EAP experiences lead to new connections, conversations at Breakthrough Dialogue

EAP Student Mikhaila Calice (left) met with Megan Brown (right),
a 6th generation rancher from northern California

Guest Post by Mikhaila Calice, who attended the Breakthrough Dialogue in June 2019 with support from an EAP Professional Development/Travel Grant

When I began my graduate studies at the La Follette School of Public Affairs with a focus on Energy Analysis and Policy in the fall of 2017, I would have never imagined the breadth of information I would learn, the opportunities I would be provided, and the incredible the network I would build. My attendance at the Breakthrough Institute’s 2019 “Breakthrough Dialogue” in Sausalito, CA late this June was a culmination of all these things. The Breakthrough Dialogue, described as “a regular meeting for the ideologically adventurous,” represents the true value and passion of transdisciplinary collaboration in combating climate change challenges. This year’s theme, “A Whole Earth Discipline,” a celebration of the acclaimed Stewart Brand, explored a broad range of topics which discussed the role and intention ecomodernism plays in directing the environmental progress in an anthropocentric world.

The path that led me to attend this conference is a direct result of the community and support from the Energy Analysis and Policy program. My initial interests in deep decarbonization of power systems, utility regulation, and the complex and incredibly technical U.S. electricity market began because of Professor Greg Nemet’s PA809 course, Intro to Energy Analysis and Policy, combined with my internship at Seventhwave (now Slipstream) working on utility stock valuation with Chief Economist, Steve Kihm. These areas of interest were completely new to me and grew into a variety of opportunities such as working for Professor Nemet on his recently published book, How Solar Energy Became Cheap, and helping to train the Minnesota Commissioners and staff on an alternative way to approach ratemaking through valuation. These experiences as well as conversations and coursework about energy and climate, public opinion and science, new nuclear and negative emission technologies all began to create a basis of knowledge that continues to expand and morph as I am exposed to the field of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and policy.

I was invited to the Breakthrough Dialogue by the Breakthrough Institute’s Deputy Director, Alex Trembath. I met Alex at The Fastest Path to Zero, a similar conference at the University of Michigan in April 2019, where I presented on behalf of future energy leaders for addressing climate change challenges. The Fastest Path to Zero was the first time I was introduced to this tight-knit group of scholars, advocates, journalists, philanthropists, industry leaders, and public servants all passionately focused on the broad efforts to address climate change. The Breakthrough Dialogue expanded on this initial network, with many familiar faces and names of role models and scholars that I have read and follow on Twitter. The event included a welcome networking dinner, during which I had the pleasure of delving into an enthusiastic conversation about science communication and deliberative democracy in relation to the public’s role in addressing climate change. The first night ended with an incredible conversation with a 6th generation rancher from northern California, Megan Brown (@MegRaeB) and 5th generation farmer from Alabama, Kyle Bridgeforth, about sustainability in agriculture and how we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion in our conservation efforts.

The next two days were full of panels with discussions on decoupling, population growth and global stabilization, power markets and deep decarbonization, farming better, and how religion impacts ecomodernism, among others. Included in this range of panels was one on lessons from solar PV, in which EAP Professor Greg Nemet presented on a panel with Assistant Professor of Nuclear Engineering at UC-Berkeley, Rachel Slaybaugh (@RachelSlaybaugh), who is also an EAP alum. The second day of the conference ended with trying the Impossible Burger and a screening of the documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

From the breakout panels I attended to my conversations with conference attendees, the Breakthrough Dialogue challenged me to recognize the significance of ecomodernism as a fundamental basis for our chosen approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation. I learned that, provided we are at the cusp of choices that will inevitably shape the future of our immediate well-being and that of our species, we have an opportunity to approach these challenges in ways that are intentional, effective, and progressive. A radical approach to our efforts includes recognizing the space available to create policies and innovate in a broad, holistic, and transdisciplinary manner that considers diversity, equity, and inclusion in our strategies. That approach is a choice – a choice that those of us involved in planning for climate change challenges must make. In this significant moment in time, I am excited to have had the opportunity to discuss these challenges and this radical approach with so many incredible experts, with farmers and conservationists, with journalists and advocates, and other students like myself who have dedicated their lives and energy to a truly Whole Earth Discipline.

The Breakthrough Dialogue was the perfect transition between completing my MPA in energy policy and beginning my PhD studies in science communication with the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication. The conference gave me a renewed confidence in my interests, a new sense of belonging to the most inspirational community I’ve ever known, and connections that bridge the gap between opportunities for professional collaboration and friendship. Perhaps my enthusiasm is naïve, but I have never felt so motivated to approach the growing learning curves ahead of me with tenacity, curiosity, and gratitude.

With that, I want to sincerely thank the Breakthrough Institute and Alex Trembath for the invitation and support to attend the dialogue, and the Energy Analysis and Policy program for funding my travel to make my attendance possible.