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The Issues That Matter

The 2020 elections are a turning point in our society. Arts and sciences disciplines, with their interdisciplinary approaches, are uniquely suited to address the big issues. We asked Eberly College experts across the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences to highlight key issues from current events and explain how their research informs future policymaking.

Climate Change

Global warming and associated climate change are a common theme that weaves through all aspects of society, from health and education to economics and business. Weather-related disasters like slow-moving hurricanes, floods and wildfires are increasingly devastating communities across the U.S. and around the world, driving up costs for insurance, businesses and city services.

Professor of Geography Amy Hessl, a paleoclimatologist, is seeking a timely call to action with creative solutions that span all levels of government.

“We know we need to take action on climate change, and we know that the longer we wait, the more challenging – and the more costly – addressing climate change will become. The question is how to take action,” Hessl said. “We need creative and dedicated leadership on climate change from all parties and at all scales of governance: municipalities, state governments, federal policies and even global agreements.”

Solutions could include not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also building infrastructure, economies and businesses capable of withstanding current and future climate extremes.

“We need not fear these solutions, as many of them are good for our economies and well-being independent of a changing climate – improvements in infrastructure, new sources of energy and safer outdoor working conditions, to name a few,” Hessl said. “Just as we would not knowingly encumber our children and grandchildren with debt, we must choose to leave current and future generations with a stable climate and economy capable of supporting their dreams and aspirations.”

“We know we need to take action on climate change, and we know that the longer we wait, the more challenging – and the more costly – addressing climate change will become. The question is how to take action.”
— Amy Hessl, Professor of Geography

This issue matters in West Virginia, too, which is known for its beautiful forest landscape. With over 12 million acres, the Mountain State is the third-most forested state in the U.S. Our forests are important as an economic driver, not only through timber production, but through the ecosystem services they provide for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and many other recreational activities.

“One ecosystem service that forests provide that most of us don’t think about is that forests globally take up about one-third of all the carbon dioxide that humans produce by burning fossil fuels. Trees take up carbon dioxide from the air through the process of photosynthesis and store the carbon as wood as trees grow as well as in the forest soils,” said Professor of Biology Richard Thomas. “Otherwise, greater amounts of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels would stay in the atmosphere and, acting as a greenhouse gas, more rapidly heat the Earth. And while forests take up a significant amount of carbon dioxide, it is still not enough to stop the Earth from undergoing significant climate change.”

The research in Thomas’ lab revolves around questions about the role that forests play in the global carbon cycle and how forests may help slow the rate of climate change.

“Using tree rings collected from West Virginia trees to determine the growth of trees over decades, we have seen how changing environmental conditions affect tree growth, the fingerprints of climate change, and how beneficial the Clean Air Act has been for the trees in West Virginia,” Thomas said. “The next time that you are out enjoying one of our many forests, take a moment to look around at the trees and think about how they may be helping combat climate change on our planet.”

Climate change is also having an immediate impact on WVU’s Core Arboretum, home to more than 80 species of native West Virginia trees and shrubs and over 250 native herbaceous plants.

Changes in temperature and moisture due to climate change may cause plants and animals to shift their phenological clocks, or the timing of annual events in their life cycle. For plants, these events include leaf emergence, flowering, fruit ripening and leaf drop. There is evidence that this has already started to happen, explained Director Zach Fowler.

Students protesting environmental issues
Society of Physics Students participate in Fridays for the Future.

“Climate change could lead to some complicated issues for plants and animals if different organisms change their phenology in different ways in response to the changing climate,” he said. “For example, if plants bloom earlier but their pollinators do not emerge earlier, the plant’s ability to produce seeds and the pollinator’s ability to find food could be affected. Likewise, an effect on the timing window between spring wildflower emergence and tree leaf-out could affect the wildflower’s ability to get enough light for the year.”

In response, the arboretum launched a phenology walk citizen science research program in collaboration with the National Phenology Network. The program is both an outreach and education tool to engage the public and a research tool to learn about climate change.

