“Trust your instincts.” With Penny Bauder & Kathleen Biggins

Trust your instincts. “Experts” may give you expert advice but if it doesn’t feel right delve deeper because it may mean they don’t really “get you” — but are looking at you through their own cookie cutter lens. Listen and honestly evaluate but remember just because they are an expert and you may be new […]

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Trust your instincts. “Experts” may give you expert advice but if it doesn’t feel right delve deeper because it may mean they don’t really “get you” — but are looking at you through their own cookie cutter lens. Listen and honestly evaluate but remember just because they are an expert and you may be new at this, it doesn’t mean they are right.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Biggins.

Kathleen Biggins is the founder and president of C-Change Conversations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting productive, non-partisan discussions about the science and effects of climate change. The organization, comprised of volunteers who span the political spectrum, sponsors the C-Change Conversations Lecture Series, which invites business and community leaders in the Princeton, NJ area to learn about climate change from a wide range of nationally-recognized scientists and business and military leaders. Kathleen also developed the C-Change Primer with input from Climate Central and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Team members have presented the Primer to about 10,000 people in 29 states, and it is widely hailed as an intelligent, dispassionate introduction to and illumination of climate change. The Primer has been endorsed by business, political, and social leaders and enthusiastically received by many conservative audiences across the country.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up in New Orleans and am still in love with that city. It is such a special place — a mélange of Southern, European, and Caribbean influences, where sitting on the stoop or in a rocking chair is still considered a productive use of time. It has a joie de vivre unlike other American cities. I grew up taking the streetcar to school and was a tour guide during summers. I loved sharing my city with others. I also worked as a reporter at The Times-Picayune/States-Item, and recognized I loved learning about different things and hearing other people’s stories. Both early jobs probably really helped me in being successful with reaching out to people on climate change.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

C-Change Conversations aims to wake up people who don’t think climate change is a real or serious problem and educate them about its scale, scope, and urgency. The people we spend most of our time talking with are moderates and conservatives who are turned off by the politics of climate change. This is essential work. American leaders will not meaningfully address climate change when a large portion of our population thinks it is a made up or minor threat. C-Change has found that once people understand how climate change will impact them personally and significantly and how it will harm our economy, personal safety, health, and our geopolitical stability, they often look at it differently and want to become engaged on the topic. That’s what needs to happen. When enough people understand the risks of climate change and are motivated to act, policymakers, large corporations, and other controlling interests will do what’s needed to protect the planet.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I attended a national conference where I heard a military general and a businessman talk about climate change in a vastly different way than the news media and my peers did because they talked about how it is a significant threat to our national security and economy. This sparked my curiosity, and I started studying and researching the topic. The more I learned, the more alarmed I became about the threat and the fact that so many of my peers, colleagues, and loved ones didn’t understand how serious the situation really is. It was difficult because most people didn’t want to talk about the topic; it was taboo in many of my circles.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City and my hometown of Princeton, NJ, I learned that some of the damage was attributable to climate change and decided to act. I asked Carrie Dyckman, Katy Kinsolving, and Pam Mount — who were also passionate about helping more people learn about climate change — to join me, and together we launched C-Change Conversations. We created a speakers series that brought in credible non-partisan experts, like rear admirals, energy company CEOs, former governors, highly regarded scientists, and Wall Street financial experts, to speak to moderate and conservative leaders in our community about the risks of climate change. I subsequently developed a PowerPoint presentation to give audiences a 360-degree view of the issue. It is called Climate Change 101, or “the Primer” for short, and C-Change team members and I have presented it to moderate and conservative groups across the country.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Hurricane Sandy made me realize how vulnerable we are to the changes that are happening and how fast they are coming. It may sound trite, but I really felt a responsibility to alert others to the danger and to protect my loved ones, friends, and colleagues. If you saw a car speeding around a curve and know a tree is down on the road ahead, you would do everything you could to alert the passengers and get them to slow down or stop. Now imagine yourself and all your loved ones in the car. Of course you would do what you could to stop, slow down, or swerve to miss hitting that downed tree. That’s how I feel about climate change.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I asked incredibly talented and passionate people to help me. I may have conceived of our initial focus — peer-to-peer outreach around a speakers series, but I never could have done this without our team. We cross the spectrum politically and come from many different professions — lawyers, investment bankers, journalists, media experts, educators, even a farmer and a former mayor — but were united in common purpose. I never would have had all the skills necessary to build this thing from scratch. It was a team endeavor.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I was at a large public event in Warrenton, Virginia, a beautiful, rural, and conservative area. I was about to start speaking on a stage in a big auditorium when I was approached by a courtly gentleman. He told me he did not believe in climate change and would like to speak to the crowd. He was well known to many in the crowd, and I did not want him to feel disrespected or shut out. I didn’t know what he would say but was confident in my presentation, so I offered to introduce him and give him the microphone for 10 minutes. The crowd was respectful of him and, though I had to nudge him after 10 minutes to stop, he also appreciated having the opportunity to express his view. After my talk, I got very favorable reviews. In particular, the audience appreciated the way I handled the unexpected challenge of a denier refuting me before my presentation even started.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

It’s not really a mistake but…. in the early days I always tried to exercise before I presented, because it helped me get my stress level under control. When we present the Primer beyond a few hours drive from Princeton, we usually stay with local supporters, to save money and build the connections that are so important to our mission. When we presented in Grosse Pointe, MI, our host offered me her personal trampoline for exercise. I was in exercise clothes jumping away in her study when she proceeded to bring people in to meet me, the featured speaker for that evening’s event. Embarrassed, I missed my jump, stumbled to the floor, and knocked over a lamp. Everything was fine, except I felt incredibly clumsy.

