Alumna Jane Flegal discusses joining Biden’s climate team

May 06, 2021
Portrait of Jane Flegal

In March, Jane Flegal, ’PhD 08 Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), joined the White House Council on Environmental Quality as senior director for industrial emissions. In doing so, she became one of several researchers affiliated with Rausser College to join the Biden administration. Breakthroughs  sat down with Flegal to learn more about her background, her time in the College, and her new policy-making role: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

What led you to pursue a PhD in your field, and to study at Berkeley?

I’ve always had a strong interest in the intersection of science and decision-making, particularly in the context of climate and energy. I double-majored in politics and environmental studies as an undergraduate, then I spent several years working on energy and climate policy at the think tank Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in Washington, D.C. While I was staffing a task force on geoengineering research at the BPC, I witnessed first-hand a prevalent misconception in science policy: that more and better information, irrespective of the source, would yield better outcomes, and that science would automatically resolve political disputes. I soon began to realize how values and politics are embedded in the production of knowledge, such that research doesn’t inherently translate to better societal outcomes. Once I learned that connecting science to desirable outcomes takes intentional work and careful governance, I knew that I wanted to work in that space moving forward.

How did you end up attending ESPM? What was the focus of your dissertation research?

At BPC, I met professor David Winickoff, who served on the same geoengineering task force. Through him I first became familiar with ESPM, and as I learned more about the program I decided to go pursue my PhD there. Essentially, my dissertation was a natural extension of my work at BPC. I focused on the science, politics, and governance of research on solar geoengineering. Geoengineering is basically a set of ideas about deliberate intervention into the climate system, in order to counteract climate change’s effects. In practice, that mostly translates to ways to increase the reflectivity of the Earth. I began to work with the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program to facilitate a deliberative event on geoengineering, involving practitioners and leaders outside of the United States. Our group argued that including diverse perspectives into the research process on geoengineering was critical—especially at early research stages, when technologies are easier to govern and steer.

Broadly speaking, my dissertation arguments were not about whether solar geoengineering could work, or even whether it should, which some might find surprising. Rather, I was interested in exploring what made the technology—and its governance—imaginable. I did a lot of research on how climate models were being used to understand, and argue about, solar geoengineering’s potential, how arguments about equity were embedded in scientific research, and how global scientists were coming to know and view these ideas around geoengineering and equity. 

How did your time at ESPM prepare you for your career up to this point?

At ESPM, I learned to approach the climate problem with an applied and interdisciplinary lens, and it has been tremendously useful in my career. I was extremely lucky to join the department, where we were encouraged to approach contemporary problems with an eye toward solutions rather than just analysis. Moreover, we learned to develop a healthy agnosticism about methodological tools. In some other programs in academia, it can be hard to approach problem-driven research in a holistic and solutions-oriented way. In many other departments, there’s a narrowing that happens, driven by all sorts of things, including pressure to publish in certain journals, to contribute to the right theoretical arguments to get tenure, and other practical issues. I loved that ESPM provided a lot of flexibility, and it meant I could take courses across the university, from the law school to the business school. It was just such a huge privilege to spend five years in a community of intellectually curious, kind, and committed people.

Courses with David Winickoff, my dissertation chair, particularly in Science & Technology Studies, were very important for my intellectual development. I also feel extremely fortunate to have entered the department at the same time that Jonas Meckling joined the faculty. He ended up serving as my dissertation co-chair, and his courses on the political economy of climate change really transformed the way that I approach climate politics and policy throughout my career, whether as a researcher, a grant maker, or a policy maker. A few other courses that were impactful were Kate O’Neill’s course on Global Environmental Politics and Nancy Peluso’s political ecology seminars. Outside of ESPM, it was also wonderful to be able to take three courses at the law school. 

I’d add that life in the department was a lot of fun—the social gatherings, particularly events where students and faculty could interact informally, went a long way toward making the dissertation process less isolating. I also met my husband, Eric Dougherty, while at ESPM, so I’m especially indebted to the department!

