C-Change Conversations

Kathleen Biggins holds a block of carbon that produces 1 Kg of CO2 when burned. The U.S. annual emissions per person is 16 tons of C02, which is roughly two of these blocks per hour.

Opening Minds to the impacts of Climate Change

By Wendy Greenberg |Portraits by Andrew Wilkinson | Infographics courtesy of C-Change Conversations

They appear to be an unlikely group to advocate for and educate on climate change. They are not scientists, but they understand the science. They are not politicians; in fact, they are non-political. They have no hidden agenda, but what they have is a concern that climate change will harm our health and economy, and a passionate interest in the well-being of the Earth for future generations.
The 26 volunteers at C-Change Conversations are professional women (and one man), gathering scientific information on climate change, seeking skeptics, booking presentations, and hoping to open minds. They come from careers in marketing, communications, finance, investment, and business. In some ways the messengers are part of the message: that climate change affects all of us, and we all need to listen. They have become known as trusted messengers.

“We are nonpartisan. People can’t tell what our politics are. That is important to us,” said founder and President Kathleen Biggins of Princeton, where the group is based. “As far as I know, no one is doing it the way we are doing it — our approach and strategy are unique,” she says.

Not only is the timing crucial in terms of mitigating climate change damage, but the group sees a “greater opening” among those who were not previously open to learning that climate change can impact them.

C-Change collects and examines new information regularly and puts out a monthly newsletter to update others. Their science advisers, including Princeton’s own Climate Central, have contributed to the C-Change Primer that is the basis for presentations that take them all over the country. “We translate the science,” says Biggins. “We are careful about our role.”

They have been invited to present in 31 states, reaching 163 organizations, and get standing ovations in politically conservative areas. They speak in places that are comfortable to their audiences: garden clubs, country clubs, investment clubs, land trusts, churches, and schools. The presentation takes the topic out of the realm of the environmental and into the economic — how it will impact jobs, personal security and health, and exposure to geopolitical instability.

In the fall of 2019, Biggins and co-founder Katy Kinsolving wrote in Harvard Public Health Magazine that “the top predictor of one’s opinion on climate change is political party affiliation: Individual positions on the issue are often a litmus test of whether someone is a ‘good conservative’ or a ‘good liberal.’ … By meeting with those who are skeptical, in a place where they are comfortable and surrounded by people they consider to be peers and friends, we find they are more willing to listen. We often speak at regularly scheduled meetings, so that audience members do not have to consciously decide to come hear our message. This means they don’t feel disloyal to their ‘tribe,’ uncomfortable, or that they are wasting their time.”

The C-Change Executive Committee includes, sitting from left, Pam Parsons, Kathleen Biggins, and Carrie Dyckman. Standing, from left, are Catherine Sidamon-Eristoff and Kathy Herring.

Garden Club Outgrowth

The idea for C-Change started when Biggins attended a conference for the National Affairs and Legislative arm of The Garden Club of America in 2006. There, she heard about climate change from “non-green types, like military and business leaders, and it snapped my head back,” she says. “I was intrigued by it, but when I spoke to people back home, they said climate change was not a big deal.”

Hurricane Sandy had devastated parts of New Jersey and New York in 2012. “I read that climate change exacerbated the intensity,” says Biggins. “I was sent back to the conference and learned that the climate risk had grown even bigger and was coming even faster, and it made me want to find a way to help others understand they too were at risk.”

To replicate the Garden Club conference experience locally, Biggins asked a group of like-minded Princetonians to help her create a speaker series in Princeton in 2014. She was joined by Pam Mount of Terhune Orchards, founding chair of the board of Sustainable New Jersey and former Lawrenceville mayor and councilperson; Carrie Dyckman, a producer and web developer active in environmental causes; and Kinsolving, a food educator, writer, and community volunteer.

The team has grown to 26 volunteers, all of whom share a passion for mitigating climate change. They all bring varied skills to the group.

Catherine Sidamon-Eristoff is treasurer and a presenter for C-Change Conversations.

Getting to Know the Problem

Treasurer and board member Catherine Sidamon-Eristoff said she was surprised at how little she knew about the environment until about seven years ago.

Sidamon-Eristoff’s interest began as a youth growing up near the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and she has served on various boards focused on environmental education. The issue of climate change education, she writes in an email, became important to her when Sophie Glovier, author and C-Change team member, introduced her to The Watershed Institute (where Glovier is municipal policy specialist) in 2013.

“I started a deep dive into the impact that climate change was having on our water resources,” writes Sidamon-Eristoff, “from sea level rise to stormwater management, to the streambed erosion of the Stony Brook and other waterways. It was there where I met Kathleen Biggins, a former trustee of The Watershed Institute and current advisory board member. Over many dog walks she outlined her vision of a way to bring together people with different political perspectives to learn from scientists and climate experts about what climate stresses our planet was experiencing, and what the predictions for the future might be. Kathleen invited me to her house for one of the early C-Change ‘conversations,’ and I was startled by how little I really knew.”

Sidamon-Eristoff’s Wall Street experience landed her in the treasurer’s role. “I realized that the economic impacts of climate change were not well-known or understood by the investing community, and I saw a way in which I could add value to C-Change.” A presenter for C-Change, she says she is “learning how to educate my financial services peers on the business risks and opportunities from climate change.”

Carrie Dyckman oversees communications.

Dyckman’s story of involvement with the group takes a similar path, having been concerned about climate change but not fully understanding the risks. “As I learned more, I found it hard to believe that no one I knew was talking about it,” she says.

