By the time they graduated, Emmie Theberge ’08 and Sophie Janeway ’17 had, between them, studied conservation policy in Ecuador, wind power legislation in Maine, human interaction with the ecology of the Gálapagos Islands, changing fisheries in Vietnam, the effect of climate change on Moroccan farmers, the environmental impact of multinational corporations in Bolivia, the efficacy of state-level environmental advocacy in the United States, and an economic model for conservation of native grasses in Australia.
Supporting climate policy for Maine
Then, after Colby, they turned all of their formidable knowledge, skills, and experience to the mission of protecting Maine’s natural environment and way of life—mostly from the already infiltrating effects of climate change.
“For me, it’s pretty much entirely what I’m doing,” Janeway said.
Theberge and Janeway studied globally and are acting locally. They work at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s biggest environmental organization, with more than 20,000 members, wide-ranging philanthropy and outreach programs, and the ear of state and federal policymakers. Janeway is climate and clean energy outreach coordinator, overseeing a team that works with Mainers on ways to address climate change with better energy solutions. Theberge leads efforts to mitigate threats to the organization’s work from federal policies.
There are many these days, as the Trump administration reverses many of the environmental initiatives put in place by President Obama. Theberge first went to work at NRCM as Obama was coming into office and watched as national policy converged with environmental priorities. Divergence with the priorities of Maine Gov. Paul LePage have given NRCM practice in trying to counter an administration’s environmental strategy, and the Trump administration has only raised the stakes.
“You can’t compare it with anything else because the impact is much deeper and much, much worse,” Theberge said of the directives coming from the White House. “That is where we get our motivation from. A lot of people are concerned about what these threats are and want to take action.”
Like Theberge, Janeway needed little time after Colby to get up to speed. She works to encourage Mainers—and their elected representatives—to understand the need for cleaner and more sustainable energy policies.
In addition to her global research, at Colby Janeway studied the ways state-level environmental advocacy worked—and didn’t work—around the country. She noted a course taught by Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay that had students prepare a complex grant application—and then advocate for their project. That knowledge is brought to bear as she interacts with business owners and other Mainers to encourage more efficient energy use, from electricity to home heating to transportation.
Both Theberge and Janeway say the public is much more knowledgeable when it comes to climate change than a few years ago. Whereas some of the organization’s work used to involve explaining the effect of emissions on climate, now Mainers can see for themselves.
“Whether it’s the Gulf of Maine warming faster than ninety-nine percent of the world’s oceans and what that is going to mean for the fishing industry,” Janeway said, “to what’s going to happen to the ski industry, or more ticks and what that means for human health—sadly, you’re seeing those impacts more now.”
Said Theberge: “It’s no longer just environmentalists standing up and saying that there’s a problem.”
She spends much of her time monitoring federal policy and working to ensure that Maine’s congressional delegation, especially Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, understand the implications of existing and proposed regulations.
Even with growing public awareness of the climate situation it’s an uphill battle, but Theberge is undeterred. She says she learned at Colby—where her academic advisor was renowned carbon-credit architect Mitchell Family Professor of Economics emeritus Thomas Tietenberg—that most change is incremental, and there is no silver bullet that will fix the climate.
Instead there is a broad range of initiatives, from helping Mainers see the environmental benefit of heating more efficiently, to shaping solar power regulation on both a state and national level, to advocating for ways to make the state less reliant on emissions-spewing cars and trucks.
That takes the power to persuade, and Theberge and Janeway learned at Colby to how to frame and buttress an argument, how to effectively present that position to a critical audience, and how to listen and appreciate opposing views. Those skills came from a course in policy advocacy taught by G. Calvin Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government emeritus. “It was very relevant to the kind of work we do,” Theberge said. “The culture of group discussion and challenging one another and our ideas—Colby gives you the confidence necessary to do that.”
But all the confidence in the world doesn’t counter the harsh reality of today’s climate situation and the undoing of much of what many see as the accomplishments of the last decade, from easing of fuel efficiency standards to the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. “Yeah, it’s mostly discouraging,” Theberge said of recent reversals of national climate policy.
But she and Janeway also see that the ranks of those who want to mitigate the effects of climate change are growing. Business owners, foresters, farmers, and fishermen are seeing that their livelihoods, and even the Maine way of life, are threatened in more and more imminent ways.
“It’s moved beyond Al Gore,” Theberge said.
And she is aware of the need for other Colby graduates to join the fight. Theberge contacted Janeway when there was an opening at NRCM, and she’s been host to Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus and his senior environmental policy students as they train to take up the issue of climate and other environmental challenges.
Another lesson of the pair’s broad experience working on environmental issues—around the world and within sight of the Maine statehouse—is the value of persistence.
“There’s so much at stake,” Janeway said. “That’s what motivates us to get out of bed and go to work every day. There’s not really another choice.”
Portraits by Heather Perry ‘93