3 things my climate-skeptic dad taught me about clean energy advocacy

Kate Zerrenner and her dad.

As an advocate for the air, water, and economic benefits that clean energy provides, I find some of my most challenging – and maybe most rewarding – work is trying to engage climate-skeptic lawmakers at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

To facilitate that work, I use lessons I’ve learned from my dad, who lives in San Antonio and with whom I don’t often agree when it comes to our approach on the environment. In the spirit of the holidays, I want to thank him for all those conversations in which we didn’t see eye to eye. Little did I know then, he was teaching me the tools of my trade.

Here are three lessons my dad taught me that I use daily in my work as a clean energy advocate.

Lesson 1: Find common ground

As Americans, I believe we have more in common than what divides us: We all want a safe place to live with clean air and water and a robust economy. So, I talk to my dad about things I know we both care about, including my daughter – his granddaughter. I know he wants a safe, clean world for her to grow up in.

Similarly, when I walk into a lawmaker’s office who may disagree with me on many issues, I look for common ground. This past Legislative session, I met one legislator who represents the district where my mom’s family is from – a district with a stunning landscape and natural treasures that I love. We talked about ways to protect water there, and then got to the water benefits of clean energy (of which there are many).

Deciding to build a clean energy advocacy practice around the energy-water nexus was in a large part inspired by my dad. As a San Antonio resident, water is one environmental issue that he is on-board with proactively protecting. Many Texans understand that parts of the state are either in drought or about to be. And with our hot weather, we also love our water recreation! Talking about energy from the water perspective makes more friends than walking into a room of climate skeptic lawmakers and talking about climate change.

My dad has taught me to give a little so that we gain a little. We may be taking small steps, but steps closer together.

Lesson 2: Progress is progress

After identifying common ground, look for opportunities to progress, even if they represent small steps. It’s not a zero sum, all-or-nothing game. With my dad, I’ll focus on the market-based solutions Environmental Defense Fund promotes and the new clean energy technologies that are coming online, and not on carbon regulations. What purpose would it serve for me to talk about the aspects of my work that I know will raise hackles?

Similarly, it’s important when doing my job in Texas to know where the opportunities are. A couple of Legislative sessions ago, I was pretty much in a closed room for two days with several stakeholders to negotiate a bill to enhance energy efficiency. A couple of the negotiators did not want any changes to the existing statute and were digging-in their heels. I knew we weren’t going to overhaul our utility efficiency programs (pragmatism is another thing I got from my Dad), but I also sensed we could at least get some forward movement – and I wasn’t willing to leave that room until we did. In the end, we negotiated a deal that was a ramp up rather than an abrupt change. Although it was more moderate than I wanted, it was a step in the right direction.

Kate and her dad at Kate’s wedding.

My dad has taught me to give a little so that we gain a little. We may be taking small steps, but steps closer together. In Texas, it may seem like we’re hitting singles on climate and clean energy. But sometimes we knock it out of the park, like with our thriving wind industry.

Lesson 3: Don’t burn your bridges

You win some; you lose some. But in order to create a situation where people feel comfortable enough to reach some common ground, there needs to be trust – and holding grudges or burning bridges is a surefire way to destroy trust.

What has my dad taught me about building trust? He listens intently and he is respectful. There are always bumps in the road when we disagree, but if we have respect and act with grace and courtesy, we are far more likely to be heard and respected ourselves.

Sometimes at the Legislature, the bill you had been working on is sabotaged or the victim of a political battle of wills. After months of hard work, it can be very tempting to just throw a torch and destroy whatever trust was built. When this happens, I express my disappointment, if possible talk to whoever is responsible, and then move on. You don’t know when you’ll next have a bill before that legislator’s committee, or you’ll need one more vote and that legislator is someone whose home district will benefit from the work you do. Holding grudges and burning bridges is guaranteed not to advance the clean energy projects I’m working on. Being honest and upfront in a respectful way builds trust, and may actually win you some unlikely allies.


This holiday season, maybe take some lessons I’ve learned from my climate-skeptic dad when talking to family members you don’t always agree with. Start from a place of commonality, look for opportunities, and try not to throw-in the towel when the other person won’t budge.

As I push my dad to think about different approaches to protecting the environment, he may also push me to think about things differently. His perspective has likely influenced some of the market-based clean energy solutions that I advocate. This year, I choose compassion, communication, and commonality…although, I don’t think we’ll be talking about climate change at the Christmas table.

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