Kathy Kuntz

My day job is being the director of the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change. I joined the County about a year ago, but I’m very new to this role.

I’ve spent most of my career trying to convince people to do things that are good for the planet and good for humanity too—that’s really my bliss.

I enjoy delving into the social science about how we move people to a place where they see themselves as part of the solution and expect everyone else to be part of the solution too. The core issue is that people are tribal, and we need to create a sense of what Seth Godin describes as “people like us do things like this.” Whether the “this” is recycling or turning off equipment at the end of the day.

That’s how big policy change occurs too. When you empower people and show that what they do makes a difference, you create a culture where people have an appetite for bigger change and demand solutions from leadership.

I’m thrilled to be in my current role. My predecessor, Keith Reopelle, is an amazing environmental thinker and organizer. He facilitated a three-year process and helped Dane County create an ambitious climate action plan that I’m stepping in to implement.

When you look at Wisconsin, Dane County stands out as a place where people have a high level of concern about climate change. But we have a lot to do—just like everybody else—and that will require thinking about challenges in creative ways.

For instance, we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled if we want to cut emissions in half by 2030—which is what climate scientists are telling us we need to do. We need to achieve that reduction even though the number of people living in Dane County is growing. Last January, I saw this as the hardest goal on our list because it required such massive culture change, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to engage people to make it happen.

Then COVID hit.

Suddenly telecommuting was the norm for a big segment of our population and it’s likely many area companies won’t go back to requiring employees to be in the office five days a week. We could well hit our vehicle miles traveled goals easily, thanks to telecommuting, and that wasn’t even part of our plan back in April.

One thing I’ve seen throughout my time in this field is that there are often unexpected benefits when people make changes. It’s important to get people talking about those; they can bring people further along.

For instance, in my previous role at Cool Choices, which delivers sustainability programs to businesses and communities, we had one project where we focused on eco-driving—driving the speed limit, avoiding jack rabbit starts. We saw environmental benefits, but people also told stories about being less stressed when they got home and more inclined to play with their kids because they were calmer from driving in a new way. People kept with the desired behavior because they liked how it enabled them to be  a better parent.

Whether you’re trying to motivate a group of employees or an entire county, I’ve found people ultimately want to do the right thing. Create systems that make it easier for folks to do the right thing and you’ll see good results.

I’ve also seen great results with gamification—one example is when you put people in teams and they get points for improving their energy behavior. A game gives you a way to coach people that’s allowable instead of feeling like you’re lecturing. I was a late convert to gamification—afterkio all, climate change is a serious issue! But I’ve come to be a strong advocate.

My most memorable caffeine was the Turkish coffee I had with a friend at Dardanelles, which used to be a restaurant on Monroe St. It was served in a tiny cup, a good thing because that stuff was 100 proof! The proprietor would come to read your coffee grounds, to predict your future. I just remember the sensation of waiting for the reading, feeling like I was in overdrive because of that caffeine.

My current caffeine of choice is typically tea or a Diet Coke.

My favorite place for caffeine is the Ancora on King Street. I love the energy of downtown and the feel of that place.

The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are my grandmothers. They both died while I was in college and it wasn’t until after they were gone that I heard stories about their lives that I wish I could have explored more fully with them.

As I get older, I appreciate the grit I inherited from them—I’d love to hear more about those stories from them. I have their stories from others, but I wish I had their perspective.

One of my grandmothers didn’t learn to drive until she was married—it was one of the first things my grandfather taught her. Soon after, my grandmother drove to her parent’s house and when her father came in from the field, he said, “Women don’t drive” and he and her brother drove her home. After that she still drove to visit her mother but always left before her father came in from the field. I’d like to hear how she reconciled her much more conservative background with the rest of her life.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: food waste. It’s both a climate issue and a human issue—there is such tremendous hunger in our world. It’s crazy that we have farmers dumping milk at a time when kids aren’t getting milk. That we have food going to waste when people don’t have enough to eat. We are seeing some good things in Wisconsin, for instance Gunderson Health pioneered getting leftover hospital food to shelters, and Epic has made efforts to make sure their cafeteria food gets donated. And during COVID Dane County funded some partnerships between food pantries and local farmers, which was brilliant. It all illustrates that this is possible—we just need to figure it out at scale.