Center for Climate Protection’s new CEO dedicated to conservation

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When Ellie Cohen shows up at her new job next week in Santa Rosa, she will be walking — well, pedaling, actually — her talk about curbing climate change.

Cohen, a veteran advocate for clean, carbon-free energy, will ride her new electric bicycle from her San Anselmo home to the SMART station in San Rafael, take the commuter train to Santa Rosa and then bike to the Center for Climate Protection office on College Avenue.

The round trip, which Cohen, 62, will make two or three times a week, comes to 11 miles on two wheels, and she can add 27 miles by catching the train in Petaluma.

“It’s a great ride,” she said. “Great exercise and it’s beautiful.”

Cohen, the former president and CEO of Petaluma-based Point Blue Conservation Science, owns an all-electric Nissan Leaf but figures a person cannot — with Greenland’s glaciers melting and the Amazon rain forest burning — be too stingy about contributing more carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere.

As the new CEO at the nonprofit center, she will be spearheading a campaign for “rapid decarbonization,” an admittedly wonkish term for eliminating the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) while also drawing down past carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

“It is definitely challenging,” Cohen said, referring to the twin goals set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: cutting global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and extracting more than 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next few decades.

But despite the current foreboding headlines, Cohen said she is resolutely optimistic: “a glass half-full person.”

“We have the technology today to make this transition,” she said, citing the historic precedent of converting the nation’s industry to military production during World War II.

Political will, the other necessary ingredient to address climate change, is currently missing in Washington, Cohen said, “but we have it in California.”

The Center for Climate Protection, founded in 2001, pushed for a “community choice” power agency, leading to creation of Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, the state’s second nonprofit public power supplier following a similar entity in Marin County.

Sonoma Clean Power now delivers electricity to 248,000 residential and commercial customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and there are 19 public power agencies supplying about 10 million customers — one in four Californians — with 88% clean energy.

The center, which has also promoted electric vehicles, received an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for “exceptional contributions to global environmental protections.”

Ann Hancock, the center’s co-founder and executive director, said she wasn’t looking for a chief executive officer until she learned that Cohen, a longtime acquaintance, was retiring after 20 years at the helm of Point Blue Conservation Science.

During Cohen’s tenure, the organization grew five-fold to a workforce of 200, including graduate students, and an annual budget of $14 million, expanding its scope of work to range from the Sierra Nevada to the sea, across the Western Hemisphere and as far away as Antarctica.

“She is unique,” Hancock said. “We adjusted the organization to make place for her.”

Efren Carrillo, the center’s board president, called Cohen “a visionary and proven leader, manager and fund raiser” with a record of pursuing “climate- smart conservation” programs.

Cohen, who has degrees from Duke University in botany and Harvard University in public policy, came to California to study butterfly ecology but left academia to work as an activist — “to make a more direct difference for people,” she said.

Cohen said she couldn’t refuse Hancock’s job offer, calling the center a “great organization: small, but nimble and effective.”

The organization employs 15 people and operates on a annual budget of almost $2 million. The decarbonization campaign budget will be $25 million over the next 5 years, Cohen said.

Hancock, 70, is not retiring and will continue to work full-time in the struggle to curb climate change.

“It’s a tough time for everybody, it’s horrible,” she said. “But it’s not too late. We still have a lot we can do to make a difference.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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