Behavior Change Case Study: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

by Sep 25, 2019Behavior Change Blog Series

Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

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What does it take to get a small California community to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, shrink its climate impact, and relinquish its identity as a hospitable home to an oil refinery altogether? Mayor Elizabeth Patterson of Benicia, California has some first-hand perspective on these questions. She’s been leading the charge to do just that as her city’s chief executive for the past six years.

Mayor Patterson has been involved in environmental issues since 1968. She is an urban and regional planner by training. For over twenty years she’s worked for the California State Department of Water Resources, and brings that body of experience, perspective, and skills to her elected position. “I am used to climbing very steep mountains,” she says upon reflecting on the threads connecting her past and present work.

“In 1968 people weren’t talking about climate change, and we were tackling a lot of things that, similar to our present-day climate challenge, seemed impossible. There was that moment when people saw the dirty water and dirty air, and rallied behind the many efforts to deal with it. I carry that spirit with me in my professional work, and in my elected capacity, too,” she says.

Mayor Patterson has no illusions that realizing this fossil fuel-free vision for her city will be easy. “The reality is that the refineries want to extract and process as much as they can, as quickly as they can,” Mayor Patterson explains. “It’s not a question of ‘will the extraction of fossil fuels end at some point?’ but rather a question of ‘when?’,” she says. “It is well-known to most around here that Valero intends to be the last refinery standing in the Bay Area.”

While this reality hasn’t slowed Mayor Patterson down, it has helped her become more strategic. “I have taken a number of approaches to advance this issue,” she says. “Some tacks have worked better than others. There are a number of layers to this that I’ll get into. But, what we did right early on was that we got the community to rally behind the concept that we all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprint,” she explains.

Building community support for reducing fossil fuel production and consumption happened in a number of ways. Early on in her tenure, Mayor Patterson’s administration devoted resources to developing and holding symposia that were open to the public. “Our main audience for the symposia was the early adopters. We worked hard to get them on board, and those same people were the ones who were vocal supporters of many of the initiatives we’ve implemented in subsequent years,” she explains.

The symposia were designed to promote a general baseline understanding amongst members of the public about global warming, and the fact that fossil fuels contribute significantly to it. But the abstract nature of that discussion only told part of the story. “There isn’t much in the way of advocacy activities we can do to get refineries to curtail their production. Under California’s Cap-and-Trade Program, yes, refineries are regulated. But the general public has no idea what that means,” Mayor Patterson explains. “How are the refineries meeting their targets? Are they buying credits? No one was publicly asking what Valero is doing to reduce their carbon footprint,” she says.

Mayor Patterson says that, in her experience, incremental approaches to changing mindsets and behaviors are the more successful ones. “While I may be labeled a ‘radical green mayor in a refinery town’, I just keep talking about it. This issue isn’t going away,” she says. “And once you become more comfortable with discomfort, you can have difficult conversations without shutting down.”

Mayor Patterson brings this persistence to each dialogue in which she engages, even seemingly unlikely ones. “One of the climate deniers on our City Council said a couple months ago ‘we should work on this regionally.’ He didn’t seem to realize we are already doing this. But the fact that he said that—even if he was coming from a place of skepticism, or trying to distance himself from the issue—told me that there was an opening, a path forward in changing his mind. Those are the kinds of things you have to do – take advantage of someone’s perspective and see what kind of progress you can make with it.”

In terms of asking people to change their behavior, Mayor Patterson says “that is so threatening. I try to look at the opportunities people could have instead. Hey, we have this really great transit system— we’re growing it, and we’re adding more frequent trips all the time. You can ride and read, text, use Wi-Fi. I use this rather than the ‘you’re just adding to the problem by driving your single occupancy vehicle’ guilt trip.”

Knowing what your audience needs to hear is a lesson Mayor Patterson learned first-hand when she became affiliated with a group of leaders who were members of Elected Officials to Protect California. “Their agenda has been focused on getting our Governor—who has a lot of authority when it comes to petroleum extraction and production—to make a commitment to phasing out fossil fuel production and consumption. We’re the fourth largest oil-producing state in the country. If we’re going to be leaders in the world, we need to take care of our own backyard, too,” she explains.

“I got into this movement for several reasons. The oil extraction and production disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities. I feel that if we fancy ourselves leaders in reducing our production and extraction, then we should especially be protecting people who cannot protect themselves from that industry,” Mayor Patterson explains. “We ended up getting an op-ed letter published. I was one of the spokespersons asking the Governor for reduction in production of oil and gas. As you might imagine, while the Governor was supportive, my remarks did not go over well in Benicia. In fact, it made a lot of people mad,” she says.

