The Power Dialog is a powerful idea, not just because it sends a message that the issue of climate change is important, but also because it involves citizen-students engaging with government officials. The fact that we live in a democracy makes this possible and if it is done well, the potential for making our democratic system of government work better is substantial.
I am a lecturer in environmental law and policy at two universities. I have just retired from 27 years of working for a state environmental agency. While there, I saw resources decline precipitously. The particular office where I worked once had more than thirty people, now there are seven. The largest environmental agency is now staffed at the level at which it began, back in the 1960’s, half of what it was at its height. These are important facts to understand, because if you confront an environmental official and demand action, or more gently convince them of the need for action, they may have limited capability to produce action. But if you can provide them with your assistance, doing work that needs to be done, then the engagement can be extremely constructive. You will learn a lot, and they can govern more effectively.
When I was with the state (Massachusetts), I worked for a little-known group called the Office of Technical Assistance. Many states have offices of assistance, who help companies and others with compliance, and/or, as in our case, reducing the use of toxic materials, conserving water, and transitioning to cleaner energy sources and using energy more efficiently. We used interns all the time, and many of my students did projects that were of great value to the office. For example, we had students research the value of energy efficiency, so that we could be more persuasive with the companies we were trying to convince. We had students work on very specific problems, such as how to capture waste heat in industrial processes, or how to install solar. If you are on the technical path, this experience is not just invaluable learning but also a good resume builder, plus there is the possibility of making good connections with people in the field. We also used students for policy research. The office typically grapples with a great variety of interesting problems: how do you access the subsidies for energy efficiency, what are the substitutes for SF6 and other noncarbon greenhouse gases, how do you get out word about the new boiler standards (which will reduce all kinds of emissions)? Students can help with them all.
Not every agency does a good job of using interns. Some put them in a corner and give them the drudge work. Some fail to integrate them into the office culture, and the students are lonely. Some don’t even want interns, because they are so poor they can’t afford to give them a desk and a computer. But there are many offices, in each state, where students can explore whether a useful relationship can be established. Most states have an energy office, perhaps combined with the environmental one. In most states, you have a cabinet-level or coordinating agency (perhaps one for energy, one for environment), and in that agency there are probably planning and program offices, which do statewide assessments and policy and projects, and also communications with the public. Under them will likely be an enforcement agency, a parks agency, a food and agriculture agency, and a fish and wildlife agency. Then there will also be a public health agency, and a public safety agency, and these are now concerned with storms and excessive heat and have been pulled into general climate change planning in many states. The adaptation effort has also brought in departments of transportation. In addition, in some states departments of economic and/or workforce development are helping to raise awareness of resilience issues, green industries, and training for green jobs. Even the department of corrections may be looking at energy efficiency. The schools agency may be looking at weatherization. There are many places to explore where help can be offered.
It is true that a lot can be accomplished with simply doing what the Power Dialog envisions – to engage with public officials. But a one-day event is a chance to prompt a deeper, longer, and fruitful engagement. The fact that the Power Dialog is going to happen can be a motivation for an agency to think, we better get ready. No official wants to be up on that stage without having something to say! And on the other hand, students will not accomplish what they want to accomplish if the official is very effective in conveying that the state is on the ball, when there is really a great deal that needs to be done that is not being done. The only way to really know whether you are being constructive is to be engaged over a long period of time and to get into the details of the issues and to understand them thoroughly.
If students take the opportunity of the upcoming Dialog to explore the possibilities of helping state agencies, either with individual or group research projects, they will learn a lot about what government really does do, and what it can do. What will they lose by going now and asking, how can we help? What research projects can we do? Do you need to find out if your initiatives are successful? We can help you find out. Do you need to think up strategies for convincing the public to take certain actions? We can be useful. Do you need to find out what the barriers are to implementation of your priorities, or the reasons why people are not complying with certain requirements? Let us try to find out for you. Do you just need us as sample citizens to consider various approaches? We will give you our best thoughts. If the offer is accepted, of course then students will become immersed in particular aspects of the overall problem. But if they do this as a concerted action, and come back to school and share their experiences with each other, a more comprehensive picture can be formed.
The intent of the founders of this country was that government work for the people. In order for that to truly happen, citizens need to develop a sophisticated approach to how government works. Offering help to government is a rarely pursued option, which can produce a far greater understanding of what’s needed, on both sides. Government officials will learn from students if they do good work, and then they will do their job better. And if this idea works, on the day of the Power Dialog, the official will be talking about what the students have done as well as what the employees of the people are doing, and future efforts might be discussed as well. The idea of democracy is not of a people on one side and a government on the other. It is of everyone working together. Let’s use the Power Dialog to help create a healthy democracy, because if we can learn to work together more effectively, we will have forged a tool that can be used to overcome the unnecessary logjams that now beset us, to transcend the habits of division and confrontation that we have adopted, and begin to accelerate forward.
Lecturer, Environmental Law and Policy, Boston University, Harvard Extension School
Former Manager, Outreach and Policy, Office of Technical Assistance, Executive Office of Energy and Environment, Commonwealth of Massachusetts