Q&A: English Major-Turned-Business Grad Student Embraces the Environment

Megan Routbort headshot

Megan Routbort did her externship at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Megan Routbort is a master’s degree student in the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, specializing in business analytics, who has a passion for the health of the natural environment.

A “double-’Hoo,” she graduated last year from the College of Arts & Sciences with bachelor’s degrees in the English distinguished majors program and the Global Environments and Sustainability Program. As both a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar, Routbort graduated in three years and chose to spend her fourth year as a master’s degree student.

During UVA’s January term, she participated in the Environmental Extern Program, a job-shadowing mentoring initiative sponsored by the UVA Environmental Resilience Institute with the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and the UVA Career Center. The externship exposes students from any discipline to career opportunities by matching them with workplace mentors located within environmental agencies and organizations in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The mentors offer their insights and help students learn about career options and areas of study.

Routbort spent a week at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, or C2ES, a non-profit environmental organization in Arlington that teams with policymakers, businesses and other stakeholders to tackle climate and energy challenges.

Routbort discusses her externship with UVA Today.

Q. What did you gain from the externship at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions?

A. First and foremost, I received an opportunity to work hands-on in the climate policy space before I graduate. The center’s mission of advancing strong policy and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy and strengthen resilience to climate impacts aligns with my personal goal of working in a centrist space on climate policy.

I also got the opportunity to see my academic passions played out in the policy sphere. My academic interests center largely around questions of environmental management. There are two things I’m primarily interested in: the theoretical and pragmatic components of confronting climate change in the 21st century.

On the theoretical side, I’m interested in how the way we talk about climate affects community action; while writing my undergraduate English thesis, I spent a lot of time reading into literature about how anthropocentric narratives shape our treatment of the natural world. Reading into the emerging genre of climate fiction, I explored the imaginative possibilities of a world not unlike our own permanently affected by a different climate and sought to identify authors who are using their pens as powerful tools for spreading messages about the immediacy and importance of confronting global climate change.

On the pragmatic side, I’m interested in how we can make policy and business decisions that promote a more ecocentric framework of thought: one that accurately reflects the inherent value of nature and its beauty in the marketplace. As an undergrad, I had a Harrison Research Grant that I used to write my capstone on the business of saving nature within the National Park Service.

During my research grant, I traveled through Yosemite, and while I was undoubtedly blown away by the beauty of the natural landscape, I was also shocked by the after-effects of human visitation: the piles of trash outside of every bathroom, the graffiti on ancient rock faces and the steady stream of pollution coming from giant RVs. I want to help think about how humankind can still enjoy and appreciate natural spaces like Yosemite without destroying them in the process, balancing the business, human and natural interests.

The best part about working at C2ES was seeing these concerns played out outside of the classroom, watching associates deftly navigate complicated political situations and balancing the concerns of various climate stakeholders, all in the service of creating a country and planet where we accurately value nature and are acutely aware of the urgency of cultivating environmental resilience.

Q. What did you do during your week at C2ES?

A. I spent the week researching and reviewing companies’ annual reports, investor letters, etc. to determine what the S&P 100 are doing to become more climate-resilient. I looked at the various ways that they disclose these kinds of risks to investors, how this may influence financial markets, etc.

This really appealed to me because the rhetorical strategies that companies use to discuss climate risk to investors vary across sectors, and it’s interesting to consider how companies in both the U.S. and the world are preparing for climate change.

Q. What did you find?

A. I found that talking about climate in a business context is an inherently complicated issue. While I was definitely disappointed by the lack of culpability that some businesses accepted for the role they played in fomenting and causing climate change, I was really energized to see that some of the world’s biggest companies are thinking about the ramifications of climate change in productive ways and are rapidly preparing for a changing political, business and physical environment.

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For example, I learned that Swiss RE, a global reinsurance giant, has recently deployed a novel new product insuring coral reefs.

This product really energizes me because it’s a good example of what can happen when corporate social responsibility combines with fiscal motivations to create better outcomes for all.

