John Greenler was a teacher, farmer, administrator and activist.
Over the past two decades, his work has focused on fostering connections between researchers, policymakers, and the public around the risks of climate change and efforts to address it.
He now leads 350 Wis.a volunteer-run group that is the state’s largest nonprofit focused exclusively on climate change.
The name refers to 350 parts per million, which scientists consider a sustainable level of carbon dioxide in the air. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the concentration at 421 ppma level last seen more than 4 million years ago, when large swaths of the Arctic were covered in forest and sea levels were 78 feet higher than today.
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“I’m not surprised and I’m disappointed,” Greenler said. “We know we have the knowledge and the ability to not only stabilize this, but even reduce it. Bringing it down to 350 ppm, which we exceeded in the late 1980s, is a very difficult but achievable 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 Farming Enterprises, or CSA. He taught at Beloit College before joining the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the 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 were really already a state organization,” Greenler said, noting the grassroots group’s work to slow investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, like Enbridge Energy’s proposed expansion of an oil pipeline. in northern Wisconsin.
How did you develop an interest in climate change?
As a diverse vegetable grower, as I was significantly in the 90s, just the increased variation in weather. Have more wet and dry extremes. Instead of the spring rains being more spread out and milder, you just have torrents – just extreme storms and then nothing.
Then I had the opportunity to teach a graduate-level seminary course. I focused the whole semester program on the biological aspects of climate change. It was in 2003, I believe. He was just figuring out how dire the situation was, even back then. The modeling at that time, by climatologists and corresponding environmental scientists, was quite clear, although it was not widely publicized at that time.
That, I think, really sowed the seeds for me: it really is time for me to change and see if there are ways I can focus more on raising awareness of what’s to come in terms of climate change. , and also very accordingly, what opportunities do we have to transform the Titanic, so to speak, while we still have time.
What is the biggest challenge to solving climate change?
It’s not that there isn’t a lot of science and engineering to be done yet, but what’s really the limiting factor today in terms of fighting climate change is putting the public and others in the know — 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 fit with our day-to-day approaches to problem solving. And that’s what really gave me the opportunity to serve as Executive Director of 350 Wisconsin, which is an amazing organization in terms of expertise and depth of its volunteer base.
How does 350 Wisconsin tackle this communication challenge?
It is a thematically multi-faceted organization, but also deeply interested in how we actually engage the general public, not only in terms of knowledge, but also in terms of action.
We have an extraordinary artistic collective. As a Ph.D. scientist, I’m really good at throwing huge amounts of graphs, tables and datasets etc. For years I thought that was the way to win people over – and there’s always a place for it. But for many of us – myself included – that really doesn’t rock the boat.
The arts open us up in ways we might not otherwise.
What other ways does the 350 Wisconsin work?
It’s not rocket science, but climate change is having such a disproportionate impact on those in our society and our planet who don’t have the privilege that I do. Whereas you can just live in a community like this…where we have lots of shady trees and access to the lake. There’s probably an 8 to 20 degree differentiation in the neighborhoods here in Wisconsin. And access to clean energy — to be able to not only make sure we’re doing the right thing, but also to have access to cost-effective energy. Lots of injustice, lots of inequality.
We’ve been really working hard to find new sources of additional funding so that we can really work directly in this space. In the next few weeks, we will be hiring a climate justice organizer.
You have been working on climate change for two decades. Are we better off?
Yes and no. We were really lucky to have done extraordinary amounts of technology research and development and to have achieved economies of scale.
I don’t think anyone expected, for example, that we would be able to bring solar and wind power to the point where that is really, in the vast majority of cases, the economically appropriate solution. If you just look at the numbers, solar makes more sense. Build a new coal or natural gas plant — the numbers don’t add up.
At the same time, our ability to somehow transform our socio-political systems to fully embrace and engage these opportunities has taken far longer than I think almost any of us really expected. And we’re now at a point where it’s clear to me and, I think, to many others, that’s really where the work needs to be done.
What is your outlook for the future?
I am 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 backed up by data – who are somehow ready and willing to make the change. And what we need to do is transform the key elements that will allow the change to take place. And it’s not uncommon. Changes do not occur along these lines in a linear fashion. It’s cliché, but I believe that there are exceptional tipping opportunities where I believe change can and I believe will happen very quickly.
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“I think we have the tools. And honestly, I think we even have the majority of people in this country – and this is backed up by data – who are somehow ready and willing to make the change. And what we need to do is transform the key elements that will allow the change to take place.”