John Greenler has been a professor, a farmer, administrator and activist.
For the past two decades his work has focused on fostering connections between researchers, policymakers and the public around the risks of climate change and the efforts to solve it.
Today he leads 350 Wisconsin, a volunteer-driven group that is the state’s largest nonprofit organization focused exclusively on climate change.
The name is a reference to 350 parts per million, which scientists consider a sustainable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the concentration at 421 ppm, a level last seen more than 4 million years ago, when large swaths of the Arctic were covered in forests and sea levels were 78 feet higher than today.
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“I am not surprised, and I am disappointed,” Greenler said. “We know that we have the knowledge and capacity to not only level this off, but even bring it down. Getting it back to 350 ppm, which we passed in the late 1980s, is a very challenging but attainable goal.”
A resident of Madison’s Bay Creek neighborhood, Greenler, 63, grew up in Philadelphia and came to Madison in the 1980s as a graduate student at UW-Madison, where he earned a Ph.D. in botany.
In 1993, Greenler and his wife, Robin, started one of Dane County’s first community-supported agriculture ventures, or CSAs. He taught at Beloit College before joining the newly established Wisconsin Energy Institute and Great Lakes Bioenergy Center at UW-Madison in 2008, where he served as director of education and outreach.
In October, Greenler was hired as the first executive director of 350 Madison, which later changed its name to 350 Wisconsin.
“We saw that we really were already a state organization,” Greenler said, noting the grassroots group’s work to slow investments in fossil fuel infrastructure such as Enbridge Energy’s proposed expansion of an oil pipeline through northern Wisconsin.
How did you develop an interest in climate change?
As a diversified vegetable grower, as I was doing significantly in the ‘90s, just the increased variation in weather patterns. Having more extremes of wet and dry. Instead of spring rains being more spread out and being more gentle, you just got torrents — just extreme storms and then nothing.
Then I had an opportunity to teach an upper-level seminar course. I focused a whole semester’s program on biological aspects of climate change. That was 2003, I believe. It was just really coming to full grips with how dire, even back then, the situation was. The modeling at that point in time, by the climatologists and the corresponding environmental scientists, was pretty clear, though not widely publicized at that point.
That, I think, really planted the seeds for me: It’s really time for me to shift and see if there are ways that I can be more focused on both raising awareness about what’s coming down the pike in terms of climate change, and also very much correspondingly, what are the opportunities that we have to kind of turn the Titanic, so to speak, while we still have the time.
What is the greatest challenge to solving climate change?
Not that there isn’t a lot of science and engineering that we still need to do, but what really is the limiting factor today in terms of addressing climate change is bringing the public and related kind of up to speed — bringing our legislators, bringing our nonprofits, etc., really fully on board and really fully understanding the science — not just the scientific details, but also the way of knowing.
It just doesn’t resonate with our day-to-day problem-solving approaches. And that’s what really brought me to the opportunity to take on the executive director position with 350 Wisconsin, which is an extraordinary organization in terms of its expertise and the depth of its volunteer base.
How does 350 Wisconsin approach that communication challenge?
It’s an organization that is multifaceted topically, but also really deeply interested in how do we really engage the broad public, not just in terms of knowing but also in terms of taking action.
We have an extraordinary arts collective. As a Ph.D. scientist, I’m really good at just throwing up huge amounts of graphs and charts and data sets, and whatever. For years, I thought that was the way to convince people — and there still is a place for that. But for so many of us — myself included — that really doesn’t move the boat.
The arts open us up in a way that we maybe wouldn’t be otherwise.
In what other ways is 350 Wisconsin working?
It’s not rocket science, but climate change so disproportionately impacts those in our society and our planet that don’t have the privilege that I have. When you can just be able to live in a community like this … where we have a lot of shade trees and access to the lake. There’s probably an 8- to 20-degree differentiation within neighborhoods here in Wisconsin. And access to clean energy — to be able to not just make sure that we’re doing the right thing, but actually to also have access to economical energy. A lot of injustice, a lot of inequity.
We’ve really been working hard to find new additional sources of funding to really be able to directly work in that space. In the next several weeks we’ll be hiring a climate justice organizer.
You’ve been working on climate change for two decades. Are we any better off?
Yes and no. We’ve been really fortunate that extraordinary amounts of research and development of technologies and bringing things up to an economy of scale has taken place.
I don’t think anybody expected, for example, that we would be able to bring solar and wind power to the point that it really is, in the vast majority of cases, the economically appropriate solution. If you just look at the numbers, solar makes more sense. Building a new coal or natural gas plant — the numbers don’t add up.
At the same time, our ability to kind of turn our socio-political systems to really fully embracing and engaging these opportunities has taken far longer than I think almost any of us really expected. And we are at a point now where it’s clear to me and, I think, many others, that that’s really where the work needs to be done.
What’s your outlook for the future?
I’m very optimistic. I think we have the tools. And honestly, I think we even have the majority of people in this country — and this is data-substantiated — that are kind of ready and willing to make the change. And what we need to do is turn the key pieces that will allow the change to take place. And this isn’t uncommon. Changes don’t take place along these lines in a linear fashion. It’s cliche, but I do believe there are some exceptional tipping-point opportunities where I think change can and I think will take place really promptly.
“I think we have the tools. And honestly, I think we even have the majority of people in this country — and this is data-substantiated — that are kind of ready and willing to make the change. And what we need to do is turn the key pieces that will allow the change to take place.”