• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech

The objective of this series is to share insight and perspective on the challenges of communicating about about energy and environmental topics from a variety of people involved in many different types of businesses and organizations. We’re proud this month to add the voice of Dr. Marilyn Brown, Regents' and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


Dr. Brown is a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work as a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III Assessment Report on Mitigation of Climate Change, Chapter 6. What better person to ask to participate in our Common Sense Colloquy series?


At Georgia Tech, Dr. Brown conducts research on a variety of energy and environment topics focused on the intersection of policy, development and deployment. She has written four books and authored hundreds of other publications. Dr. Brown came to Georgia Tech from Oak Ridge National Laboratory where she was recognized as a national leader on the modeling of energy futures. She served two terms as a Presidential Appointee and regulator on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public power provider.


Earlier, Dr. Brown was a co-founder of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and chair of the organization’s Board of Directors. She has also been a Board Member of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Alliance to Save Energy and a commissioner with the Bipartisan Policy Center. She has served on eight National Academies committees and led the Smart Grid Subcommittee of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee.


We’ve had the privilege of working with Dr. Brown in the past and were delighted that she was willing to participate in this series to share the benefit of her experience with others. Dr. Brown is both smart and kind, and represents the type of clear, compelling communicator that we respect immensely.


We thank Dr. Brown for sharing her insight with us – and you.


Q: In your role at Georgia Tech, you are focused on, among other things, the “design and impact of policies aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of sustainable energy technologies.” What do you wish policymakers understood about sustainable energy technologies as they develop policies to boost their use? 


A: We don't have to reinvent the wheel. Technologies are ready, affordable, and offer win-win solutions for industry leaders, communities, and the average consumer. In the newly launched Georgia Drawdown project, for instance, we’re analyzing ~25 solutions that can have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. They can be deployed at scale with bi-partisan support and with valuable roles for both incumbents and new actors. Every policymaker wants economic growth and jobs, and solutions exist that can deliver both. And they can also deliver equity, health and ecosystem benefits from a clean energy transition. It’s all about messaging. 


Here’s an example, one of the best “regenerative” solutions is trees--they suck carbon out of the air, cost very little, and build themselves. Another is demand-response--with solar, storage, and smart appliances, we can shift consumption to times when electricity is the cheapest and cleanest.


Q: Your career has taken you from research and advocacy to numerous government positions to academia. How have these experiences shaped – and maybe changed? – the way you communicate about energy, environment and climate? 


A:  There are so many audiences and each needs messages tailored to their interests. One common language is a colorful graph. Often what sounds convoluted in words can be made clear in lines and bars. Images are a great equalizer. Even if a student or policy maker can't understand a metric, they can clearly distinguish winning and losing solutions with a good graph. 


I've seen all the metrics, and the ones that people can connect to best are related to their own livelihoods. Number of rooftops, or dollars of healthcare spending are quite relatable. 


Q: You’ve been in the vanguard of communicating about energy and climate for decades. What has changed for the better and what has changed for the worse in energy and climate communications? 


A: Today, we see talking points like "2 degrees C" and "Paris Accord" that are shared at dinner tables and Congress alike. I see the language becoming more consistent across venues. 


With heightened awareness also comes heightened fear. People are afraid of things like "arctic methane" and "mining impacts of batteries." But it's often out of context or over-inflated. The things we really need to worry about aren't talked about enough, like "carbon emissions are still rising." And we have to worry about “spin”: how meaningful is it that “carbon intensity is declining” if carbon emissions are on the rise?


The amount of information is expanding exponentially, as is the rate of change. It’s increasingly hard to keep up, unless you’re at it constantly. At the same time, social media is fast and inclusive...more voices are being heard and more people are being reached. The amplification of social media is powerful.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?


A: Smile when presenting. Be uplifting. We have enough bad news about the state of the climate. Focus on solutions. Also, I’ve learned from 20 years as a university professor that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Sometimes we need to do less talking and more listening.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?


A: Make the text bigger so it's easier to read.



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