Kathryn Williamson, director of the WVU Planetarium, also empowers her students to learn about climate change and start conversations.

“When I teach about the greenhouse effect in introductory astronomy, students are generally glad to learn the science behind a topic they frequently hear about in the media. But unfortunately, scientific knowledge isn’t enough to make the large-scale changes we need to radically reduce greenhouse emissions,” she said. “We need an ‘all hands on deck’ approach – economists to regulate and fund sustainable societal habits, international diplomats to handle environmental refugees, teachers to train the next generation of planetary stewards, and the list goes on. To this end, I want students to find their voice and mobilize their unique skill sets beyond astronomy.”

As a class exercise, students write letters to individuals in “positions of power,” with mailing them optional. Some students have even received encouraging responses, such as a personal note from WVU President E. Gordon Gee that excited one student so much he joined WVU’s student Sierra Club.

“This is an example of why climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says that the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it,” Williamson said. “What would happen on campus and in our state if every WVU student, faculty member and staff member used their voice?”

Economic investment and international trade

If you looked at your 401(k) statements at the end of 2019, you were probably content with what you saw. Stock markets hit record highs and provided spectacular returns: the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 24 percent, the S&P 500 rose 30 percent and the Nasdaq composite beat them both with a gain of 38 percent. These gains occurred despite ongoing volatility due to manufactured uncertainty from trade wars, tariff increases – both threatened and realized – and political gridlock.

“The conventional wisdom about trade rivalries and disputes changed after the election of President Donald Trump in two ways,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Christina Fattore. “Instead of utilizing the World Trade Organization, his administration bilaterally imposed sanctions to apply pressure on Canada, China and the European Union. First, by rejecting the legal path of trade dispute resolution in the WTO, the Trump administration has thrown global trade into crisis. Second, it highlights how multinational ‘domestic’ products truly are. For example, a Harley-Davidson is hardly an American product as it contains parts from several countries. As domestic interest groups continue to exercise pressure on U.S. administrations, we should not expect these current complications to go away in the next decade.”

Will 2020 be more of the same?

“2020 is off to a bit of a rocky start with concerns about presidential impeachment, worries about new military actions in the Middle East and the focus on the general election in November,” said Associate Professor of Public Administration Karen Kunz. “The market is taking it all in stride so far, with the three indexes reaching new highs as we move into the new year.”

The forthcoming presidential election could make all the difference. According to the Stock Traders’ Almanac, over the last 70 years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 10 percent on average in election years in which an incumbent was running for reelection. In the years when the White House was up for grabs, the index declined an average of 1.6 percent.

“This data reflects the markets’ sense of stability or uncertainty about the general election taking place that year,” Kunz said. “Having an incumbent as the presidential candidate indicates a strong market and the potential for another year of record gains. But economic indicators, such as manufacturing gains, trade tensions and the instability in the Middle East, all point to a more erratic year ahead. Prognosticators are on both sides of the fence, predicting more gains or another crash, depending on who you listen to. Either way, it’s likely to be another volatile year for the stock markets. Hold on to your 401(k) – it’s sure to be a bumpy ride!”

Elections, redistricting and gerrymandering

Every 10 years, the U.S. embarks on a constitutionally mandated census. The framers included the census requirement in the Constitution to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on population changes that occurred in the preceding decade.

Following an analysis of 2019 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, 10 states, including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, are expected to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 2020 census while six will gain one or two, explains Associate Professor of Political Science John Kilwein.

“Constitutionally, the responsibility of redistricting based on these population changes rests with the states, making 2020 all the more interesting politically because in most states the party in power in the state legislature gets to tip the redistricting process in their favor,” he said. “Only seven states use a nonpartisan commission or professional staff.”

Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court has been tasked with overseeing the state redistricting process, but it has confined its role to questions of district population, requiring the districts to be distributed as equally as possible and limiting the use of race to gerrymander. However, there was an exception in 2019: Rucho v. Common Cause.

