In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Julia Haggerty, an associate professor at Montana State University and university fellow at Resources for the Future, about engaging the public in the US energy transition. Haggerty discusses public engagement in the context of US efforts to decarbonize, the opportunity presented by a transition to clean energy in terms of reducing inequities in the United States, the importance of public trust in government action, and ongoing efforts to ensure that communities take action toward decarbonization.
Listen to the Podcast
- Public engagement as partnership: “When people hear ‘engagement,’ they’re often thinking about stakeholder engagement that comes with particular planning processes or permitting decisions. That’s really important to how we think about public engagement, but it’s actually only a small piece of it. My coauthors … really think about public engagement more in terms of making as many people in the United States as possible full partners in the energy transition.” (7:55)
- Righting wrongs through the energy transition: “If we fail as policy actors and decisionmakers to use the opportunity of the energy transition and decarbonization to really address existing inequalities and achieve some restorative justice, we’re really missing out on one of the most profound opportunities in generations to use system change to accomplish some normative goals that I think are, of course, not necessarily everybody’s goals, but are well aligned with some of the foundational principles of American democracy.” (11:22)
- Trust comes first: “When it comes to deployment and adoption of new technologies, you by and large are going to move at the speed of trust. And if you try to move faster than that, you risk backlash. So, I just can’t imagine a situation in which moving faster actually means moving faster—and doesn’t create, in most cases, backlash.” (23:30)
Top of the Stack
- Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States: Technology, Policy, and Societal Dimensions by Stephen W. Pacala, Danielle Deane-Ryan, Alexandra Fazeli, Julia H. Haggerty, Chris T. Hendrickson, Roxanne Johnson, Timothy C. Lieuwen, Vivian E. Loftness, Carlos E. Martín, Michael A. Méndez, Clark A. Miller, Jonathan A. Patz, Keith Paustian, William Pizer, Ed Rightor, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Devashree Saha, Kelly Sims Gallagher, Susan F. Tierney, and William Walker
- City Hall film by Frederick Wiseman
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Julia Haggerty, an associate professor at Montana State University and a university fellow here at RFF. Julia is a coauthor of a recent National Academies report called Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States, and she led the drafting of the report's chapter on public engagement to facilitate an equitable energy transition.
In today's episode, I'll ask Julia to describe what public engagement means in this context, what it looks like on the ground, and why it's such an important part of the efforts to achieve domestic climate goals. We'll also talk about why this is hard, and what strategies might help overcome the deep divides that we as a nation have about energy and climate policy. Stay with us.
Julia Haggerty from Montana State University—and, luckily for us, a new university fellow at Resources for the Future. Julia, welcome to Resources Radio.
Julia Haggerty: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Daniel Raimi: We are excited to have you. I'm excited to talk to you, as I always am. But I've never asked you this question, which is, How did you get interested in environmental topics? We ask all of our guests that question, and I'm really curious about what drew you into this profession or calling or whatever you want to call it.
Julia Haggerty: Yeah. I think of myself as a person that is really an expert in the resource periphery, and that goes back to my childhood experiences working and living part-time up in northern Vermont, where there were various clear examples that the values that, maybe, urban society might have for rural landscapes, we're not always working out to the benefit of local livelihoods and general local well-being in remote rural places. As a kid, I felt really sensitive and outraged about that. I thought I would become a lawyer to defend the small family farm. But it's really that inspiration and motivation that has stayed with me on a career and educational path that's gone to lots of different rural and remote places. I eventually ended up at the intersection of where rural and remote issues intersect with bigger infrastructure policy challenges.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's really interesting. That term “resource periphery”—I don't think I actually know what that means. Can you explain that term?
Julia Haggerty: Yeah. We think about, as economic geographers, asking, How does the economy play out in a spatial way to create pockets of advantage or disadvantage, depending on where you are? There are places in the world that have really been organized around the export of resources for the benefit of production or consumption systems that are often located in what we call the “core” of the economy. That can refer to urban areas and even whole hemispheres, like the Northern Hemisphere that really controls most of the power in the global economic system or has for a long time. So, peripheries refer both to where places are in space—they tend to be remote and not connected—as well as to urban centers, and they also often have a peripheral level of power in the political economy.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting.
