And even better when the person comes from a very unexpected place.
Stick with me, and I'll tell you why the hell you should care. You're gonna love this.
UPDATE: If you haven't already, please read Jerome a Paris's It's Official: Climate Change Changes Everything for yet more reasons why you should care.
The traditional image of ASHRAE (ASH-ray) is that it is one of those faceless industry groups that are usually known by their acronyms and are mostly seen clogging up hotel conference halls with middle-aged men with comb-overs and nametags. But, if nothing else, it is an influential association, since nearly every heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineer in America (and worldwide) has a set of the latest ASHRAE handbooks on their desk. It is the de facto industry bible. ASHRAE has one thing in spades, and that is technical authority.
So why should you care? Simple. ASHRAE may just hold your child's future in their hands.
Approximately 40% of the energy used in the United States is used in transportation. You all realize the impact our reliance on motorized transport. Face it, you really feel like you should bike more, walk more or get that hybrid you've been talking about. Me too.
But that leaves a pretty massive chunk of energy use still out there. And most people have very little awareness that the remaining 60%, by far the majority of the country's energy diet, is used in the built environment: Office buildings, schools, factories, homes, etc. And of that, a staggering 55% is consumed in the operation of HVAC equipment to make these spaces usable. And the overwhelming majority of that energy is created using fossil fuels, which, when burned, release carbon dioxide into our rapidly heating atmosphere
ASHRAE is essentially the gatekeeper to that massive chunk of our nation's energy pie.
But, until recently, ASHRAE was essentially a passive guardian. It is by tradition a consensus organization. What has driven this group from its inception is the gathering and the disseminating of objective, technical knowledge. This means that any document created, any policy enacted or any standard developed had to have essentially unanimous buy-in from the interested stakeholders. This helped prevent small interest groups or powerful industry players from hijacking the agenda away from this goal of objectivity. And the society was very careful to stay out of the realm of politics. While this culture has earned it the deserved respect of the industry it served, it has made it a very inward-focused group that only rarely changed at anything but the most glacial pace.
The problem, however, is that climate change is a problem that must be faced NOW. In the years before Terry Townsend took the role of the Society President, he could see that there was no way that the organization could ignore the responsibility it had to society at large, and that the organization had to change in order to become relevant to this great challenge facing our civilization. He pushed the board members to enact policies embracing sustainable design and carbon reductions, but they resisted, saying he was asking for too much, too fast. So he tried a different tactic.
He started distributing little green stickers that said "ASHRAE is Green" at Society meetings, intended to be placed on members nametags. Now to an ASHRAE member, their nametag is sort of like a boy scout sash--it displays the committees of which you are a member and honors you may have received. It basically says who you are and what you are about. Terry had noticed that his awareness of his organization's unique position to affect our future for the better was not unique. Many, if not most, of his colleagues also saw the danger we faced and the potential they had. But what they didn't have was leadership. Terry's realization was that grass-roots was desperate for some vision on this issue, and when given a voice, no matter how small, the grass-roots was ready to put their name to this cause. At every meeting, more and more nametags sported the green dot.
Now Terry's entreaties were no longer just the nagging of one disaffected board member--They echoed the sentiments of a large and growing portion of the membership. Faced with a growing sea of green dots, the board finally relented and asked Terry to help them shape ASHRAE's role as a leader in the fight for a sustainable future.
When Terry took over the reigns of the Society President earlier this year he knew that in order to tap the vast wealth of ASHRAE's technical knowledge in order to combat global climate change, he would need to change both his organization's internal culture and, as much as possible, change the culture of the outside world.
He started, as all management classes tell you, with a mission statement:
To advance the arts and sciences of heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigerating to serve humanity and promote a sustainable world.
It is tough to convey how revolutionary this is for an organization that has had a long aversion to advocacy of any sort. This is taking the goal of sustainability and putting it into the forefront of what this vast (55,000 members) international technical organization is supposed to be doing.
But a mission statement is just words unless you truly act to change the culture. And, in many ways, changing the culture was easy. In fact, in one sense Terry simply recognized what a large portion of the membership had already realized. There had already been great involvement by individual members or local chapters in the realm of sustainable building design. Many members of ASHRAE were also active and enthusiastic members of organizations focused soley on sustainablility like the US Green Building Council (another heroic group in its own right). So in large part all that was missing was the leadership and vision from above.
