Sustainability specialist helps to update town’s Climate Action Plan

Martha Zeolla

[Pictured here: Dedham resident Martha Zeolla stops by the Environmental Department’s table at a recent Farmers Market to make a promise of what she’ll do to combat climate change.  -Courtesy photo]

 

Nine years ago, Massachusetts enacted a law seeking to address the intensifying hazards of climate change. The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 set targets of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs), the emissions most scientists who have studied the issue have found pose the highest risk of damage to the earth’s environment, in the state significantly by 2020 and then further lowering them by mid-century.

As set forth by the Commonwealth, the Bay State has now accomplished most but not all of its desired reduction of GHGs by 2020. In addition, even as scientists have continued to document the seemingly inexorable warming of planet Earth each year, the current presidential administration in Washington has pledged to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on mitigating the effects of climate change, which at least 159 nations have ratified, according to the United Nations Treaty Collection.

In response to that statement in June by President Trump, numerous municipalities around the country have reaffirmed their commitment to combating climate change. Dedham, which has had notable efforts over the past decade in transitioning the town to cleaner energy by such projects as facilitating the installation of solar panels on the roof of Dedham High School, is one such municipality.

This summer the town’s Environmental Department has once again come to prominence on this vital front, with a recent college graduate from outside of New England propelling much of the initiative.

Brittany Kwolek, a resident of Culpeper, VA, graduated this past spring from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Global Environment & Sustainability. Soon after that she became a Fellow at the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute.

Virginia (Ginny) LeClair, the town’s Environmental Coordinator, described how the town has joined forces with that organization:

“The UNH Sustainability Institute Fellowship program is structured around two basic tenets: First, that the most powerful learning and professional development experiences are experiential. Second, that small investments made in getting initial, catalytic projects off the ground are essential to long-term success in comprehensive sustainability leadership efforts on the part of local governments, public and private enterprises, and NGO’s (non-government organizations).

“Brittany has been with Dedham for the summer (10 weeks) and has ownership of her project, working independently, but with support from the Environmental Coordinator, other fellows within her program who are working on similar climate action plans, as well as UNH’s Sustainability Institute team.

“I should mention here that the reason why we are involved in this fellowship is because I am the co-chair of the New England Municipal Sustainability Network (NEMSN), which is a group of local government sustainability directors, planners and others working in the field of energy and sustainability. Our network is supported by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and up until last year EPA (the federal Environmental Protection Agency).

“EPA had served as our coordinator and assisted the network in many management tasks. With EPA shifting priorities we parted ways and joined with UNH’s Sustainability Institute which has been a fantastic fit for both the network and the Institute. Through this partnership we learned about the fellowship program and many of the NEMSN members applied for fellows.

“The program is competitive – both for fellows and for placements. UNHSI worked to recruit the most talented, motivated applicants tailored to our project needs, from a competitive national applicant pool. They recruit Fellows enrolled in a college or university, and give explicit preference to graduate students in specific disciplines (according to the needs of the project).

“Fellows receive stipends of $6000. Placement organizations are asked to provide matching funds of $3500 (half of the stipend, plus the associated payroll tax).”

You may have seen Kwolek and interested Dedhamites such as Martha Zeolla of the Oakdale neighborhood at the town’s Farmers Market earlier this summer, helping to educate citizens on what can be done to conserve resources and mitigate our overall carbon footprint. Among the tangible steps residents can take are to consume a greater share of their diets from non-meat sources and to conserve energy by making their homes more efficient.

Here is how Kwolek outlined her efforts on behalf of the town during the past few months:
 
“I’ve worn many hats. Over the summer I’ve worked to fill in the gaps and update the municipal energy usage data for Dedham. From that I created an inventory for FY16 and then `17 that we used to help find a better baseline year for the next emissions reduction goal that will be included in the climate action plan. I also analyzed the data to find areas of inefficiency where interventions would be most effective in reducing the towns greenhouse gas emissions.

“On top of all that I created an outline for a climate action plan which will function as a living document to be updated as Dedham reaches certain sustainability milestones through their participation in the Compact of Mayors (a global coalition of city and town leaders for collective climate action). It also serves to help improve organization of sustainable projects and programs that the town is engaged in, or is hoping to engage in.

“My work involved a lot of research, documentation, and collaboration with various departments as well as lots of conversation with Ginny who was my mentor through the fellowship. A couple weeks ago I had a table at the Farmers Market where I displayed a poster summarizing my work and talked with people about the work I was doing and why it was important.”

She added that the main sources for her research this summer included the ICLEI (the acronyn for the group formerly called International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives but which is now known is ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability), other fellows from UNHSI, the Climate Action Plans of communities such as Boston and Richmond, VA, and Enviornmental Coordinator LeClair herself. At the request of The Dedham Times, Kwolek explained how she became interested in this emerging scholarly and professional discipline.

“I honestly didn’t know Sustainability was a field until I got to college. I grew up in a house where I was taught to love our earth. We recycled/composted, and spending time outside was encouraged. I was interested in environmental science in high school and my first couple years of college but didn’t really know what it was until I took the Global Sustainability intro class and it just clicked. It’s felt right ever since then. I have to give huge credit to my professors and advisor for helping me sort it out.”

 

[Editor’s note: Brittany Kwolek’s last day working in the town’s Environmental Department is Friday, August 18. She made her final presentation on her findings this summer at the Seaside Science Center in New Hampshire last Thursday, August 10.]