Your work on these topics is really fascinating, and we're going to touch on them a little bit. But the main focus of our conversation today is going to be on one particular chapter from a really rich and detailed report from the National Academies that you were an author on. The report is all about accelerating decarbonization in the United States. But we're going to focus on one chapter, which is focused on public engagement.
Before we do that, I'd love for you to give us a thumbnail sketch of the report as a whole. How many pages is it? It's like 600 pages. So, we're asking you to do a lot here in a short amount of time. But it'd be great if you could just briefly let us know, What are some of the topics that it covers, and who are some of the scholars that contributed to it?
Julia Haggerty: Thanks. Yeah. It is a very powerful beast, I hope. It's a large report. It's the second, actually, of two reports that came out of a consensus committee from the National Academies. That's a particular form of report that the National Academies uses to bring together experts to evaluate the nexus of current science and policy issues.
So, in this case, there was an interim report—just a short report of maybe 250 pages that was written in the year prior to Biden taking office. The report we're talking about today is what we sometimes call the “full report” or the “second report.”
The committee of authors brings together expertise—not just from across engineering and technological expertise, but also the social sciences and different sectors. We not only have academics, but also folks that represent philanthropy, nonprofits, and other leading thinkers who are working at this intersection of, How do we decarbonize the economy and also address economic and social justice issues as part of that?
In this large report, we really think about decarbonization from the perspective of all of the individual economic sectors that will need to decarbonize and the particular issues they bring. By sectors, we're talking about things like the electricity sector, transportation, buildings—individual topics like that. The report has eight of those chapters and also has four cross-cutting thematic chapters. Public engagement is one of those. The report also addresses environmental and energy justice, as well as the workforce and public health in those cross-cutting sectors. We’re really trying to take what people often think of as a technological policy problem and also layer into it a concern for the social and economic realities that are part of this big system transition.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. You and your coauthors make a really compelling case for why those social and socioeconomic issues are just as, if not more important than, some of the technological issues that might get a little more attention. But before we jump into that, I'd love for you to just define a term for us. We're going to be talking about public engagement in the context of deep decarbonization. So, can you define the term “public engagement” for us? What does it mean in this context?
Julia Haggerty: Sure. So, I think that when many people hear “decarbonization”—and I'll just say that, even in itself, is, maybe, a jargony word—we're really talking about, How do we take greenhouse gas emissions out of the economy? A lot of that is, in part, about building clean energy infrastructure, whether that's generating facilities or more consumer-facing technologies, like electric cars and other kinds of things that we use every day—it’s getting the greenhouse gas emissions out of those processes.
I think when people hear “engagement,” they're often thinking about stakeholder engagement that comes with particular planning processes or permitting decisions. That's really important to how we think about public engagement, but it's actually only a small piece of it. My coauthors—and I do want to give a shout-out to Clark Miller from Arizona State University, who's an important coauthor on this, and Academy staff—really think about public engagement more in terms of making as many people in the United States full partners in the energy transition as possible.
We think about this in four different categories. In the category of what we call “inclusive dialogue,” how can we extend access to discussions and debate and thinking about planning and designing our energy systems to as many people as possible? Another bucket, if you will, is thinking about community and collective benefits. How do we design an energy system that engages people by ensuring that they are really receiving some benefits in how systems are designed? We do think about meaningful engagement in permitting and siting. Then, in our chapter, we also really think about the need for understanding what's happening with the human and social dimensions of energy systems. That's really about research and education.
Public engagement, in our thinking, is all of those things. That's really about this goal of recognizing that it is incredibly important to get public buy-in into decarbonizing the US energy system.
Daniel Raimi: We're going to get into detail on that in just a minute. But first, I'd love for you to expand a little bit on the point you just made, which is, Why is this an important topic? You and your colleagues, as I mentioned, argue that it may be just as important as developing and deploying new clean energy technologies. Why is that?
Julia Haggerty: I think you can think about this in two ways, and you could pick among the two, or you could just live with both of them. There's both an instrumental value in thinking this way, as well as an underlying normative commitment.
