Climate Center founder Ann Hancock stepping down from leadership

By Rollie Atkinson, SoCoNews Staff, SoCoNews, June 15, 2021

Hancock co-founded Sonoma County’s Climate Center in 2001.

Starting in 2001, the local climate change program set national benchmarks

Ann Hancock, a one-woman mass protest march, is stepping aside from her two decades of leading local, regional and national efforts to fight a massive battle against global climate change. It’s not that her fight has been won, or that she is giving up; it’s just that she needs some extra time right now for more personal matters, spending extra time with her husband Jack Travis and puttering around in her backyard, pondering from her front porch and walking her Graton neighborhood.

“I look at it as closing a chapter,” she said in a recent interview. “I still have lots of energy and lots of passion. I want to pause and see where I can contribute my most positive input.”

Hancock co-founded Sonoma County’s Climate Center in 2001 with Mike Sandler and she’s been leading the crusade to lower greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of renewable clean energy ever since. She’s won lots of political and public policy battles over those years and has always done it with smiles and guile.

The Climate Center hired Ellie Cohen in 2019 as its first CEO and Hancock was able to reduce some of her daily organizational duties. The Climate Center has a $1.665 million annual budget, with 21 employees and an 11-member board of directors. Just over half of its funding comes from individual donations, grants and business sponsorships.

In the early days of her climate crusade, Hancock won over local elected officials, one-by-one, to join the nation’s first regional, full-county unified local government plan to set goals and begin to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All the cities and the county completed energy use inventories and Hancock’s Climate Center convened a joint government workshop in 2005 where all the participating agencies committed to reducing GHG emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2015.

When Hancock and Sandler were starting out in 2001, climate change was not the prevalent front-page news story that it is today. A conference led by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that year sounded the alarm about global warming, but was met with loud criticisms calling their alarm of rising of global temperatures a “blip” of nature. It would be three years before 35 members of the United Nations would ratify the Kyoto Protocol that set the same GHG reduction goals Sonoma County already had in place.

“We did the essence of ‘think globally, act locally,’” said Hancock. “We learned to believe that local action can move the world — but only so far. We were forging a new path and we had to prove what the benefits were. We did a lot of education.”

That education was not taking place in classrooms. It was taking place in the nine city halls and county offices of Sonoma County. “We say governments are like sailboats. They need wind to move their sails and we provide the wind,” Hancock said, repeating one of her favorite sayings.

A Community Action Plan was developed in partnership with the Climate Center and local governments. Once the emission reduction targets were set, Hancock and her growing team focused on enlisting business sponsors and partners and pushing for new energy usage and conservation policies. This led to the formation of Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, a community choice aggregation energy agency that buys and sells electric power to residential and commercial customers, aiming to replace fossil fuel based energy with renewable sources.

Hancock’s Climate Center and the county’s Sonoma Clean Power agency remains one of the nation’s model programs for taking local action to fight global warming. Earlier this year, Hancock upped her challenge and said current efforts and GHG reduction goals are not enough.

“The world is turning to toast,” she said. “We have the highest parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere than ever before. We have melting ice caps and glaciers, droughts, rising sea levels, changing ocean currents and we’re destroying the Amazon.”

She said the climate change fight has always been a “wicked” problem of political, economic and environmental challenges. “It’s not just putting solar panels on roofs. We need policy change and we need businesses on board. We can’t do this without them,” she said.

Before her passions were ignited about the planet’s survival, Hancock worked in public health administration, following her college career at the U.C. Davis and U.C. Berkeley. After she attended a conference organized by the International Council for Local Environment Initiatives (ICLEI) in L.A. in 2001 about greenhouse gas emissions, and discovering the work of she honed her focus on getting carbon emissions out of our atmosphere.

One hopeful sign is the past decades of scientific findings and breakthroughs. “We now know that making slow progress is like making no progress at all,” she said, calling on businesses, governments and individuals to endorse Climate-Safe California, a set of initiatives to achieve net-negative greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. (This means reducing and sequestering more carbon than is collectively burned or used over the same time period.)

“We want to reframe what is possible,” she said. “I want people to feel proud of this homegrown organization and support the county has given to it. We’ve been able to succeed but we need to keep supporting these programs and goals for a positive future for ourselves, our children and all life.”

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