NORTHPORT, Maine — Precise data, gathered meticulously and tested rigorously, must drive the efforts to reverse environmental problems, former Sen. George Mitchell told the 200 scientists, students and teachers attending the BIOGEOMON Conference at the Point Lookout center.
Mitchell delivered the closing keynote address on Thursday afternoon at the weeklong conference, which drew participants from around the U.S. and 20 other nations.
The research presented at the conference will help solve problems such as lakes, streams and soils tainted by pollution, Mitchell said. Those solutions “must be based on scientific data and unbiased interpretation of that data,” he said.
That research is of a highly technical nature.
Some of the topics presented at the conference included a study of an ice storm manipulation in a northern hardwood forest, the implication of removing harvest residue on nitrogen availability in Irish forests, and greenhouse gas emissions with nongaseous losses of carbon from peatlands.
Mitchell was invited in part because of his role in enacting the amended Clean Air Act of 1990, which he called “one of the most difficult and gratifying accomplishments of my time in the Senate.”
He credited a core group that included Republican and Democratic senators and President George H.W. Bush with passing the law.
“Then, as now, there were those who sought to deny science,” Mitchell said. Those critics said the acid rain threat was a hoax being perpetrated by a conspiracy, he recalled.
The current “distrust of science,” seen in political discourse and even in public education, is equally distressing, he said. Science should inform environmental policy, not “ideology or wishful thinking,” Mitchell said.
“We’re now at a time when many environmental problems have become highly charged politically,” Mitchell said, which means those advocating for change have to work harder and be sure their proposals rely on sound science.
And long-term monitoring projects, such as those conducted by the University of Maine, which co-hosted the conference, are critical to policy development, he said. Without such monitoring, “We would have no way of knowing if our environmental laws were working.”
The BIOGEOMON Conference, which has been hosted at different sites around the world, has its roots in a response to the “ Black Triangle ” in Central Europe, a highly polluted region which rallied scientists and others to work for fixes.
The question that should drive environmental policy, Mitchell said, is: “How can we ensure that future generations have the same number of opportunities we have, not fewer?”
In introducing Mitchell, UMaine’s Ivan Fernandez said, “Many of us in this room have spent our careers studying the benefits of the Clean Air Act.”
The former senator, federal judge and U.S. emissary for peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East also offered some life advice for the many college and graduate students attending the conference.
“Real fulfillment in your life will come not from status or possessions,” he said, but in working for “causes larger than yourself.”