning—This challenge, to explain the diversity in the world around us, has been evolving since before Darwin. A part of the challenge is to find out how to maintain biodiversity because of its important role in ecosystem function.

3. Climate Variability—Weather forecasters successfully demonstrate a problem almost daily-they cannot accurately predict the weather, even for an approaching hurricane. A grand challenge of environmental science relates to understanding long-term changes in climate variability and how we can "assess its impact on natural and human systems."

4. Hydrologic Forecasting—A challenge of predicting "changes in freshwater resources . . . in a context of growing demand on water resources" relates to our increasingly limited freshwater resources. The environmental topic is of vital importance and concern to all regions of the country and the world.

5. Infectious Disease and the Environment—I like the way the book stated part of this challenge: "to understand the ecological and evolutionary aspects of infectious diseases." Bacteria and viruses evolve like all other organisms, and while we invent defenses against them, they are changing to adjust and survive. Anyone not believing that life evolves should look at the history of medical microbiology over the last four decades.

6. Institutions and Resource Use—The title of this challenge confused me until it was explained that "institutions" refers to rules and regulations governing the use of natural resources. For example, several sets of rules and regulations govern fisheries and whaling in the world's oceans. The research challenge is to understand the role of the institutions of all nations, world organizations, regulatory agencies, etc. in terms of global impacts on natural resources.

7. Land-Use Dynamics—Demonstrating that some land uses dramatically affect natural and human systems is not difficult. The challenge is to understand the global and cumulative impact of changes in land-use patterns on the functioning of ecosystems. Of all the challenges, this one may be among the easiest to understand and among the most difficult to alter.

8. Reinventing the Use of Materials—The straightforward goal is to understand the principles of recycling and the "global budgets and cycles of key materials used by humanity." Included in such an overview are not only materials in short supply that must be reclaimed but also environmentally hazardous materials.

All are grand and worthy challenges for environmental scientists worldwide. Each shows how closely we are tied to our environment, demonstrating that what we do to our environment eventually dictates what our environment will do to us. But since neither major candidate has addressed all eight of these environmental challenges, we will have to make some assumptions about what each might do environmentally based on other issues they have taken positions on. Giving some thought to the issue might help you decide for whom you should vote, not only for president but for other political positions as well.

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