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Climate advocate recommends a tailored message at Yale event

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NEW HAVEN — The first rule of addressing climate change, Dorothy Barnett says, is you don’t talk about climate change.

Instead, you just talk about jobs. Or efficiency. Or religion.

That was the message from the heartland, as Barnett, executive director of the Climate & Energy Project in Kansas, spoke at an event organized by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Although talk of global warming has become commonplace in the Northeast after the extreme storms of the past two years, the topic is highly politicized elsewhere, Barnett warns. If a national consensus were to be reached, it would have to emerge using a different approach.

Barnett calls it Plan B.

“We had to do things that didn’t put climate change in people’s face,” she explained. “Some people will say, ‘what a cop-out,’ but it closes a lot of doors. People won’t hear you.”

Wind energy accounts for about 8 percent of electricity in Kansas, Barnett said. Her group has launched successful programs in the past five years to promote clean energy and conservation by appealing to specific target audiences.

For example, the Climate & Energy Project has an Interfaith Power and Light chapter that focuses on energy efficiency as a way to be faithful stewards of the planet. It organizes a year-long Take Charge Challenge in which communities compete on energy efficiency in order to win a wind turbine or solar panels for a local school or civic building.

It also takes part in the Kansas Blue Green Alliance to promote clean energy jobs with community farming groups and labor organizations.

“We worked really hard to find out what mattered to Kansans,” Barnett said. “It was really important to show the economic benefits.”

Another thing they learned, Barnett said, is that persuasion has to happen from the inside, not from outside groups.

“We think it’s people-to-people connections, talking over the mailbox, that works,” she said.

Josh Galperin, associate director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, moderated the discussion. He said the successful strategies of Barnett and others in different regions of the country are invaluable in Connecticut, as well.

“By looking at this only through our own lens in the Northeast, we’re just going to get frustrated and angry when our efforts don’t work,” Galperin said. “What we need to talk about are the varied benefits of cleaning up our energy use. There are people in the Northeast who would be very responsive to it.”

So exactly how much resistance is there to talking about climate change around the U.S.? Enough that Barnett’s group considered changing its name at one point.

“Five years ago, it seemed OK to be called the Climate & Energy Project. We didn’t know any better,” she said.

Contact reporter Jim Shelton at 203-789-5664.

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