“In this case, a 5-4 majority decided that federal courts are powerless to review cases challenging political gerrymandering under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. These challenges argued that state legislatures controlled by members representing rural districts rig federal and state legislative districts to the detriment of urban voters, yielding an electoral disadvantage to Democrats and black and Latino voters,” Kilwein said.

“While it is true that the Democratic Party in Maryland used their power in the state legislature to disadvantage Republicans, the majority of contested political gerrymanders benefit the Republican Party.”

The five conservative justices in this case argued that questions over the constitutionality of politically-inspired redistricting is a political question and should be addressed by the state, not the courts.

“The Rucho case is sure to intensify efforts to curtail political gerrymandering at the state level, either by directly appealing to the voters through constitutional initiatives or in the state courts,” Kilwein said. “2020 will be an interesting political ride.”

Gun violence and bigotry

In 2019, more than 15,000 people were killed and nearly 30,000 were injured by gun violence. These numbers do not include the estimated 22,000 people each year who died from suicide with a gun. Since 2018, there have been 754 mass shootings, leaving 838 dead and 3,042 injured. These occurred in ordinary places such as high schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas; a neighborhood synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; a crowded college bar in Thousand Oaks, California; and a busy restaurant district in Dayton, Ohio.

Many of these shootings were motivated by bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment, explains Professor of Sociology Jim Nolan. Sociologists provide explanations for bigotry and gun violence that extend beyond the characteristics or failings of perpetrators, focusing instead on the contexts in which they are likely to occur. His research over the past 10 years has considered these contexts from the perspectives of police reform and community dynamics.

“These topics are closely associated with gun violence and bigotry in a couple of ways. Nearly 1,000 people are shot and killed by the police each year in the U.S., and the majority of victims are nonwhite. Moreover, police violence is structured in ways similar to gun violence and bigotry and, therefore, experience similar impediments to change. The uncritical allegiance to the rules of society and its institutions like law, criminal justice, politics, education and the economy all but ensures the conditions in which violence and bigotry appear will continue,” said Nolan. “This is why the current crisis in American policing has yet to yield reform. The law enforcement focus of the police is never even considered because the assumptions underlying law enforcement practices are unanimously ignored.”

In response, Nolan recommends pursuing public safety strategies that start with reform in local communities.

“The good news from my research in community dynamics is that progress in reducing gun violence and bigotry can occur quickly and effectively at the local level,” he said. “It requires the courage to challenge conventional wisdom, to collaborate with others in developing and testing new public safety strategies and the willingness to make adjustments along the way.”

Populism and nationalism

In the past several years, societies around the globe have witnessed a wave of populist nationalism.

Both scholars and everyday people have drawn comparisons between today’s populist movements and fascist movements in 20th-century Europe. These echoes include resentment against people perceived as “elites”; nostalgia for an idealized past; charismatic leaders, infallible in the eyes of their supporters; an undermining of the norms of liberal democracy; a rise in racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic violence; and the rejection of internationalism in the name of national greatness.

Associate Professor of History Joshua Arthurs explains that while there is insight to be gained from such comparisons, they also present pitfalls.

“There are crucial differences between historical fascism and contemporary populism. Whereas fascists of the past were expansionists, bent on conquering empires, today’s populists are isolationists. Despite incendiary rhetoric, there is no contemporary analogue to the paramilitary violence of the interwar era [the years between the two world wars],” said Arthurs. “Even though modern populist leaders are hostile to many features of democracy – pluralism, the protection of minority rights and the separation of powers – they do not aspire to a one-party, totalitarian state. They still derive their legitimacy from the ballot box and compete in the court of public opinion.”

Instead of taking these ideas at face value, Arthurs hopes the study of the past can inform understanding of the present.

“A historical perspective allows us both to recognize old patterns, like the dehumanization of vulnerable minorities, and identify new developments, like the use of social media. It forces us to reject simplistic comparisons, such as ‘President X is a fascist’ or ‘Candidate Y is a communist,’ and understand the specific causes and contexts that shape today’s political landscape,” Arthurs said. “The historian’s tools are not inherently liberal or conservative. Rather, they help us engage in more nuanced and, hopefully, constructive conversations about the future of our democracy.”

