By Sarah Lutman
April 20, 2020
Nonprofits should play a bigger role in adopting best practices to address the climate crisis.
This column appeared in the April issue of Twin Cities Business magazine.
Concerns about the climate crisis are growing stronger, as temperatures rise and climate patterns shift, affecting everything from air quality to vegetation, animal life, and sea levels. Advocates and citizens are urging government and business leaders to move swiftly to mitigate carbon emissions. But what is the nonprofit sector doing about this important challenge?
There are myriad nonprofits dedicated to environmental causes generally and climate change specifically. These range from large universities housing faculty and institutes studying alternative energy, the science of climate, and ecosystem impacts of climate change, among many other subjects.
Mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, and the Audubon Society, are putting climate change front and center in their public education and conservation efforts. And advocates are spawning new nonprofits like Climate Action and the Climate Reality Project.
Locally, the McKnight Foundation’s Midwest Climate and Energy program has as its goal, “To take bold action on the climate crisis by dramatically cutting carbon pollution in the Midwest by 2030.” The foundation is an important local resource for information about nonprofits working in this field. Its grantee list is broad and includes Minnesota city and county governments, regional and national nonprofits, and networks of nonprofits working together to spur research, action, and advocacy.
A handful of Minnesota-based nonprofits are part of the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN), a 175-organization alliance that includes two Minneapolis-based organizations: Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. Many of these nonprofits and advocates publish public information and propose action steps for policymakers, urging regulatory or other reforms that can substantively reduce carbon emissions and help move our civilization toward sustainable energy sources.
But what can and should any thoughtfully managed nonprofit do about climate change? It’s good practice to have personnel policies; what about climate policies? And what would that look like?
A simple start is to look at the LEED requirements for construction and property management (LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design) established by the Green Building Alliance. LEED’s global standards consist of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes, and neighborhoods.
The Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG) lists 55 LEED certifications in Minnesota and also details the buildings and businesses that are certified by other programs such as Energy Star ratings. Many designees are nonprofits, especially public and private schools or individual buildings on college campuses. LEED’s programming includes guidance not only for building construction projects but also for energy use.
Examples of local LEED designees in the nonprofit sector include the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies building in Eden Prairie, a LEED gold awardee, and the new Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity headquarters in St. Paul, which earned the silver designation. Habitat’s home construction and renovation projects often are built to LEED standards as well.
For a small nonprofit that rents space and may not control operations, such as energy systems or even its recycling programs, what can be done to become part of the climate solution? Plenty. Key elements of a climate policy might include organizational answers to the following questions, based on a “solutions” series published by the Science and Climate series at the University of California Davis:
- Are we easily accessible to clients, vendors, and employees by public transit?
- Can employees work from home when possible or time-shift to avoid sitting in traffic and burning unnecessary fuel?
- Do we use videoconferencing or the telephone in lieu of air travel when possible?
- Can we lower our thermostat in the winter and raise it in the summer to lessen heating and air conditioning use?
- Can we reduce food waste and food packaging in the office?
- Are products like paint, hand soap, and cleaners nontoxic?
- Can we reduce use of disposable dishes?
- What can we do to lessen the amount of printing we do?
- How can we evaluate our vendors in light of our climate policy?
These questions, among others, can help nonprofits answer how they can be part of the climate solution. Estimates show that internationally, about 2.5 percent of carbon emissions result from air travel. Is every business trip necessary?
A much larger percentage of emissions comes from automobiles, approximately 15 percent. Can we drive less, and walk, bike, and take public transit more often?
Electricity accounts for a whopping 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Can you stand to raise the temperature for air conditioning by two or three degrees? The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says that for each degree raised, you can save 3 to 5 percent on energy costs while reducing electricity use. How about turning out lights when you don’t need them?
Perhaps most importantly, just having the conversation, and discussing these questions within your organization can help you discover new ways you can not only expand your organizations’ knowledge about energy use and climate research, but also help staffers, clients, vendors, and volunteers adopt practices at home and work that empower them to be part of the changes needed for our planet to thrive.
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.