Earth Day: The Best Activism Is Locally-Sourced
It’s no secret that issues surrounding the environment or environmental policy can be contentious in American political conversations. The topics are broad, the opinions sharp, and themes range from land protection to creating potable water supplies to saving endangered species to simply ensuring we are good stewards of our surroundings. At Clyde Group we try to make sure we do our part to help the planet we call home. We seek digital-first, paper-free solutions. We limit the use of plastics and non-recyclable products in our office and find green alternatives whenever possible.
In honor of Earth Day (April 22), I spoke with Andrew Overton, senior director of communications at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to learn more about the foundation’s work, their mission, and the wider environmental movement. Andrew highlighted some of the most unique and inventive ways the foundation is making a difference, and spoke about the central role that effective communications play in advancing their work and ensuring it has the greatest possible impact.
Clyde Group: What inspired you to get involved with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation?
Andrew Overton: I joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) last July after nearly seven years at the British Embassy, most recently as their Deputy Head of Communications. As the UK’s spokesperson in the U.S., I saw first-hand President Trump’s assault on the water we drink and the air we breathe. With the help of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, President Trump rolled back the Clean Power Plan, lowered car emission standards, and encouraged more offshore drilling of fossil fuels. Most troublingly, President Trump relinquished the role of world leader on the biggest issue of our age: climate change. In June 2017, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords.
I considered the size, scale, and scope of the climate change challenge, and it felt hopeless. But I couldn’t sit idly by any longer, so I turned my attention closer to home. What I found were state legislatures and city councils across the country taking meaningful action to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. These local governments turned to experts and advocates like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help them. For example, just last month CBF helped usher two bills through the Maryland General Assembly that will improve the water quality and help restore Maryland’s decimated oyster population.
I came to CBF because I wanted to work for an environmental nonprofit that had a long track record of success. But what really blew me away was CBF’s work on the ground across Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania providing communities with the tools and training to protect their own local waterways and minimize their carbon footprint.
CBF is planting trees — 10 million of them to be exact — to trap polluted agricultural runoff from Pennsylvania farms. The Keystone 10 Million Partnership, as the CBF-led effort is known, is a collaborative effort by government, nonprofits, businesses, and citizens to plant 10 million trees across Pennsylvania by 2025. Trees filter the water and clean our air. In fact, that many trees would sequester 480 million pounds of carbon per year!
CBF is pioneering sustainable farming practices. Just 17 miles from the U.S. Capitol, At Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, CBF raises organic crops and grass-fed beef cattle for a community-supported agriculture program and the Capital Area Food Bank. CBF teaches other farmers how to avoid fertilizers that pollute waterways, minimize the use of fossil fuels, and maximize each plant’s natural ability to store and sequester carbon.
And CBF is educating the next generation of teachers, politicians, and business leaders. CBF’s award-winning outdoor education experiences build the connection between what we do on land and what happens in our waterways. In 2018 alone, CBF educated over 33,000 students, teachers, and adults.
CG: What is the most impactful project you’ve been a part of in your current role? The most exciting?
AO: You mean besides this Spotify playlist I created to celebrate Earth Day?
In all seriousness, the most impactful work I’ve been a part of was the drafting and release of the 2018 State of the Bay report card. Every other year, CBF scientists examine and score several indicators of the bay’s health, including oysters, crabs, underwater grasses, and types of pollution. Record rains in 2018 flushed enormous amounts of pollution off the land and into the bay. As a result, the score dropped for the first time in over 10 years. But there were a number of signs of the bay’s growing resiliency, including a reduction in the size of fish-killing dead zones.
The report, released in January, served as a key benchmark for state policymakers, and it drove a tremendous amount of local, state, and national news coverage. But it also kick-started an important conversation about accelerating Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. Within months, legislation was introduced in the Senate and the House to increase federal investment in the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership under the EPA that’s been working to restore the estuary since 1983.
What’s also very exciting is that CBF is expanding its presence in our nation’s capital by adding six new positions over the next two years. CBF has a long history in Washington and a powerful story to tell. Over the last three decades, CBF’s Potomac River Education Program, which leaves from The Wharf, has taken tens of thousands of DC-area students out on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Furthermore, no other environmental nonprofit is better equipped with expertise and resources to help policymakers understand the link between their work and its impact on the fragile ecosystem that surrounds Washington and flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
CG: What role does communications play in helping to achieve the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s mission to “Save the Bay”?
AO: Communications is central to the work that we do. The Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, is one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. The bay’s watershed (i.e. the area of land that drains into it) is home to 18 million people and encompasses 64,000 square miles across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, DC. Each state has its own culture, history, and unique politics.
Saving the bay is not just a complex policy problem, it’s a serious communications challenge. As we craft our messages, we must think extremely carefully about our audience. It might be easy for an avid Annapolis fisherman to make the connection between water pollution and the fish he catches in the bay. But a Lancaster farmer, who has never seen the Chesapeake Bay, is more likely to change his/her behavior if our message focuses on how making certain changes to his farming practices could improve his/her bottom line as well as water quality in their local creek.
The bottom line is that if no one knows about the extraordinary challenges facing the Bay or the solutions that we’re identifying, the Bay will never be saved.
CG: What impact has the current political climate had on your role as a communicator working for an environmental organization? What advice would you offer others in similar roles?
AO: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s work is always rooted in sound science — not politics — because we believe good science creates good policy. As a result, politicians of all stripes recognize and respect our work as such. In today’s political climate, this approach has been a recipe for success.
When our analysis is rooted in science, we can speak-out against ill-informed policies that threaten the recovery of the bay and exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Yes, the current administration’s federal regulatory assault, lax enforcement, and proposed cuts to the Chesapeake Bay Program mean that we are speaking out frequently against short-sighted policies. But fortunately, saving the bay is, and always has been, a strictly non-partisan priority.
According to a 2018 Pew study, more Americans believe in climate change than ever before, and six in ten believe climate change is affecting their local community. My advice to other environmental communicators is to help our audience make that local link — whenever and wherever possible. Show them how their investment of time and money will make their community healthier ecologically and financially. For instance, our peer-reviewed economic analysis demonstrates that a saved bay is worth nearly $130 billion in natural benefits — an increase of $22 billion per year for generations.
CG: What are your thoughts on the current climate crisis and what can individuals do this Earth Day to make a difference?
AO: First, think carefully about our choices and their impact on the climate. Find ways to reduce your fuel consumption and use your buying power to reward companies that do the same. For example, you could ride a bike to work and buy locally-grown produce.
Second, join an organization like CBF. Don’t let your contribution end with a donation. Volunteer! Here’s one idea: on June 1, thousands will gather for Clean the Bay Day and remove trash and debris from local rivers, streams, and beaches across Virginia.
And, finally, talk to your parents and grandparents about why climate change matters to you. Right now, just 31 percent of Americans 65 and over believe that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity. It may seem hopeless, but our elders are much more likely to trust you than news they read online.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.