Will Hackman is Reframing Climate Conversations to Make it Personal

There are many of us who say we’re passionate about the environment, but when put to the test, very few have taken it to the extreme Will Hackman has. As a conservation advocacy expert at The Pew Charitable Trusts for the past decade, he has been on the front lines of establishing real change.

In this role, he helps advance public policy solutions that make a difference against some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, such as domestic and international ocean conservation efforts, public lands conservation across the western U.S. and Alaska, and climate change.

But Hackman isn’t just a talking head. He’s seen firsthand the devastation caused by climate change, specifically, global warming. In 2005, while a student at Bradley, he volunteered at a disaster relief center in Waveland, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“For the first time in my life, I saw the personal face of climate change.”

A couple of years later, he experienced the ferocity of Mother Nature as a commercial crab fisherman in the Bering Sea off Alaska, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In January 2008, he bought a one-way ticket to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and walked the docks every day talking to the fishermen, trying to find a job. After about five days, he finally secured a spot as a deckhand.

He very quickly learned the dangers that come with the job and the physical toll it takes on your body. First felt were the extreme temperatures and windchill (which often dip well below zero) and the constant, voracious waves that rocked the boat and covered it with freezing water.

Compounding that were the physical requirements of working heavy machinery and wearing thin rubber gloves that would tear from using knives or from the crabs themselves. It all contributed to a pretty miserable environment.

“Basically, you’re always wet and everything hurts after a while — and you’re working around the clock,” Hackman said. “We worked so hard. But something happened that year where we just couldn’t seem to find the same level of crab that the crew typically found. I didn’t know this at the time, but climate change and warming ocean temperatures are shifting fish migration patterns. Perhaps we were seeing some of that then.

“It’s now widely viewed that climate change — in addition to overfishing — played a role in the dramatic and catastrophic shifts we saw happen just last season up there, when they actually had to close the entire Alaskan snow crab fishery due to an 80% collapse in the crab population. If that had happened the year I was there, it would have been devastating because that is the entire year’s paycheck for many people.”

His next big adventure — and likely just as dangerous in a different way — was moving to Washington, D.C., to try and put his Bradley international studies degree to good work. Hackman became a political fundraiser by working as a bartender and getting to know the players. This led to an unpaid internship on the campaign finance team for Illinois Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson. He did that for six months before he was offered a job as her finance assistant.

From there, he dove into the world of electoral politics working on campaigns in Madison, Wis., Boston and Canton, Ohio. During this time, Hackman quickly moved from finance assistant to campaign manager on a U.S. House race.

“Political fundraising and campaign management is very intense,” he said. “I was working 100 hours a week. It was like getting a graduate degree in American government.”

After four years, he was burnt out and ready to move on. Luckily, he happened upon the perfect opportunity.

The job description at Pew seemed to be written for him, phrased somewhere along the lines of, “Do you have a fishing industry background and are you tired of working on political campaigns?”

“Not many people could say they’ve done both of those things, but I could.”

At Pew, Hackman serves as a global environmental issue advocate. “In this role, I’m dedicated to an issue rather than a candidate. I’m helping to advance bi-partisan policies to make a meaningful difference against many of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change. My job is to work with and build coalitions, engage stakeholders, tell the stories from people impacted on the ground, educate, mobilize, and help protect nature and communities.”

Perhaps his biggest challenge is his recent work outside of his day-to-day at Pew as he tries to change the narrative around climate change, build more personal connections to the issue and reduce polarization. He also earned a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University in 2018, with a concentration in energy, environmental and climate change policy.

Last year, he delivered a TEDx talk called “The Future of Climate Change is Personal,” in which he outlines how to reframe our climate conversations.

“There is a problem with climate crisis messaging — to the extent it is getting through at all — it is driving too many to despair, apathy or polarization,” Hackman said. “We must provide an optimistic vision so people feel like they are working toward something and not that the world is ending. “It’s not motivating to tell people everything they’re doing is wrong. We all have a personal connection to the changing world around us, and I want people to understand this. It’s happening in all of our communities.”

Most importantly, he believes in the power of public policy to address large-scale issues.

“We need large-scale, institutional changes to solve climate change. Public policy is a critical tool in creating the framework for these changes. And, of course, elections determine which policies we create.

“The most important and simple thing people can do if they care about climate change is vote — at the local, state and national levels.”