In an era when “fake news” has become a common phrase, it is more important than ever to make sure our policymakers are making decisions based on the best available information.
As graduate students associated with the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, we knew that there was a role for us to play. We all study issues related to climate change, but with no experience interacting with the policy side how could we connect our research with decision-makers? That’s where the Union of Concerned Scientists came in.
As graduate students, we study specific projects within narrow bands of climate science, but the general knowledge of climate that we have gained throughout the pursuit of our degrees puts us in a unique position. In the eyes of policymakers, we can serve as important resources.
With this perspective on our status as graduate students, we felt inspired and compelled to improve our understanding of the climate policy framework as well as to promote connections between graduate students and policymakers. We reached out to Emily Heffling, UCS western states campaign coordinator, to partner with us to create a UW workshop focused on training graduate students and postdocs studying climate in building these important relationships with the policy world. With resources from UCS, we facilitated an event that brought in multiple speakers to address these questions of how climate policy works in Washington State and how we as students can plug into this system.
Following the training, we arranged meetings with our local legislators: one State Senator and four members of the Washington House of Representatives, including the Speaker. It turns out it can be a little nerve-wracking to meet in person with a legislator! As part of the training, participants got to practice face-to-face interactions with policymakers through role-play scenarios. This training experience was easily translated into the actual meetings, helping students to feel more at ease. Students had clear expectations for the meeting and knew how to structure the encounter to use the legislators’ precious time most productively.
Across the five meetings that came out of this event, we pushed past our comfort zones and connected with the people who are in positions to make impactful changes. We learned about the work our elected officials are already doing to pursue climate policy. We described how our climate research and affiliated resources are available to better inform their decisions. One graduate student, Kaylie McTiernan, who attended a meeting with Representative Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District) reflected on her meeting saying, “the graduate student science advocacy training prepared us to meet with Representative Macri. We are grateful for her time and for learning about the newly formed Climate Caucus of the WA State Democrats, the work towards creating a carbon tax, and some of the most pressing current issues.” In another meeting, Senator Jamie Pedersen (43rd Legislative District) was curious to learn about how policy changes on the state level impact the global issue of climate change. We connected him to the resources at UW that specialize in such questions.
Students also brought up issues that were not on legislators’ radars, such as how global warming will change the timing and quantity of water availability as snow-dominated areas in the Cascades become rain-dominated. Water resources have been on the Washington State political agenda because of a court ruling affecting current water permitting practices, but the longer-term implications of climate change had been largely absent from the discussion.
Overall, the experience of working with UCS to facilitate this workshop, connect graduate students to the policy landscape, and build relationships with local legislators was incredibly rewarding. We learned a lot about how state climate policy is developed and implemented and gained a better understanding of how graduate students can leverage our unique position and resources to advocate for a more climate-progressive state shaped by well-informed policymakers.