Terry followed up on this vision with a promise. He issued a document called The ASHRAE Promise: A Sustainable Future in which he outlines what ASHRAE will contribute to the goal of sustainability. It is well worth a read. In it he describes that in order to meet his goals of turning ASHRAE into a leader in the realm of sustainability, he has commissioned a `sustainability roadmap' that outlines the future for the organization. This has included a first-ever strategic plan for focusing the organization's vast research efforts more directly to the issues of greatest importance to society, an effort to increase the effectiveness of the national energy efficiency standard by making it easier to use, and to develop an "Advanced Energy Design Guide Series" focusing individual user-friendly design handbooks on the different industry facets and prioritizing their release to optimize their effect.
But none of these internal changes of direction would mean much unless ASHRAE could become a more nimble, streamlined organization. The requirement for near-unanimous agreement on any issue for a true consensus greatly slowed the speed at which the organization could react. There was a precedent, however, for quicker action. In the middle of the 1970's energy crisis, the organization pulled together and was able to create the nation's first energy efficiency standard for buildings, ASHRAE 90, in just ninety days--a lightning-fast reaction to a direct Federal plea for assistance in the matter. One of the ways they were able to react this quickly was by relaxing the requirement for consensus somewhat for that unique project. Terry saw the advantage of this cultural change in addressing our current crisis and is acting to reduce the requirements for societal action across the board from unanimity to what amounts to an overwhelming majority. As he says it:
Right now, we have an opinion that to achieve consensus we must achieve nearly unanimous agreement. I don't understand that. Why are we requiring a greater level of stringency for acceptance of a standard than required to change the Constitution of the United States?
Unlike in the 1970's, where the Federal government recognized the perils facing the nation and took pro-active action to pull industry groups into alignment on a national goal, there has been absolutely no effort by the current administration to take similar action on climate change or energy issues. Thus Terry could see that these internal changes would mean nothing if ASHRAE remained in its "ivory tower" and waited for others to come to them for their expertise. He saw that the organization would have to involve itself in outreach to other industry groups, environmental interests and to the government. And that is exactly what they have done.
ASHRAE has built upon their strategic alliance with the US Green Building Council and built alliances with other aligned groups like the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Terry has also worked to create new alliances with groups not traditionally closely associated with ASHRAE. He tells a story of showing up at a meeting of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) and finding out they weren't sure how to treat him. They had heard of ASHRAE, but they had never had an official contact with them before. He found himself standing in a reception hall with a crowd of curious solar engineers staring at him a few paces away. But once he convinced them that he was for real, and ASHRAE really did want to collaborate with them, the beginnings of a new relationship were formed.
Another great coup for the organization was to be selected as one of the few industry groups brought on as advisors for the Clinton Global Climate Initiative. This initiative grew out of the frustrations of local leaders with the inaction and inability of national leaders throughout the world to deal with the problem of global climate change. The Large Cities Climate Leadership Group was formed by the mayors of 22 of the world's largest cities, representing a huge chunk of the world's population. They saw the organizational power the Bill Clinton brought to issues such as HIV/AIDS relief and asked him to help them in their efforts. Clinton's organization will provide organizational and technical support--and the technical support will come from ASHRAE, USGBC, The Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI).
But ASHRAE has taken things further, and is now turning the paradigm of the 1970's on its head. Instead of waiting for the government to come to them, ASHRAE is going to the government. They have greatly increased their presence on Capitol Hill--actively seeking out legislators to impress upon them the urgency for action on climate change and to educate them on the unique capabilities and strengths that ASHRAE can offer to the effort. Terry tells a very encouraging story. He was meeting with the chief of staff of a "powerful" Republican senator on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. (Anyone who knows Washington knows that if you are actually looking to get something done, talking to the legislator is far less useful than talking to their staff.) They spoke for about an hour about what ASHRAE saw as the challenges facing the nation and what they could offer to help the government. As Terry got ready to leave, she stopped him and said something that I believe is very significant. She told Terry that in all her time on the hill, their meeting was the first time an organization or an interest group had met with her and had not had their hand out looking for some legislative favors. It was the first time a group had come to them and simply said "this is what we can do and how we can help."
--The Power of Action--
Terry's efforts at ASHRAE have been to take a inwardly-focused, technically-driven organization and turn it into an engine for positive change in our society. He has done this not by using powers of persuasion to convince people that climate change is a problem ,but instead by providing leadership to people that, by and large, had already come to that realization. His successes show how critical one person can be to tip the momentum of a larger group by providing the vision and the inspiration that the group is craving. And he has shown that a non-partisan industry group does not have to be disengaged from politics--that in fact, their relevancy is strengthened by ignoring the potential political fallout and taking a stand on an issue of utmost importance to society at large.
Who would have expected this from an organization of air-conditioning engineers?
(If you like what Terry Townsend and ASHRAE are doing, please let them know. Let's keep them headed in the right direction)