The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Judi Greenwald of Nuclear Innovation Alliance
Meeting mid-century climate goals will require a wholesale shift in energy generation and use that will involve new technologies, new processes and new approaches. One such approach is the nascent advanced nuclear energy industry, which seeks to develop new, generally smaller and often-modular reactors that promise more flexibility, greater applicability in multiple types of environments and lower cost of operations.
Communicating about nuclear energy has been a challenge for decades. Looking forward, the advanced nuclear energy industry is considering how best to address this challenge in light of increased concerns about climate, clean power generation and economic growth. We’re pleased to be collaborating with one of the new leaders in this space to help: the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA). So it made sense to ask the NIA’s new Executive Director, Judi Greenwald, to participate in this series.
Judi is an energy and environmental policy rock star. She has more than 35 years of experience in energy and environmental policy, having worked in the White House, the U.S. Congress, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the public sector and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change) and as a consultant to charitable foundations and NGOs in the non-profit sector. She’s worked on the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 as a congressional staffer, advised U.S. state and regional greenhouse gas initiatives and even co-founded the group that is now the Carbon Capture Coalition (another client of RENEWPR). She is currently also a fellow at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
Judi’s work has focused extensively on “deep decarbonization” and has addressed public policy, technology innovation, markets and even human behavior. Although less widely known in the public arena, Judi is widely respected in the energy and environmental policy community for her experience and perspective. She’s also a smart, funny and collaborative colleague we’re fortunate to call a friend as well. We’re thankful for Judi’s willingness to share a bit of her insight here as the newest participant in the Common Sense Colloquy series.
My thanks to Judi for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.
Q: Your career has focused on challenging and sometimes complex or hard to explain energy technologies. How have you leveraged communications skills to help advance your career and promote these technologies?
A: I have degrees in both engineering and public policy, so it’s easy for me to communicate across those disciplines. I’m often able to translate engineering-speak to public policy-speak and vice versa.
I’m both passionate and pragmatic about solving the climate problem, and I think that comes through when I communicate.
I don’t think I’m one of those people with the skills to make things sound better than I think they really are. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career in that I get to talk about things I’m genuinely passionate and enthusiastic about, and enthusiasm can be infectious. I genuinely think climate is an existential threat, that we can fix it if we’re smart about it and committed to a whole-of-society effort, that we don’t have a person to waste in this effort, that the climate threat is too important to take any promising solutions off the table, and that everyone can be part of the solution. Also I think innovation is really cool, and I want everyone to know about it.
I think it’s important to continuously adapt and learn in all aspects of my work, including communications. Because I didn’t grow up with it, social media is not as natural to me, so I both rely on others and work on getting better at it myself.
Q: In your new role, you’re running a “think and do tank” advocating for advanced nuclear energy. How are you thinking about the role of communications in helping boost your agenda?
A: Communications are essential to getting anything done. That’s why NIA is relying on you, Ben to help us communicate as effectively as we can!
Advanced nuclear energy is a really promising technology that can help us save the climate, but it needs a lot more policy, investment, and public support to succeed. A lot of people don’t know about advanced nuclear energy, or how to achieve the conditions for its success. It’s our job at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance to make it easy and interesting for them to learn about its potential and inspire them to work with us to realize that potential.
Q. What are the hallmarks of good communications for you? Are there specific characteristics or attributes of communications campaigns, programs or initiatives you've seen in your career that you think are particularly powerful?
A: I like campaigns that appeal to what’s best in us, including our sense of humor, our intelligence, and our desire to be part of the solution. So much incoming communication I see is designed to make me angry, which I admit can inspire action, but I don’t really want to add more anger to the world; I want to go straight to inspiration. I’m a big fan of Isabelle Boemeke, who does great short videos that teach laypeople about nuclear power while making them laugh. I really like the documentary film The New Fire, which profiles advanced nuclear innovators and their innovations, and makes a really strong case for the promise of nuclear energy through their stories.
I think a lot of people are like people from Missouri who say, “Show me!” It’s not enough to just say, “experts say so.” You have to make your case to them. On the other hand, people are very busy, and they can’t be experts in everything. So it’s very important to boil things down, but not to dumb things down. Solving climate change is going to require a sustained society-wide effort over decades. For us to be successful, everyone needs to understand at a basic level what we know, how we know it, and what we can do about it.
I’m frankly best at wonky communications, which has its place too as the foundation and source material for communicating to laypeople. With wonky communications, I think it’s especially important to show your work – to explain how you know what you know. It’s also important to be honest about what is known vs unknown. My favorite wonky communicator is Jesse Jenkins at Princeton University, who clearly explains what we need to do to get down to zero carbon emissions, based on very complicated analysis of our energy system.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: I learned early on in my career from some communications research that if you talk about the climate problem without talking about climate solutions, people just get depressed and tune you out. So I always try to talk about both.
A lot of people define communications as messaging, but I prefer two-way communications. I’m a big fan of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, including Habit #5: "First Seek to Understand, Then to Be Understood." I’m genuinely interested in understanding where people are coming from, and I like both teaching and learning. I find people are more open to hearing me when I listen, and when I listen, I find new opportunities to make progress.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Find your own voice – this can be hard but it’s important because each of us has a unique contribution to make. Think about what you’re going to say and try it on people you trust before you say it. Read stuff you write out loud, and write down stuff you say, to make sure you know what you sound like and that it sounds like you. Practice presentations before you give them, and when you moderate discussions, make sure to keep within time limits and leave time for conversation.