Takeaways from the 2021 La Follette Climate Policy Forum

Takeaways from the 2021 La Follette Climate Policy Forum

By Chris Unterberger

The second annual La Follette Forum hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Public Policy featured local, state, and national leaders in climate policy. Occurring on October 6 at the UW’s Union South, its opening and closing keynote speakers were, respectively, Drs. Katharine Wilkinson, co-founder of the All We Can Save Project, and Kathryn Huff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Office of Nuclear Energy and former Badger. Each speaker’s message of scientific leadership in the face of a growing climate crisis reflected the Forum’s ultimate goal of “expanding [the school’s] public outreach, advancing the training of future public leaders, and supporting influential research by faculty and students”. The Forum was organized as a series of panel discussions on topics such as utilities, energy production, emissions, and risk. Two of the sessions that I attended, and on which I will be focusing today, were discussions on climate communications to the youth and national and international climate change policy. Though these two sessions were composed of entirely different panelists, their main points were eerily similar: messaging is key to fighting climate change with policy.

Climate Communication & Youth Mobilization

As the problem of climate change is further propelled into the forefront of society with its connection to major events—wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves—young activists, scientists, and journalists are beginning to play a larger role in what’s being seen, heard, and read. The strategies of how young activists can communicate with the next generations was explored by three young individuals and moderated by James Mills of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Benji Backer is the president of the American Conservation Coalition whose aim is to educate conservative policymakers on climate change and advocate for market-based solutions to the problem. Nada Elmikashfi is the chief of staff to Wisconsin State Representative Francesca Hong who is herself a major proponent of environmental reform. Stephanie Salgado is a UW-Madison student who was appointed to Gov. Evers’s Climate Change Task Force that was committed to delivering the governor with recommendations on how to mitigate the state’s climate impact. These three individuals made it clear that the key to youth mobilization is messaging.

Mr. Backer, a product of rural Wisconsin and a Republican himself, repeatedly and adamantly promoted market-based environmental reforms. In his words, in order to connect to conservatives who have historically opposed sweeping climate-based reforms, we must “bring profit into the conversation”. Only with financial interests can policymakers legitimately get a larger swath of the political spectrum on board with climate change mitigation. With that in mind, Ms. Elmikashfi suggested targeted messaging to the next generation of voters and leaders. To sufficiently reach young people, the messenger must keep the audience’s background in mind to connect with them. This is much easier in the social media age in which we currently live. But, ultimately, the panelists conceded that the messaging has to be authentic for it to have any lasting effect. With all those thoughts in mind, Ms. Salgado stressed the importance of “getting everyone on board” with Ms. Elmikashfi underlining the importance of “democratizing information”. Without those two tenants, any progress in climate change activism will be disproportionate and futile. 

National & International Policy

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed by nearly all countries, pushed climate mitigation policies to the pedestal of international diplomacy. Commitment to the agreement demands that every signee implement nationwide policies to eventually reduce emissions to net-zero in the coming decades. Three panelists, led by former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, attempted to break down current and prospective American policies aimed at aligning with the agreement. Scott Coenen is executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum that hopes to provide a voice for conservatives in the state. Russ Feingold is a former US Senator from Wisconsin and honorary member of the Campaign for Nature which is an international effort to mitigate the biodiversity crisis across the globe. Jonathan Patz is the director of UW-Madison’s Global Health Institute and served as the lead author on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. After listening to this discussion, anyone would be convinced that a green energy future is inevitable.

Although the Paris Climate Agreement was innovative, it relied on the development and implementation of individual national strategies to work. Mr. Coenen, a self-proclaimed conservative, indicated that a free market was the best way to support green energy proliferation. In his words: “technologies are not ready if they rely on government subsidizing and mandates” to survive, but “we are past that”. Renewables can survive on their own two legs when left to their own devices. In his argument, he stated that, in fact “renewables do better the freer the markets are”, claiming that government mandates and subsidies are actually holding the industry back rather than pushing it forward. A free market has the potential to claim bipartisan support for innovation. This needs to be clarified, however, to the more conservative crowds. Mr. Feingold and Mr. Patz both support “science-based” messaging. Providing policymakers with “trusted messengers”—such as scientists—should positively impact their connection to policies to mitigate climate change. (Although, “trust” is hard to ensure, anymore, as even scientists are beginning to feel the effects of disinformation.) One way to do this is to connect climate change to health. Mr. Patz strongly advocated for detailing the correlation between clean environment and positive health outcomes because, in his words, “everyone wants clean water”. This strategy makes it easier to connect climate policy to positive economic value.

The name of the game is messaging. Whether to youth or climate change deniers, framing the message will be the hardest part of climate policy. But ultimately, it will come down to reaching as many diverse populations as possible and getting as many of those populations committed to curbing climate change. As Mr. Patz put it elegantly, we need “simple messages repeated often by trusted messengers”.