Published: October 18, 2010
SALINA, Kan. — Residents of this deeply conservative city do not put much stock in scientific predictions of climate change.
“Don’t mention global warming,” warned Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project, a small nonprofit group that aims to get people to rein in the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. “And don’t mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him.”
Saving energy, though, is another matter.
Last Halloween, schoolchildren here searched for “vampire” electric loads, or appliances that sap energy even when they seem to be off. Energy-efficient LED lights twinkled on the town’s Christmas tree. On Valentine’s Day, local restaurants left their dining room lights off and served meals by candlelight.
The fever for reducing dependence on fossil fuels has spread beyond this city of red-brick Eisenhower-era buildings to other towns on the Kansas plains. A Lutheran church in nearby Lindsborg was inspired to install geothermal heating. The principal of Mount Hope’s elementary school dressed up as an energy bandit at a student assembly on home-energy conservation. Hutchinson won a contract to become home to a $50 million wind turbine factory.
Town managers attribute the new resolve mostly to a yearlong competition sponsored by the Climate and Energy Project, which set out to extricate energy issues from the charged arena of climate politics.
Attempts by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gases are highly unpopular here because of opposition to large-scale government intervention. Some are skeptical that humans might fundamentally alter a world that was created by God.
If the heartland is to seriously reduce its dependence on coal and oil, Ms. Jackson and others decided, the issues must be separated. So the project ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.
Think of it as a green variation on “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Ms. Jackson suggested, referring to the 2004 book by Thomas Frank that contended that Republicans had come to dominate the state’s elections by exploiting social values.
The project’s strategy seems to have worked. In the course of the program, which ended last spring, energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas — a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful.
The towns were featured as a case study on changing behavior by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And the Climate and Energy Project just received a grant from the Kansas Energy Office to coordinate a competition among 16 Kansas cities to cut energy use in 2011.
The energy experiment started as a kitchen-table challenge three years ago.
Over dinner, Wes Jackson, the president of the Land Institute, which promotes environmentally sustainable agriculture, complained to Ms. Jackson, his daughter-in-law, that even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.
Why did the conversation have to be about climate change? Ms. Jackson countered. If the goal was to persuade people to reduce their use of fossil fuels, why not identify issues that motivated them instead of getting stuck on something that did not?
Only 48 percent of people in the Midwest agree with the statement that there is “solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer,” a poll conducted in the fall of 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed — far fewer than in other regions of the country.
The Jacksons already knew firsthand that such skepticism was not just broad, but also deep. Like opposition to abortion or affirmations of religious faith, they felt, it was becoming a cultural marker that helped some Kansans define themselves.
Nevertheless, Ms. Jackson felt so strongly that this opposition could be overcome that she left a job as development director at the University of Kansas in Lawrence to start the Climate and Energy Project with a one-time grant from the Land Institute. (The project is now independent.)
At the outset she commissioned focus groups of independents and Republicans around Wichita and Kansas City to get a sense of where they stood. Many participants suggested that global warming could be explained mostly by natural earth cycles, and a vocal minority even asserted that it was a cynical hoax perpetrated by climate scientists who were greedy for grants.
Yet Ms. Jackson found plenty of openings. Many lamented the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Some articulated an amorphous desire, often based in religious values, to protect the earth. Some even spoke of changes in the natural world — birds arriving weeks earlier in the spring than they had before — leading her to wonder whether, deep down, they might suspect that climate change was afoot.
Relatively little was said about climate.
“I don’t recall us being recruited under a climate change label at all,” said Stacy Huff, an executive for the Coronado Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which was enlisted to help the project. Mr. Huff describes himself as “somewhat skeptical” about global warming.
Mr. Huff said the project workers emphasized conservation for future generations when they recruited his group. The message resonated, and the scouts went door to door in low-income neighborhoods to deliver and install weatherization kits.
“It is in our DNA to leave a place better than we found it,” he said.
Elliot Lahn, a community development planner for Merriam, a city that reduced its energy use by 5 percent, said that when public meetings were held on the six-town competition to save energy, some residents offered their view that global warming was a hoax.
But they were very eager to hear about saving money, Mr. Lahn said. “That’s what really motivated them.”
Jerry Clasen, a grain farmer in Reno County, south of Salina, said he largely discounted global warming. “I believe we are going through a cycle and it is not a big deal,” he said. But his ears pricked up when project workers came to town to talk about harnessing wind power. “There is no sense in our dependency on foreign oil,” he said, “especially since we have got this resource here.”
Mr. Clasen helped organize a group of local leaders to lobby the electronics and energy giant Siemens to build a wind turbine factory in the area. When the company signed a deal in 2009 promising to create as many as 400 local jobs, it stirred a wave of excitement about the future of wind power.
Now, farmers expect to lease some of their land for turbines and rely on wind power as a stable source of income, he said, and land prices are rising as result.
“Whether or not the earth is getting warmer,” he said, “it feels good to be part of something that works for Kansas and for the nation.”