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The Green Issue

Mothers vs. climate change

A startup activist group turns to an ages-old network for recruits: moms.

Kelsey Wirth has concluded that the big environmental groups have for whatever reason largely failed to engage the masses. Mothers — who vote, who purchase, who network — could be the ones to change that.

Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff

Kelsey Wirth has concluded that the big environmental groups have for whatever reason largely failed to engage the masses. Mothers — who vote, who purchase, who network — could be the ones to change that.

ON A DAMP WEDNESDAY NIGHT, women trickle into a home on Jamaica Plain’s Eliot Street, shedding winter coats, chitchatting about work and kids, grabbing a wineglass and a bit of cheese. Some have come intrigued to learn more, others simply because a neighbor invited them. Eventually, they meander into the living room, settling on chairs and couches around a projection screen, awaiting the pitch.

In another era, what’s for sale might be Tupperware; on another block somewhere, perhaps Stella & Dot jewelry or pricey skin-care products. But here, tonight, what’s being sold is no less than saving the planet.

Continue reading below

***

“CONVINCE ME.”

That’s the gauntlet I threw down weeks earlier to Kelsey Wirth, 44, a seasoned entrepreneur and mother of two who’s the driving force behind Mothers Out Front, the upstart nonprofit throwing house parties (and stroller-dotted Beacon Hill rallies) in an effort to unite Massachusetts mothers in the fight against climate change. I present the perfect test case: a South Shore mom who schleps the kids around in a gas guzzler, spends way too much on winter oil bills, gets scolding letters from her power company about using more kilowatts than the neighbors, and, other than separating trash from recycling, hasn’t given too much mind-share to the cause.

By contrast, Wirth is a woman who could probably itemize her carbon footprint down to the cubic foot, from the Prius (a plus) parked outside her spacious (a minus) Cambridge home recently retrofitted with efficient LED bulbs (another plus) to her second home (another minus) in Colorado, equipped with solar panels on the property that help offset the energy it takes to fly there and to run the house. By tapping mothers, both apathetic and green true believers, Wirth is hoping to unleash a broad social movement that ultimately evolves into a national force — similar to what journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben’s 350.org has done with college students, this time with moms.

Forget the polar bears. This is about human mamas protecting their cubs. “We are not an environmental organization,” says Wirth, curled up in her sun-lit kitchen in jeans and a gray sweater, colorful kids’ artwork plastering the walls. “The earth is not our symbol. It’s not about the planet, per se. It’s about our kids. Our goal is to make climate change an issue that mothers care about because they are concerned about their kids’ future.”

Growing up the daughter of a politician (Tim Wirth of Colorado, pictured) meant Kelsey Wirth was used to a level of “uncertainty and chaos” around job security. She says that helped her as an entrepreneur.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Growing up the daughter of a politician (Tim Wirth of Colorado, pictured) meant Kelsey Wirth was used to a level of “uncertainty and chaos” around job security. She says that helped her as an entrepreneur.

It may sound a bit starry-eyed or like an Ivy-educated stay-at-home mom’s creative play to reenter the workforce. But Wirth may just have the pedigree to pull it off, bringing a trifecta of talents: environmental chops, political insight, and business savvy. As a newly minted Stanford MBA in what seems like a lifetime ago, she cofounded Align Technologies, makers of Invisalign invisible braces, taking it from startup mode to a publicly traded company in a short four years. And she comes from a family of environmental champions. Her father, former US representative and senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, in 1988 held one of the earliest congressional hearings on climate change. He subsequently served as undersecretary of state for global affairs and then as president of the United Nations Foundation. Her mother, Wren Winslow, runs a foundation that gives $1.2 million annually in small grants, some of which go to green groups. Wirth’s husband, Samuel Myers, researches the impact of global environmental change on human health for Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health.

From her perch, Wirth has concluded that the big environmental groups have for whatever reason largely failed to engage the masses. Mothers — who vote, who purchase, who are the linchpins of communities, and, yes, who network on Facebook — could be the ones to make it happen.

“We need people coming together and putting pressure on our leaders to change,” says Wirth. “They’re not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts; that’s not how change happens. If ever there were a powerful messenger bringing this message, it is mothers.” She continues: “That’s the voice that has been largely missing. It’s not a bunch of easily dismissed political radicals. We’re not a bunch of anarchists. We’re moms.”

