Here’s what local climate action looks like in small-town USA

Canary’s culture correspondent has a whale of a time connecting with fellow climate-conscious citizens in his New England hamlet.
By Mike Munsell

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A white municipal building surrounded by trees
(Fletcher6/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and the culture at large.

I’ve developed a habit with this column of making recommendations and even sometimes pleading with readers to put their climatetech savvy to good use. Today’s plea may be one you’ve heard before — but hear me out. I’m going to make the case for getting involved in local climate action.

When it comes to climate change solutions, a long-standing debate has divided activists: Is it better to work toward individual behavior change (think recycling and cutting down on driving) or systemic change (for example, ending fossil fuel subsidies)? The truth, though, is that both tasks are necessary. To adequately address the climate crisis, we need an all-of-the-above approach.

Local climate action is right in the sweet spot where individual behavior and systemic change intersect — it’s where we as individuals can exercise some influence over systems that affect us directly.

Seven years ago, my partner and I moved to a small town in northeastern Massachusetts called Hamilton. It’s famous for being a longtime home to General George S. Patton — and perhaps lesser known for having composted a 45-foot humpback whale (more on that in a minute!).

I recently joined the Hamilton Wenham Climate Action Team, a small volunteer-run nonprofit aimed at decarbonizing the sister towns of Hamilton and Wenham, Massachusetts.

I’d love to share with you some of the faces, the work and the accomplishments of the team to hopefully inspire you to consider joining or even starting your own local group. I guess I’m taking a page from the playbook of the How to Save a Planet podcast (RIP) and its goal of inspiring climate action.

Joining the team

On the recommendation of a neighbor (and fellow cleantech professional), I signed up to receive the Hamilton Wenham Climate Action Team (HWCAT) newsletter and soon received an invitation for a Solar Social.” The flyer showed two beer bottles clinking, under an image of a solar array with the words LET’S TALK SOLAR!” How could I not attend?

a sign that shows illustrations of a solar array, two beer bottles clinking and the words LET's TALK SOLAR

I arrived at one of our nearby watering holes to find a modest crowd of a dozen or so locals, most of whom were members of HWCAT. Two of the group’s co-founders, Greg Horner, an environmental consultant, and Robert Knowles, a longtime renewable-energy project developer, introduced themselves to me and explained the group’s three pillars: the first is collaborating with the municipality (Horner pointed to their work getting the town to pass a nonbinding resolution to make the town carbon-neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the statewide goal); the second is working to decarbonize schools; and the third is to educate the local community about climate solutions.

Horner also told me I should meet with another HWCAT co-founder, Gretel Clark. She’s a real force in this community,” he said about the octogenarian beekeeper who was instrumental in making Hamilton the first town in Massachusetts to mandate composting. Clark also happens to be the mother of my next-door neighbor (small town!).

An elderly woman with gray short hair stands in front of a white house with solar panels on the roof
Gretel Clark stands in front of her hybrid vehicle and newly installed rooftop solar PV system. (Mike Munsell)

Getting hands dirty

A few days after the social, I drove a couple of miles north to Clark’s house, where she has lived along with her husband Peter since the early 1970s. Clark says that climate change has been on her radar since the late 70s or 80s or thereabouts,” and that it has been a major driver for her work with getting the town to compost.

When you bury or burn food, you create methane, the worst form of [gas for] global warming. And if you instead bury [the food] in the earth, you sequester carbon dioxide, so it’s just the opposite — a positive for the environment,” said Clark.

Clark started a pilot composting program back in 2009, which later grew to a townwide program. In 2020, she went to the select board (essentially the executive branch of New England towns) to plead her case for mandating composting to increase the uptake of the program and decrease the amount of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere.

It turned out that the mandate would allow the town to save some money, so the board approved it, and in early 2021, it went into effect.

It was a win-win,” Clark said.

Not everyone saw it that way, though.

Basically, if you do not put out your compost bin (and you don’t have an exemption for composting at home), the haulers will not take your trash away. As you can imagine, there was heated debate and vitriol about the new rule on the local Facebook pages. Naturally, I couldn’t look away. I asked Clark about this.

If anybody was having trouble, we gave [them] my phone number and people could call up and talk about why they were angry. So I would sit and listen to them and hear their story and talk to them about why it would work and why it was important. And that’s how it got underway. Yeah, we handled it person by person by person.”

That’s a refreshing way to engage in local climate action: talking with your neighbors.

In 2021, Hamilton composted 332 tons of organic matter, or about 248 pounds per household. And that doesn’t include what people are also composting at home. That’s a lot of carbon sequestered!

Oh, one more thing about Hamilton’s storied history with compost.

