Per Capita Davis: The power of leadership in moving us forward

By From page A3 | July 18, 2013

A conversation I often have with myself is whether it’s more effective for someone concerned about climate change to focus on “upstream” policies and actions or to instead encourage and incite individual actions. By “upstream,” I mean policies such as increasing mpg standards for vehicles. This is basically a top-down approach and doesn’t require any specific action or change in behavior on the part of the individual consumer.

These “upstream” actions can result in huge and measurable progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s a counter argument that this approach — by not asking us as individuals to actually do anything to increase energy efficiency in our homes, businesses and vehicles — may undermine long-term efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in at least two ways.

First, not focusing on and encouraging individual actions weakens the collective public support and understanding that underpins enactment of strong upstream actions. Second, top-down solutions can only get us so far; in the end we will all need to adapt our behaviors and we should get started right away.

I suppose the answer is that this is not an either-or choice, and we need to go forward both bottom-up and top-down.

A recent experience highlights an additional option. Not that it wasn’t there before, but seeing it in action reinforced for me the importance of a third level, sort of a middle-ground approach: leadership. A leader of any organization, large or small, can make a huge difference.

A friend (more about him in a minute) who works for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, introduced me to efforts initiated by that department under the leadership of its director, Charlton Bonham, who tasked his entire organization to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all its functions and activities in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Central to this effort was the creation of a work group, given strong support and encouragement from the executive office, that produced a comprehensive set of guidelines for employees promoting more efficient transportation, building energy use, purchasing, increased recycling, reduced water use and reduction in the use of paper in conducting the department’s business.

It is in this last category where Davis resident Crilly Butler, a senior information systems analyst with the department, and in my book a local climate hero, got involved. He was (is) the leader of the “Paper to Electronic Form Migration Project.” The department’s many forms and documents were available in an electronic format, but using them required that the form be filled out online and then printed so the filler-outer could sign the form. The employee would then make a copy for him/herself, send the original to a supervisor, who would also sign and make a copy, and so on up and along the chain of communication, with Records Retention eventually also saving a hard copy.

Crilly replaced this paper-based system with one that identified those forms that could be signed with a digital signature, and developed the process and tools to do so. It sounds simple and straightforward, but there are many legal and technical issues to be solved in implementing such a system. Crilly’s thoroughness in designing and implementing this system, his leadership, earned him recognition as a “Sustainability Superstar” by the department.

Leadership from the executive level was important and present all along the way, including when it became clear that some individuals were, despite this new system, continuing to use paper forms. To complete the process of individual behavior change, the department stopped accepting paper forms that were now available in digital format.

Crilly’s project is just one example of how the department drilled down into the details of its procedures and activities — there were many more individuals who undertook similar actions. The department leadership created a Going Green Team of employees to coordinate these activities.

Perhaps most significantly, the leadership and Going Green Team recognized that to really change behavior it is necessary to create a culture within the department of understanding the science of climate change that would enable all employees to routinely and on their own look at their day-to-day responsibilities and identify ways, big and small, in which their jobs and tasks could be modified to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They created a Climate College open to all staff (and people outside the department) and conducted a monthly series of classes over 10 months on the basics of climate science, what California and the federal government are doing to reduce emissions, and other topics.

Employees also were able to propose projects specific to their area of work (e.g., the effect of climate change on salamanders, river voles, range-land species, etc.) and to present these papers, posters or slide shows at the last of the classes.

I attended this final class, watched the presentations and was impressed. The department is seriously and effectively examining its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I was also impressed by director Bonham, his team, his support for the entire project and his indication that Fish and Wildlife departments in other states are asking him how to start a similar program.

That’s the power of leadership.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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