Clean energy, legislation and language

by Jennifer Johnson,

Willamette’s faculty colloquium tackles climate change at the ballot.

This year, 74 percent of Americans who responded to a Pew survey agreed that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” But how do environmentalists get legislative leaders to act on these concerns at a time when alternative facts often overshadow hard science?

At a recent faculty colloquium on campus, Assistant Professor of Sociology Janet Lorenzen discussed such issues.

Willamette’s faculty colloquia give faculty a chance to test-run material before they present at a conference. Faculty members can share their research with students and fellow professors through hour-long talks held on Fridays throughout the semester at various spots on campus.

Previous talks have covered a wide range of subjects, including “Darwin’s Abominable Mystery: Coevolution of Flowers and Pollinators,” “Noru Ka Soru Ka: Collective Free Improvisation with Music and Dance” and “Did Muslims Arrive in the Americas Before Columbus? Re-Examining a Controversial Premise.”

In her presentation, Lorenzen talked about the Oregon Clean Electricity & Coal Transition Act of 2016, which will close the last coal-fired power plant in Oregon by 2030 and push big utilities to draw on 50 percent clean energy by 2040. By threatening to pass the policy using a ballot initiative, environmental groups were able to bring more people to the table to talk seriously about clean energy.

In research conducted in 2015–17, Lorenzen and three undergraduate research assistants — Liz Gill ‘17, Savanna Steele ‘17 and Mark Andreoni ‘16 — interviewed 58 Oregon legislators, state staff members, professional lobbyists and environmental group leaders about climate policy. They published preliminary findings in the journal Humanity & Society and compiled their research in a report for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters to inform future strategies.

In her colloquium presentation, Lorenzen noted environmentalists want to avoid scientific jargon when trying to gain support from the public or legislators. They prefer persuasive language, such as using “pollution” rather than “emissions” and avoiding terms like “dirty” coal and “clean” energy.

During the Q&A session, Professor Emerita of Chemistry Frances Chapple asked, “Are you saying that using the science and talking about the science doesn’t affect people? That bothers me a lot. It’s so important for people to understand the ideas behind the phenomenon they’re experiencing, and there’s such an anti-science feeling (among many members of the public).”

Lorenzen pointed out that facts are rarely persuasive and what works in a classroom over the course of a semester does not work in a brief conversation. She also noted that environmentalists have learned how best to appeal to legislators by focusing on job growth in clean energy industries, investment and “local human impacts” rather than the environment. Referring to the recent fire season, she said, “Legislators are more concerned about someone’s house or business than a forest.”

Professor Ellen Eisenberg, who coordinates the colloquia with librarian Bill Kelm ‘91, says the events also help students get to know their instructors better.

“A lot of students, especially first and second-years, aren’t aware their faculty are scholars,” she says. “It’s a nice opportunity to come and see the kinds of writings they’re working on in an environment where it’s easy to ask questions.”

Check out next semester’s offerings here.

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