***

Mothers Out Front has only two full-time staff members; the group is mainly volunteer-run. Here, a training session in Cambridge.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Mothers Out Front has only two full-time staff members; the group is mainly volunteer-run. Here, a training session in Cambridge.

AT THE JAMAICA PLAIN MEETING, the women take turns sharing what drew them there. For one, it was a symposium on Cape Cod where climate scientists were “visibly petrified.” For others, it was a daughter’s school project on fracking, or witnessing an oil company burning off natural-gas flares from wells on a trip to Ecuador, or growing up in a polluted steel-mill town, or noticing the prevalence of asthma inhalers.

Some are silver-haired grandmothers. One is four months pregnant. Two are childless, there for their nieces and nephews. Many moms have done their small bit. Cloth diapers. Reusable lunch containers. Making their kids walk to school. Now they’re looking for something more. One mother describes her “deep sadness” about changes she sees in the natural world, then says, “I want something I can do on a bigger level.”

“A lot of us are privately worrying,” another mom says. “We do have power,” she adds. “This is our chance to seize it.”

The notion that climate scientists and activists have long fought to get across, that Mother Earth is off-kilter, seems to be resonating with regular people throughout the country. In a November 2013 Yale/George Mason poll, 63 percent of the Americans surveyed said they were convinced climate change is happening, and half of the people overall were worried about it. State officials are certainly taking the issue seriously and have earmarked $50 million for climate-change preparedness.

At the house party, a slide show and video briefly review the science, but the most crucial message is one of empowerment. You don’t need to be an expert on climatology, the listener is reassured. Ninety-five percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and man-made.

“People don’t respond to, ‘Oh my God, let me tell you the latest science. We’re in trouble if we don’t stop burning X number of fossil fuels by 2050, the sea levels are going to rise by X amount’ and all these horrible things,” Wirth says, explaining the messaging. “That makes people want to run in the opposite direction. Including me. I spent years — even though I grew up knowing about climate change because of my father’s work — I spent a long time avoiding reading about it. It’s depressing; the science is depressing.”

She’s right. One by one, each environmental activist I speak with praises Wirth’s ambition — then proceeds to beat the same dreary drum. That 167 nations agreed with a UN resolution in 2009 that average temperatures should not be allowed to rise more than 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, yet we’re reneging on the promise and are nearly halfway there. That we’ve blown past the so-called threshold figure of 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, beyond which it would be difficult to stop temperatures from exceeding that limit. That to avoid a further rise, 80 percent of the globe’s fossil fuels known to be recoverable need to be left — unused by Big Oil and the rest of us — in the ground. That the United States has an important leadership role to play and can’t ask other countries to take any aggressive action if we are not leading.

Wirth, when we speak again, yanks me back from the abyss. She wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t have faith, and others should, too. It’s not too late, but we do need to get to work.

***

WIRTH GREW UP shuttling back and forth between Colorado and Washington, D.C., where she attended the elite Sidwell Friends School starting in seventh grade. “Politics is what we lived and breathed. It directed every conversation at the dinner table,” she recalls. Raised in a family of mountain climbers and skiers, she studied American history and literature at Harvard. There, outside the Beltway bubble, she was taken aback to find herself categorized as a “senator’s daughter” by her status-conscious peers. After graduation, she worked on political campaigns back in Colorado, including Clinton/Gore in 1992, ultimately moving to D.C., where she spent one year as a consultant at the Environmental Working Group, to which she would eventually return as a member and then chairwoman of its board.

On what she calls a lark, she applied and was accepted to the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1995, graduating in 1997. She was then persuaded by a classmate, Zia Chishti, to attempt a startup that would create an invisible teeth-straightening system. “I felt none of that risk aversion, because I grew up with a father who every two years had a 50-50 chance [that he] wasn’t going to have a job,” she says. “The uncertainty and chaos felt totally comfortable to me.” Still, the move puzzled classmates, most of whom in those pre-dotcom-boom days were still pursuing traditional post-MBA paths into consulting and finance. Close to a dozen different venture capitalists easily dismissed Wirth and Chishti, some laughed them out of their offices, until finally they persuaded a partner at Silicon Valley’s renowned Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to give them a shot.

