Chief Operating Officer, The Climate Center
By Robin Doran | Published: November 2023
Carl Sagan has been quoted as saying, “Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something.” Barry Vesser, COO of The Climate Center, has taken this call to action to heart.
The Climate Center, a California nonprofit, is dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at speed and scale through state policy. Its Climate-Safe California initiative, partnered with Joint Venture, works to bring local and state climate efforts into alignment with current science. Notably, the organization has championed community choice agencies, or CCAs, that bring greener energy to consumers.
What is a CCA? A Community Choice Agency allows local governments to procure power on behalf of their residents. Boosted by the efforts of The Climate Center, today there are 23 CCAs serving over 11 million Californians — up from just two in 2014 — and their power mix is about 80% greenhouse gas-free electricity.
Barry joined The Climate Center (TCC) in 2005. He leads the Center’s program and policy development and implementation teams, where among other things, he pushes for a decentralized energy system that’s clean, affordable, resilient, and equitable. He championed the development of TCC’s Community Energy Resilience project, which led to the creation of a new $170 million investment program by the California Energy Commission in August 2022, and a legislative push (SB 233) to mandate the capacity for bidirectional charging in electric vehicles allowing people to back up their homes when the power is out, and also to make the grid cleaner, more reliable and affordable.
Barry calls climate change “the greatest threat that civilization has ever faced” and says, “We all need to work together, understanding how important this is to all of our livelihoods and to our children and our grandchildren's livelihoods.”
His community-focused approach springs from a rich upbringing.
Born in Kingston, Rhode Island, as an “Army brat,” Barry moved around a great deal with his family, including an older sister. They spent time in Northern Virginia, West Point, New York, Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Knox, Kentucky, Germany, and Boston.
Barry’s father was a Rhodes scholar and a three-star general who taught at West Point and was a fellow at Harvard. His mother, who is from England, taught at prep schools and college and was the academic dean of Mount Vernon College.
Was there pressure to succeed in a household of such high achievers? While his parents would have liked for Barry to go to law school, that is not what he wanted for himself.
“My father’s service was through duty to the country and it influenced how I looked at life,” says Barry. “I took a very different path, but his dedication to service is something that I took on at an early age.” Barry notes that he’s ambitious in work and that it's a result of his parents’ influence.
As an introverted child, Barry was forced to become more extroverted through all the moving. “One of the good things about military families is that everybody's in the same boat; you're reassigned every two to three years, so people learn to make friends pretty fast,” says Barry. “I liked that part of the culture.”
But Barry says it was not always easy to get uprooted. When he was a junior in high school and his dad became a fellow at Harvard, Barry was plopped into a new school in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he felt isolated as the only newbie among students who had been together for years. Luckily, he was soon able to get back to D.C. where he had friends.
“It's like a lot of things in life...there were upsides and downsides,” Barry says upon reflection. “I got to see a lot of the world, it expanded my horizons, and made me grow psychologically and emotionally as a kid, you know?”
Barry attended the University of Virginia and studied Political and Social Thought before joining the Peace Corps, where he met his future wife, Michelle.
Barry served three and a half years in the Peace Corps as a water and sanitation volunteer on the northern coast of Mindanao in the Philippines.
He says his biggest takeaway from living in a rural barrio was that generally the people there were happier than the people he grew up with, even though they had less. “It got me thinking: what's the source of their happiness? And I think it was because of community and a deep sense of family...there's a sense that you gotta get along with everybody 'cause you're in the same boat.”
When he came back to the United States, he earned a master’s in international public administration from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. While there, he had realized that “the big issue of our century” would be the environment, which he also saw as the key to making progress on social justice.
Barry and Michelle, now married, went to Nepal for over a year to work for Appropriate Agricultural Alternatives where Barry became Acting Director and Michelle, an organic farmer, managed outreach to farmers.
The couple moved back to North Fork in California’s Sierra Foothills where Michelle ran a Community Supported Agriculture project and Barry landed a job as the Executive Director of the town’s Community Development Council. Later, Michelle became the production manager for the gardens at the Occidental Art and Ecology Center in Sonoma County and today helps train people to gardener on their property in Sonoma County.
Barry and Michelle live on an acre of land in the western part of Sonoma County where she tends a large garden and he is a garden helper.
In his spare time, Barry’s favorite activity is backpacking and he recently returned from Yosemite. “It was just amazing,” he beams. “I find it rejuvenating, restorative...it provides me perspective, reminds me how small we are...how small my petty priorities are.”
In 2005 Barry met Ann Hancock, founder of the Climate Center. “Ann is just a force of nature,” says Barry. The small but mighty organization needed a development person so Barry took a fundraising course at Sonoma State University and signed on.
The Climate Center helped develop Sonoma Clean Power, a CCA, to provide clean electricity throughout the County and next targeted the Central Valley and Silicon Valley. That’s when Barry and his team became aligned with Joint Venture.
“Barry is doing what every person on the planet should be doing: acting with urgency and dispatch to reduce our greenhouse gases,” says Russell Hancock, President, and CEO of Joint Venture. “It’s a problem that would vex Atlas himself, but the great thing about Barry is that he is chipping away at it, day by day, hour by hour. He’s like dripping water that way, a drop at a time, and next thing you know there’s a large body of water out there.”
Barry is always quick to recognize that what he and The Climate Center accomplish is through teamwork and partnering with other organizations. “There is no success I can think of in my career that wasn't teamwork,” he emphasizes.
In speaking with Barry, one encounters a man who is authentic and truly committed to his path. His devotion to the land and to service resonate deeply.
“There's something about being closer to the land and that hard work that is bedrock to people's values,” he says. “We've become unmoored from our connection to nature and to our connection from one another and community.”
Today, The Climate Center is a statewide organization focused on policy with 21 people on staff. According to its 2022 annual report, a remarkable 70% of the group’s funding comes from individual donors, with 20% from foundation grants and 10% from business sponsorships.
Barry believes in the need for public policy to set the rules of the road for the private sector “...so that we stop undermining our ability to have an economy at all; that is what drives me,” he says.
California has recently allocated over $50 billion for climate mitigation and adaptation measures. But Barry doesn’t think we would have gotten this much traction had California’s raging wildfires not made the crisis real, with weeks of orange skies in the Bay Area, and the devastation of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Sonoma County and Paradise in Butte County.
In 2022, The Climate Center cited several remarkable milestones in California aided by its efforts:
- The legislature passed AB 1757 (C. Garcia and R. Rivas), a historic law to scale up natural carbon sequestration
- The state launched a new program to invest in community energy resilience and clean electricity, prioritizing frontline and working-class communities.
- California allocated almost $3 billion in new funding for distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar and battery storage.
- Governor Newsom championed a bolder emissions reduction target for 2030.
- TCC brought Community Choice Energy to Stockton, a milestone for clean, reliable, and affordable energy in the Central Valley.
“All of us owe Barry and The Climate Center a huge debt of gratitude. They’re thinking globally and acting locally,” underscored Hancock.