From my perspective as a former English major, it was also essential to see how the ways that companies are talking about climate change differ across sectors and levels of activity. For example, a lot of people refer to climate preparation under the broader umbrella of “resilience” – things like “supply chain resilience” and “competitive advantage in preparing for natural disaster” are a lot easier for people to stomach and accept than terms like “anthropogenic global warming” because of the heated political history here.

I don’t want to, in my professional career, exclude humankind from culpability for what we’ve done to the planet, but I do think that it’s better to focus on progress than blame moving forward; we need to do what it takes to actually prepare for climate change and to cut back on our carbon emissions rather than dancing around questions of whose fault it is and sitting in inertia before it’s too late for us to do anything.

I also worked on research of state- and local-level policies on climate change and emergency preparedness, creating a database for C2ES that tracked statewide policies. This drove home the importance of the creation of comprehensive climate action plans –something that a lot of states lack (and we don’t have a federal one), and something we really need. C2ES is working on understanding these programs and pushing for them.

Another thing I found was that lots of states have highly detailed plans for all sorts of natural disasters like heat waves, droughts, earthquakes, etc. Why don’t we have them for sea level rise, for temperature change, for climate change at large? This is a question I want to tackle moving forward.

Q. How did your mentor help you?

A. One of the most energizing components of my externship was the way mentors at C2ES immediately connected me with other resources of environmentally oriented individuals in the D.C. area. I was really astounded by the breadth and depth of resources in the city; I learned about organizations ranging from the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment (which I’ll definitely be joining!) to the more casual “Green Drinks” group – just a group of environmentally conscious individuals in the city who meet up for happy hour.

Another thing that my mentor really drove home for me was the importance of being flexible in your career. This resonated with me, because initially I thought I was going to pursue more graduate school immediately after my McIntire degree, but that plan got diverted when I realized I needed more time to drill down on what I wanted to focus on (law, business, environmental management) and that work experience would really help me see if it’s possible to balance a career in business (management consulting) with my environmental goals. My mentor actually came to work at C2ES from a very roundabout path – real estate law introduced her to particular quirks of urban planning like landfill regulation that really piqued her environmental interest.

Q. What are your career plans?

A. I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the environmental space but wasn’t sure what form that would take.

Growing up in Houston, Texas, I saw firsthand how environmental degradation negatively impacted the life of our community – particularly during Hurricane Harvey and the persistent floods of my adolescence, when the bayou near my home ran replete with trash and litter, and extensive damage forced my family out of my childhood living space.

I’ve worked for the Virtual Student Federal Service for the National Park Service and interned at the Piedmont Environmental Council, a Virginia-based charitable environmental organization headquartered in Warrenton.

Long term, I want to use societal structures like business and legal frameworks to help prepare the world for climate change. I’m starting my career next year as a business analyst at McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. I’m hoping that the experience I gain there solving problems from companies with all sorts of orientations and affiliations will equip me with the toolkit I need to work with diverse stakeholders.

I’m not sure what the future holds after McKinsey, but I know that whatever it is, it will involve the environment somehow. The planet is my passion, and cultivating environmental resilience drives everything I do.

I think, though, that it’s important for people to recognize that environmentalism takes many forms; not everyone works to save the planet by sitting in trees or going completely carbon-neutral, but absolutely every person on this earth can do something to leave the planet better than they found it.

Q. Where are you from originally, and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A. I’m from Houston, Texas and love taking advantage of Virginia’s natural beauty by running and biking around Charlottesville. I have worked for the National Park Service, served on the University Judiciary Committee for four years (where I’m currently the vice chair for trials), served as the vice president of the Jefferson [Literary and Debating] Society, and served as co-chair of Student Council’s Sustainability Committee.

My favorite thing to do in my spare time is to teach indoor cycling classes at Zoom Cville in Charlottesville. I also love reading, particularly novels about climate and the environment that were the subject of my undergraduate English thesis. Some of my favorite novels are Margaret Atwood’s “Maddadam” series and “The Water Knife” by Paolo Baciagalupi.

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