Sierra Club's Ruth Sawyer talks public comments, climate advocacy, and local action

Fireside Chat with Ruth Sawyer of Sierra Club ⛰️

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes 

Ruth Sawyer (they/them) is a Climate and Clean Energy Organizer at Sierra Club who is passionate about using the power of community and local action to advance clean energy and the growing electrification movement. In this fireside chat, Ruth opens up about how we can use public comments to create change within our communities.

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  1. What’s Ruth’s experience of being an organizer for Sierra Club?
  2. What is a public comment and how does it relate to advocacy? 
  3. How can we use public comments to scale our impact? 
  4. What are the challenges and barriers to participating in a public comment? 

As solutions to climate change are growing within the clean energy and electricity space, Ruth emphasizes how it’s now more important now than ever to speak up about the issues we care about to help scale these solutions. 

What does being an organizer for Sierra Club entail? 

I began working at Sierra Club in early 2019. When I started, we were focused on transitioning our electricity grid to all clean and renewable power. We’re focused on this one particular coal plant that several of our utilities were using and had a big stake in. We were pressuring them to divest from this coal plant and move on to renewable sources of electricity. After I started, we passed some major legislation that committed all of those utilities in Washington State to not use coal starting in 2025. Since then, I’ve been in the climate, energy, and electricity world. 

There’s a plan to solve climate change—it’s pretty simple, but it’s also pretty hard. The plan is to make your electricity clean and renewable and electrify everything. 

I’ve been working on that second part of the equation by helping to clean up the electrical grid. I work with a lot of volunteers who get together, educate other people about what’s going on in the space, and get them involved. I also attend public comments for these decision-making bodies. Since I started this job, I’m surprised at how these decision-making processes are not like legislators. They’re not passing laws or city policies. They’re more like administrative bodies that are appointed by an elected official. They can also be elected, but at a very small scale like a school board or utilities commissioner. We go in front of them and give them the opportunity to hear what the public has to say.

What is a public comment? 

It’s a structured meeting where decision-makers are hearing from the public. There are all kinds of formats, but it’ll be a meeting or a section of a meeting dedicated to this. They’ll usually give you one or two minutes to speak. It’s sometimes longer, but it’s always good to be prepared in case you don’t have a lot of time. 

You go up and say your name, whether you’re a public citizen or with an organization, why you care about an issue, and what you want them to do. It depends on the particular venue—sometimes it’s helpful for everyone to say they’re with an organization, but research shows that it can be kind of counterintuitive for legislators. The research shows that when people are with an organization, they feel the impact more, but it depends on the situation. You can also say you’re a student, an engineer, or another different identity. 

How do these administrative bodies make decisions?

Many of them go with the precedent of what usually happens. You can imagine that a lot of these boards are hearing from organizations that have money and time to engage with electricity. A lot of those organizations are our electric and gas utilities. Those companies often have a lot of time and money to send people to engage, so they have a lot of power in the process. 

There’s also some nonprofit organizations that engage in this kind of stuff, but they’re pretty technical. When we were doing a lot of the work on coal, we were often disputing their numbers. These organizations were saying coal is cheaper than solar, but we were able to look at those numbers and say they’re using a 1950s-era cost estimate for solar that isn’t accurate anymore. The cost has gone down a lot. 

How do you choose where to make a public comment to have the most impact? 

So much of my job is bringing people to different types of meetings. There are hearings that are really strategic to comment on. Then, there are ones where it takes a bit of energy and effort to educate people on the context and what I’m asking them to do. 

For example, we’re currently focused on electrification. We asked ourselves: What’s a place that can have a big impact right now? We said buildings that are heating and cooling with gas are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Washington. There’s some ways to shift how we build buildings right now and where we could have a real impact on them. We’re looking for areas where comments and changing swing decision-makers would be the most impactful. 

We also want people to understand without having an engineering degree or four years of involvement in this process on what we’re asking for and why we’re asking for it. We were advocating for a statewide building to the Code Council. It’s one of those administrative bodies in the State who pass codes that are going to require clean electric heat pumps to be built. This is a statewide thing that’s going to have a huge impact. It’s equivalent to around one million cars being taken off the road. There are other ways of transitioning buildings to electricity, but this one doesn’t cost anyone anything. 

