To step into a leadership role in clean energy and climate solutions, we need to learn from those in the vanguard and identify opportunities for wider adoption, or needs for mid-course corrections. For the public to effectively engage in decisions about our state’s future, they need to be informed and have the resources to think critically about the challenges and choices we will face. Education and communications about climate and energy topics will be essential.
The issues and choices inherent in the climate and energy challenge are vast, and the perspectives and interests of the people affected are diverse. We therefore need to foster an inclusive public conversation that is grounded in economic and environmental realities; responsive to shared values of fairness, freedom, responsibility, and sustainability; and productive of individual and collective choices for a secure and abundant future for all.
Status & Strategies
As we sought out energy innovators in Wisconsin, we found them using a diverse range of strategies and practices from the farm field to corporate headquarters. There are many Wisconsin individuals and organizations that are charting a different path—approaching climate change and energy issues holistically. Their efforts represent a cultural or paradigm shift that goes beyond mere isolated improvements in conservation, efficiency, or energy sources. These individuals and organizations represent pragmatic 21st-century business models with the kind of sound, far-sighted practices that underpin sustainability.
When we looked at attributes of leaders in sustainable and renewable energy, we found some common threads:
- Corporate or organizational culture that embraces sustainability in principle and practice.
- Concerted effort to establish baselines and regularly measure gains in energy efficiency and reduction of carbon footprint.
- Conservation and efficiency across products and processes, such as co-conservation strategies for water and materials, and full-cycle stewardship from source materials to ultimate re-use.
- Commitment to continual learning and innovation.
- Creative public-private partnerships, where public investments are leveraged to spur advances in technology, productivity, and community goals as well as to offset initial costs in new technologies.
- Pride in communicating their accomplishments and eagerness to tell their story of sustainability to other businesses, communities, or institutions.
This combination of attributes provides a practical toolbox of practices that can underpin our efforts to mainstream clean energy development and adoption in Wisconsin. These are not only good business practices, they are a way to define and brand Wisconsin as an innovative, sustainable, clean-energy place in which to live and conduct business.
Home to John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, and other pioneers of the environmental movement, Wisconsin has long placed a priority on environmental education, ethics, and literacy. Environmental education is a lifelong learning process that contributes to an informed and involved citizenry, able to take action to help ensure an ecologically and economically sustainable environment.
Our state’s diverse natural resources and mixed-use rural and natural areas have exposed generations of Wisconsin families to the outdoors. Our agricultural history has kept much of the population in touch with the state’s ecosystems and natural cycles. Wisconsin is also home to countless nature centers, urban ecology centers, gardens, parks, and museums that play an important role in environmental education, working closely with schools and the public to provide hands-on environmental experiences for all ages. These facilities connect visitors with the natural world in ways that often cannot be replicated in the backyard or classroom. Maintaining these organizations and Wisconsin’s collective environmental ethic is imperative.
Environmental education has long been a part of the state’s formal education systems. In 1935, Wisconsin became the first state to require that teacher certification in science and social studies include “adequate instruction in the conservation of natural resources.” Beginning in the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature required all school districts in the state to integrate environmental education into curriculum plans at all grade levels.
However, no standards for environmental education have yet been explicitly embedded into Wisconsin’s curricular framework. Some teachers and schools have found it increasingly challenging to incorporate 21st-century environmental literacy—encompassing complex concepts of globalization, energy, technology, and climate change—into curriculum currently dominated by assessments in math and reading.
To assist teachers, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and environmental education partners authored a plan to support development of pre-K to 12th grade student environmental literacy through field experiences and teacher professional development. Resources like this will be important as schools, teachers, parents, environmental organizations, and legislators work together to put formal and non-formal structures and supports in place to advance the environmental literacy of current and future generations of Wisconsin students.
Higher education is also doing its part to produce graduates who understand the importance of living and working in a sustainable way. One example is the UW–River Falls (UWRF) Kinnickinnic Project, a campus-wide effort to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. Faculty members initiated the project after attending a leadership workshop hosted by the Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in 2011, and later developing an AASHE Sustainability Curriculum.