“The problem is that reducing the production of oil and gas sounds like a threat to jobs. It was a mistake on my part. How can we say we are going to end an industry without in the same breath talking about the vision for what are we going to replace those jobs with? Aside from the fact that it’s a huge misconception that oil creates so many jobs. But, because this misconception is so pervasive, the messaging in a refinery town like Benicia needs to be done well. ‘This will take time. We will transition using biofuels.’ Careful messaging matters,” says Mayor Patterson.

The topic of energy production and consumption has many dimensions to it, and they have helped raise awareness across Benicia, and has helped people see the issues from many angles. “There have been lawsuits and settlements surrounding the refinery’s impacts on air quality. Those settlements have helped our city pay for the things it needed to do. We successfully entered Community Choice Aggregation with MCE,” says Mayor Patterson. “We are embarking on being powered by 100% green electricity. These steps have been incrementally successful in achieving our fossil fuel-free vision, and as we go through them, there’s been ever more awareness about the refinery and its impacts.”

“Our city was the first to vote against the import of fossil fuels by rail. Valero wasn’t the first refinery to propose it, but because we had land use authority, we were able to resist that. That effort raised awareness in the community. So, we stopped the conveyance of some fossil fuel product, but the conversation also raised awareness about related issues. Folks are now primed to look more closely at the impacts of petroleum production on air quality,” Mayor Patterson says.

“We now have many people who have become aware that Valero is contributing to air quality issues in Benicia. But Valero takes the position that they aren’t the major contributor to air pollution. ‘It’s all the drivers’ they say—and they’re probably right. In a way, the refinery is helping us with our messaging—that we are part of the problem. The refinery wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t be emitting pollution, if it weren’t for the demand on the part of the public. We need to connect the dots between the refinery’s air quality impacts and people making the choice to drive or not,” says Mayor Patterson.

Ever the optimist, Mayor Patterson says, “we can look at the big picture and then take little steps toward the goal. But,” she says, “my concern is that time is so short. They are saying we only have ten to twelve years to reduce carbon emissions. The real question is: how do make that drastic change? How can we be effective in realizing that change over the next ten to twelve years? We know it’s possible,” she says, mentioning a famous visual example of drastic change over a short timeframe.

“There’s those two photos from New York City around the turn of the 20th Century—you’ve seen them, haven’t you? On a certain Manhattan street, the photo from around 1900 shows a bustling streetscape filled with people, horses, buggies, and just one car. A photo taken of the same exact street corner ten years later shows the same street filled with early century automobiles, and almost no people, no horses, no buggies,” she marvels. “Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can achieve the scale of change that we did back then with autos and horse and buggies. A challenge we face now that we didn’t face then is the fact that our population growth has been exponential. We are dealing with so many more people than in 1900,” she says.

Mayor Patterson reflects on the pragmatic shape-shifting she’s done throughout her career. She clearly recognizes that “one size fits all” won’t work. “You can be an advocate. You can be a negotiator. You can be a communicator. You need to do all those things. You almost have to choose what you think you can do, and apply different strategies for that particular situation to get something done,” she explains. “And then there are times when there’s just no need to negotiate. For instance, we didn’t need to negotiate crude by rail. That was just a flat-out no, no hesitation.”

“Although on the other hand, there is merit to negotiation sometimes—like with the refineries, and their impacts on air quality and their use of water. We have to negotiate ways to help them work smarter. It’s harder to do it that way, for one thing, because the media is more likely to enjoy showing the spectacle of a ‘trench warfare’ battle. People seem to enjoy that more than the slow slog through negotiations,” she says. “But the problem with trench warfare is that somebody always loses. With negotiation, you can gain some ground, and then move onto the next thing. You have a shelf life with negotiation that presents an opportunity to take on other challenges. But it’s slow, incremental, not exciting, and it’s hard to get people to support it.”

“To be clear, I’m not alone in this work—there’s a coalition approach to it. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of our local residents—who I recruited and then appointed as Chair of our Sustainability Commission—organized our green energy symposia I mentioned earlier. She has a really clear understanding about how to ‘get to yes’, and about the power of education,” Mayor Patterson explains. “She was the real architect behind our green energy symposia. Her vision was to offer the public a view of the different ways we could source our energy. It was through that education, which was so critical in driving awareness-raising, that we were able to gain support.”

