Engaging the public: The Obama Administration’s environmental record

Arian Rubio during his internship with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

As a student of political science, philosophy, and sustainability, I have learned how to identify key issues, think and write critically about solutions, and coordinate resources and communications to deliver favorable outcomes. I honed and applied these skills as a public engagement intern with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. While the work of the office was much larger than the work I did in my internship, I believe that my experiences provide insight into how the Obama Administration communicated its strong environmental record to the public. These lessons are useful as the country transitions to the Trump Administration.

In this role, I was a part of the team that communicated the Obama Administration’s environmental objectives and goals to a multitude of stakeholders including nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and state and local governments around the country.

The office communicated with stakeholder organizations to understand issues and concerns through the perspective of the broader environmental community and the community’s many perspectives. The office achieved these goals through regular meetings, conference calls, and email correspondence with stakeholder updates. These stakeholders demonstrated that environmental issues are neither simple nor clear-cut, as they affect all sectors of society and the economy in different ways. One can easily see these effects in the divergent views of stakeholders, such as competing views between government officials in public lands designations.

In my time as a public engagement intern, I participated in many White House events. Perhaps the most memorable events were the White House Champions of Change events, which highlighted the human-level aspect of policy issues. I had the opportunity to work on two of these events: Champions of Change for Climate Equity and for Sustainable Seafood. These events featured small groups of individuals who have worked to improve their communities in diverse ways through their sustainability work, from students to presidents and CEOs of organizations.

I was able to look into the work of these Champions of Change to bring them together to discuss how the country can move forward. I found these events to be particularly meaningful, as it showed the Champions that their work has larger meaning that is recognized by President Obama and that they can learn from other innovators in other sectors in other parts of the country. Events, like the Champions of Change series, served a dual purpose in informing the White House about the actions of the public as well as provide participants with opportunities for action. While there are many sustainability issues that the United States must face, bringing together community leaders demonstrates to these leaders and the broader audience that these issues have effects on real people in their daily lives.

With the end of the Obama Administration, these lessons of my internship are particularly timely, especially as the country takes in the Trump Administration, which has a uniquely different approach to environmental issues. As the transition continues, stakeholders must prepare to hold the Federal Government, state and local governments, universities and businesses accountable for their commitments, actions, and inactions. Since the Federal Government is likely set to reverse course on sustainability issues, it is imperative that environmental activists continue to engage the public to protect progress and defend against regression.

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