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Advocate for Climate Action


A young policymaker’s guide to fighting climate change


Published December 3, 2020

After transferring to Smith from Hampshire College, Natalie Baillargeon ’21 had been on campus for a mere six months when, in March, the pandemic forced students to leave.

Suddenly, instead of going to classes for her environmental science and policy major and enjoying her hobbies of dancing tango and salsa, she was back home in Westborough, Massachusetts, and finishing her semester remotely. The change upended Baillargeon’s plans for a junior year as a traditional Smith undergraduate, but it did not deter her intention to pursue a career in environmental policy and management. She went on to a remote summer internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), working in the Modeling, Analysis, Predictions and Projections (MAPP) program. Run by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, MAPP aims to understand, predict and project variability and changes in Earth’s climate system. And now, as a senior, she is navigating academic studies virtually while working remotely for the Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly the Woods Hole Research Center). As for her hobbies, dancing the tango may have to wait for better times, but Baillargeon has been teaching herself to bake. “I make a pretty good scone and Swiss roll these days,” she noted.

EVEN AT A YOUNG AGE, I was interested in the environment and climate change, from my “Oh my god, this is a huge issue” realization in middle school to an effort to start trying to write about it in high school. My undergraduate work has been focused on ecological research, ranging from investigating how Arctic tundra fires affect vegetation composition/nutrients to understanding the ecological impacts of utility-scale solar arrays.

I BECAME PART OF the National Science Foundation’s Polaris Research Project, which investigates climate change in the Arctic. My specific focus was on the impact of wildfires on vegetation and nutrient cycling in Alaska. I did research in Alaska for two summers, 2018 and 2019, accompanying Woodwell scientists to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and I designed independent studies to analyze data during both of the following academic years. I loved it. I realized we have the climate change research needed, yet we lack the political will to take action. That is what I now see myself doing—advocating for science-based policy, environmental policy analyses.

IN SEPTEMBER, I started a job with Woodwell in their external affairs department. I get to play a role in distributing information about Woodwell’s climate research to stakeholders and decision-makers. This will hopefully influence climate policy and private sector decision-making. And it will be an important experience as I move forward in environmental policy and management.

A LOT OF MY CLASSES connect with this work. The best example is [Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of Government] Greg White’s seminar International Politics: Environmental Security. It just so happens to be very relevant to one of the projects that I am involved in for work, which is on global security and climate change. His class has been very helpful because I have learned the history, theories and case studies of environmental security. I have been able to apply this knowledge directly to my work.

ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY and management is a large field with many different pathways, and almost everyone has a different career path. I recommend taking a range of courses, such as geology, environmental justice/policy and statistics. There are many opportunities in this field that can easily be missed. I recommend signing up for Listservs that share internship/fellowship/research opportunities, such as ECOLOG. I also recommend just asking faculty and connecting with the Lazarus Center for Career Development early on for various undergraduate opportunities. It never hurts to ask!

This story appears in the Winter 2020-21 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

Natalie Baillargeon ’21 has been interested in the environment since middle school. She’s currently conducting research for the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Photograph by Jessica Scranton