Russia and Ukraine relations

Over the last year, Americans have heard more about Ukraine than ever before as tensions rise with its neighbor, Russia. But most of the rhetoric has been superficial, says Eberly Family Professor of Political Science Erik Herron.

“Ukraine is portrayed as a caricature – a weak victim of Russian aggression or a sinister perpetrator meddling in U.S. affairs,” he said. “These simplistic portrayals are false and harmful for both Ukraine and the United States.”

Herron has visited Ukraine 19 times since 1989 for his research on international electoral systems. He has seen firsthand how the country and its people have struggled to overcome the legacy of communist rule and build a functioning democratic society.

“The path has not been easy,” said Herron. “Some of the fault lies with corrupt politicians and businessmen who regularly try to use the system in their favor. Some of the fault lies with a hostile neighbor – Russia – that annexed a part of Ukraine and instigated an active war on Ukrainian territory. And some of the fault lies with the international community that has given Ukraine mixed messages and inconsistent support.”

Despite all of the challenges, Ukrainian citizens have taken great risks to build a democratic society. Ukrainians have mobilized massive street protests to hold corrupt politicians accountable. Citizen activists and journalists regularly challenge dishonest politicians and oligarchs, sometimes paying the ultimate price for their integrity. Ukraine has also pushed back against Russian aggression, with more than 13,000 soldiers and civilians killed. In its most recent elections, voters chose a new president to lead the country who has gone on to fight corruption and end the war.

“Ukraine provides an inspiring example, and a cautionary tale, for all of us,” said Herron. “Perhaps the most important lesson is that the task of achieving – and maintaining – democracy is never completed.”


Gloved hand holding petri dish

The 2020 elections will likely once again frame important questions about healthcare access and coverage in the United States. While it is too early to say how prominent healthcare will be in the presidential election campaign, it is clear that it is helping to shape the dynamics of the Democratic nomination contest, explains Eberly Family Professor for Outstanding Public Service Christopher Plein.

“The results of the 2020 elections, in context of the presidency, in Congress and at the state level, will no doubt influence the politics of how markets and government can best facilitate access to healthcare and how costs are covered through insurance and public programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare,” he said.

Social scientists can provide important insights about the complexities of providing healthcare access and coverage.

“Issues emerge when individuals who are otherwise covered by insurance have difficulty accessing care. This may be due to economic factors, incomplete information about care options, transportation barriers or the lack of providers,” Plein said. “While being aware of debates and developments in the political arena, our understanding of the social determinants of health and well-being can give us a greater appreciation for the challenges that are faced across different populations and places. This is especially important in understanding the needs and opportunities for healthcare access and coverage in rural areas, such as those found in West Virginia.”

“Issues emerge when individuals who are otherwise covered by insurance have difficulty accessing care. This may be due to economic factors, incomplete information about care options, transportation barriers or the lack of providers.” — Christopher Plein, Eberly Family Professor for Outstanding Public Service

Substance use epidemic

Throughout history, individuals have consumed different chemical substances at different times, in different places, under different circumstances and for different reasons. People have used drugs to treat physical or mental ailments, to find personal or spiritual peace or for their own pleasure or amusement. Over time, the drugs of choice and types of individuals using them have changed, with drugs sometimes working to the benefit of the users and others around them and at other times to their detriment. The challenge for drug policymakers has been to identify and implement policies and programs that maximize the benefits and minimize the harms, explains Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology Henry Brownstein.

Miscellaneous pills in a pile 

“Throughout the 20th century, drug policy in America emphasized controlling the undesirable behaviors of illicit drug users and traffickers, with less attention given to addressing the harms to users and other people around them from the misuse and abuse of any drugs,” he said. “The contemporary opioid crisis is distinctive and, as a result, has enabled if not encouraged policymakers to give greater attention to a more balanced drug policy.”