The town is home to Brick Ends Farm, a small but mighty composting facility that managed to convert even a whale into earthy black gold. James Gist, who helps run Brick Ends, told me they buried the deceased 35-ton whale in a 20-foot-tall pile of organic matter, planted a flag to mark its location, and let nature take its course. When they went to flip the compost three or four months later, not a trace of the whale was left.

Large piles of earth and dirt are seen through a cars front windshield
Approaching mountains of compost at Brick Ends farms (Mike Munsell)

That blubber was spread throughout the ZIP codes of 01936 and 01982,” said Gist.

Climate solutions 101

The next two events that HWCAT organized were a Solar 101 session at our local senior center and a Heat Pump 101 at the solar-adorned (thanks to the HWCAT) library.

At the Solar 101 session, HWCAT co-founder Horner gave a brief presentation on community solar, explaining that his family is a 1/​1000th owner of a solar farm on Massachusetts’ south shore and because of that, he receives a small discount on his overall electricity bill. Another HWCAT member, Emmett, explained how our town’s community choice aggregation program has, by default, opted the entire town into receiving 5% more renewable energy. It has also stabilized electricity prices in the last year and a half when neighboring towns saw increases of 50% or more due to the energy shock set into motion by the war in Ukraine.

The third and longest presentation was about rooftop solar and was led by a representative from Trinity Solar, a partner of the Climate Action Team. Trinity pays HWCAT a commission for any meetings or solar installations that come through the group, and the group uses that money to fund events like the Solar Social.

For the Heat Pump 101 meetup a few weeks later, the library was so packed that they had to pull out more chairs. That’s apparently a big deal for a library event.

A group of people sit in a public meeting room facing a video screen
(Mike Munsell)

That session was kicked off by Heat Smart Alliance, which was recently covered by Canary, and one of its volunteer heat-pump coaches, Tom Mikus, an MIT-educated mechanical engineer who worked for big oil for 40 years and joked that he is now volunteering to pay for his sins.” He provided an overview of the technology behind both ground-source and air-source heat pumps. The event also featured Brian Schmitt of Morris Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, who did some expectations-setting around heat pumps, particularly relevant to Massachusetts with its high electricity rates. He emphasized that even with the generous incentives, homeowners should not expect incredible savings unless they are replacing resistance heat.

Both the solar and heat pump sessions featured rousing Q&A segments that served to dispel common misconceptions about the technologies and satiate the crowd’s curiosity.

Is anyone pulling heat from septic tanks?” one inquisitive attendee asked. I’m not,” chuckled Schmitt.

How to get more involved

I asked Horner how the HWCAT team typically gets folks to attend meetings like the 101 sessions.

It’s hard to get the word out about what we do. One takeaway that we’ve had over the years is that old-school yard signs are the best way to reach people.” People turn out to the event, and that’s how you can make connections, meet people, get emails for your mailing list, and then try to entice them to get more involved over time.”

I couldn’t help but notice that the attendees definitely skew toward an older demographic.

A yard sign stick in a lawn that says Heat Pumps 101
(Mike Munsell)

One question several members of the action team have asked me is, How do we get more people like you to get involved?” They’re talking about millennials.

I didn’t have a great answer. It’s true that millennials do not volunteer as often as their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, but that is changing. Maybe it’s a life-stage thing? Between work and parenting (with a pandemic thrown in), this is the first time in seven years that I have had the mental space to start volunteering in climate work locally.

A refrain I’ve heard often from the HWCAT team is the value of just showing up.” Getting involved in local climate action doesn’t have to mean starting a climate volunteer group — you can be a vocal climate advocate at a town meeting or in front of your school board.

Horner gave me a recent example: The local school received a grant (MassEVIP) to pay for the hardware and installation of EV chargers. But the grant stipulated that the school district had to pay a small annual maintenance fee on the chargers, and the school board was ready to decline it. Horner attended a school board meeting, advocated for the chargers despite the annual fee, and the school board wound up voting in favor of the project. The chargers will be installed soon because he showed up.

I asked Horner what advice he has for anyone thinking about getting involved in local climate action.

You have to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint; you don’t want to get burned out. Try not to bite off too much because it’s a long game. Everything takes a long time to come to fruition. [A solar carport at the school] has been approved and in the queue for at least six months already, and it’s not going to happen for probably another year.”

I posed the same question to Doria Brown, a climate communicator and energy manager for the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, who has also been involved with local climate action in New England. Here’s her answer:

I would say to pick your battles. When you’re investing time into a project, that project has to be viable and exciting to the community and provide real value and impact. If you can positively impact your community by increasing the size of their wallets and [also] bring renewable energy or a sustainability aspect to it, I think that that’s a great and viable project and worth the battle.

She had one more thing to say.

My [other] piece of advice is to be careful. I first got into the local energy climate solution thing by joining my municipality’s Environment and Energy Committee. And I am now the energy manager for the city of Nashua. So here we are. Those local committees really can have a lot of impact.”

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.