Stanford University
Martha Roberts lecturing at podium.

Environmental Defense Fund lawyer Martha Roberts lectures on the current state of climate law at a Boston Law School symposium in fall 2017. Photo credit: Reba Saldanha

Stanford Earth alumna leverages law for clean air

As a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, Martha Roberts, Earth Systems ’04, MS ’06, advocates for federal policies that protect us from pollution.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockJanuary 31, 2018

While the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back key environmental protections pose near-term challenges, Earth Systems alumna Martha Roberts takes the long view.

Roberts advocates for national clean air and climate change policies as an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization with over 2 million members and supporters.

“We have a long bipartisan history in America of working to protect core values of clean air, clean water, healthy communities,” she said. “And we’re going to keep working to make sure that tradition continues.”

Thinking across disciplines

Roberts’ journey into her current career can be traced back to her freshman year at Stanford, when she took the course Introduction to Earth Systems (Earth Systems 10) in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) to fulfill a natural science undergraduate requirement.

“I took Earth Systems 10 as a distribution requirement and I just thought it was so cool,” she said, referring to Stanford’s general education breadth requirements. “It explores all these foundational ways that the world works and scratches below the surface of the different environmental challenges we face on the planet to grapple with potential solutions.”

The course inspired Roberts to earn her bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems, which included an immersive experience in Washington, D.C., through the Bing Stanford in Washington program. She returned to campus in 2005 to complete her coterminal master’s degree in Earth Systems. Roberts still draws on the systems-based scientific approach she learned at Stanford Earth to tackle the complex field of environmental law, she said.

“I’m not doing the modeling or developing the statistics, but I need to be able to digest the technical context of an issue quickly and then translate and communicate it effectively for many different audiences,” Roberts said. “Pretty much every day I have to listen carefully, learn a bunch of information, distill it down, figure out what matters, communicate next steps, and repeat.”

She may make it sound simple, but understanding an arena at the intersection of science, technology, law, and politics is no small feat. At EDF, Roberts has focused on policies that address pollution from the transportation and power sectors, including national clean car standards as well as the Clean Power Plan, the first nationwide policy to address carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

“If you look over the course of decades, it’s very encouraging – the U.S. has actually had amazing success, considering we got rid of lead in gasoline, we’ve made major strides in reducing air polluting, tackling acid rain, and addressing the ozone hole.”

“My job is to articulate and forcefully advocate to the administration that we have the technologies to solve clean air and climate challenges now, and to highlight the impacts of inaction on people’s health and well-being,” Roberts said.

The most important skills she uses in her job include nimble thinking, good writing, clear-eyed analysis, persuasion, resilience, and a sense of optimism, she said.

“A lot of my job is staying informed about what is going on in different sectors, identifying and understanding the latest trends, and getting out and communicating with a broad range of partners and stakeholders,” she said.

Another quality Roberts uses to navigate her field’s ever-changing landscape: patience.

“If you look over the course of decades, it’s very encouraging – the U.S. has actually had amazing success, considering we got rid of lead in gasoline, we’ve made major strides in reducing air polluting, tackling acid rain, and addressing the ozone hole,” she said. “My work now is to support common-sense solutions that can help us continue to innovate and make progress in solving climate change and addressing remaining air pollution challenges.”

Real-world applications

Roberts recalled learning about how Stanford Earth – especially its Earth Systems Program – emphasized a cross-disciplinary approach to solving problems.

The school’s message asserted that today’s challenges no longer fit into just one discipline, so focusing on one discipline would leave you inadequately situated to come up with a reasonable solution, she said.

“I remember Earth Systems leadership pitching the importance of a multidisciplinary understanding. I have to admit, I think as an undergrad I thought more about the fun ESys barbeques,” said Roberts, recalling the program’s regular social events. “But now that I’m out in the real world, I see it’s totally true – I’m always applying a multidisciplinary approach.”

After earning her master’s degree in Earth Systems in 2006, Roberts accepted a position as an economic policy analyst at EDF. The experience inspired her to go to law school, and she earned a JD at New York University. During an interview for a job following law school, Roberts said she framed her qualifications on the basis of her Earth Systems background.

“In this cross-cutting job, where I had to be nimble and able to understand a lot of different moving targets at one time, it was extremely valuable that I had a rigorous multidisciplinary background, so that I wouldn’t just take one approach to a problem and not see the other dimensions of it,” Roberts said.

As a result, she landed the job as a policy advisor to the deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013. While there, she learned from senior EPA leaders about how to support programs and policies that achieve tangible progress on the ground. She returned to EDF in 2015.

Clear communication

Through blogs, alerts to members, and connecting with strategic partners, Roberts constantly works on improving communication to keep up with policymakers and the public.

“I try to get my voice out into the public – but it’s just as important to work with others and empower them to use their voice and tell their stories,” she said.

Roberts leads by example online, sharing her opinions about EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s accountability in a Washington Post letter to the editor, as well as his lack of transparency and the implications of revoking the Clean Power Plan in EDF publications. She speaks about her work to news reporters and through social media.

“There are a lot of opportunities to make progress – even right now when we face major headwinds at the federal level,” Roberts said. “I feel incredibly lucky to do the work that I do.”

Roberts lives in Washington, D.C., where she enjoys hiking and exploring the city’s cultural institutions. She serves on Stanford Earth’s advisory board.

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