The Crazy True Story Of How A Handful Of Climate Advocates Painted A Red Town Green

From Think Progress:

By Zack Beauchamp
on July 31, 2013

KNOXVILLE, TN — You might be surprised that the same town that Jeff Foxworthy calls home is a green haven. I’m not talking about the famous comedian. I’m referring to a man who, when not using Foxworthy as his nom de guerre, identified himself as “The Educated Redneck.” I met him while eating dinner at an English pub-themed restaurant in Knoxville’s Old City, where he bought four rounds of drinks for everyone seated at the bar in alarmingly rapid succession. “Are you having a good time?” he asked me (and everyone), in a thick, drunken drawl.

Actually, I was. And not (only) because of Mr. Redneck’s Jack Daniels IV. My visit to Knoxville, on assignment to investigate the surprising blossoming of a clean economy in blood-red East Tennessee, had been going beautifully. It wasn’t just that the Knoxville city government’s push to green the city was impressive, though it was: over the past seven years, Knoxville has reduced the city government carbon footprint by 17 percent, multiplied its solar capacity by 133 times, saved millions per year through an energy efficiency push, and (by one metric) become the fastest-growing metro area for green jobs in the country. And they’re just getting started, with plans to tackle big remaining sources of emissions like urban sprawl and agriculture.

But beyond the concrete policy successes, there’s a deeper, human story about how a town where climate change, formerly a four-letter phrase in this right-leaning region, grew into a watchword. It’s the story of how a twice-arrested labor organizer who made fighting climate change part of her Mayoral platform was given the power to do just that by the silver-spoon oilman that beat her. It’s the story of how a polymath political science professor happened upon a young environmentalist halfway across the country who turned out to be just the person to make Knoxville’s buildings efficient and its power clean. It’s the story of how a city bureaucrat whose project was falling apart got a second chance, and how she used it to cement Knoxville’s green momentum.

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