Sabine Engel: Bridge-Builder on Climate

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Photo Sarah Whiting

As a teenager growing up in the exurbs of Hamburg, Germany, Sabine Engel rushed to help a boy whose foot was run over by a bus. In return for her kindness, the boy’s mother gifted Engel a collection of Jane Austen novels. Smitten with the literature, Engel’s love of language and curiosity would take her across the Atlantic to earn a doctorate in English from Duke University.

So, how did Engel end up leading an international program about renewable energy policy?

Rural Potential

Originally from a small village, close to West Germany’s northern border with communist East Germany, Engel spent her childhood near a forest. As she bussed into the suburbs of Hamburg for school, she noticed that rural children like herself were looked at differently, and perceived as less intelligent.

Rather than feel resentment about it, the experience spurred a passion for collaboration. “What does resentment do? Nothing,” Engel says. “Rural students are not less intelligent. We only tend to grow up differently. It is exciting what you can do when working with others who have a different perspective.”

She also understood the power of language to prompt change. As a teenager who cared about litter accumulation along country lanes, she noticed that public conversations are a powerful lever.

“Policy is informed by what we notice and talk about, and influences how we interact with each other and our surroundings,” she says.

Engel wanted to leave the limited options and sexism in Germany. She immigrated to the U.S. for graduate school, worked in several states as a teacher, and moved to Minnesota in 2001. She was drawn to the state because of its large rural areas and its “collaborative gene.”

Engel eventually directed interdisciplinary programs at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities Center for German & European Studies, building Minnesota-Germany exchange programs on health policy. She found a mentor and close friend in Connie Perpich, a reproductive rights activist (and 2007 Changemaker for her work securing Planned Parenthood funding for low- income Minnesotans).

In 2010, Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon asked her to make connections with Germany to help boost the conversation on renewable energy policy in Minnesota.

Exchanging Solutions

Currently, Engel is leading Climate Smart Municipalities (CSM) at the University’s Institute on the Environment. CSM brings together 12 cities, paired from Minnesota and Germany, to share ideas about sustainability, renewable energy, climate adaptation, and energy efficiency. Working with a range of stakeholders — in politics, state government, the private sector, NGOs, and academia — the motto for the group is “together, we are smarter!” The six Minnesota cities involved are located across the state:

  • Warren, a small northwestern agricultural Minnesota town of 1,600, is focused on achieving energy conservation and efficiency measures. Inspired by their German partner city, Warren partnered with Northland Community and Technical College to use drone technology to detect heat loss from town buildings.
  • Morris passed a city solar ordinance, and solar arrays are beginning to dot schools, the municipal liquor store, and houses. The county is working on an end to landfill usage by 2025. The local college collects organic waste, and one student wrote a successful grant for the school district to receive $550,000 for the purchase of two electric buses.
  • White Bear Lake is working on strategies for energy conservation, renewable energy, transportation, waste reduction, water supply, and natural resources. The city purchased three hybrid vehicles for its fleet.
  • Elk River is working on a plan to expand renewable energies with a potential biogas plant to fuel electric generators with methane gas produced from decomposition in landfills. The generators power 15 percent of Elk River’s population.
  • Duluth mayor Emily Larson established a sustainability officer who reports to the mayor, inspired by an example in Germany. Street lights in Duluth are being powered with yellow-hued LED lights, and there is a city goal of 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2050.
  • The City of Rochester passed a commitment to provide 100 percent renewable electricity, motivated by their German partners. The advancements of the smaller communities, particularly Morris and Warren, have assisted with internal discussions and advocating for new programs and initiatives.

Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges from climate change, Engel is optimistic about the future of sustainable communities and climate change solutions.

Her role as a bridge between two countries enables her to see the value of an exchange of technical knowledge. With every delegation of Minnesota and German decision makers, Engel is reassured that cities of any size can make economically beneficial changes. The keys to this are collaboration and communication.

“Minnesotans think the Germans are so advanced, but there is only a difference of strategy,” Engel says. “Generally, Germans want everything figured out before acting. Americans only need an idea and they run with it. When policy doesn’t yet exist, they tend to get inspired and create it.”

Action = Change

Sabine Engel urges people to talk to each other about climate change and to act directly. Reduce, reuse, or recycle. Put solar panels on your roof. Switch to an electric car. Act in your personal and in your professional environment. “Incremental works,” she says.