Outgoing chapter leader Phil Nelson shares lessons learned

By Jarett Zuboy, Golden chapter

After eight years of committed service, Phil Nelson is stepping down as leader of CCL’s Golden chapter—but not from CCL’s mission. “I feel the timing is right as Colorado citizens elect a new representative from District Seven to the U.S. Congress,” he says.

Educated as a geophysicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Phil spent the first years of his career searching for copper with Kennecott Exploration. Later he worked for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on nuclear waste disposal and Sohio Petroleum/BP on characterization of petroleum reservoirs. The latter experience inspired him to write the book Well Logging for Physical Properties. He then spent 26 years with the U.S. Geological Survey, working on various projects related to oil and gas resources and nuclear waste disposal.

As Phil approached retirement, he became increasingly aware of global climate change. “I learned about it at meetings of the American Geophysical Union in 2012 and 2013 and had many discussions about it with my wife Joyce,” he remembers. “I was taken aback by the breadth of the consequences of a warming world.” Soon he had a chance to act. In 2014, he attended a CCL group start at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden. “At the end of more than two hours of discussion, we asked who might like to lead, and Phil’s hand went up,” recalls former CO CCL State Coordinator Susan Secord. “Phil led and co-led the Golden chapter for the next eight years with creativity and steadiness.”

The transition from technical expert to citizen advocate was challenging, but Phil immersed himself in the topic and the chapter’s work. He helped host CCL regional and state conferences in Golden. He attended the CCL National Conference and Lobby Day in Washington, DC. He taught about the causes and consequences of climate change through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Many of his letters to the editor and commentaries were published in the Denver Post and other outlets. And he led and participated in a wide range of other activities. Along the way, he learned important lessons about strategies for climate advocacy.

One lesson was how to interact with people who have different opinions about climate change. Under Phil’s leadership, Golden CCL staffed informational tables at numerous events, such as the Evergreen Arts festival, Lakewood Cider Days, Westminster Arts Festival, Golden Sustainability Night, Jefferson County Fair, and Colorado Environmental Film Festival. Phil also gave talks to organizations including Rotary Club, League of Women Voters, United Veterans of Colorado, Jefferson Humanists, Colorado School of Mines, and many more. Some audiences were more receptive than others, and there was pushback at times. Phil was impressed by the need to build skills to respond and move the conversation in a different direction. At a recent Arvada Days, for example, he encountered a man in the oil and gas industry who was interested in climate change but also defensive. Phil used his own oil and gas experience to build a bridge and enable a productive discussion. “It made the whole day worthwhile,” he says. “Direct dialog with people who are thinking about the problem but have different interests is the most rewarding.”

A second lesson was the power of encouraging personal initiative among members. For example, Phil recalls when Don Sorenson joined the chapter: “Don was an engineer, and he brought his own ideas, along with a wide-format printer.” Don teamed with another member, librarian Nancy Gruschow, to create and disseminate educational posters about climate change at the Lakewood, Belmar, Golden, and Evergreen libraries. “They made that project happen, and it was a big success,” says Phil. Another memorable instance of productive initiative was a mayors panel on climate change at the Denver Press Club, spearheaded by chapter member Eli Isely. The event brought together the mayors of Denver, Golden, and Wheat Ridge as well as Lakewood’s Sustainability Manager to discuss local responses to climate change.

Also effective were efforts to grow chapter activities into bigger chapter activities. One example is how the chapter leveraged the hundreds of constituent comment cards collected at community tabling events. Stacks of the comments were presented to aides of Representative Ed Perlmutter at multiple meetings, and a comment database compiled by Becky Snell was used to generate even more powerful approaches. “We presented a long scroll of all the comments to Representative Perlmutter at a district open house, and at one of his Government in the Grocery events we presented a map of where each commenter lived in his district,” Phil remembers. “Those two products helped us make a breakthrough with regard to Ed’s engagement in climate change.” As another example of activity growth, the chapter’s consistent relationship with its Congressional office provided an opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on Representative Perlmutter’s Green Neighborhoods Act. “We talked about the act several times during meetings with Ed’s aides, and then during one meeting they asked if we would join the panel discussion, which was great,” says Phil.

After years of such intense effort, Phil has been heartened by the increasing public awareness of climate change and by passage of major energy and infrastructure legislation in 2021 and 2022. He intends to keep promoting climate policy as a Golden chapter member. In particular, he sees opportunities to further CCL’s goals through increased engagement with local government, financial institutions, businesses, churches, Colorado School of Mines, and high schools. He also looks forward to supporting the chapter’s new leaders. “Chapter membership fluctuates over time, so it’s helpful to have continuity in the leadership,” he says. He anticipates an even greater role for CCL in the near future as CCL expands its voice in the ongoing energy transition.