Meet climate change activist and UB alumna Jessica Ottney Mahar

greenland ice sheet.

BY GRACE GERASS Republished from UB Alumni

Release date: January 8, 2020

Alumna Jessica Ottney Mahar graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in English. Today, she works as the New York director of policy and strategy for the Nature Conservancy, where she shapes environmental policy and was instrumental in passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

When Jessica isn’t working hard to save the planet, she finds time to give back to her alma mater. During a recent visit to UB, she sat down with Sadie Kratt, a senior studying environmental geoscience and geographic information science. Sadie also serves as the environmental affairs director for the Student Association and as president of the environmental network club.

Watch the video or read the interview below to hear why Jessica is passionate about sustainability, how UB impacted her career and what it was like to help pass the most groundbreaking climate law in the nation.

Thank you for coming! To get started, can you tell me how you define sustainability? 

I think overall, sustainability is just a matter of living within the budget of what the resources can handle and not using more than the system can take. I think it depends on what system you're talking about, but what it comes down to is the impact of your use and your existence on the system within which you're living.

What first sparked your passion for environmental protection?

When I was little, my class had to do an assignment about our community. I chose to learn about the farm fields in my town being plowed over to build houses. It was the first time I thought about why something was happening and why it might be right or wrong. I ended up working with the Nature Conservancy, which is kind of full circle because that's where I work now. I adopted an acre of land for the project and learned that there were organizations really close to where I lived that focused on protecting the environment. Later, I went on to study political science and it made me realize I could use political systems and politics to save something I cared about. It all kind of came together at UB, actually.

You graduated from UB with a bachelor's degree in English. How'd you get into environmental advocacy and government relations?

That's a great question. I do a ton of writing in my position—advocacy is a lot about telling stories to compel people to do something—so a background in storytelling was really helpful. Plus, as an English major, I had to take several science classes that gave me an opportunity to think about things like earth science. 
 
I also did an internship with a New York State Assembly member, which introduced me to local environmental groups and city council members, taught me how state government worked and opened by eyes to how the community came together to solve issues here in Buffalo. 
 
At the Nature Conservancy, I work with a lot of academics and scientists who are doing applied science in the natural world, and my job is to translate their science for policymakers.  I think that a lot of my education here gave me a foundation to do that.

How else did your time at UB influence your career?

One of the best things about this campus is its size and diversity of the student population. I learned to relate to people who were different, which is the most important thing I can do in my job. When I'm working in politics, it's crucial to understand that people have different perspectives and points of view. And that doesn't make them right or wrong—it just makes us all different. Understanding difference was a big part of the culture here, and it's a big part of what I need to be able to do in my in my daily life.

I also appreciate the opportunity I had to take a track and run with it. I was able to explore different careers and have an internship that put me in the real world. It all gave me a better understanding of what I wanted to do after college.

Why is it important that universities like UB create and talk about their models for sustainability? 

There are so many opportunities for institutions like UB—and the entire SUNY system—to demonstrate solutions for sustainability. Things are going to look different with climate change, and universities are demonstrating how these changes are going to pan out. It’s incredibly important that UB continues to take that cutting-edge science and share it with people and communities because that type of innovation is exactly what the world needs right now.

What's it like to help shape environmental policy in Albany?

I feel like I have the best job in the world. I work with incredibly smart people inside the New York State Capitol and I get to work with the best team in the world at the Nature Conservancy. 

I’m also a mom with a young child. On a personal level, thinking about climate change is scary because if we don’t solve these issues, I’m not sure what will happen to my daughter. When I first started working, this job was the only thing I cared about. Now, the biggest thing I care about is my daughter—and she drives me every day. She makes me want to be better at what I do, and on the hard days, she’s the reason I keep going. At the end of the day, I think that being able to go all in at your job and work that hard is really fulfilling when you get to live a mission-driven life. I love that I get to do really great work with really amazing people, so I’m forever grateful that I get to be part of an institution like the Nature Conservancy.

Jess Mahar.

It was really exciting. There's been a lot of energy around passing a climate change law in New York for a number of years. When the election flipped the New York State Senate, it created a political opportunity where the new majority was interested in looking at the bill. The Nature Conservancy, along with other organizations, worked with stakeholders who were building that grassroots movement, new legislators, the governor's office and longstanding champions like the assembly chairman to create a package that was something everyone could support.

What we ended up with was the most ambitious climate policy in the nation. It sets the course for New York State to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and it creates a governance structure so that there's a public involvement and a stakeholder process to get us there. It also thinks about equity and climate justice, so the communities that have been bearing the brunt of pollution for generations will receive special attention, care and representation throughout this process. It's really exciting, but passing the bill was just the beginning. Now, we have huge amounts of work to do to begin the process of decarbonizing our economy in New York.

Why is it important for environmental activists to participate in government? 

I believe government is where change happens. Some people are skeptical that if they start to participate in government, they'll have to negotiate against themselves or give something up. That can be true, but it's also how we move large scale change. Taking community projects and scaling them up is how we will tackle climate change. And we can't do that without influencing government. We also need to influence the economy and the private sector, so it's really important that we have activists out there continuously fighting for policy change.

What can average people do every day to help make the planet safer?

Use less stuff. We are constantly intaking things that require a ton of energy and resources. The less we throw away and the less we use up, the better it is for the planet. Next time you want something, ask yourself if you really need it. Next time you want to throw something away, ask yourself if it can serve another purpose first. If you want to do one thing to help make the planet safer, think about how much you consume.

To learn more about Jessica's work at the Nature Conservancy, visit nature.org/ny

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

4. Quality Education: Promoting inclusive, quality education

13. Climate Action: Taking steps to combat climate change and its impacts 

16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promoting peace and justice with effective, accountable and inclusive institutions