We’ve reached my favorite point in the semester–the point where I stop lecturing/haranguing and listen while student teams present their research. They teach me.
Each team of students is given fifty minutes within which to present the major arguments involved in an issue currently facing policymakers, and to do so in a manner that is fair to all perspectives. Teams are allowed to approach their presentations in any fashion they choose, and they’re graded on clarity of communication, breadth of resources used, logic and organization. (Creativity is a plus.)
At the beginning of the semester, I assign teams (I use an “algorithm” called the alphabet) and give each team a general policy area (the economy, the environment, education, social policy, etc.) from which they then choose a specific issue to address.
In the past, teams have done skits (complete with costumes!), debates, power-point presentations, multi-media presentations, even movies. The only hard-and-fast requirement is that all perspectives/sides of the debate be presented as fairly as possible. That said, students are permitted to “weigh in” on one side or the other after they’ve explored the arguments.
Last Monday, one of the teams presenting compared Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CCP) to Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Act(ACE).
They began by discussing the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the underlying legal context (the role of government, the contending interests of state and federal governments, and the ongoing argument about the extent to which market forces should control policy).
They then launched into a comparative analysis of the two measures, focused on environmental impact, energy needs, the impact on jobs (no, Trump isn’t bringing those mining jobs back), and public health.
Let me share just a few of their (copious) findings:
- The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas on the globe. CPP was designed to reduce such emissions; ACE “makes no such commitment.”
- By 2030, CPP would have reduced carbon emissions by 19%. ACE will cut them between 0.7% and 1.5%
- Coal production will be higher under ACE, but will still decline.(That pesky market!)
- There is only one “clean coal” plant in the entire country, and the cost of factories able to produce “clean coal” is in the billions, so no others are likely to be built.
- One-third of the nation’s electricity is still generated from coal, and the percentage is declining.
- That decline is a market phenomenon, not a result of regulation, although regulation has disadvantaged some types of coal over others.
- Renewable energy technology is increasingly making alternative sources more cost-effective.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the analysis–at least to me– was the impact of the two plans on public health; the EPA’s mission, after all, focuses on giving citizens clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. The differences were striking.
The CPP passed by the EPA under Obama estimated the social damage done by carbon emissions at $50/ton. The ACE estimated the damage at somewhere between $1 and $7 per ton. Among the reasons for what the students labeled a “drastic” difference was that Trump’s EPA discounted the impact of climate change, and the Obama administration included the identified human health impacts of both climate change and the decline in ambient air quality.
There was much more.
Each semester, I am amazed and impressed at the amount of data these student teams collect, synthesize and analyze–and more significantly, the policy conclusions they draw from that data.
The real reward of teaching is what I learn.