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Common Sense in Kansas

FINISHING TOUCHES Workers at the Siemens factory in Hutchinson, Kansas, complete assembly of a wind turbine’s rotor hub.
Fighting climate change doesn’t necessarily mean arguing about it. Appealing to heartland values of patriotism, thrift, and local pride may do the job just fine.

The Climate and Energy Project was born on a dare. Toward the end of 2006, Nancy Jackson and her father-in-law, Wes Jackson, the noted geneticist and founder of the Land Institute, squared off across the kitchen table. Their animated discussion (as Wes calls it -- Nancy calls it an argument) concerned a proposed massive expansion of Holcomb Station, a coal-fired power plant in western Kansas, which they both opposed. That wasn’t the issue. Wes had just returned home from testifying at a public hearing in Topeka on the proposal, and he was despondent. The room had been packed with plant supporters bused in from Holcomb, six hours west of Topeka. Wes was convinced that these vocal fans of mercury-spewing, sulfur-soaked, carbon-intensive energy production were pawns of Sunflower Electric, the utility seeking the expansion permit. Nancy disagreed. "These people are not crazy, they’re not stupid, and they haven’t been duped," she said. "They just don’t have many choices."

Sunflower’s plan was to build three new generators, altogether expected to supply 2,100 megawatts of electricity (enough to power more than 1.5 million homes) while releasing 11 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year (nearly twice the amount of CO2 emitted annually by all the motor vehicles in Kansas). Almost all of this energy was slated to be exported to other states. The battle over the plant’s fate was escalating just as the specter of global warming was reaching critical mass nationally, which is to say two things: documented evidence of the effects of climate change had gone mainstream, and disputes over the legitimacy of that evidence were proliferating apace.

Western Kansas, its population dwindling and its economy lagging far behind that of other parts of the state, desperately needed jobs. The expansion would provide them. Plant proponents resented meddlesome outsiders, including -- and perhaps especially -- interlopers from communities in eastern parts of the state such as Lawrence or Topeka or Kansas City. Confronted with the passion of plant supporters, Wes saw genuflection to entrenched corporate interests and craven disregard for the fate of the planet. Nancy saw opportunity. Here was a chance to end one conversation (some called it a harangue) and begin another. The topic did not have to be climate change. As Nancy saw it, the subject needed to be jobs and opportunities linked to non-extractive energy production. Kansas, in particular western Kansas, was teeming with wind potential. Wasn’t it time to start harvesting this -- and the jobs it would bring -- in earnest?

Nancy was convinced that if the focus could be shifted, the ideological debate would lose much of its potency. This is where the dare came in. "Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?" Wes asked her. "To quit your job and make it happen?"

"In a heartbeat," she said. And thus began the Climate and Energy Project (CEP).

Once the first major grant was in, she resigned her post as director of development at the University of Kansas’s Spencer Museum of Art and College of Liberal Arts and threw herself into her new venture.

NRDC: Midwestern Values

Rebecca Stanfield
Senior energy policy advocate in NRDC’s Midwest office, with 18 years of experience in advancing clean energy policies at the state and federal levels.

The Midwest has been devastated by drought this year. Do you think midwesterners are making the link between the blistering heat, climate change, and the energy issues NRDC is trying to tackle?

Yes, I think so. National polls taken this summer found that 70 percent of Americans believe the climate is changing. More important, when you add together the people who support clean energy to curb climate change and those who do so for economic development, national security, or pocketbook reasons, there is an emerging consensus that we should move toward a clean energy economy. The midwestern drought cries out for leadership from the region’s governors on energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions, although it remains to be seen whether they will seize the moment to do more than just seek relief funding to help farmers in the short term.

Read the rest here.

To be clear, she did not sequester the climate discussion because she thought the topic was expendable. On the contrary. Only months before her fateful talk with her father-in-law she’d read the landmark cri de coeur on the subject, written by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies climatologist Jim Hansen and published in July 2006 in the New York Review of Books. She had a master’s degree in environmental history; she believed global warming was "the defining challenge of our generation."  But, she explains, "If I have to choose between purity of intent and constancy of action, I choose constancy of action hands-down."

