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2014 course offerings that will apply toward a Climate Change Studies minor

Students share their stories and impressions from studying in Vietnam

College of Forestry and Conservation

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From the Hectic Hill to Majestic Mountains

By Erika Foster, Environmental Studies and Resource Conservation major, Wilderness Studies minor
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Special guest Karen Wayland didn’t know what she was getting into when she flew out to Montana to join the Climate Change Field Studies Course. Our days are packed full of nonstop discussion and meetings with glacial geologists, biologists, community organizers, ranchers, landowners, environmental educators, wildlife researchers and ecologists.  With Glacier National Park, the Swan Valley and the Blackfoot river as our classrooms, it is difficult to stop thinking, discussing and observing the changes on the landscape when you are constantly surrounded by them. However, there is a whole other side to the climate change story that we can easily forget, or in my case, discredit. Karen Wayland keen to muck around in the wetlands with us.As we observe affects of climate change on the ground, other individuals tackle the issue from much, much farther away. I am referring to those, such as Karen, who approach climate change from a policy perspective, working to create legislation to help mitigate the effects of climate change on a national level.

Coming from many years working in Washington, DC, Karen has been tackling climate change issues for many years. As the environmental advisor to former Speaker of the House, Nancy Peolosi, former staff of Sen. Harry Reid, Karen brought many new insights from the world of politics to our trip.

Before this course began, I found myself a bit burnt out on the whole climate change issue. I had worked locally for two years with our student group, UM Climate Action Now, but increasingly felt overwhelmed y the global reach of the problem, unrecognized by many citizens in our own country. I wondered how it would be possible to mitigate impacts when climate change denial is so widespread. Clearly large scale changes must be made, but many people, including myself, have lost faith in our government’s ability to act decisively in the best interest of its people. I had thought, “It’s good that a small portion of our population finds hope in the political process.” I believed I would never be able to get involved at that level. I assumed I would feel too much frustration dealing with the crazy demands of Congressmen failing to pass good legislation because of one person or another standing in the way. Yet, somehow, during this field studies course, my attitude towards politics has shifted from frustrated to hopeful and I owe it to Karen.

From the hectic Hill of Washington D.C. to the mountains of Montana, Karen brought with her a wonderful enthusiasm for being outdoors, thoughtful insights and stories into the political realm, and a desire to partake in discussion with people affected by climate change. Karen brings lessons from “the Hill” and Copenhagen to our picnic table classroom.

In the Crown of the Continent, the region surrounding the continental divide from Yellowstone to the Yukon, we can easily observe the direct effects of climate change on the landscape: melting glaciers, beetle-killed forests, enduring drought. However, when addressed in a political context, the issues quickly became abstract to me, highly theoretical, with debates over the cap and trade system and strategic planning of emission reductions. I found it easy to get lost in legislative language and found this approach to fighting climate change fairly unreliable. However, with her amazing ability to teach through her own experiences, Karen untangled the basics of climate change politics and policy with us. From the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen to the latest cap and trade bill in the House of Representatives, Karen offered her perspective of where we have been and where we ought to be on the path towards political climate solutions. 

One key part of our discussion with Karen revolved around the HR 2542 “The American Clean Energy and Security Act” otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey bill. Karen described this bill in a way that finally made sense to me: a cap and trade system, in which companies would buy allowances to pollute. The revenue from this sale or auction would go into a fund that would eventually make its way into the hands of the energy consumers in one form or another. This amount could provide the means to develop and promote vehicle electrification, clean energy, smart grids, efficient transportation and industry and greening neighborhoods. The bill would decrease the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere by 17% from 1990 levels. Karen Wayland finally helps me understand the policy and politics behind climate legislation.As Karen told the story of the formation of the Waxman-Markey bill, I began to realize the dedication and endurance of the representatives and their staff that were essential to the creation of this legislation. To figure out the calculations for the allowance allocations, the staff worked for several months. One woman Karen noted actually had given her dog away during this time because she worked night and day figuring out the details of the climate bill.

I think that the careful explanation of the bill, how it passed in the House and proceeded to get caught up in the senate, helped me realize exactly how close they were to successfully legislating a national climate change solution. Somehow after her three-hour lecture and her clear delineation and great story telling, all the students walked away with a clear understanding of the last best piece of climate legislation. Not only did we better understand the climate politics and policy at a national level, but we came out of the discussion with hope. Karen framed this bill in a positive way, stating that most important laws within the US take ten years to work their way into legislation. The fact that Waxman-Markey came so close to passing is an excellent sign. After her explanation I thought about the importance in perspective when dealing with a large issue like climate change. We can either look at this problem as if there is no time for opposing groups to discover a solution or grapple with our differences and focus on collaboration. We must take the time that is needed to negotiate an economy-wide bill that will work for the greatest number of people. Near the end of her lecture, Karen acknowledged that politics, process and people are superimposed onto the issue of climate change. In sharing her experiences on the Hill, she managed to shed light on climate policy and give us all a little hope for the future.
I would like to add that I wish Karen Wayland luck at her new position at the Nature Conservancy as the Director of Climate Change Policy. Find the story here:
Also several organizations that Karen Wayland offered us as useful tools in understanding the complexities of climate change and politics:

EPA Climate Change
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)
Western Climate Initiative
United Nations Framework convention on Climate Change
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
US climate Action Partnership (USCAP)
World Resources Institute
Climate Analysis Indicators Tool
Climate Progress
Resources for the Future