By instrumental, I just mean this idea that, ultimately, it is the public that will decide, more often than not, the pace of decarbonization. They'll do that through their decisions as individual consumers of technology, as voters, and as stakeholders who are going to respond to these new plans and new infrastructures with support, with resistance, with indifference. So, if we don't recognize the power that the public has in the pace of deployment, we are really at risk of missing out or slowing down this opportunity.
Then, more on the normative side … I mean, I think many of us in the climate or energy-infrastructure policy space (and, of course, those people who live with inadequate energy services every day) recognize that our energy system right now reflects many of the legacies of systemic racism and injustice in our own country. So, if we fail as policy actors and decisionmakers to use the opportunity of the energy transition and decarbonization to really address existing inequalities to achieve some restorative justice, we're really missing out on one of the most profound opportunities in generations to use system change to accomplish some normative goals that I think are, of course, not necessarily everybody's goals, but are well aligned with some of the foundational principles of American democracy.
And I'll just add one other way of thinking about it. There are many who are really passionate about decarbonization, and they often ask, "What is it going to take to get communities on board?" I think one of the things we're emphasizing in this chapter and in the thinking that goes behind it is, What would it mean to flip that question and ask, “How do we make a decarbonized energy system work for communities, for families, for all people?” That's something a little bit different than just saying, “How do we get people on board?,” if you will. It's a subtle but important shift in the conversation.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Can you say more about that—just flesh out that distinction and why it matters? I totally hear what you are saying. I think there are a lot of proponents of decarbonization whose goal is to find ways to get communities on board. But that doesn't necessarily center the community and its own priorities. What do you think about it?
Julia Haggerty: Yeah. I think the way you put it is really important. I think we've learned, even from other key policy initiatives, that the best way—if you're looking for widespread system change and you're looking for willing participation in that system change by many different stakeholders across many varied landscapes … I'm thinking about work that came out early in the climate adaptation days that asked, “How do we get communities to plan for climate adaptation?” Well, it turns out that, if you ask communities what they are already doing, what their priorities are, and what things they need, and you layer onto that and try to find ways to align with some of these newer objectives, you can perhaps move more quickly than if you come in with a new project and ask, "What is it going to take to get you to buy into this project?"
So, I don't know if I'm answering that as nicely as you just explained it, but it really is this idea that we are a huge country with widely varying contexts for participating in decarbonization, whether through hosting new infrastructure or adopting new infrastructure, and this principle is that the fastest way to bring people in is to align those changes with their existing needs and interests. That's a core philosophy that comes out of this scholarship that informs this chapter and its policy recommendations.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. We're going to come back to this topic, too, in a couple of minutes.
But before we do, I think we've been talking a little bit in abstraction the last few minutes, so let's put some meat on the bones. Can you maybe think of an example of what a current public-engagement strategy looks like in the context of climate policy? Maybe the answer is that it doesn't exist. But if you think about the Inflation Reduction Act, for example—what's going on there with public engagement? And then can you help us understand what changes might be useful to have a more robust engagement process that aligns with the recommendations from the report?
Julia Haggerty: We can do that. I'll just summarize, and I'm sure your listeners have many other places to go to get a deep dive on the Inflation Reduction Act. From my perspective, as a person working at the intersection of society and this policy, I think it's important to just describe it as this massive public investment that is putting billions of dollars, largely through incentives and also through some direct spending, to do climate mitigation. Then, it is nested within a larger federal policy portfolio that includes executive orders, as well as other acts that really say, “How can we also address issues with creating good jobs and creating local benefits and doing meaningful engagement?”
Within that space, for example, if we can have time to do it, I would emphasize maybe three things that I see as key engagement initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act. We know it's a vast portfolio of policy, so it's really hard to summarize it. But I think we can recognize a couple of key areas that are really emphasized in the Inflation Reduction Act. One is the reliance on community benefits plans as a tool that is going to take almost all DOE [US Department of Energy] funding and seek to link that funding to specific plans for labor and other community benefits as part of all major projects. So, that is a way to think about engagement and that alignment of these big public investments with local and regional priorities.
