The Substance Behind Slogans
An early interest in politics and the environment set Nicholas Cain on an educational and career path that has combined both subjects in a variety of positions and projects. With a master’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s of public administration from Columbia’s Earth Institute, he has influenced environmental policy and practices as a communications specialist and researcher at numerous prominent institutions. Now a PhD student in the School of Politics and Economics (SPE), Cain is undergoing the rigorous study necessary to more effectively find solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
As a Sierra Club writer and editor, Cain helped craft reports on issues such as suburban sprawl and smart growth, confined animal feeding operations, and the California energy crisis. Later, as director of communications at the Pacific Institute, he worked on problems like water shortages, habitat destruction, global warming, and environmental injustice.
At both of these organizations, Cain gained a profound understanding about the critical need for robust, objective, and analytical research, which guided his next career and education choices.
“It’s not enough be an ardent advocate, it’s not just saying, ‘Hey, we need more efficiency,’ it’s about the policy and research behind it. Any attempt to move public policy must be informed by real, analytical research, otherwise you’ll end up pushing for things that don’t solve the problem or are even counterproductive,” Cain said.
After several professional pursuits pushed him deeper into research, Cain came to CGU for the scholarly inquiry and practice that would advance his analytical understanding and abilities, his career aspirations, and his capacity to impact pressing environmental concerns.
“What I had in mind was going back to the think-tank world with a stronger understanding of research methods and theory,” he said. “At CGU, having the opportunity to do tangible, real-world projects that are policy-relevant is very exciting, and gaining a hands-on grasp on problems that policy makers confront is critically important.”
One of the most exciting endeavors Cain has worked on at CGU is the Sustainable Energy Modeling Project (SEMPro). Working under SPE Research Assistant Professor Hal Nelson and Clinical Professor Mark Abdollahian, co-principals of the SEMPro project, and with a team of SPE students, Cain is helping improve our understanding of an important but often overlooked aspect of reducing greenhouse gases—how can we site the transmission infrastructure needed to bring clean power to the grid?
“Climate change has to be seen as one of the most critical problems facing humanity,” Cain said. “But the socio-political dynamics of siting energy infrastructure are not well understood.”
The goal of SEMPro is to use computer simulations to provide a better understanding of the political dynamics and implications of placing, or “siting,” new power lines that can transmit renewable energy. The purpose is to help policy makers, firms, and the public interact in a more equitable and efficient way so that new transmission resources can be established and renewable energy capacity can grow. Right now, increased capacity is especially important in California, as state-created policies mandate that one-third of its electricity be generated by renewable energy in the near future.
“This is policy-relevant work on an important topic,” Cain said. “California needs power lines to bring renewable energy from wind turbines and solar power plants to the areas of the state where it’s needed. To fight climate change, we will need to invest in our electrical grid here in the US and around the world. We want to better understand the dynamics to ensure new facilities are sited fairly and without undue delay.”
Cain’s primary work with SEMPro includes conducting a review of the siting literature and helping design the model on which the project relies. He also created an academic poster that he, along with Nelson, presented at the American Political Science Association’s 2011 meeting.
Another opportunity to stretch his abilities and apply his increasing expertise arose through an invitation from SPE Associate Professor Heather Campbell. Impressed by Cain’s intelligence, professionalism, and knowledge of environmental issues, Campbell offered him the opportunity to author a chapter of the book she and Arizona State University Professor Elizabeth Corley were writing: Urban Environmental Policy Analysis. Campbell said working with Cain was a pleasure, and his chapter, “Learning from Citizens: Public Participation in Environmental Policy,” is a strong component of the book.
“His chapter is not only a contribution to the book but more broadly to policy literature, which too often exhorts community engagement but doesn’t tell how to do it. Nick’s approach combined his experiences in community involvement with scholarly literature on the topic and brought a professional approach to the writing part,” Campbell said. “He is a great contributor to our student community, and I have no doubt he’ll provide a real contribution once he graduates.”
Cain’s thoughtful, and, of course, heavily researched op-ed pieces are another way in which he is attempting to contribute to the public debate. His column on the BP oil disaster, for example, co-written with Nelson, has appeared in more than 20 newspapers across the country, reaching more than 1.5 million readers. Forthcoming is an article on improving energy security and reducing pollution by supporting electric vehicles. Cain noted that his decision to tackle a particular topic in an op-ed piece has often been inspired by his CGU course work.
“One benefit of coming back to grad school is that it’s an amazing opportunity to think deeply about big issues. It forces you to pay close attention to the debates currently most important in the political science world,” he said, “and connect them to the policy world.”
More than 30 ideas for future op-ed columns and scholarly papers wait in a file for his attention, among them perhaps an idea that will provide the basis for his dissertation, which he hopes to complete in 2013. Open-minded about what will come next, Cain’s principles will guide the way:
“My north star is to work on challenging problems with smart people, in a supportive environment. CGU has provided that to me as a student—and I’m looking forward to what comes next.”