The business grew, going public on the Nasdaq in January 2001 in a $120 million offering. Shortly thereafter, Wirth left her post as president, retaining a place on the board for two years. During her scant moments of free time at Align, Wirth had met Myers, then a practicing physician, and the two married in October 2002 in a 300-person black-tie ceremony held in San Francisco’s stately Grace Cathedral.

In 2004, the couple decided to settle in the Boston area, where Myers grew up, and purchased their Cambridge home, a short walk to Harvard Yard. They quickly had two daughters, Sophie and Lucy, now 9 and 7. For a period of time, Wirth leaned out, staying active on the Environmental Working Group board but eschewing full-time employment for their daughters’ sake.

“My childhood was full of love, but it was a lot of chaos and putting my father’s career ahead of our family. I was determined they would have a mother who was capable of being entirely focused on them — for better or worse,” she says with a rueful smile. For largely the same reason, she shudders at the idea of entering politics herself, pointing to the job’s inhospitableness for raising a family, not to mention the current logjam in federal government.

But even immersed in parenting, Wirth couldn’t escape that nagging inner voice. One night, reading a picture book on coral reefs to Sophie, then 2, Wirth found her eyes tearing up and her voice catching at the thought of her daughter perhaps never experiencing that wonder for herself, and then her own sense of powerlessness. “I thought, I can’t be the only mother who feels this intense anxiety,” she says, pointing to this as her “aha” moment. “How about trying to reach them and explore what we could do if we all came together?”

Between preschool drop-off and pickup, she booked a meeting with Marshall Ganz, a social activism theorist who is a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Wirth got a crash course from Ganz in movement building, from Frances Willard’s temperance fight to Cesar Chavez and workers’ rights, reading about how to solicit concrete action, pooling individuals into a greater collective, working at the local, state, and federal levels, giving an abstract concept moral urgency, and, most of all, infusing participants with a sense of hope.

“When she went off for the summer, she was gobbling up books on movements and then came back with this idea,” Ganz recalls. “I thought, Of course. It’s really striking to what extent the environment movement has been dominated by male scientific voices. The human dimension of what’s at risk we don’t hear much about. For Kelsey, it seemed what made it real was having kids — your perspective on the future shifts a little bit.”

To the naysayers, Ganz points to ample moments throughout history when mothers have forced a change: temperance, suffrage, drunken driving, nuclear testing, and, as contemporaries, the nascent One Million Moms for Gun Control. One morning in the fall of 2012, Wirth cornered Vanessa Rule, cofounder of the environmental group Better Future Project, pre-dawn at a round-the-clock vigil in Boston lobbying Massachusetts’s senatorial candidates. She had one simple proposal: How about harnessing mothers as a constituency?

The idea immediately appealed to Rule, who admits, strikingly, that her member base included few parents. Despite being a mother herself, Rule had deliberately kept those two parts of her life disconnected, knowing the subject was, as she puts it, “touchy” and “a downer.” The pair started organizing a flurry of house parties in early 2013, often running one a night. “Kelsey’s an unbelievable learner. She has this incredible vision and discipline,” says Rule, whose epiphany occurred while viewing Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, in 2006. “I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into this work, but I never would have had the vision of scale.”

“Kelsey is not only an idea person, but someone who sees things through,” says Chip Giller, a Lexington native and founder of the Seattle-based environmental news site Grist. “I think that’s the mark of a leader: idea plus follow-up.”

The strategy is ingenious. After all, which would your typical mom be more likely to choose, a dry lecture down at the local library or a glass of chardonnay and a chance to escape bedtime duty? “If we were a program of the Sierra Club, there are a lot of mothers who would never come to a meeting,” Wirth says.

The Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal- and oil-fired plant that is set to be replaced with one that runs on natural gas — more efficient, but still a source of greenhouse gases — is a point of contention for the group.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

The Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal- and oil-fired plant that is set to be replaced with one that runs on natural gas — more efficient, but still a source of greenhouse gases — is a point of contention for the group.