There are also direct efforts within the Inflation Reduction Act to address issues with environmental review processes and to try to address innovative public processes. I would say, in both of these cases, they're two separate issues, but important policy initiatives. Take community benefits plans—this is a very thoughtful and strategic approach, given the current policy environment, and it comes out of existing practices for ensuring that development treats communities fairly and well.
I think what we're seeing in the implementation of that is that it is very difficult to do this well, and that is partly because of the scope of the effort and also partly because of what these federal programs meet in terms of the local and regional landscape. In many parts of the country, we really don't have a robust set of ongoing dialogues that are inclusive dialogues that address the needs of many diverse (and particularly the least advantaged) stakeholders in a conversation about economic and infrastructure investment in their region in the way that it would be necessary for local actors to meet these large US Department of Energy projects and the community benefits planning process with the pace and capacity that we might hope is available.
There are many good people working really hard. What we've heard from information-gathering sessions as part of developing the report is that there is no shortage of will and creativity and commitment in agencies like the Department of Energy to implement something like the community benefits planning process. There is still just a huge gap in the capacity, both within those agencies and outside of the agencies, in both the industry sector and also in local communities, to really hit the ground running with those processes. That's just because they're new, and we haven't been operating in that way.
Some of the things we recommend, for example, around community benefits plans, is addressing both the need from within federal government and at the more local and state level to build up that capacity. That looks like programs—like, a recommendation that we really take seriously as a nation the need to develop a public-engagement workforce. It looks like targeted capacity-building through things like legal clinics to help community members and community-based organizations understand what they should be asking for in community benefits plans. It looks like, even, asking potentially nongovernmental actors like civil society to think about funding regional dialogues around planning and economic development to keep those conversations going and meet a gap that exists where federal agencies might not have the place-based personnel to really carry out those programs.
Daniel Raimi: That is also interesting, and these are really fascinating recommendations coming from the report. One of the challenges that the recommendations lead to is that issue of capacity, and one of the constraints that we have is time. So, when I think about challenges to implementing some of these worthy goals, the first one that comes to mind for me is the need for speed and the need for really thoughtful, careful public engagement.
As I imagine everyone listening to this episode knows, to meet the emissions-reduction goals that are articulated in the report, or to achieve ambitious climate targets like 1.5°C or 2°C, we in the United States and all around the world need to essentially build these large infrastructure projects faster than ever before. At the same time, we need to do all this public engagement to try to be sure that it's equitable. But that engagement takes time, and it can be contentious. How do you think about the potential tension there, or do you see it as a tension?
Julia Haggerty: That's a great question, and I know it is top of mind for many people watching this issue. I want to answer it in two ways. I want to just briefly highlight that the overall report starts with a really important observation that is specific to this current federal policy portfolio, and that is that, largely, the current policy portfolio, which is very hopeful and, really, is so important as a first major step into climate mitigation in the United States. That is largely an incentive-based portfolio, and it really does miss some of the opportunity to use regulations and standards to help shape market forces. That's one answer that just says, We should anticipate that this issue of time could partially be addressed by a cleaner and more comprehensive policy portfolio.
That said, given the current policy portfolio, I think the most simple answer is that, when it comes to deployment and adoption of new technologies, you by and large are going to move at the speed of trust. And if you try to move faster than that, you risk backlash. So, I just can't imagine a situation in which moving faster actually means moving faster and doesn't create, in most cases, backlash. That said, I think I would just harken back to my previous comments. A challenge that we have is that we're asking for a set of dialogues and a participation at both a scale and a depth that is largely unfamiliar in many parts of the country in terms of the degree to which not just everyday residents of landscapes, but even local and state actors, are actively contemplating and considering what infrastructure is going to look like on the landscape.
So, yes, we will encounter some major speed bumps, and that is just reality. I think it is important to continue to innovate and experiment and think about the most clever kinds of processes and process-assistance tools we can use to get good stakeholder engagement. I think we have to be realistic that it is unlikely to be as fast as we need it to be.
