Commissioned Assignments in Environmental Policy

Article excerpt


This paper outlines the communication process surrounding a commissioned assignment in an upper-level technical writing class. The commissioned assignment reflects the new interdisciplinary model of technical communication for environmental policy embodied in contemporary international environmental agreements, particularly the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. The resultant environmental policy report demonstrates that the commissioned assignment process is an effective and innovative form of experiential/service-learning. This process teaches technical communication, integrates different disciplinary backgrounds to teach environmental policy, and addresses important social problems through university institutions.


The environmental challenges facing contemporary society are foreboding with perhaps the most serious threat coming from dangerous anthropogenic (human caused) interference with the climate system (Hansen, et al., 2005). Addressing these challenges requires not only more up-to-date knowledge of environmental problems and technical solutions, but new models for solving problems through education, policy and communication. In this respect, schools and universities have the opportunity and responsibility to lead society toward environmentally sustainable policies and practices (Uhl and Anderson 2001). Yet, most universities remain wedded to conventional models of education, policy and technical communication that constrain the powerful tools they offer for addressing environmental problems (Pearce and Russill, 2005). In particular, the ability of university students to impact environmental policy in meaningful ways and solve real world problems is often ignored (Pearce and Russill, 2003). Although precedents do exist for developing in-class and service learning assignments to address local environmental challenges, such as recycling (Gerth and Wilson, 1986); logging, tree planting, and "litterless lunches" (Fallis, 1991); land use and lake restoration (Gannon and Fairchild, 1983); greening university buildings (Pearce and Russill, 2003); and water safety (Ostroff, 1996), few address issues of environmental policy more generally. This paper outlines a technical communication process using commissioned assignments and experiential learning methods to develop a new model for teaching and involving students in environmental policy.


Global climate change is among the most difficult of a new kind of environmental problem: those characterized by uncertainty, complexity and consequences spanning vast geographical and generational domains. Such challenges are no longer easily perceptible, regionally delimited, or politically tractable in the way environmental issues were in the 1970s and 1980s, nor are these older policy approaches able to address contemporary phenomena adequately (Grove-White, 2005, p. 21-22). International environmental agreements and policy tools have slowly developed to begin addressing this novel situation and, in this respect, the response to global climate change has provided an innovative approach for refiguring the relationship between technical expertise and public participation. In particular, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is responsible for providing quality scientific assessments on climate change through peer-review, is an innovative mechanism for scientific assessment by democratic consensus in service of global policy agreements (Agrawala, 1998). Still, we need to ask as Robin Grove-White (2005) does, "How well equipped are our public institutions--including our educational systems--for such developments? And more immediately, how well equipped are we as citizens for purposeful involvement in such processes of 'engagement'" (p. 23)?

To address global climate destabilization the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change called for the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations (UN, 1992). …