Trip to South Africa nets knowledge and hope

Apr. 9, 2014 |

It was raining when Brenna Holzhauer arrived in Johannesburg last month. South Africans expect rain in autumn, but a month’s average falling in just two weeks in March was out of the ordinary. Overwhelmed infrastructure, drowning deaths, and the threat of water-borne diseases dominated local news in the weeks leading up to Holzhauer’s arrival. Each story was marked with the undertones of climate change.

Holzhauer, director of exhibits and digital curricula and Nature Net coordinator for the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, was visiting Johannesburg to attend the Climate Reality Project’s latest Climate Reality Leadership Corps training workshop.

Brenna Holzhauer at conference
Aldo Leopold Nature Center's Brenna Holzhauer (third from the right) joined 700 delegates in South Africa at the latest Climate Reality Project's Leadership Corps training workshop.

The Climate Reality Project, created in 2006, is spearheaded by former vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore. The project’s goal is to provide individuals with the necessary skills to spur fellow citizens into action through grass roots leadership and education about climate change. Africa, with its underutilized sun and wind resources in addition to abundant fossil fuel reserves, is the most recent addition to this globally focused effort—an effort Gore is packaging as a fight over human rights.

“A lot of the people most impacted by climate change are the ones with the fewest resources to deal with it,” says Holzhauer, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). “In Johannesburg, we spoke face to face about floods, famine, water shortages and what that does to schools, villages and people.”

As one of 700 invited delegates from 53 countries—whose occupational scope ranged from high school and college students to executive directors of huge nonprofits—Holzhauer joined the cadre of new Climate Reality Leadership Corps members to learn about becoming a flexible, knowledgeable expert on communication and education. She also gained access to a global network of fellow climate champions.

“I knew, going into the conference, that people’s perspectives were going to be slightly different from those here in Wisconsin and the United States in general,” says Holzhauer. “It was refreshing and inspiring to get these new perspectives that were more grassroots-oriented.”

Significant regions within Africa are developing. Communities and countries are poised to build new infrastructure and energy systems. Affecting global and national policy is one goal, but not the sole focus, of Gore’s organization. Grassroots community building and climate change awareness through well-crafted communication methods is another.

For Africa, the organization hopes to influence decision-makers to choose renewable energy strategies over those relying on fossil fuels. In developing countries, this can mean “leap-frogging” over fossil fuel dependency straight into expansion of renewable resources and infrastructure at all levels of society. Teaching rural women to build small solar-powered lanterns so they can have reliable, renewable energy to light their homes, while reinvesting their kerosene funds into entrepreneurial projects, is one example of a grass roots “leap-frog” effort by a nonprofit organization that presented at the conference.

“Lessons learned in Africa nonetheless apply here in Wisconsin,” says Holzhauer. “Ultimately what lifestyle and energy choices are selected often depends on what gets subsidized, and also what options are made accessible to the community.”

Holzhauer, a Milwaukee native, completed her undergraduate education at UW-Madison and earned a master’s degree from George Washington University in museum education with an environmental focus. She developed a keen interest in climate change on her own, and three-and–a-half years ago, returned to Madison to take her current position creating the new climate-focused exhibit area at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.

“This was just as the WICCI report was coming out,” says Holzhauer. “We were able to incorporate a lot of report data into our exhibits, technology and curricula.”

Because climate science is always evolving, Holzhauer continues to draw upon WICCI expertise to bring the Wisconsin connection into the natural and global education content and public programs at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. She says her involvement in WICCI also provides partnering and consultation networks for funding opportunities through regional and federal grant programs.

“At the Johannesburg conference, we talked a lot about managing our audiences’ limited budgets—financial, time and hope—and the ‘hope budget’ has to be a lot bigger than is often presented,” says Holzhauer. “That really struck a chord with me on many levels, especially in my work with kids.”

Conference presenters confirmed for Holzhauer that most climate outreach organizations are often preaching to the choir. But Holzhauer and her corps members will be working at a variety of levels to help people see that climate change is affecting everyone. “It can seem like climate change is happening slowly and far away,” says Holzhauer. “So it’s not on most people’s day-to-day radar.”

But rising sea levels, more frequent floods and droughts, food shortages and shifting wildlife populations are impacting more people everyday.

“Being in Africa with folks from around the globe put me in direct contact with people who are trying to survive. Climate change impacts are more in their faces, so they’re able to connect the dots better, but they lack the resources to fix the problems and prevent future impacts,” says Holzhauer. “It’s more direct, but everyone is concerned with just getting through the day.”

Holzhauer thinks her trek across the globe was a worthwhile use of resources. She says returning with a fresh perspective and new context was valuable; interacting with the other conference participants was inspirational; and being given access to new tools and resources was empowering.

“I will never feel like a complete expert on climate change education because the science, the impacts and the solutions keep evolving. But the more we know and know where to look, the more effective we can be as educators—being adaptable with your audience, not afraid to step away from the script, and familiar enough with content and resources is really important,” says Holzhauer. “The science is clear. But whether people believe humans are causing climate change or not, why wouldn’t we want a more flexible energy structure and a more sustainable lifestyle?”