So, I think one way of answering the question of how we decide is to look at what’s going to be the most impactful and the most bang for the buck. Focus on where you can make the most impact as one person. 

Some other people ask how they can do something that meets the needs of our community if they have limited time. Ask yourself: Which group do I feel most comfortable in and most excited about getting to know the people in it? A lot of people end up specializing in one thing or another. 

How can we get people involved in a public comment? 

I think it’s really tricky to be able to show up to a bunch of public comments that are different. Look for what organizations are doing your type of work in your area, statewide, or even countrywide. I definitely know a lot of people who are pretty discouraged with countrywide and will only do it if they’re in a swing state or if they’re in a position to be impactful. But, you can also find organizations in your area that are doing campaigns you’d want to present. You can track that kind of stuff by joining the mailing lists of those organizations and seeing them lead up to a hearing or an event. I think the key is finding organizations that you trust vs. trying to join hundreds of mailing lists. Although depth and connection can be hard to find, it’s really worthwhile. 

Getting people out for public comments also depends on how big it is. We’ve been going to events this summer and talking to people about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That doesn’t necessarily get a lot of people out, but it helps us learn to talk about it with people who have never heard of it before. It also gets more of the public informed about it. 

We also often have prep meetings where I’ll do a training on what’s in a public comment, and then everyone can practice and give each other feedback. So, one strategy is telling people about it and helping them feel prepared for what’s going to happen. 

How can you use your time effectively when you have a lot to say in a public comment? 

We usually have talking points that are often broken down by clean codes. We have health-related codes because burning gas and buildings causes pollution that’s pretty bad for our health. We have climate codes, so we say burning gas and buildings emit this much methane every year, which impacts the front-line communities. 

We have different points that people can make. We ask them to focus on one and say why they care about that point. We ask everyone to reiterate the ask—like “I would like you to pass this” or “I would like you to do that”— but the talking points are pretty detailed. We ask everyone to add their story and their ‘why’ to it. 

I’ve been to sessions where the fossil fuel industry will recruit people to give comments, so they’ll often be on paid time. These paid commentators will have the same talking points, so you’ll have people get up and say the exact same thing over and over again. I don’t think that’s what the decision-makers like. They like us to be in that middle ground of being organized as a group, but also not repeating the same thing.

There’s an equity issue at play. How can we ensure that more people have a voice in these hearings?

I think the agencies have a responsibility and the bar right now is extremely low. It’s really frustrating. One of the issues I’ve been working on is utility affordability and making sure people can pay for electricity, especially low-income people and people with disabilities. We’re working with the agency in asking them to do better on utility affordability. 

The one bare minimum that agencies can do is make sure they have a clear time when public comments happen. Let people know exactly when they’re going to be called or have a 30-minute window. A lot of people can’t sit on a call for 5 hours waiting for their turn to speak. We also need to ask if these meetings are during working hours. People work all kinds of hours, but having them from 9 to 5 is tricky. I think it’s nice that we now have a hybrid version where some people can come in person or through the Internet. The internet is very accessible for some people, but still quite inaccessible for others. 

I’ve also seen some really bad translations on these meetings where someone who is calling in doesn’t speak English or doesn’t speak English very well. There was one meeting I was in where they had a translator, but the translator didn’t translate any instructions for when to speak, how to speak, or how to get off mute. The translator was only translating Spanish back to English when the person commented, but they couldn’t figure out when to comment. 

There’s also a whole other level where people are seeking assistance. A lot of these utilities are trying to get assistance to people, but they’re asking them to go to this complicated website. Some people don’t have Internet access or the website isn’t translatable. Even someone that speaks English and knows how to use technology sometimes can’t figure it out. 

We need to ask: How do we get feedback from people and go to them to help?  It’s better than assuming they’re able to come to us or that they’re able to have access to leave a comment. I definitely think the agencies need to be doing much better than where they are now. We each have a voice and it’s important to know how to use it. 

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"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
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"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

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