To date, Wirth, Rule, and a second generation of facilitators have run 76 parties, recruiting more than 600 women in homes from Beacon Hill to Amherst to get involved, whether that means attending a roundtable to quiz the state’s gubernatorial candidates on energy policy or joining a protest against one of the state’s few remaining coal plants. (As for me, I was indeed convinced enough to sign up for an energy audit through Mass Save.) At a rally in Hyannis over Labor Day Weekend, Wirth spoke persuasively on the need for collective action. “We know reducing personal energy use is not enough,” she told the crowd of 200, according to news reports, “and voting makes me feel small.” Momentum seems to be growing beyond just the house parties. The group’s February 1 campaign kickoff turned out 350 supporters to march from Tremont Temple Baptist Church to the State House. Except for two full-time staffers, the group is volunteer-led, receiving money from the Barr Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, individual donors, and others.

“Kelsey brings clear-eyed leadership and an understanding of politics,” says state Senator Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat from Marblehead, who spoke at the February event and was impressed with the turnout. “She comes from a political family; she knows how the game is played.”

“Mothers are a natural group who should be stepping up,” says Bob Massie, a former executive director of the environmental coalition Ceres and a longtime family friend who helped officiate at Wirth’s marriage. “We have experienced an appalling and disgraceful failure of leadership from the people who are normally referred to as leaders in our society. . . . Other groups are stepping up and saying we may not be the culturally accepted definition of leaders, we may not have all the training you’d want . . . but we can’t stand this.” He continues, “This is a new take on organization that’s a long way from the Tupperware party.”

***

FIRST ON THE MOTHERS OUT FRONT agenda is individual action, persuading 10,000 households to enroll in Mass Energy’s GreenUp program, asking them to willingly pay around a 20 percent premium on their monthly electric bill to source their home’s needs with renewable rather than fossil-fuel energy. (Strictly speaking, the program does not literally source one’s home with green power; rather, it creates demand in the marketplace by committing to purchase energy credits produced by solar or wind projects.)

It may be a lofty goal, considering that of the state’s 2.2 million households, only a tiny fraction of them — around 9,000 — currently are enrolled, but one Mass Energy executive director Larry Chretien believes is within grasp. “I’m not dismissing Mothers Out Front,” he says, “and people who do would be making a mistake.” From her position of privilege, with two daughters attending private school in Belmont, Wirth is keenly aware of the cost she is asking others to pay. “Can only rich people afford to do this?” she muses. “It is $10 to 15 a month more. . . . Making the right choices is going to involve some personal sacrifice.”

The group’s broader policy platform is even more ambitious. It includes persuading Massachusetts not to invest in any new power plants that use nonrenewable energy and asking Governor Deval Patrick to sign an executive order to that effect. One of the flash points for Mothers Out Front is the plan to replace Salem’s retiring coal- and oil-fired plant with a new natural-gas one. Natural gas — which, studies indicate, cuts greenhouse gas emissions nearly 50 percent compared with coal but does not eliminate them — already provides more than half of the state’s energy, Wirth says. That hard-line stance puts the group at odds with an administration that has already passed ambitious emissions-reducing legislation, currently leads the nation in energy-efficiency policies, and has required utility companies to contract 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Wirth argues that people in government and industry just need to think more creatively, that Massachusetts could forgo additional natural-gas infrastructure simply by increasing efficiency, conservation, and deployment of renewable energy we know how to use. “It is our firm opinion that as we are phasing out coal we should be leapfrogging natural gas and going straight to clean, renewable energy,” says Wirth, “because that is the only energy choice that makes sense for our kids’ future. Getting off coal is really important, but we have this irrational exuberance around natural gas as a society.”

State officials and energy observers contend that solar panels and wind turbines, while growing technologically and financially more competitive each day, are not yet able to fill the gap. Especially not when a project like Cape Wind, which would construct the nation’s first offshore wind turbines, has been embroiled for more than a decade in legal challenges. The slated closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the Brayton Point coal facility in Somerset are also factors.

“We do have a reality of some 8,000 megawatts going offline in the next few years,” says state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rick Sullivan. “Part of the job is having a reliable grid so people can turn the lights on.” And Mass Energy’s Chretien says, “We’re going to have to do this more aggressively but gradually.”

In some sense, Wirth is asking us collectively to leap into the void without a parachute, trusting that the green infrastructure will be up and running by the time we touch ground. She is comfortable with not having all the answers. “Someone needs to put the stake in the sand,” she says. “We can’t present a road map; we’re not engineers, nor is that our job. We have a strong sense that this is doable, and our job is to insist we do it.” In other words, it’s relying on the time-honored argument used by mothers — and voters — everywhere: Because I said so.

Melissa Schorr is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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