After working as a multimedia producer, Dyckman returned to Princeton with her family and became active in conservation, hosting composting workshops. She oversees the C-Change communications and the creative team producing visual materials, which includes their award-winning website.

Dyckman was asked to help develop a lecture series to bring experts into the community to discuss climate change and its impacts on health, and personal and geopolitical security. “I realized this was a great way to get the conversation going,” she says.

After three years of bringing in experts, Biggins, a trained journalist, realized that audiences needed a broader and more comprehensive view of the issue and wrote the C-Change Conversations Primer. Audiences appreciated the nonpartisan scientific approach, she says, and they recommended the presentation to others — fueling C-Change Conversations’ growth across the country.

“As I watched Kathleen further refine the material and the expertise with which she handled the issue in a nonpartisan way, I knew we had a tool that could make a difference. We just needed good visuals and a recognizable brand to put us on the map,” says Dyckman, who put her producer skills to work.

Biggins realized that her colleagues and friends had been skeptical because they had no sense that they could be impacted by the changes in the climate. The speaker series they set up in members’ homes featured speakers such as author and clean energy entrepreneur Jigar Shah; former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; a U.S. Navy rear admiral; a former head of risk strategy for Goldman Sachs; a former energy corporation officer; and others. The speakers were a draw, but so was the relaxed salon atmosphere.

Climate change is thought of in many circles as a “liberal issue,” Biggins says. “But it wasn’t always. It was part of John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and Newt Gingrich spoke of it in 2007. The Primer gives Ronald Reagan credit for helping diminish greenhouse gas emissions when he led the way to save the ozone layer, and notes that there are solutions that fit more conservative outlooks.”

Infographics from the C-Change Conversations Primer

On the Road

And so, Biggins and other members of the C-Change team took the Primer on the road, meeting its audiences in their homes or comfortable spaces. C-Change has also recently expanded its audiences to business leaders and businesses including a Southeastern conference of the Young Presidents Organization, and C-Change Conversations’ first international presentation to the employees of Commonwealth Bank, Australia. The team has trained others in Princeton and around the country to give the presentation, and Biggins has developed a new primer outlining climate change’s impacts on health.

“Clearly our nonpartisan, targeted approach is working,” says Sidamon-Eristoff. “Audience members cannot tell what our presenters’ political views are — we universally receive high scores on being nonpartisan, even from audiences in the deep South and Midwest. Demand for the Primer has led us to train more presenters and invite team members from around the country to join us.”

The basic Primer seminar is an hour talk with engaging PowerPoint visuals, presented conversationally. “Both the message and the messenger are important,” Dyckman says, adding that C-Change is careful about “consistently projecting an empathetic, even-handed, and inclusive tone during speaking engagements.”

Included in the presentation are visuals that illustrate key information such as: noting that the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.1 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution; a slide from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing critical artic ice melting since 1990; how temperatures have risen from 1890 to now, and are predicted to be higher by 2100, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and that as humidity increases the heat index, crop production decreases and human health takes a toll.

The Primer also points out that oceans are now 30 percent more acidic, so the food chain is compromised … and oceans are absorbing heat, leading to bleaching of coral reefs; there has been a 55 percent increase in the mid-Atlantic in heaviest precipitation events 1958-2016; in some parts of the country there has been too little snow, resulting in dwindling water resources; the sea level is rising in places like La Jolla, Calif., Charleston, S.C., Miami, Fla., and Annapolis, Md.; and how to mitigate risks and why we should care.

“How difficult is it to avoid risks?” Biggins asks in the presentation. “We don’t know that our house is going to burn down, but we act in a way that will prevent it. Scientists say the risks from climate change are much greater than the risk of house fire.”

She also explains that the “economic equation has changed. The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action.” Renewable energy costs are falling. Solar and wind are cheaper, she says. “We can grow jobs; new technology is burgeoning.”

Building Bridges

Reactions are most always positive. The NOAA slide with moving oceans, showing arctic ice melting away resonates particularly, says Biggins. “You are seeing it with your own eyes.”

Audiences are also particularly moved by the photo of bleached-out coral reefs. “Every smidgen of temperature matters,” she says.

During the pandemic, like almost everyone, C-Change pivoted to Zoom. “In one week, we hit many states with multiple presenters,” says Biggins. “But much of our power comes from getting to see us in person. It’s important to de-escalate worry.” Members of the group began to travel again in the new year.

When asked if she is hopeful for the climate, Biggins points out that economics have changed, and there is more job growth in the green sector. “If you look at it from the big picture, there are more ancillary benefits from making changes,” she says. “Second, people are seeing differences with weather events. Third, new technology in how we grow food, harness energy — there is so much innovation coming.”

She believes people are becoming aware, and that C-Change is a “bridge builder” — bringing people together at a time when so many forces are pushing us apart.

“It takes a village — I am the originator of the idea, but it took an incredible team,” Biggins says. “There is an adage: passionate people can make change, even if you are not in a position of power.
“There is greater interest among people on how climate change impacts them. I’m excited to see some of the shifts. It’s something I’m proud of. We’re building bridges when others are tearing them down.”

Other C-Change Conversations Programming

The monthly newsletter, Curated Climate News, features climate news of hope and concern. The November issue, for example, was about the hopeful outcomes of COP26.

The Ask the Scientist newsletter invites readers to submit questions directly to experts working in the field.

Soon to be launched is a “Solutions Series” to focus on why we should be hopeful in our effort to address climate change. The Solutions Series is a continuation of offering facts about climate change from trusted sources, including new technologies that are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs, talking with scientists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, energy experts, and others. The conversations will be filmed in the Princeton Public Television station and aired on the station.

For more information, visit c-changeconversations.org.