Today’s substance use epidemic involves not only heroin, which is illegal, but also legal prescription and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The individuals misusing heroin, prescription opioids and synthetics span geographical and social boundaries not often crossed in earlier heroin epidemics. They appear in urban, suburban and rural areas as with as more affluent and white users.

“Contemporary opioid users have moved from one opioid to another, such as from prescription opioids to heroin to fentanyl. This movement appears to be related to an increasing number of health problems, notably a greater overdose mortality rate,” Brownstein said. “Today, public policy and public opinion have progressed from their emphasis on controlling behaviors to a greater interest in considering both how drugs can be beneficial when used in legitimate and prudent ways and how they can be harmful to users and their communities when they are misused or abused.”

The crises of opioid and other substance use disorders have ravaged the state of West Virginia and the region. The collateral damage is far-reaching and has placed a severe burden on families, communities and the healthcare and education systems. Families are struggling as more young children are separated and in need of kinship care. The healthcare system faces a shortage of behavioral health providers, and schools are not equipped to handle the behaviors of children who experience trauma.

To address these challenges, the School of Social Work is engaged in initiatives to increase the behavioral health workforce by training students to address substance use disorder prevention and treatment.

“I am thankful that I work for an institution that values the contributions this focus can bring to the state and region,” said Professor of Social Work Helen Hartnett. “I hope my work with students on these projects will give them the same passion to do work that makes a difference in the lives of others.”

Funded by the Health Resources Services Administration, these projects provide support and specialized coursework for 25 Master of Social Work students per year.

“Our work has allowed us to share our knowledge and passion for prevention-focused practice with a large number of social work students, many of whom have completed their training and are now working in West Virginia to promote better outcomes for children, families and communities,” said Carrie Rishel, a professor of social work and director of the School’s Rural Integrated Behavioral Health Training program.

The team provides evidence that prevention works through a partnership with Trauma-Informed Elementary Schools, developed and implemented by Crittenton Services of West Virginia.

“Caregiver substance abuse highly coincides with childhood traumatic experiences, and those children are greatly in need of behavioral and mental health services,” said Jiyoung Tabone, an assistant professor of social work. “Research has proven that behavioral and mental health services received in early childhood have preventative effects on the development of behavioral problems among children who are exposed to trauma. This emphasizes the importance of prevention efforts in West Virginia.”

Water quality

Water quality is a major issue in West Virginia that has historically been at odds with economic development. Monetary wealth generated through the chemical industry and the extraction of timber, coal and most recently gas has often resulted in water insecurity, commonly defined in terms of barriers to adequate water quality and quantity, due to the contamination of rivers and streams.

This is a reality that West Virginians still experience in 2020, geographer Martina Angela Caretta explains. Her latest research on hydraulic fracturing and pipeline development in West Virginia highlights many of the realities facing West Virginians. Conducting more than 60 face-to-face interviews with citizens and property owners in north and central West Virginia, she has gathered lived experiences of what it means to be on the frontlines of U.S. energy independence.

Underwater close up of bubbles

“Living in proximity of gas wells, compressor stations and pipelines has resulted in increasing water insecurity for many West Virginians,” Caretta said. “This insecurity is manifested in the ways in which they perceive their water quality as deteriorating and in the legal challenges they are faced with to prove that their water has been contaminated by the industry practices.”

Overall, Caretta’s research has shown that residents experience anxiety and stress over the quality of well water and uncertainty around the long-term water impacts of hydraulic fracturing on their health and quality of life.

“The citizens I have interviewed in the last three years have reiterated this constant worry to me. The major and current issue for them that they want to be tackled is water quality.” — Martina Angela Caretta, Assistant Professor of Geography

“The citizens I have interviewed in the last three years have reiterated this constant worry to me. The major and current issue for them that they want to be tackled is water quality,” she said. “They want transparent and documented practices to be enacted by the industry in relation to water usage and disposal and stricter water quality regulations to be enforced by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection through the employment of more personnel on the ground throughout the state.”