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The Metric

Oct 5, 2015

Meet Don Mosteller, Our New Fellow

The Environmental Performance Index is pleased to introduce one of its new Research Fellows, Don Mosteller. He contributes to the 2016 EPI report and supports the group’s communication strategies and platforms.
Picture of Don Mosteller
Enjoying a fine New Haven meal with friends at Modern Apizza, Image Credit: Alex Guzman

Don Mosteller is a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES ‘15) where he earned a Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) with a focus on the political economy of climate and energy policy, especially the development and deployment of renewable energy systems. He directed EFFY, an internationally recognized environmental film festival run by Yale students. Don is now a Research Fellow with the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), where he contributes to the 2016 EPI report and supports the group’s communication strategies and platforms.

Prior to Yale, Don worked for the National Environmental Education Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the National Geographic Society where he wrote primarily about climate science. Don received his bachelor’s degree in physical geography from Penn State University and is a former Fulbright fellow.

You studied climatology in college and built a career around communicating its issues. What experiences steered your interests toward environmental law and policy?

It’s true: I’m a reformed scientist, but meteorology, astronomy, and other sciences still fascinate me. Whenever there’s a storm outside, you’ll find me gazing through the window, constantly refreshing my weather app so I can watch the weather’s progress. When I was growing up, I never considered myself “an environmentalist” though I respected and deeply admired nature’s beauty, diversity, and ferocity. I didn’t think I fit the caricature. I was more interested in becoming a great musician like my father and other members of my family.

When I got to college, however, Penn State’s top-ranked meteorology program drew my attention, but the discipline’s mathematical emphasis pushed me towards geography. It was in the geography program where I studied the climate system’s dynamics and became convinced that climate change was not only an existential threat, but a moral crisis.  Coursework in geopolitics, human geography, urban geography, race relations, sociology, and psychology opened my eyes to climate change’s social dimensions , yet it wasn’t until I moved to South Africa – a nascent democracy rife with injustice – that I observed how social strife and geography interact. When I returned to the States one year later, I joined Pew with an aim to advance climate and energy legislation.

Don gives a few opening remarks in Evans Hall before the opening film of EFFY 2015 (“Deep Time” by Noah Hutton), Image Credit: Matt Garrett

You have experienced the disconnect between science and policy from both sides. How can we improve communication between scientists and policymakers?

I think the answer begins with respect for each other’s role in society. I’ve spoken with many scientists who don’t respect policymakers and vice versa, even at Yale.  Each group attracts different personality types who don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Many scientists whom I’ve met openly question the intellectual capabilities of policymakers. Yet policymakers are integral to implementing national and global climate solutions.  Policy experts bring an array of skills that, while not always quantifiable, always make the difference between laws that pass and laws that fail. Data doesn’t speak for itself. Information needs the right framing to induce action.

Policymakers, on the other hand, need to more fully understand the nuanced information they receive from scientists. They need to be more patient, too, especially when it comes to knowing when, where, and how a particular aspect of climate change will manifest itself in a given place, for example. It is critical for policymakers to remember that scientific vernacular often does not match its everyday meaning. Uncertainty, for instance, does not mean, “we have no idea what we’re talking about” - it means “there are various possible outcomes, each with its own probability of occurrence.”

Both groups would do well to truly internalize a false, festering notion that “interdisciplinarity” is not some sort of fluffy ideal or academic fad that deserves nothing more than lip service. I’ve frequently encountered highly respected academics who live quite contently in their silos and throw shade at colleagues who venture beyond them.

This kind of thinking is an anachronism. It’s troubling to read that The American Economic Review spent the 2000s publishing papers that cited sociology and political science journals, respectively, only 0.8 and 0.3 percent of the time. These fields, and others like psychology, inform critical knowledge about human behavior that economics attempts to describe. We’re fortunate to live in a period of history when the Age of Information has given us such a rich understanding of the world that we’re able to understand the planetary systems’ connections. This century’s challenge is to live within these system’s boundaries while promoting human welfare, and scientists and policymakers are at the very center of this venture.

Don and classmate Verner Wilson enjoy the spotlight at the EFFY opening reception, Image Credit: Matt Garrett

You have experienced the disconnect between science and policy from both sides. How can we improve communication between scientists and policymakers?

Something I didn’t realize at first is “the environment” is really nothing more than an organizing principle. Here at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, students matriculate with backgrounds in law, economics, biology, political science, forestry, forestry management, English, chemistry, public health, agriculture, architecture, public policy, meteorology, anthropology, geography – the list goes on. Most of us have some expertise, or are at least seeking a particular expertise, that we direct towards environmental work, so it is important to achieve some depth before you build breadth. Despite our various personalities, talents, and interests, we all have a unifying interest and affinity or affection for the natural world that drives us. You can’t survive in an environmentally related field without it. Don’t fret if you become discouraged or disillusioned. It happens to all environmentalists at one point or another.

I have several requests for students of the environment: please do not use acronyms. These abbreviations only isolate you and obfuscate your message from the people who need to hear it most. Avoid meaningless jargon whenever possible. These words are hallmarks of poor communication and ring hollow to audiences of all kinds. “Galvanizing a disruptive innovation that you leveraged with your grassroots organization and scaled-up in partnership with multilateral stakeholders” is an atrocious sentence that says precisely nothing. Hone your writing so you can express yourself in a way that makes people think critically and moves them to act for a common good.