The lesson learned, however, was that it is ok to be human and to accept that I may do goofy things, stumble, or make other so-called mistakes. People support us because they find us credible and trustworthy, and part of our strength is that we are normal people — just like them. If people like the C-Change volunteers and I can make a difference on climate change, our audience will know they can too.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Yes, many people have cheered us on. Jim Waltman, the Executive Director of the Watershed Institute, an iconic nonprofit in the Princeton area, allowed us to use their facilities for free in the beginning. David Crane, the former CEO of NRG energy, has provided counsel as has Steve Corneli, also formerly from NRG. Senior officials of the Garden Club of America have also been our champions.

Karen Florini and Bernadette Placky at Climate Central, a non-partisan nonprofit that publishes vetted, scientifically proven information on climate change and how it is impacting our communities, have both inspired and supported me. In fact, thanks to their influence, I appeared on a panel at the American Geophysical Union conference in Washington DC and spoke on climate change communications. This was such an honor, to appear alongside other experts such as James Holdren, a senior science advisor to President Barack Obama; Edward Maibach, a professor and Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication; and Jason Samenow, a reporter and editor covering weather and climate for the Washington Post.

All of them instilled a respect for the science underpinning the issue, but also the need to build bridges for better communication and understanding.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. We need to care more. We need to understand we are on a timetable mandated by the laws of physics, and we are late to act. We are all in danger, and we all have a responsibility to each other and future generations to look the challenge in the eye and act. We need to recognize this is not a partisan issue: It is a human one.
  2. We need to invest in technology. Experts believe we have the technology and land use protocols to handle about 70 percent of the problem and can develop new technologies over the next decade to get us much of the rest of the way. Because we have waited so long it is not easy to solve, but climate change really is a math problem — we must get our greenhouse gas emissions down to a safe level. We must solve the equation by reducing the emissions we are putting up and taking some of the emissions that are already there out of the system. Looking at it as an equation makes it seem more manageable. Then we need to support the technologies that can save us — and recognize that energy from a green source is much more valuable than energy from fossil fuels. And in doing so, we will grow the economy, create jobs, have healthier populations, and have a more beautiful, less dangerous world. It will not be easy to make the transition, but there is such a big prize at the end if we do.
  3. We need to have compassion and respect for each other. Because there has been so much false information put out by groups who benefit from the status quo, many good people believe that dealing with climate change will harm the economy and the American way of life. That is far from the truth as most economists and business leaders, including the heads of major banks and investment banks, believe the opposite. But strongly held views are hard to dislodge, and many on the left are intractable — insisting there is only one way to address the issue. We need to get past this divisiveness and realize society needs to come together like we did in ramping up for WWII or our race to the moon. One side, one party, one state, one nation cannot solve this.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Where to start? First, energy efficiency pays for itself quickly, in lighting, of course, but also in transportation and building systems. Second, in many places renewable energy, even with storage, can be cheaper than using fossil fuels. Utility solar has dropped 80% since 2010, but many companies don’t realize how precipitous this drop has been.

Businesses also need to look at the big picture, not just the short-term bottom line. If we don’t mitigate climate change, businesses will suffer from things like restricted access to raw materials, insecure supply chains, natural disasters that more frequently disrupt markets, factories, and even headquarters, and greater civil chaos as food and water resources change. Also, in looking at the big picture, they need to recognize that energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors are much more job intensive than the fossil fuel sector — more jobs are created — which in the long term potentially gives them more customers.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

When you create a startup organization you will become one dimensional and think about it all the time. That’s ok for a short while. Your family and friends will forgive you.

Don’t try to be perfect or beat yourself up over failings. When you are leading other volunteers who are there simply because they believe in the cause, there’s extra pressure to do everything right and the temptation to agonize over everything that goes wrong. That is wasted energy.

Trust your instincts. “Experts” may give you expert advice but if it doesn’t feel right delve deeper because it may mean they don’t really “get you” — but are looking at you through their own cookie cutter lens. Listen and honestly evaluate but remember just because they are an expert and you may be new at this, it doesn’t mean they are right.

Startups take an incredible amount of stick-to-itiveness. You don’t really get holidays or weekends off. It is almost like having a baby, whose needs intrude at inopportune times and may supersede your own.

Make sure you work with people you respect and like. You will be spending an incredible amount of time with them. Enjoying their company and valuing their expertise is key to you as a leader staying engaged and able to focus on the externals.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There is little in life that is more fulfilling than trying to fix a significant problem that hurts others or trying to make the world better. When you see a problem that you know you can help with and turn away, it leaves you empty inside. Whether one can do it as a career or by volunteering, having a sense of purpose and making a positive impact is more gratifying than money or acclaim. It feeds your soul.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”

So much of life‘s sweetness and success comes from stepping out of our comfort zones and trying something new or mastering something difficult. People who are successful are usually not smarter or more skilled than others who fail, but they keep trying and don’t let self-doubt sabotage them. That’s a lesson I learned later in life. Fear of failure in many ways is worse than failure itself because you don’t get to learn along the way. You can get locked in a static place.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. I’d like to understand why he puts energy politics over what in the mid- and long-term is best for his constituents and the country. I’d like to help him understand the repercussions of ignoring climate change.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter @CChangeChats

Instagram @ccconversations

Facebook @CChangeConversations

LinkedIn C-Change Conversations


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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