Earth Week: Romsdahl revels in policy side of going green

UND professor is global expert on climate change and how governments address it

Rebecca Romsdahl

Rebecca Romsdahl, associate professor of Earth system science and policy at UND, grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and has worked as a park ranger for the National Park Service. She’s channeled her love for the outdoors, a passion for making science useful, and the joy of teaching into national expertise on climate change policies. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Rebecca Romsdahl loves being outside.

She’s channeled her love for the outdoors, a passion for making science useful, and the joy of teaching into national expertise.

“I love working in the environmental field,” said Romsdahl, associate professor of Earth system science and policy. “That fuels my other interests, and wraps back into teaching about what I love.”

Science impacts so many aspects of daily life, she said. ”Whether it’s policy science or ecological science, we can make the science useful even if we disagree about the policies and things we value, and actions we prefer to take,” she said.

In 2012, Romsdahl and colleagues surveyed local governments across the Great Plains about their responses to climate change and how they were adapting.

Because climate change is a complex and polarizing topic, she said, officials often don’t address it directly. Instead, they may focus on saving energy, economic benefits, sustainability, drought and flood mitigation, and other issues.

It’s all in how you frame it. Addressing – or even believing in – climate change can be controversial. But saving energy, protecting health and economic benefit is another story.

Her work has been featured in online and print publications across the spectrum, and she says that focusing on practical solutions can help solve problems. For example, the City of Fargo captures methane from its landfill and sells the gas to electricity providers. City trash now powers renewable energy.

“It’s fun to get attention for a positive path we can take,” said Romsdahl.

“Local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding,” said Romsdahl. “Improvements such as energy savings, health benefits and flood management fit well with local needs and values.”

Sparking awareness

Romsdahl grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and worked as a park ranger for the National Park Service. That experience sparked her awareness of how policies influence the management of national parks.

“I found it fascinating,” Romsdahl said. “It gave me a greater understanding of environmental policies and processes.”

Romsdahl also interned with the nonprofit organization, Clean Water Action, one summer while she was in college. “I learned I wasn’t good at raising money, but I was great at understanding policy,” she said. She began working with local planning and zoning committees, and learned first-hand how local governments address environmental issues.

“I was hooked,” Romsdahl said. After she earned her doctorate, she served as a science and technology policy fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she worked on an annual report to Congress.

“It’s eye-opening to see how reports are put together and influenced,” Romsdahl said. “It was fascinating to see how political arms of Congress interacted with the AAAS, the policy regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the executive branch.”

Romsdahl loves seeing new places, and spent a half-year as a Fulbright Scholar in the United Kingdom, where she explored how climate policies work in different local governments. A new research project will compare how the United States and Canada frame their climate policies.

Sharing knowledge

She enjoys sharing knowledge, from being an interpreter at a nature center and helping kids understand the natural world, to teaching UND students how political processes work.

“Students get more involved and interested when they hear first-hand stories,” said Romsdahl.

“There is a joy in discussing new ideas with students,” she said. “It helps them to be more aware of the world around them, and to spend some time in self-reflection in a busy, chaotic modern world.”

She compares political administrations, from the George W. Bush administration of 2001-2009 to today, and expects big changes in environmental policy.

“For a lot of people, it may feel like the sky is falling,” she said. “But even if the United States government walks away from the Paris Climate Agreement, that won’t stop it. The rest of the world will be part of it. It will simply remove us from a leadership role in global negotiations.”

“By talking about what we value and about different concerns, we can find common frames, concerns and values. Science is an important part of this discussion and can help us figure out what decisions we want to make.”