Nearly forty Sustainability Faculty Fellows, representing all UWRF colleges, participated in a similar annual workshop within the first three years of the project to explore environmental, social, and economic components of sustainability issues. These Faculty Fellows commit to infusing both concepts and practices of sustainability into their courses, whatever the topics, and have en- acted curricular changes in courses from account- ing to biology to education to theater. The project provides a community of practice for faculty, creates a greater awareness of how sustainability pertains across disciplines, and fosters dialogue among colleagues and students about local, national, and global sustainability issues.
It is increasingly urgent to arm our state’s current and future generations with the tools needed to comprehend, grapple with, and solve complex climate and energy problems. Sustainability education should be explicit in addressing climate and energy issues and preparing students for incorporating green innovation, new technologies, and sustainable approaches into their lives and careers.
Ongoing efforts by media, government, business, and community and civic organizations are important to raise public awareness and encourage climate and energy-smart practices in homes, businesses and industries, farms, and communities.
State and local government can educate citizens about energy and climate issues and inform them of related policies. They can provide tips or institute programs on what individuals and households can do to conserve energy or to prepare for climate change impacts (e.g., EnAct, a community program that provides guidelines for reducing household environmental impacts). Like businesses, governmental agencies can and should publicize their own clean energy and climate adaptation initiatives in order to share best practices and encourage others to do likewise. Both governments and businesses can institute workplace programs that encourage employees to make energy-saving changes in the office and at home (e.g., Cool Choices, a workplace-based program that offers fun and social incentives for adopting a sustainable lifestyle).
Faith communities of all sorts can practice as well as teach what their traditions have to say about our ethical responsibility to care for people and other forms of life by exercising wise stewardship of natural resources. They, together with social service and advocacy organizations, can help ensure that the interests of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our communities are protected and promoted by energy policies and practices.
All of these institutions can take advantage of the growing body of research and literature on how to communicate effectively about environmental, social, and public health issues in ways that connect with people’s concerns and values and promote more environmentally responsible behaviors and attitudes. It has been shown that people are more likely to adopt conservation practices when they have some assurance that those practices will work, especially when they see others like themselves involved, such as a similar type of business, or a community in a similarly rural or urban setting.
Wisconsin households and businesses try new technologies or adopt new practices based on available information, on their own observations, and on what seems “normal.” It is critical here to realize that norms can shift over time and that everyone can help (or hinder) that shift. When schools across the state put theory into practice and demonstrate environmental, climate, and energy literacy not just within the classroom walls but through the design of the school buildings and the management of the school grounds, the shift begins. And when industries, businesses, and communities surrounding students and their families do the same, the shift is reinforced and is on its way to the new normal.
In Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, most of the public schools are heated and cooled with geothermal systems, which are much more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems. For students in Fort Atkinson, geothermal technology is normal; some students will graduate from high school never attending a school that is heated any other way. Similarly, for decades it was normal in Wisconsin for households to opt for high efficiency furnaces, even though our neighbors in Minnesota and Michigan were buying much less efficient units. In that case, contractor education and merchandise stocking that included more efficient practices helped shift the market in our state, saving households millions of dollars in heating costs. Leaders across the state have a major role in helping to reshape what is normal in Wisconsin.
At the widest level, we need not only to formulate new public energy policies but also to promote new social norms and expectations for individual and collective behavior in all areas of society. We will need to use existing channels and also create new public forums for constructive, civil conversations and deliberations that avoid, to the extent possible, partisan polarization and ideological gridlock.
The obstacles are great, but there are steps we can take: identifying and making use of trusted nonpartisan groups who are known to create safe spaces for the purpose of civil dialogues; practicing and promoting norms for respectful, constructive conversation in the media and public forums; employing best practices and well-grounded research for framing issues and facilitating discussions in ways that promote thoughtful democratic deliberation.
Resources in Sustainable Business Practices
- Cool Choices
- EnAct Wisconsin
- Small Business Alliance - Sustainable Business Practices
- SustainDane - MPower Business
- Wisconsin Business Alliance - Resource Conservation
- Wisconsin Green Tier Program
- Wisconsin Green Masters Program
- Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council