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? looks at how emotional appeals to a group’s fixed cultural or political predilections can persuade individuals to support policies that run counter to their rational self-interest. CEP would turn this notion on its head, showing that by appealing to rational self-interest citizens can be moved to engage in activities usually associated with views they reject. The idea is to erode that association. "It’s about genuinely listening to our audience and then engaging on their terms," says Jackson. "It’s not about 'framing.' It’s about honoring a different way of knowing."

Out of the gate the project’s small staff conducted a series of focus groups in Wichita and Kansas City designed to bypass assumptions and dig deeper into Kansans’ thoughts about the future of energy. Some results were unsurprising. Positions on climate change pretty much lined up with political party affiliations, which in turn lined up with favored news sources. But further probing showed that even some climate-change skeptics were driving hybrids and switching to CFL lightbulbs; that heartland conservatives worried about energy security and liked the idea of developing alternatives to imported oil; that climate beliefs notwithstanding, pride and patriotism produced in some a wish to lead the world in fuel-efficient homes and vehicles; that stewardship of the earth was a core Christian value for many; that thrift was an abiding principle shared by all.

These results were golden. Jackson’s team jumped in with the clarity and ambition that could only have accompanied a belief that the findings were far more than theoretical talking points. Six years on, the range of CEP’s initiatives suggests the organization was on to something.

* * *

Jackson has small bones, finely etched features, and green, comprehending eyes. A compelling speaker, she nimbly latches big ideas to manageable, prescriptive tasks. In the summer of 2007 Jackson delivered one of her first talks as director of the project to an assembly of mayors brought together by the Reno County Growth Coalition, in south-central Kansas. Her topic was the economic potential of wind. The talk was persuasive enough to inspire the coalition’s director, Dorothy Barnett, to form the Reno County Wind Energy Task Force. Assimilating the advice of wind experts, economists, and legislators from around the state, the task force staged a series of high-profile forums to educate Reno County citizens, landowners, and business leaders on the untapped potential of wind production. For its efforts the team collected the 2008 Energy Education Recognition Award from the governor, and Barnett and Jackson fell into a robust collaboration.

The ground was thus seeded when Siemens Energy went shopping in early 2008 for a heartland location for its proposed nacelle and hub factory. The nacelle is the piece of a wind turbine that houses the generator components; it mounts to the hub, which anchors the blades. The unit is about the size of a school bus, though if you peer up at one from the bottom of a 260-foot turbine shaft, it looks to be no larger than an egg. Hutchinson, Reno County’s largest city (population 42,000), courted Siemens with a measure of poise and tenacity that underscored its resolve: the town was primed to serve Siemens’ corporate and logistical needs. Plus, it sorely needed the jobs. Amid fierce competition from the likes of Sioux City, Iowa, Hutchinson convinced Siemens of statewide support for wind and likewise persuaded top Kansas energy executives to back the project. Barnett added crucial converts to the cause, among them the Reno County Chamber of Commerce president, who ultimately crafted the contract with Siemens.

The company opened its spit-and-polish LEED Gold–certified plant in Hutchinson’s Salt City Business Park in December 2010, the only nacelle and hub factory in Kansas. The city diverted a spur of railway track to penetrate the factory wall so that completed nacelles could be transferred directly from the assembly line to the flatbed of a railcar. The facility has brought 400 jobs and a fervor for wind to a sleepy Kansas town otherwise best known for its salt mine. "Jobs-wise it’s the biggest thing that’s happened to Hutchinson in my lifetime," says Barnett, who has lived in or near Hutch, as it’s known locally, since she was 10.

In the fall of 2008, as the Siemens deal was in process, Jackson wooed Barnett to join CEP as director of energy and transmission. Two years later, Jackson stepped down as executive director to resume her affiliation with the University of Kansas, ceding the reins to Barnett (though Jackson retains her post as board chairwoman). Barnett is an organizational powerhouse to Jackson’s conceptual muse; both are passionate on the issues and bursting with ideas. The two keep in regular touch as Barnett guides Jackson’s brainchild through its developmental paces.

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Kim Larsen is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Discover, the Village Voice, and other publications.