Energy, Climate, and Citizenship Education: An Interview with Eban Goodstein

On Monday April 4th, thousands of college and university students will be participating in the Power Dialog. Students and supporting faculty will engage in face-to-face dialogs with top environmental and energy officials in dozens of states. The topic? State-level action to help meet the US climate commitment of 30% cuts in global warming pollution by 2030. Penn State students in Sustainability 200: Foundations of Leadership in Sustainability will be joining over 200 students and faculty from across the commonwealth to meet with DEP Secretary John Quigley, regulators and legislators.

Who thought of such an event and why?

Eban Goodstein dreamed up the Power Dialog. Goodstein is the Director of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy as well as director of two national educational initiatives on global warming: C2C and The National Climate Seminar. In recent years, he has coordinated climate education events at over 2500 colleges, universities, high schools and other institutions across the country. Goodstein is the author of a college textbook, Economics and the Environment as well as Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction: How Passion and Politics Can Stop Global Warming and The Trade-off Myth: Fact and Fiction about Jobs and the Environment. The Power Dialog comes from a longstanding commitment to immersive policy and business education for sustainability.

In this interview Goodstein talks with Peter Buckland about the ideas powering the Power Dialog. They discuss the professional, civic, and citizen potential of engaging in a policy and political dialog around climate and energy, the knowledge and skills students develop, and why this kind of education should be fully embraced.

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Peter Buckland: What is the Power Dialog and where did it come from?

Eban Goodstein: The Power Dialog is a way to get students directly involved with the state folks who are really designing their future. We came out of the Paris Agreement and the President Obama has committed us to a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 below 2005 levels. And whether that comes true or not depends on what happens at the state level. State action is what determines pollution from the power sector which is about 40% of U.S. emissions.

There’s a lot happening right now in every state. The Power Dialog is a chance for students to learn what’s going on from the power brokers who are coming up with this stuff and get them excited to be engaged in that process.

The Power Dialog was originally formulated as a conversation around the Clean Power Plan which provided a nice organizing opportunity. Suddenly for the first time since 2008-2009 climate policy was a hot topic. Not just the politics and the partisan back and forth but an opportunity to change the rules in a substantive way. The Clean Power Plan required that every state cut emissions. The EPA gave every state its own target based on what was technically feasible. Until early February , there was a person in every state’s Department of Environmental Protection or Department of Environmental Quality whose job it was to gather together stakeholders—utilities, coal industry folks, environmentalists, and others—to hammer out a plan to get under the 2030 EPA-set targets. This was a good hook.

You know, there’s a good book about how to make change when change is hard. It’s called SwitchIf you want to get a lot of people involved they have to see it as effective, as fun, and relatively easy. The Power Dialog is certainly those things. It was going to be effective because the people involved would be talking to key decision makers and feel as though it was really something that they’d want to go to. It was going to be fun because you’d be working with colleagues—teachers and students—from across your state and across the country. And it would be relatively easy. We had a simple model that involved calling the person at the DEP or DEQ and set up a meeting. They were obligated to talk because they had to have public hearings.

As a consequence we had about thirty states set up a few weeks ago. We had momentum. We were on our way to our goal of getting 10,000 students to take part in these conversations across the country.

Then the Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under us by putting the Clean Power Plan on hold. That meant that our premise had to change. So we pivoted and so it’s now about what individual states are doing to meet their climate targets. But it also meant that the folks we were targeting to come talk, especially in red states, weren’t in a political position to come talk. They didn’t have to and their governors didn’t want them to.  So that went away as an organizing activity and we are in a muddier conversation. But we think we will still have good conversations in about 20 states.

It’s a chance for everyone to get into Dialog. From a faculty perspective it’s a great chance to talk about state level energy and climate policy. But at the end of the day we hope that students will be energized and see global warming not as a hopeless apocalyptic threat but that there are people on the ground in every state formulating strategies that are beginning to pay off and that it’s easy to get involved.

PB: So what do you think students can learn by taking part in this?

EG:  There going to learn about federalism. The EPA is setting goals and the states have to meet them. They will learn about energy and renewable energy. Does our state have a renewable energy portfolio? What kind of energy efficiency policy do we have? Are we part of a carbon trading system? Could we become part of one? They really can come to see how states can change directions. How are we going to go from a business as usual scenario where we double our carbon emissions to a future where we cut them in half in the coming decades. It’s the nuts and bolts of how you get things done at the state level.

One thing that I just learned after being on a call with the Union of Concerned Scientists is that there isn’t really a red state vs. blue state dichotomy. There are things happening in states where you wouldn’t expect them to be happening. It’s very exciting.

PB: What about the skills they will develop as they prepare? In Pennsylvania, what would I need to try to prepare my students to be able to do to engage in a meaningful conversation about energy and policy with DEP Secretary John Quigley?

EG: I think this is a question about citizenship. Citizens don’t have to be experts to be involved in the policy process. They need to understand the broad policy goals and the policy tools. If I have a broad understanding that Pennsylvania’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gases 35% below 2012 levels, I can ask questions about renewable energy portfolio standards, questions about maximizing the potential job growth in the solar industry, or questions about fracking in Pennsylvania (see our posts on Pennsylvania, fracking, and The Boom). Do we want to head farther into natural gas when other states are more aggressively to renewables? If we do that, what are the consequences to rural low-income areas from truck traffic and water quality impacts? Students can ask all kinds of questions. They might not get into all the minutiae and no one should expect them to.

PB: Some critics of higher education claim that activities like the Power Dialog are overly political. What’s your response to that?

EG: I view my role as a public educator. Around climate change my goal is to help people become aware of the outline of the policy debate so that they can engage with it. I think it’s hugely important that students be talking to regulators. It’s as important as talking to business people. Getting students into the real world is critical.

In a sense, there’s nothing about the Power Dialog that’s political.  It’s not about trying to influence electoral outcomes or legislative agendas. Students will learn about the rules, what they will be, and then respond to them with their own concerns. We aren’t asking students to ask for X or Y.

PB: In our class we don’t have a mandated opinion about say joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

EG: But they might want to know if Pennsylvania should join RGGI. Or maybe you have students who really like nuclear power. You’ll get all kinds of conversations by encouraging students to ask questions.

While the Power Dialog might not be political I think a lot of educators are really frightened by this idea to their detriment. Students learn about these issues when they really engage with them. The idea that engaging with state agency folks is politics is absurd to me. You have to be talking to people in business and policy because they’re the people who know how the world works and what the opportunities are.

For example, I’ll be talking to students in the fall at the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education meetings about how to get a job in sustainability and leadership. I’ll tell them that they ought to work on a political campaign. I’m not saying that so that a candidate wins. I’m saying that because students will learn an incredible set of skills and what campaigning is and how to raise money and build a network. Some people would say, “You’re being an advocate.” I respond, “Absolutely not.” I’m simply telling students that political campaigns are a great free opportunity to develop a skill set to become a leader.

I think faculty are much too timid about engaging in the political real world because they’re afraid of being labeled as advocates.  In fact, from a personal career development perspective, the reverse is true. The more you get students involved in interacting with real world decision-makers—whether business or politics—the better a teacher and mentor you are.  And the higher profile you are providing to your institution. Don’t take a partisan side—but do get the students into the real world mix.

Original interview appeared on March 23, 2016 on  sustainability.psu.edu.

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