Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Role of the Political Scientist

In an ideal world, environmental management policy would follow directly from scientific research, which would spell out clear courses of action for decision-makeImagers to adopt. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The policy-making process is notoriously messy and science may be interpreted differently by multiple audiences and actors, severely diminishing the impact that scientific knowledge can have on policy outcomes. In this frustrating context, how can scientists ensure that their work is contributing positively to sound environmental management practices?

1748687107_4bdbba89eb_o In her thesis, Erica Simmons (MCP ’13) looks at three ways in which scientists have attempted to influence the political process in the case of the management of the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The first was the CALFED Science Program, which in the early 2000s adopted an approach of political neutrality, emphasizing instead the strengthening of relationship between scientists and policymakers of all perspectives. This was succeeded by a partnership between scientists at UC Davis and policy researches as the Public Policy Institute of California, which from 2007 to 2013 took on the role of political advocate and advanced explicit policy recommendations informed by scientific research. Most recently, the San Francisco Estuary Institute partnered with KQED, a regional public radio station, to develop a package of radio and interactive web content to educate the public about environmental management issues in the Bay-Delta.

These three approaches offer very different ideas about how scientists should approach policymaking, whether as a non-biased researchers, data-backed advocates, or public informers and educators. As Erica notes, these efforts have built upon one another and addressed the weaknesses of prior models: the UC Davis-PPIC partnership was purposely more politically assertive than CALFED, and the SFEI-KQED collaboration more actively drew the public into the policy discussion.

In the end, there is no blueprint for how scientists should approach policy issues, and the issue does not appear to be getting any easier. Still, scientists must adopt a strategy for how to interact with the policy discussion, and the methods they adopt can have important implications both for policy outcomes and for the public perception of scientific research. Read about these issues and more in Erica’s thesis.

As discussed in Erica Simmons theses, do you think it is possible for scientific findings to retain enough of their legitimacy inside the scientific community when they are being tailored to communicate and influence the broader populous?

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Planning Beyond Coal

Our nation’s energy infrastructure is at the beginning stages of a massive transition as we come to terms with and address the implications of our reliance on fossil fuels. The first stage of this transition will be the retirement of AdiNochurmuch of America’s fleet of coal plants, due both to more stringent environmental regulations and the increased competitiveness of natural gas. Beyond environmental and climactic benefits, the shutdown of these plants creates an interesting planning opportunity to consider how lands previously used for energy generation from coal can be redeveloped and put to new uses.
Adi Nochur (MCP ’13) confronts these questions in his thesis. He considers the cases of three Massachusetts coal communities—Salem, Somerset, and Holyoke—that must make decisions about plant shutdown and reuse, with a primary focus on the ways in which the planning process has or hasn’t opened up opportunities for concerned stakeholders and the public to get involved.
There has been little consistently in the ways that Massachusetts towns plan for the transition from coal, Adi finds. Salem has been a leader among the three, as town officials have aggressively considered options for reuse and have given environmental advocates and the public seats at the table. Adi also notes differences in state leadership and the level of funding granted for reuse planning efforts amont the three towns. He presents Chicago as a model for Massachusetts coal communities to follow. Officials there have emphasized stakeholder engagement and strong government leadership in coal plant transition planning.
In general, Adi’s thesis raises questions about the appropriate uses of former coal sites. Often, as will likely be the case in Salem, shuttered coal plants get a second life as natural gas facilities, though this outcome may not be in the best interest of communities that have long dealt with the local health and environmental consequences of fossil fuel energy production. Adi is hopeful that Massachusetts and other states will consider a broader range of ideas and stakeholder views as they make plans for a post-coal energy sector. Read more about Adi’s findings and conclusions in his thesis.

A Business Model for a Constrained World

Our natural systems are increasingly threatened by climate change, droughts, increasing population, and related crises. These coming crises will have massive economic impacts, and firms will soon need to learn how to operate in a setting where resources are constrained and old business models are no longer competitive.Image

Aleyn Smith-Gillespie (MCP/SM 2001), now an associate director at Carbon Trust, recently contributed to an Economist report on the future of business models in a constrained world. Aleyn notes that, for many products where the cost of ownership is high and the rate of utilization low, businesses have an opportunity to recognize resource constraints by shifting away from an ownership economy and towards a sharing or subscription-based one.

Many proactive businesses have already begun to move in this direction, by emphasizing shared ownership of under-utilized resources (like cars and industrial machinery) and advertising services over products.

As these new business models succeed and resource constraints continue to strangle the old economy, Aleyn expects this shift to become more pronounced. Read more about Aleyn’s take on his guest blog at the Economist, or download the full Economist report, Supply on Demand.

Can Sustainable Jobs Programs be Sustained?

Green JobsOne often-cited benefit of a sustainable economy is the creation of a new class of green jobs, but creating these jobs has proven to be difficult. First, there’s no clear consensus on what makes jobs “green.” Second, efforts to encourage green jobs are complicated by the need to satisfy both environmental and economic objectives, which often conflict.

Louise Yeung (MCP ’13) evaluated two green jobs programs—the Oakland Green Jobs Corps and the Baltimore Center for Green Careers—to see how they were handling the tension between these policy priorities. She found that they were taking significantly different approaches.

In Oakland, the Green Jobs Corps takes  a supply-oriented approach to filling jobs by partnering with unions to move green jobs through existing employment pipelines. The Corps trains workers in a broad set of environmental practices, and then inserts them into traditional trade positions. While this approach has given the Corps good access to new positions, the resulting jobs are not always as “green” as might be hoped. Because of union partnerships and other constraints, the program places a high emphasis on employment priorities.

The Baltimore Center for Green Careers, meanwhile, takes a demand-oriented approach. It has encouraged the growth of a new green industry—home energy efficiency contracting. This has led to a somewhat smaller programmatic impact, and the program is dependent on other policies that offer generous incentives for energy efficiency.

The varying tactics that the two programs have adopted—and the pros and cons of each—demonstrate continued uncertainty in how best to fashion green jobs policy. Read more about these programs and the lessons that they offer in Louise’s thesis.