You’ve done many different things related to research, teaching, and policy analysis. Can you describe the evolution of your career path?

Having worked at a think tank before going to graduate school, I had already had some exposure to the policy and philanthropy world. So when I was wrapping up my dissertation, I had to decide whether to stick to a more traditional academic path or pursue a job in philanthropy. I ended up deciding to join the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust in New York City, which at the time was developing a new U.S. climate program. I was brought on to help develop the Trust’s strategy and oversee grantmaking for the climate program. It was an incredible experience that offered a really unique perspective on the climate policy field in the United States. After two years with the Spitzer Trust, I went to work at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation in California, where I led our grantmaking on U.S. climate and clean energy.

What does your new role in the Biden administration entail?

In March, I was asked to join the Biden-Harris administration, where I now serve as Senior Director for Industrial Emissions at the Council on Environmental Quality. In my role, I’m responsible for developing and advancing policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote technological advancement, and support job creation in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. Core to all of these policies—and my work more broadly—are the goals of equity and justice. It has been an extremely interesting and fast-paced experience thus far, not to mention incredibly challenging, inspiring, and humbling!

The President was serious about taking a whole-of-government approach to climate change. Everyone here is working hard to embed equitable, high-quality, job-creating climate action across everything we do.

How do you view the current state of manufacturing and industry, as well as the prospects for job creation, as it relates to policy making?

A strong and resilient manufacturing sector is critical to a healthy economy, one that provides high-quality jobs. However, the industrial sector is also a huge contributor to climate change, responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally and in the U.S.. And emissions from this sector are only expected to grow in the coming years; without additional policy, the sector is on track to become the highest-emitting sector of the economy by mid-decade, no matter what approach we take for post-COVID economic recovery.

We simply cannot achieve our climate goals without dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from industry. At the same time, the U.S. has underinvested in manufacturing and industrial modernization, especially relative to our global competitors. The good news is that we have an enormous opportunity to make bold and strategic investments in key industries to tackle the climate crisis and create high-quality jobs. We can invest in everything from innovation to deploy new, clean technologies, to market creation for low-emissions products, which will ensure that the U.S. is a leader in the industries of the future. These clean facilities not only reduce climate pollution, but reduce other kinds of air pollution, as well, delivering concrete benefits to communities today, while capturing global market share in areas like zero-carbon hydrogen, clean cement and steel, and carbon capture.

Can you say more about how the goals of equity and justice are central to the policies you are working on now?

The President has been explicit that strong attention to racial and economic equity across all policy areas—including climate—is critical. In my area, it is very clear that for an industrial decarbonization strategy to be effective, it has to deliver real, tangible benefits to people today. Industry is a major source of hazardous air pollutants, so cleaning it up would lead not just to reductions in carbon pollution, but it would promote cleaner air for communities that live near industrial facilities. So the goal of my work has to include both reducing climate pollution from industrial activity and reducing non-greenhouse gas air pollutants from factories.

But even this is not enough. An equitable industrial transition has to ensure that the economic opportunities accrue to workers and communities, and that we are not leaving anyone behind. In the industrial sector, our investments in innovation are not just about identifying and investing in bits of hardware, but in supporting broader societal frameworks—such as worker power, training programs, and minority-serving institutions, among other things—to ensure that climate action (including, though not exclusively, in the industrial sector) improves the lives of communities now while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a climate-safe future.

What advice would you give to current college students who are interested in working in the environmental fields or making a difference to address climate change?

It’s really important to appreciate that climate change is a structural problem. On the one hand, we all have agency in addressing the climate crisis, and on the other hand, it is not a problem that can be solved by individual action alone. Whether it be updated pollution standards, new policies for climate adaptation, or publicly-funded RD&D, we really need large-scale policy change.

For students who think they are interested in getting involved in climate policy, I’d say that it is important to pursue a well-rounded education and resist any pressure to specialize too early (unless you really know what you want to do). In my case, taking classes across a bunch of disciplines really helped me to identify connections I otherwise would have missed, and to cultivate skills I probably wouldn’t have known I had.