Leader to Follow: She’s driving behavior change by changing the conversation
Her community-focused approach is driving real change for cities, towns, and counties across the US.
Kim, you founded KLA in 2014 — for over seven years now, you’ve run a team of nationally recognized climate champions, working specifically with local governments.
In the context of your work, how do you think about the term ‘smart city’?
“That’s a really good question. I think a lot of people hear ‘smart city’ and they think technology, internet connectedness, automation, you know, things like that… and that is a huge part of it.
But when I’ve been at smart city tech conferences, I constantly feel the need to remind everyone that none of our smart tech matters if there are no people.
We’ve seen historically that after extreme events, like Hurricane Sandy or Maria… many of the communities that fared the best over multiple months of no power tended to be more of the immigrant communities, the lower-income folks because they were already connected to each other. The strength of our social networks and connectedness are huge factors in our resilience and therefore need to be taken into account and fostered as part of a smart city.
None of the tech matters if we don’t have that kind of community strength and concern about each other. So I think technology plays an important role, but we can’t forget the human-focused role as well.
Humans are innately social beings… and I think we have to remind ourselves that there’s a lot of opportunities to connect off of technology platforms as well as on.”
In your work and in your podcast, you connect with local leaders who are doing this “connectedness” work… how’s morale?
“It’s hard. At the end of the day, we’re talking about behavior change, and people don’t like to change. We think we do, but we really don’t.
When you think about quick adoptions… like how fast cellular phones went from being a luxury to literally everybody having one. And now that’s your computer in your hand. That timeline was so fast.
Yet, still, the majority of people are driving internal combustion engine vehicles. Technology from the 19th century. What is the thinking there? Just because they put a fancier cover on it somehow it makes it different?
It’s very interesting to see the different levers in our lives that push us towards technology or don’t, and to ask why? There are a lot of misinformation campaigns out there. So it’s hard.”
What I’m hearing is that there are challenges in the communication aspect of this work.
“Yes, absolutely. Part of the challenge is that scientists like to speak in scientific terms.
Typically we talk about greenhouse gas emissions in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. What does that mean to you? It means nothing to most people. So at KLA we focus on translating this into something more tangible. Rather than saying 35,000 metric tons reduced, we say, You need to convert 800 homes from oil heat to electric heat pumps by 2025 or replace 1,000 combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles by 2025- and all while adding more renewable energy to the grid.’ These indicators help make the actions that need to be taken very clear and understandable.
This is especially important now, where the reality is that we have eight years to take aggressive action to reduce emissions so that we can actually achieve so many of these NetZero 2050 targets.
Eight years is scary. You say 2050, and it feels like a million years away — but eight years. I can rationalize that. Like, my daughter will be graduating from high school in eight years. That doesn’t seem as far away.
So at the end of the day, this work is about communication and driving behavior change, both of which are difficult.
“Yes. Inertia against change is a big problem.
If you’re looking for background just out of your own curiosity, Yale has a great climate communication center, and they do a study every year asking about people’s thoughts and concerns around climate change. Overwhelmingly, the majority of Americans are concerned about climate change. They know it is happening now. They even know it’s caused by humans. They know it’s affecting other countries. They know it’s affecting future generations. But almost nobody thinks it’s affecting them personally. That is a BIG problem.
The reason KLA focuses on local government isn’t just because I have a background in that — but because local governments have an opportunity to enable behavior change.
Over 75% of Americans still trust their local government. Not the same for state and federal, but for local, they do. You can see your mayor at the grocery store, right? They’re here. They’re with you. So you have that trust, which is essential to trigger behavior change.
And then, most importantly, you can’t force someone else’s behavior change — but you can create an enabling environment. So if I want people to get out of their cars, onto bikes, or walking more, I can create safe sidewalks, safe bike lanes. There’s a lot of different tools I can put into play at the local government level that enable that behavior change.”
Your work focuses on plans, so climate action plans, resilience plans, sustainability plans, and I wanted to ask what that means to you in today’s media-and-hype environment — we see these lofty goal announcements, like, “Our city will be electric-only by 2050!’ And it’s like, “Cool… what’s our plan for doing that?”
“Yeah, it’s such a great question because I think planning particularly in the climate and sustainability space for communities has evolved quite a bit in my 20 years doing it.
The first plan I wrote 20 years ago, which was the first in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was literally me in a bubble coming up with a bunch of good ideas. There was not any type of public process. It was 2001, so people weren’t talking about climate change at all in the US.
But now we’ve really evolved in so many ways, where these plans cannot be sitting on shelves.
Today, it’s about making sure we’re always applying that equity lens from the very beginning, meaning — Who are we involving in the discussions about this particular planning process? What exactly are we giving them as resources or education or training so that they’re prepared to be part of these conversations?
You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we want you to be part of this process. Tell us what you think about climate change.’ There has to be a public process that brings everyone along for the ride- acknowledging that we are not all starting from the same place.”
That makes sense, and I wrote down the phrase you used, that it’s a ‘public process’. So really, it’s not just about “Oh, we’re building a table with lots of seats so that people can come and tell us what they think,” it’s, “We are all together building this together.”
“Exactly. Making sure that we’re bringing everybody up to the same discussion level so that we can have those conversations — and it often requires building trust and laying a foundational effort to grow climate literacy.
Trust-building is so important, but it takes time. The planning process can be a solid foundation for connecting the community and working on building that trust. Then we need to truly grow climate literacy in the community, to help people understand how climate change will affect them personally and how they can work together with their community to be more prepared.
How much do you love it? Do you wake up every day excited to get to work and to do this work?
“This is, for me — it’s a life’s mission. So it’s not even a question, I absolutely love it. And for most of my team, you’ll find that this doesn’t feel like work for us.
If we can bring more tools and resources to others, to understand the impact that we’re having on our planet and our civilization, and the action that needs to be taken… that’s what we want to do.
I always knew I was going to be working in the environmental field… even as a child I was very passionate about protecting the planet and the species on it. When I learned of seals being poached for their pelts, I told my Mom that I was going to the Arctic, and that me and the polar bears were going to kill the seal poachers!
So it kind of started from that, I went on to study environmental science, then in graduate school, I learned about climate change. And that was it, I was hooked.”
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