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Environment and Politics: Saving the World Starts at the Local Level

Justin Haner, Doctoral Candidate in Political Science

Justin shares his experience in public service and crafting legislation.

What did you do prior to your PhD in Political science?

Before starting my PhD in Political Science, I served in the United States Army Infantry, eventually making the rank of Captain. During my service, I had the privilege of being Executive Officer to the United Nations Command Honor Guard in the Republic of Korea where I led a multinational force which provided security and support for various high-level diplomats. Prior to that assignment, I served as a Mechanized Infantry Platoon Leader where I led a rapid response combat unit just south of the Demilitarized Zone.

What have you previously done in with the Town of Walpole? What are you currently doing with the Town of Walpole?

After leaving the Army, I returned to Northeastern to start my PhD in political science and moved to Walpole. I decided the best way for me to continue public service was at the local level. I joined the local chapters of some grassroots organizations and was first elected in 2017 by a caucus of my peers to fill a one-year open seat as a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member for Precinct 4 in the Town of Walpole. My first full election win was in 2018, when I was elected to serve a three-year term. I have also been elected to serve as a town-wide representative for Walpole in the 2018 MA Democratic Convention.

How does your PhD experience inform your current role and responsibilities?

While my PhD coursework has certainly given me a deeper understanding of how broader national and international political forces work, I would argue that it is perhaps my experience in local politics that is doing most of the informing. In my public policy courses, we learned different theories about how legislation gets passed, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for the realities of local policy-making. Forces that you do not read about in textbooks are very much in play, including: the order in which resolutions are voted on, what time of night they are voted on, whether a vote is being taken by voice or roll-call, and how strongly particular home-town heroes argue in favor or against the motion. I could not more strongly recommend others studying political science to get out and experience it first-hand.

How did this piece of legislation begin? What sparked the idea?

This story of this particular piece of legislation, Article 22 of the Walpole Spring Town Meeting, which calls on the Town of Walpole to get to 100% renewable energy use by 2050, started back in the Fall of 2018. The primary sponsor of the resolution, who is a true policy entrepreneur and local political hero, is Philip Czachorowski: an unrelenting force for progressive policy change not just in Walpole, but also as a champion for many state-wide, national and international issues. He and I met on several occasions prior to the Fall 2018 Town Meeting to prepare our original resolution. We attempted to bring the resolution forward during the Fall Town Meeting but were thwarted by a procedural move and a very weary group of representatives. It was 11pm on a weeknight and we are all volunteers after all.

So, we aimed to get the resolution on the official warrant for the 2019 Spring Town Meeting, this way it would have to be voted on. Once Phil got the language to his liking, he sent it around to several local groups and got their endorsement. He believed it more likely to pass if it was a citizens’ petition, so that was the route we took the second time around. When the night finally came to debate Article 22, it was fierce. Walpole is a battleground town with a near even split of Republicans and Democrats, a veritable microcosm for the country in many respects. The debate broke down along those lines, even though Town Meeting is a non-partisan group. On the side in favor of Article 22, Philip presented his case, explaining climate change and how this resolution was a non-binding goal meant to spur Walpole to take action. The opposition tried to stop it by introducing a substitute motion that watered down the bill. We successfully voted down this motion after much deliberation. Then, the opposition presented a slideshow filled with misinformation about climate change. I responded briefly to their presentation and then spoke in favor of Article 22: “This is an aspirational goal… and it’s something that your children and grandchildren are going to ask you about. What did you do? When you knew this was coming, you knew climate change was happening. What did you do? You can point to this roll call vote we are about to take and say the people of Walpole – we stood up, we did our part. Thank you”.

The vote then passed 65-37, with 2 abstentions.

What’s the goal of this piece of legislation?

We hope to use the passage of this resolution to get the Town of Walpole to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and further to catalyze other actions in town to reduce our impact on the environment and ensure that our town does its part to help solve the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we are quickly running out of time to stop the worst effects of climate change. As storms worsen and seas continue to rise, the lives and cultures of the world’s most vulnerable peoples continue to be at greatest risk, despite their emitting the least amount of carbon. The injustice of this situation is often underappreciated here, which is why it is so important that if there are costs to bear that we be the ones to bear them.

What was the most surprising or impactful part of co-sponsoring a clean/renewable energy resolution?

The amount of opposition we faced was astounding. However, what really surprised me was the power and significance a simple public aspiration can have. Despite this resolution being non-binding, and the target date set for its achievement being 31 years away, many RTMs were strongly against it and fearful of what other effects setting this goal might have on the town. Beyond the usual few who are in denial about climate change and therefore thought this motion irrelevant, some actually took the time to prepare an extensive presentation riddled with misinformation in an attempt to derail it. Others tried more subtle tactics to actively undermine the legislation by attempting to make small changes in key phrases which would have watered down the spirit of the resolution. The sheer amount of effort that went into fighting this non-binding resolution gives credit to the significance and power that simply setting a public aspirational goal can have.

What would you say are some major takeaways from this process?

I came away from this process with a much deeper appreciation for activists and policy-makers at all levels who fight tooth-and-nail for action on climate change and other important issues. While this was just a small action at the absolutely lowest level of government, during this process I could not help myself from thinking about much larger fights throughout history and how progress on any issue is not a given. One cannot simply sit back and expect the world to deal with climate change or any other issue of injustice. The arc of history bends towards justice not because that is its natural tendency, but rather because it has been repeatedly hammered away at by the countless actions of activists, organizers, and all those who believe we deserve better than the status quo.

Any advice for students looking to get into the public sector, specifically local government?

Find local groups working on an issue you are passionate about and get involved. Chances are that you will lose your first election and that is OK – I lost mine by less than 70 votes- but if you keep knocking on doors you will eventually make it through.

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