Dr. Noelle Eckley Selin, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s
Selin Group (Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences), presented the University of Maine Foundation’s Annual Libby Lecture in Natural Resource Policy. Her talk was titled, “Air Pollution in a Changing World: Designing Research for Impact,” in the McIntire Room of the Buchanan Alumni House from 4 to 5 p.m., with a preceding reception at 3:30 p.m.
Introductory speakers included University of Maine Foundation President and CEO Jeffrey N. Mills, Libby Lecture Planning Committee Chair Bridie McGreavy, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Hecker, and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Emily A. Haddad, each stressing the interdisciplinary focus behind the Libby Lecture series.
The Selin Group’s research “focuses on using atmospheric chemistry and integrated modeling
to inform decision-making strategies on air pollution and climate change.” The first lesson Selin shared about doing work designed to impact policy: “Know what you’re getting into.”
For the purposes of the lecture, Selin focused on her group’s research into the dramatic
increase of mercury mobilization in the atmosphere and stored in soil, oceans and lakes, and
the bodies of humans and animals. Research began from an atmospheric, chemical point of
view, “but I don’t think you can really understand the problem of pollutants just by doing that. I
need to know how the underlying drivers work; the ways in which society and the economy are
structured to lead to emissions and releases, the impacts those pollutants have on human
health, and the policies and societal responses that are designed to mitigate it,” Selin explained. While the mobilization of mercury is a regional issue with a serious effect on local water and fishing conditions, the source of such pollution is on a global scale.
From there, Selin detailed some of the challenges that come from tackling an issue both locally
and globally. “To manage pollutants effectively, we need to understand the whole system,” she said. People and organizations on local and global scales are affected by such issues differently, and their needs must be translated into questions that can inform their research and methods. Selin mentioned one question raised during the 2015 New England EPA Tribal Summit in Presque Isle: “ ‘When will we be able to eat fish from our tribal lands without jeopardizing our health?’ That was a practical question for them… for Native American tribes in particular, fishing and eating fish can be both important to nutrition, but also to maintaining culture and heritage.”
So, to solve the mercury problem, both international action and cooperation to tackle the
problem at its source, and domestic policies to benefit local communities, are needed.
Global interest in mercury grew in 2002, leading to the Minamata Convention negotiation in
- This led the Selin Group to focus on the language in the resulting global treaty, the effects
it will have, “and importantly, what does that mean for communities on the ground?”
While the information gathered based on the Convention proposal was valuable for the EPA
and Supreme Court for cost-benefit analysis, it did not resonate with the Native American tribes
and their local concern, “When can we eat the fish?” so findings had to be framed as a response to that question. Existing policies were not likely to lower the mercury levels enough
to make the fish safe to eat within this generation. The efforts will not see success until 2050. “It runs parallel with the climate problem… we just have to adapt to the damage already done.”
As the lecture came to its conclusion, Selin reiterated the need for drawing on multiple
methods to inform policy, community-focused engagement and the need for interdisciplinary
For publication links and more information, visit the Selin Group website at http://mit.edu/selingroup.