The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Erin Burns of Carbon180
Substantively and effectively addressing climate change is a multi-layered challenge. We need to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions (which technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage will help with), and we need to remove existing or legacy emissions as well (which technologies such as carbon removal will help with). In this series, we’re trying to address climate change and other important topics in as many ways as possible. This month, we’re focusing on carbon removal with our friend Erin Burns, the executive director of Carbon180.
Erin is part of a growing group of smart, committed and experienced leaders who while younger than many of their counterparts, are making important contributions to the fields of advocacy, science, technology and more. At Carbon180, Erin is leading a team of more than twenty people focused on removing legacy carbon emissions from the atmosphere and creating a livable climate in which current and future generations can thrive. It’s a lofty goal, and one that Erin and her team are making real progress towards achieving. Carbon180 has been named by Vox as one of the "most high-impact, cost-effective, evidence-based charities to donate to if you want to improve US climate policy."
Erin has been a leader at Carbon180 for the past three years. Before joining the team as a Policy Director in 2018, she was a Senior Policy Advisor at Third Way and a Legislative Assistant in the U.S. Senate (where she worked for a certain U.S. Senator who has been getting a lot of attention in the debate on Build Back Better and other legislative initiatives!). She began her career as a Research Assistant in the Engineering and Public Policy Department at her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.
I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Erin over the past six years on carbon management policy as part of the work RENEWPR does with the Carbon Capture Coalition and related organizations. Erin is smart and focused and I enjoy working with her. Talking with her for the first Q&A in the fifth year of the Common Sense Colloquy seemed like a great way to start a new year of these conversations.
My thanks to Erin for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.
Q: What are the communications challenges of engaging audiences about direct air capture? How do you address them?
A. First, that it’s often a new topic for people and not always clear that it’s separate from point source carbon capture. It’s been really important for Carbon180 to do a lot of educational work over the years to define and distinguish direct air capture. Second, it’s an extremely new technology that is only deployed at very small scales and in a couple of places. You aren’t going to pass a direct air capture plant on your drive home from work, your neighbor doesn’t have rooftop direct air capture, and there aren’t even a ton of different images of the technology. One thing we’ve done is to work with Sam Orellana, a former intern, to design images of what these projects could look like integrated with communities, which was inspired by work that Suzy Baker did with advanced nuclear.
Now, we’re really focused on not just explaining what direct air capture is or what projects could look like, but why and how they could be built in ways that remove legacy emissions and provide material benefits for communities.
Q: As Carbon180 has grown, you’ve made environmental justice a focal point of your work. How do you do that? What should communicators and advocates understand about the intersection of climate policy and environmental justice?
A: When we started our policy shop in 2018, we thought a lot about what our priorities would be. Many of us come from communities impacted by fossil fuels or climate change and deeply care about how communities like ours -- in the US and globally -- will be impacted by carbon removal. It was clear to us that this industry could be scaled in ways that replicated the environmental injustices that we’ve personally experienced, or that we could use policy to not only protect and empower communities, but to build a carbon removal future that invests in these places. A lot of the foundation of our EJ work was that we are personally excited about how carbon removal can drive prosperity and well-being in the areas it’s deployed, particularly for communities that have been the most marginalized. We’re also excited for how carbon removal can align with ongoing priorities of the EJ movement, like enabling a just economic transition. Carbon removal policy that centers equity and justice ultimately has to be about much more than just carbon quantities, it also has to be about the priorities of communities on-the-ground.
For other advocates in this space, I’d say two things. First, to do this work in a genuine way requires buy-in across the organization from the work you do, the reasons why you do the work you do, and the people you conduct your work with. Our EJ work isn’t a discrete piece of our work -- it has changed how we do all of our policy work, our science & innovation work, how our operations run. This isn’t a single initiative, it impacts everything we do.
Second, don’t just be extractive. EJ organizations on the whole have far, far fewer resources than non-EJ policy organizations. We always try to be honest brokers and to not be extractive. If you ask for their time, pay them. We have a core value at Carbon180 which we shorthand as ‘Make Space, Share Space’ and we try to operationalize that in our EJ work as well. Where can we use our platform to advocate for EJ policies and priorities? Can we hand off our connections with funders or policymakers or media to EJ advocates? We’re asking for something from them, but how do we provide at least an equal value to them as well?
I’m sharing this, but the credit goes to our EJ team: Ugbaad Kosar, who really built this from the ground up, Vanessa Suarez, who was the second person in the door after me in DC, and our newest expert, Alayna Chuney. We’ve also had integral support from an EJ Advisory Council who has really helped shape and guide our work. I’m constantly in awe of what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past couple of years and the incredible impact it has had on the whole carbon removal field.
Q: Like me, you started your career on Capitol Hill. How did that experience shape your experience? What did you learn working in Congress that has been most useful to your current role?
A: I came to the Hill right out of college after moving to DC with no job prospects and, to be honest, I hadn’t really considered a career in policy. I just needed a job and, in true West Virginia fashion, was like, well, I guess I should go ask Joe Manchin to hire me.
I think there are things about the policy process that are difficult to learn any place other than working in Congress. You really get the first hand experience of why certain policies gain traction, what it takes to convince a staffer or a member to engage on an issue or to champion it, how they approach new issues.
I think coming off the Hill, it made me a very tactical person. Many times, it’s not about just having a good idea -- lots of people have good ideas -- but about: Can you communicate it to staffers in members in their language? Are you creating materials that they’ll actually read and that will answer the questions they have? Have you cleared your idea with the stakeholders that member cares about? Do you know the players on the issue? Strategy is as important as content.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: 95% of what I know about policy communications has come from two places: Suzy Baker and our comms team at Carbon180. From Suzy, I think one of the most important things I learned was about the intersection of art and policy communications. Typically, when we think about communications in the policy world, it’s in very traditional formats. But Suzy is throwing art gallery parties with advanced nuclear renderings and talking about murals on nuclear reactors, and it really fundamentally shifted how I think about communications. With our Carbon180 team, they do such an amazing job of creating a distinct voice for the organization that really balances our extremely deep, technical knowledge about carbon removal with who we are as people. We have a team that’s so passionate about the work they do and they really bring their whole selves to it and I think that comes across in our products.
One of the things that I think both Suzy and our team have in common is that they step outside of traditional policy comms tactics and think very deeply about the ways in which people will connect with the ideas and technologies we work on.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: It’s helpful to know what tactics other organizations use to communicate policy, but only as a foundation. What other ways are there to get your information across that really consider who your audience is? Lots of Hill staffers, for example, are in their 20s and 30s. When I was at Third Way, I started the energy team Instagram and Suzy and I started doing these short, intentionally homemade YouTube videos that involved extremely amateur claymation and similar tactics. At C180, our newsletters often include memes and leverage a lot of unique graphics and in-group language. We write jokes. Just because everyone else is only doing polished whitepapers and webinars doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to get your message across.