Students talk policy with Senate aides

Thursday, February 25th, 2010 | Author:

Note: Last week, students from Michigan universities got to put their textbooks aside and have a conversation with real policymakers about real issues.  Environmental advisers for U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow spoke with more than 100 students and faculty members.  Among them were Robby Richardson (Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies) and his students.  Below are some of their impressions of the teleconference.

Robby Richardson

I teach Environmental Economics (EEP 320) at MSU, and we have been discussing the various economic approaches to environmental issues such as climate change, and how economics may be used to inform policy. I was invited by Professor Eban Goodstein of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to organize a conference call with the environmental liaisons in the U.S. Senate offices and students from campuses across the state of Michigan. The purpose of the call was to connect Michigan students with their representatives in Congress as a way to foster educational dialogue about energy and climate policy. The offices of both Senator Levin and Senator Stabenow agreed to participate in the call, which was held on Wednesday, February 16,

and students from college and university campuses from across Michigan were invited to submit questions in advance and to participate in the call.

The conference call began with introductory briefings from each of the Senate environmental liaisons, in which they described the positions and interests of their respective Senators with regard to energy and climate policy. An MSU student then presented questions that reflected the interests and concerns of Michigan students, including questions about how to promote manufacturing jobs in Michigan in the renewable energy sector, how to account for carbon offsets for agriculture, and how to achieve global consensus on mitigating the damages from climate change. Each staff member gave instructive responses to the questions, and their answers revealed the complexity of this thorny and multifaceted issue.

Climate change was described at one point as an economic problem first and foremost, but in the ensuing discussion, it became clear that it is also an environmental problem, a problem for international development, and of course, a political problem. From the economic standpoint alone, the complexities include, among others, the economic costs of reducing emissions, the global economic damages from global warming and rising sea levels, the potential economic benefits of carbon offsets, and the economic opportunities related to manufacturing of clean energy infrastructure. Each of these elements of the climate discourse is associated with various constituencies that advocate for positions related to their own interests. When combined with the environmental, scientific, and political dimensions of the issue, and the various interests concerned with those aspects, it is clear that achieving cost-effective and optimal energy policy will be, at best, challenging. The Senate staffers confirmed this, referring to the range of bills that have been deliberated in both chambers of Congress, and the distinctions that make each bill relatively appealing but also problematic.


The staff members from both Senate offices agreed that the questions that were submitted by the students were thoughtful and stimulating, and they commented that it was refreshing to see students so interested and engaged in this issue. In total, there were over 100 Michigan students on the call, representing Michigan State University, University of Michigan, U-M Dearborn, Albion College, Olivet College, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University, among others. The MSU students in my classroom seemed to agree that the conference call was informative, and that it was intriguing to hear about the interests and concerns that the Senate offices must consider when taking positions on policies that have such significant and far-reaching implications. It was one of the most thought-provoking classroom activities with which I have ever been involved, and I definitely plan to organize similar endeavors again in the future.

Jeff Lolkus
Crop and Soil Sciences Senior

I was especially interested in the questions pertaining to agriculture in Michigan and its role in the state both environmentally and economically. I think all too often people from outside of Michigan and even within Michigan think of us only as a primarily manufacturing based economy and fail to realize that agriculture is also a key player in this state. We have a diversity of crops here that is second only to California. I find this interesting, and it is something I think we could do a better job of advertising as a state. California is well known for its agricultural sector, and they even have strange advertisements for their milk and “happy cows.” The truth is, we can and do produce tons of milk and other agricultural commodities right here, but it is something many people overlook. I think playing up these assets will be important for Michigan, especially if we falter in jumpstarting our waning manufacturing base.

I also hope the federal government continues to see the benefits in funding USDA Farm Bill programs that provide conservation based incentives to landowners, despite increasing pressure to tighten their budget. These programs provide Michigan with millions of dollars each year that boosts our rural economies and provide jobs while enhancing environmental quality. Lastly, I appreciated how well informed Chris Adamo, Sen. Stabenow’s environmental liaison, was on the questions he received related to these topics, and his knowledge of such programs as cost sharing on cover crops and other agricultural practices. At the same time, he understood that more research is needed if agriculture is to eventually be used for carbon offsets since the dynamics of storing carbon in soil are difficult to measure and are so variable from farm to farm.

Nicholas Varilone
Environmental Economics and Policy Senior

Having the opportunity to engage local decision makers in a debate about such dynamic environmental problems as global climate change and clean energy policy has really had a significant impact on a young, emerging environmentalist like myself. There is only so much you can learn from lectures and books.

This experience has been so enlightening because it allows students to step away from the abstractness of a textbook and gain knowledge through a stimulating discussion with real decision makers discussing pertinent environmental problems that are occurring as we speak.

While I do not agree with everything the environmental liaisons to Senators Levin and Stabenow have presented, I do believe they are making a determined effort to understand and develop effective climate and energy legislation. This legislation will be the cornerstone of the direction our country needs to move in the 21st century. Hopefully as a result of this conference call more senators, policy makers, and concerned students alike will move to become more active in climate and energy legislation. I sincerely appreciate the time and effort Chris Adamo and Alice Yates put into this discussion and hope to further communication between concerned citizens and policymakers in the future.

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