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Finding Opportunity in Adversity at the “Think Tank” of the California State Government

August 7, 2020
Julia Osterman
MBA-MS in Environment and Resources ‘20
Couple hiking with a field, mountains, and trees in the background

Julia and her husband socially distancing in Sierra County

In an alternative universe, California has passed its original January budget with its most ambitious climate budget yet. Instead, we as a State are facing our collective COVID reality where the California government is grappling with a $54 billion deficit and reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction fund proceeds. As the Stanford Energy in California and the West intern at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) this summer, I’ve seen firsthand how, despite the collapse of climate funding and in the face of unimaginable challenges, the OPR team continues to press forward on California’s ambitious climate agenda and to look for opportunity in adversity.

OPR team members often refer to their organization as the “think tank” of the California state government. OPR leads the state’s long-range planning efforts and grapples with longer-term questions of how and where California should develop its economy in the future while balancing other State priorities such as climate resilience, carbon emissions reduction, social and environmental justice, transportation, affordable housing and more. OPR sits in the California Governor’s Office and in that role, facilitates cross-agency collaboration to advance unified action in the same direction, even in a time of scarcity. The variety of my day-to-day work reflects the diverse and broad mandate of OPR. As a recent graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources program, I’ve applied my business and environmental science background to projects related to post-COVID economic development that advances higher quality jobs, forest health and reduced wildfire risk as well as efforts to integrate climate risk into state investment and asset management decisions.

My first all-team policy meeting reflected the thoughtfulness, interdisciplinary mindset and big picture thinking that characterizes OPR. In this meeting, Debbie Franco, the Senior Advisor for Water and Rural Affairs, led the whole OPR team in an exercise to think through the way the pandemic is changing the way people live, work, learn, move and more. She challenged the group to think about new opportunities surfaced and inequities uncovered by this moment. Team members with backgrounds in urban planning talked about how the pandemic may reshape how we commute to work and help us to reimagine uses for city roads as they’re opened to pedestrians, dining and bikes. We talked about how rural communities may see renewed growth as city folks decide they’d rather work remotely and live near nature.

I’m experimenting with this new remote-working, rural lifestyle now. I’ve taken Zoom meetings with secretaries, deputies and staff from various agencies from a long-term rental in the Sierras as we’ve discussed California’s forest management challenge. Although I’m living a different reality than the one I’d originally expected in the State Capital, the supportive, welcoming culture and sharp, passionate people of OPR and the chance to advance action on critical issues in spite of the unanticipated challenges highlight the silver linings and opportunities that still exist. I feel extraordinarily privileged and honored to work with Kate Gordon and the rest of the OPR team to serve Californians this summer. The State Capital in my Zoom virtual background works just fine for now.