“She also organized our first Clean Tech Expo, and that has really grown into something exciting. We discovered we had twenty clean tech vendors right in Benicia—a real clean tech industry, who would have guessed it? I don’t mean high tech, I mean that they’re tech companies not dependent on the fossil fuel industry,” she explains. “There I was that first year, riding my bike around the industrial park, writing down names, looking for opportunities to drum up vendors. We didn’t even know who was out in that area. So, we ended up having the Expo, and it was very successful. We had vendors who hadn’t met one another before striking up deals and partnerships.”

Mayor Patterson describes the realization her team had about “flipping the script” about Benicia’s identity, brought about by the Clean Tech Expo. “We came away feeling that this was the key—we grow green tech, we put out the green tech welcome mat, and it becomes the city’s revenue transition plan as we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We are one of the few remaining manufacturing materials communities in this part of California. Regardless of the refinery, you need to have manufacturing. We have a major role to play in the Bay Area. Our DNA is manufacturing and industry—and now, moving forward, we can be clean manufacturing and clean industry,” she explains.

“We are really fortunate in Benicia to have brilliant people working on all kinds of things. One of our city’s creative thinking leaders, who happens to be a principal at major firm in Silicon Valley, was keynote speaker at our first expo. In his talk, he described the value of bringing together people from different disciplines—sociology, engineering, finance, and so on—to solve a simple problem, because they each look at the same thing, but differently,” Mayor Patterson says. “And this is true with our dependence on fossil fuels—we need everybody in the room coming up with the solutions together, because that’s how we will be solving our problems in the most creative way.”

Behavior Change Analysis

Mayor Patterson’s vision and efforts to decouple her city’s identity from the fossil fuel industry offer numerous examples of the challenges, opportunities, and strategies inherent in behavior change work.

In cultivating early adopters through the development of clean energy symposia, Mayor Patterson and her team were developing MESSENGERS who could help spread an appreciation of the value of clean energy, and reduction of the community’s dependence on fossil fuels. These messengers became some of Mayor Patterson’s strongest supporters in later years.

Mayor Patterson’s description of highlighting the opportunities people have before them in opting for clean transportation choices reflects the behavior change strategy of creating and showcasing INCENTIVES for people to make changes to the habits and choices they usually make.

In noting the city’s responsibility to protect the health, safety, and well-being of all residents—especially those most disproportionately impacted by the outputs of oil extraction and production, Mayor Patterson is highlighting how our public COMMITMENTS can help influence leaders—wherever they are in a community or institution—to make behavior changes that fulfill the commitment made by those who are elected officials and public servants in government.

In describing her community’s coalition approach involving local people as leaders and organizers of educational activities and awareness-building events, Mayor Patterson is telling the audience how her community is making their climate and behavior change activism SOCIAL.

As she describes “rolling out the green tech welcome mat”, Mayor Patterson’s mindset reflects her city’s efforts to make Benicia more hospitable and welcoming to businesses whose models are not reliant upon fossil fuels. In other words, the Mayor and her team are working to change the DEFAULT perceptions about their community and its historic identity as a refinery and manufacturing town.

To learn more about the City of Benicia’s Climate Action Plan, sustainability measures, and related efforts to be a city that operates free of fossil fuels, please visit the City of Benicia’s website.

The theoretical basis for the Behavior Change Blog Series is informed by two mnemonic frameworks shown in detail below. The MINDSPACE framework is a list of the elements that inform cognitive biases and human behaviors, while the EAST framework is a list of directives that are derived from MINDSPACE and help inform strategies for influencing behavior change in humans. These two frameworks were established by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a social enterprise based in the United Kingdom.


MINDSPACE Framework EAST Framework
Messenger – We are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us. Make it Easy – Harness the power of defaults, reduce the ‘hassle factor’, simplify messages.
Incentives – Our response to incentives is shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as reference points, aversion to losses, and overweighting of small probabilities. Make it Attractive – Draw people toward preferred behaviors, design rewards and sanctions to maximize effect.
Norms – We are strongly influenced by what others do. Make it Social – Show people the norm, use the power of networks to encourage and support, encourage people to make a commitment.
Defaults – We “go with the flow” of pre-set options. Make it Timely – Prompt people when they are most likely to be receptive, consider immediate costs and benefits, help people plan their response.
Salience – Our attention is drawn to what is novel and also to what seems relevant to us.
Priming – We are often influenced by subconscious cues.
Affect – Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments – We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and to reciprocate acts.
Ego – We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.


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