The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) recognizes that climate change is real, serious, and primarily caused by human activities – and that New Hampshire residents are experiencing its effects. Climate change is different from the environmental challenges of the past in that its causes are pervasive throughout our daily life and global economy, and its impacts ripple through the Earth’s atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial systems at all scales. Addressing such a challenge requires 21st century environmental agencies to fully transform from siloed management structures to integrated teams capable of responding to evolving conditions and opportunities. Recognizing this need, NHDES has actively been engaged in such a transition since 2010, and the result has been a transformation in how the agency views climate change and how staff are networked across disciplines.
In late 2010, NHDES issued a strategic plan that called for incorporation of climate change considerations into the agency’s programs and activities. While a few of the agency’s bureaus began tackling this challenge in 2011, most didn’t have the resources for a new initiative, many were unclear as to whether the science of climate change was settled, and others were unsure how to begin. In 2012, one bureau conducted a reorganization using climate change as a lens through which to view its work — an effort that led to the development of a systematic process that NHDES used to obtain funding from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2013. The grant not only supported staff time to evaluate three additional bureaus, but also supported a series of meetings that explored the opportunities and barriers to incorporating considerations of climate change department-wide.
The meetings, referred to as “Cookies & Climate Change” due to the provision of homemade baked good by staff, occurred on five separate occasions between the summer of 2013 and the winter of 2015 with the assistance of trained external facilitators. The conversations brought together the agency’s senior leadership, bureau administrators, and the staff most directly affected by climate change. At each meeting, the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner not only welcomed the 50 attendees, but also emphasized that the science of climate is clear, that change is already happening, and that NHDES must actively address it. Further, they joined the three division directors as participants spread among the small breakout discussion groups.
The breakout groups were a mix of managers and staff from across the agency, intended to foster a shared understanding of the opportunities and barriers related to climate change, to develop a path forward determined by staff, and to allow staff from across the agency to get to know one another and make connections. At the end of the session, each of the groups shared their takeaways. Each reported similar – if not identical – questions, concerns, needs, and opportunities. Subsequent conversations continued to mix leadership and staff and explore the opportunities and barriers further. With each conversation months apart, the department was able to explore these ideas and concepts more deeply and, in doing so, develop a plan to systematically incorporate climate change considerations within and among all programs.
Results to Date:
During the meetings, staff indicated that in order for the agency to be successful in addressing the causes and impacts of climate change, they would need: 1) clear and sustained direction from senior leadership; 2) staff support to facilitate their own review process; and 3) ongoing education. While these resources were provided in the months following the last meeting, the impact of the conversations themselves has been transformative. At the end of the five conversations, climate change was no longer a niche issue, restricted to a small group of staff in the air division. With the leadership from the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, it was clear to managers at all levels that this was not a “flavor of the month” and was to be considered across all areas of our work. With this commitment made clear, new climate champions emerged, empowered to explore alternatives and push the boundaries in both infrastructure and natural systems. Each of the more than 20 bureaus identified a climate change lead staffer to work with a central climate coordinator, and within a short time more than 600 possible actions were identified. The agency is in the process of refining these down to a plan due to be presented in 2016.