Alex Barron, Ph.D.

ACS Congressional Fellow, 2007-2008


Alexander Barron earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University in 2007. His dissertation work centered on patterns and control of nitrogen in Panama’s lowland tropical forests. He currently is a visiting lecturer in Carleton College’s Department of Chemistry and Biology. In 2000, Alex was awarded an American Chemical Society Undergraduate Award in Analytical Chemistry.

He applied for the fellowship with an interest in working on environmental policies, and worked on the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill in Senator Lieberman’s personal office. Afterwards, Alex took a job as staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he worked on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill.

Mid-Year Fellowship Report, February 2008

My first five months as a Congressional Fellow have exceeded my hopes for the fellowship year as I’ve found myself in the middle of one of some of the most exciting environmental policy developments in decades. I am working as a legislative fellow in the Office of Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), covering environmental issues with a primary focus on climate change legislation.

I was fortunate to enter the office just as added resources were needed to work on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191). The timing of the fellowship could not have been more perfect as it is providing me with exposure to the full arc of the policy process - from the introduction of legislation to floor action. It was only my second day in the office when I was granted Senate floor privileges and assisted with floor choreography for the formal introduction of the legislation. Since then I have spent the vast majority of my time working on every aspect of climate legislation, first shadowing and then collaborating with the legislative assistant who leads on this issue.

I met with a wide range of stakeholders about their concerns, helped to organize several hearings on the Act, helped to modify the Act in two Chairman’s packages and participated in two markups – first in subcommittee and then in committee. The markup of S.2191 by the full Environment and Public Works committee in December stands out as a singular event. There were incredibly long days of negotiations leading up to the markup and it was never totally clear that we would get all of the votes we wanted. The day before the markup the Republicans introduced roughly 150 amendments, ranging from minor wording changes to the entire energy bill. I ended up in the role of co-coordinating three offices’ analysis and response to the minority amendments. This process took all day and all night and I still wonder how I managed to stay awake and alert during the 8 hour markup that followed. However, the first-ever vote to report a climate bill to the full Senate was worth all of the effort.

I also traveled as part of the Congressional delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. The UNFCCC process for decision making is consensus based and it was fascinating (if somewhat excruciating) to watch as delegations spent hours hammering out the wording of a single sentence. I used my time there to great advantage to better understand international perspectives and agendas on climate legislation.

One of the things that has struck me most about this legislative effort is how small the core group working on any given piece of legislation actually is. Between the staffs of Senators Lieberman, Warner and Boxer there are only a handful of staffers working full time on our effort. As the only scientist in the group, I feel a heavy responsibility but am glad to provide expertise whenever technical questions arise. I have tried to use my numerical expertise to run various back-of-the-envelope calculations to better understand possible changes and evaluate the claims of outside stakeholders. I have also used my time to expand our understanding of topics like offsets and the EU trading system.

I have also particularly enjoyed working on our messaging related to the Act as the communication of science to policy makers was one of the skills I hoped to develop this year. In various formats I have helped our office to communicate to other staffers and Senators the urgency of climate change, the benefits of a cap-and-trade approach, the mechanics of S.2191, and the many related technical details. I organized a redesign of the climate section of the Senator’s website and was also a lead author of a packet of explanatory materials which was distributed to every Senate office just this week. The staff are also beginning to ask me to speak to outside groups about the bill – which I welcome as a sign of their trust and a chance to help stakeholders better understand climate legislation.

As the Climate Security Act moves to the floor, we will continue to work with other offices and outside stakeholders to address both the policy and politics related to the legislation. I am very much looking forward to increasing support for climate legislation, improving the substance of the legislation and participating in major floor action.

While work on climate joyfully consumes the vast bulk of my time, the rest of my portfolio contains enough material to keep things varied. I have worked on endangered species listings, coastal protection, animal welfare, and wildlife habitat. I’ve also collaborated with staff on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (which the Senator chairs) to provide a scientist’s perspective on wildlife issues related to border fencing and whistleblower protection for scientists.

In conclusion, I should also add that Senator Lieberman’s office is generally a great place to work. The office has a long history of fellows and has a large number of them at any given time (there are 6 right now). The regular legislative staff (many of whom hold advanced degrees) treat the fellows as equals and the office is as low-stress as any Senate office could be. Overall, the experience so far has been incredibly positive. Although I have applied for a few academic jobs this season, I am very much leaning towards staying close to federal developments in climate policy for my next career move.

Year-End Fellowship Report, August 2008

I am sure that most fellows report back to their sponsoring societies that they were particularly lucky in their placement because of the amazing opportunities that it afforded them. Even given the fact that Congress is always doing exciting things, I cannot help but feel that I have been extraordinarily lucky this year. This was the first time in history that the US Senate has moved climate legislation through the legislative process. The Lieberman - Warner Climate Security Act represents the both the most detailed and most successful economy-wide, cap-and-trade bill to date. As a fellow in the office of Senator Joseph Lieberman, I was privileged to be a member of the core team of 5 staff (including those from the offices of Senators John Warner and Barbara Boxer) that worked full time on this Herculean effort.

It is difficult to detail in limited space the many roles which I played throughout the year. During the first few months, we worked hectically to prepare for a series of hearings on the legislation and to build sufficient support to pass the bill out of the committee. This was truly trial-by-fire and I often felt adrift in all of the policy questions and political concerns. There was no choice but to work exceedingly hard to come up to speed.

Immediately following the successful report of the Act from the committee, I was able to travel to the UN climate negotiations in Bali, Indonesia as part of the Congressional delegation. This provided me with invaluable insight into how climate legislation must not only work domestically, but also engage effectively with international negotiations.

For the first several months of 2008, our office met with virtually every stakeholder group imaginable to collect their input on climate policy design. The result was a network of political and policy interconnections as complex as any chemical pathway or nutrient cycle. We synthesized all of this input and balanced the policy with political constraints as best we could to produce the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Substitute - the third serious overhaul of the legislation. Substitute in hand, Majority Leader Reid brought up the climate bill for a debate which lasted for a thrilling and exhausting week before a failed cloture vote. While the debate involved far more partisan posturing than I would have liked, it brought the many questions involved in climate policy design to the attention of the full Senate and allowed everyone a preview of the challenges that lay ahead. I am confident that our effort this year, while far from perfect, has helped lay some of the groundwork for a successful effort in the next Congress.

Looking back on the fellowship, it is not only clear that it was a tremendous learning opportunity for me but also that I was able to make real contributions to the policy process. There is a dire shortage of staff on the Hill with a scientific approach to questions and strong quantitative skills. I helped staff interpret new climate studies, understand the true implications of the allocation system and economic modeling of the bill, and acted as a baloney detector for claims made by various parties. In my experience, just having a scientist in the room keeps folks honest and provides many opportunities to keep the debate focused on the key questions.

With only weeks left in my fellowship, I am eagerly looking forward to the next steps. While I miss the classroom and research, I am very much enjoying my new role in the climate policy process and things are simply too exciting to leave. Because of the incredible urgency of the climate problem and interactions with the global negotiations, the effort to pass a bill in the 111th Congress will be make-or-break. I am incredibly grateful for the skills and experience from this year which will hopefully allow me to contribute to that effort in a constructive fashion.

See Alex’s profile on Facebook.
*Note: You’ll need a Facebook login to view the profile.