Daniel J. Fiorino is the founding Director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Distinguished Executive in Residence in the School of Public Affairs at American University. A faculty member in the Department of Public Administration and Policy, he teaches environmental policy, energy and climate change, environmental sustainability, and public management. Dan is the author or co-author of seven books and over fifty articles and book chapters. His 2006 book, The New Environmental Regulation, won the Brownlow Award of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) for “excellence in public administration literature” in 2007. Altogether his publications have received nine national and international awards from the American Society for Public Administration, Policy Studies Organization, Academy of Management, and NAPA. Dan joined American University in 2009 after a career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2013, he created the William K. Reilly Fund for Environmental Governance and Leadership within the Center for Environmental Policy. Dan is an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.
What motivated you to work on the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing Climate Change?
Students often ask how I got into the environmental field. My short, true answer is that I got a job at EPA. I wanted to work in the policy office at a major federal agency, and EPA was where I ended up. I have never regretted it. I tell people interested in the environmental field that you will never run out of work. These are not problems we simply solve; they are issues and opportunities we have to keep working on. Since the 1960s, we and nearly every other country in the world has learned the importance of balancing human needs and aspirations with the physical limits of the planet and all its components.
How would you describe the government's role in the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing climate change?
Government plays many critical roles in environmental protection, across the board. Its first and primary job is to hold people and organizations accountable for the harm they do to the environment. That, of course, was the whole idea behind laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. We are getting smarter at ways of doing that, from using well-crafted performance standards, to creating economic incentives, to giving people information on the consequences of their actions. Government also has a big role in doing basic research and creating public goods when the private sector lacks an incentive for doing it. And finally, government plays an essential role in guiding the change and making the various pieces work together. Markets are wonderful inventions, but big complex systems often need a guiding hand. Effective, accountable, responsive, well-staffed governments can do that job.
What, according to you, is(are) the biggest challenge(s) when it comes to the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing climate change? What could be the solution(s)?
The overwhelming challenge that all of us face, whether we are working in the environmental field or not, is how to sustain a good quality of life on a planet with limited capacities. We are at a stage when we not only are using up the earth’s resources, but where we are putting enormous stress on the global climate system, on critical ecosystems like wetlands and coastal estuaries, and on people’s health and well-being. Population and economic growth, more mobility, more industrial activity—all of these trends are adding to the cumulative pressures on the planet. I see the challenge of sustainability, as I put it in the title of a recent book, as that of living a good life on a finite earth. That challenge will always be with us.
What are some projects or recent developments in this field that you are most excited about?
I am currently doing work on clean energy, and that is a really exciting area where the trends are moving in the right direction. Only a few decades ago, solar and wind energy were fringe technologies; now they are the fastest growing sources of electricity generation and the least expensive in most of the world. We are witnessing tremendous improvements in energy storage technology; electric vehicles are falling in price and increasing in range; green hydrogen shows excellent promise for many energy applications. Countries around the world are setting targets for net-zero carbon energy systems. There is a long way to go, to be sure, and lots of things have to move the right way, but this is an area of sustainability where there are reasons to be optimistic.
The other area where recent trends are promising is an addressing the clear inequities in environmental risks and opportunities. Environmental justice has been an acknowledged issue for some three decades, but this is the first time I have seen something close to the needed levels of energy and commitment to making a difference. My Center for Environmental Policy is currently looking at the role of technologies like enhanced air monitoring, advanced analytics, and synthetic biology in contributing to a fairer and more equitable system of environmental protection, and we are excited to be a part of this effort. And this is a critical role for government: to enable all to share fairly in the benefits of the progress we have made and to ensure that no group or community is harmed by pollution or ecological degradation.