Daniel Raimi: I feel like there are, sometimes, two camps on this topic. There are some folks whose perspective is like yours, Julia, which is that you need to move at the speed of trust. I think I probably fall more into that camp. Then, I think there are others who adopt more of a motto of build fast and break things. I think there's real societal challenges that come with that build-fast-and-break-things model, as we've seen in the social media space and elsewhere.
Julia Haggerty: I will say, just to keep it to the report, that one distinction the report makes is that we do recognize that there are foundational infrastructure investments that may require a, let's say, didactic approach to planning and implementation. In the case of decarbonization, arguably the single most important one is that interstate transmission backbone upon which all electrification essentially depends. So, we do, in chapter six, which addresses the electricity grid, include recommendations about the various permitting authorities that are going to be necessary to really speed that up.
That said, as mentioned before, it is just such a vast landscape, and it is a federalist landscape in the United States. Speaking not as a report author, but speaking as a person who has lived and watched the policy space in Montana, we are a good example. We gave eminent domain authority to private companies to try to speed up renewable deployment in the early 2000s. While it's hard to attribute political change to any one particular issue, that certainly had produced some real concerns on the part of private property–rights advocates that are now very influential in our state politics and won't necessarily make a lot of sacrifices right now in the interest of clean energy deployment. Part of that comes, I think, from this legacy of trying to get that controlled and power through legislation to move as quickly as possible.
Daniel Raimi: That brings us to the last question that I want to ask you before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, and we only have a couple of minutes left. So this is a completely unfair question, because it's so complicated, and I'm going to ask you to try to answer it relatively quickly. How do you think about public engagement with segments of the public and their elected leaders who are skeptical of, if not downright opposed to, any efforts to decarbonize and to deeply reduce emissions? How do you think about strategies for engaging with those individuals or those groups?
Julia Haggerty: You just have to put people on the ground and put relationships in front of and as a buffer to the widespread misinformation and polarization that is detracting from our ability to be a productive society right now. That's maybe a strategy that works that I believe I have faith in as a strategy to help find a center, a point of agreement, around important decisions, like decisions about where we're going to put energy infrastructure in places where the politics are not necessarily going to accelerate that.
So, we need relationships that bring people to the table. We have just seen this time and time again, in the resource peripheries where I work, that it is individual relationships and trust that help information flow and help move a conversation toward, “Okay, how can we do this in a way where everyone has to sacrifice some, but everybody hopefully can see as much of their interests and needs met in this?”
Daniel Raimi: Well, Julia, your answer about relationships makes so much sense. I know I've seen in the policymaking world how much relationships matter, and in my own work with people who might have different viewpoints than me that developing trust, developing relationships—it's foundational to any progress on topics like this. I really appreciate that answer.
Now, before we close out, I'd love to ask you to recommend something that's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack. It can be something you've read or watched or heard. It can be related to the environment or not. We're not that picky. But what would you recommend to our listeners, Julia?
Julia Haggerty: This is perhaps a bit of an oddball, but hopefully it’s fun, and hopefully there are some fans out there that will understand this recommendation. I don't know how many of your listeners are familiar with the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, but he is an American documentarian who has created films about place and key processes. In about 2020, he released the film City Hall, which is a four-hour, non-narrated documentary about Boston City Hall. It just covers every manner of meeting and public-service discussion and public-service action that came through city hall in the year or so that they were filming, and if you want to have the flavor of how decisions are made and play out in local government, there can be nothing more rich than sitting down and just watching four hours of Boston City Hall.
It sounds strange, but I do think that this reality of, How do local governments, state governments, and even our federal agencies—how do they implement this massive societal and political charge? A lot of that is in the everyday nitty-gritty of how they work, and this is something that just fascinates me, and City Hall is a movie that I hope to be able to come back to again and again.
Daniel Raimi: Wow, Julia, that recommendation sounds fascinating. We'll have a link to it in the show notes so people can go check it out, and of course we'll have a link to the report so people can dig into this really rich product that is the result of so much work from so many smart people. We really appreciate you, Julia, coming onto the show and helping us understand this one really important slice of the big picture. It's been great talking to you.
Julia Haggerty: Likewise. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
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