The unglamorous work of change at the local level
I arrived here too late to catch the whole day today, but I did see some people presenting work from Eastern Europe, Sweden, Connecticut, Harvard, and Cambridge, Mass. It was a bit of a random grab bag, but these are all people working close to the ground in local communities — rather than, say, talking about Perfect Pony Plans like we do on this site (guilty!) — and a few common themes emerged:
- Just about everyone who’s spoken so far has spent a good chunk of time talking about financing. It’s not the sexiest subject, but it’s a huge barrier for anyone trying to create action. The woman from the UN economic committee had set up a special fund; the woman from Harvard had set up a special fund; other folks were talking about setting up public/private funds to compensate for cash-strapped local governments. Everyone’s struggling to get money that can be deployed in a timely way without too many bureaucratic strings attached. It’s a little crazy — virtually all the projects being discussed have a healthy return, but still, just because something’s a good investment doesn’t mean there’s money for it.
- Another thing that’s come up again and again: trust. The woman from Harvard described the dynamic well: we’re often told that people are averse to change, but what they’re really averse to is instability and risk. If you can manage change in a larger framework of institutional stability, people thrive on it. They love banding together to do good things. But they have to trust that you have their best interests at heart and that you aren’t risking their jobs or livelihoods. Building trust is a long and painstaking process and there’s no shortcutting it. (The green community should ponder whether they’re trusted by the American people, and how they might build trust.)
- Real change almost always happens because of individuals who are energetic and assertive, even obsessive, and keep pushing. Even huge changes can often be traced back to a few individuals. On the bright side, that means that everyone — including you! — is capable of moving the needle on these things. On the dark side, what happens when the charismatic individuals move on? One of the trickiest parts of this is institutionalizing changes, weaving them into management and accountability structures that outlast their authors.
- Everyone loves renewables, but they don’t play a huge role. The two big non-fossil players that keep coming up are efficiency and biomass. Biomass is a huge part of every plan I heard about. We better hope it can be done right, because it’s the only immediate, viable alternative in some of these places.
- Not a single person mentioned prices on carbon. Everyone’s talking about investments that could be profitable now, if they can just be put together. On the bright side, there’s plenty of stuff that qualifies, even without a carbon tax or cap. On the dark side, lots of stuff that sounds great in practice turns out to be a bitch to actually pull off through the maze of bureaucracies, regulations, misaligned incentives, and inaccessible funding.
It’s this plodding, unglamorous work at the local level where things really happen, and the closer you get, the more you realize how much sheer cussedness it takes.
Tomorrow, we’re headed out to take a look at a district biomass heating plant and some other local renewable facilities. Field trip! Should be fun.