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Empowering a Climate Change Movement: Low Carbon Diet and the Cool Community

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This is the first of a six-part weekly series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It describes a bottom-up climate change movement that has sprung up in over 300 communities across America. Not content to wait for the slow and often torturous pace of government solutions, it is helping America reduce its carbon footprint household by household, community by community nationwide. It is a way forward to directly and strategically address carbon reduction in the short-term while building demand for the longer-term solutions of legislation, renewal energy and low-carbon technologies.

In the view of climate scientists around the world--and many others--it is imperative that our civilization's central organizing project become the transformation of our adverse impact on the climate system before we reach an irreversible tipping point. To accomplish this transformation requires boldness, innovation, and speed unlike anything humanity has ever encountered. In the face of this crisis, people and institutions around the world are rallying like never before to find real solutions. But the large-scale solutions many are pinning their hopes on--renewable energy and new technologies--will take a decade at best, or, many predict, several decades to scale up. Much more time than scientists tell us we have.

There is, however, one solution that has the potential to bring about significant large-scale carbon reduction in the short term and buy us some critically needed time for these other approaches to scale up: household energy efficiency in America. America represents 20 percent of the planet's carbon footprint, and half of it comes from the fossil fuel energy we use to power our homes and cars. Empowering citizens to reduce their carbon footprint will not only slow the deterioration of our climate system, but also help create a carbon-literate society desirous of bold government climate policies and demand for the low carbon products and services on which much of the U.S. economic future is being built. Moreover, this will send a message to other countries that as Americans we are ready to reduce our high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the planet, allowing us once again to be a member in good standing of the global community and a source of inspiration for other countries, such as China and India, to up their ante.

The good news is that there is an unprecedented readiness among Americans to take personal action on the issue of global warming. A 2007 Yale University study indicated that 75 percent of Americans recognize that their own behavior can help reduce global warming, and 81 percent believe it is their responsibility to do something about it. Furthermore, making these changes is not demanding, and will increase people's quality of life and save them money. And one more piece of good news: We have spent the past two decades helping some twenty-thousand people in communities across America successfully do this as participants in our sustainable lifestyle program.

This chapter applies this knowledge to the issue of empowering individuals and communities to reduce their carbon footprint, in particular, through the use of the Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program and the Cool Community campaign for taking the program to scale. It ends by taking a look at the social, environmental, and economic dividends a community can expect--in addition to the not-too-shabby benefit of helping secure a future for humankind--from going on this journey. But this journey needs to go back before it can go forward.


The city of Portland, Oregon, one of the first cities to adopt our sustainable lifestyle program, was wishing to push the envelope, as is its accustomed mode of operation. By the year 2000, based on our environmental behavior-change and community-organizing methodology, we had helped thousands of Portland residents reduce their environmental footprint by an average of 25 percent. The local government leadership had demonstrable proof that our program worked, and now wanted to experiment further with these tools. We had procured a small grant from a regional foundation for extension of the program. Susan Anderson, the director of Sustainable Development for the city and a major program advocate since the very beginning, asked if I would consider using the grant to create a program addressing global warming.

Portland was the first city in America to develop a climate action plan in 1993 and they were aggressively engaged in lowering the government's carbon footprint. She was interested to see if our approach might help them engage citizens in this issue as well. While Portland is a progressive city, it was still seven years before Al Gore's Academy Award winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, would help raise America's awareness about this issue, and before the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would publish research that demonstrated unequivocally that human beings were the principal cause of global warming and at imminent risk of creating a planet inhospitable to human life. In October of 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC would share the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in this area.

There was local government advocacy for addressing the issue of global warming in many cities through an effort called Cities for Climate Protection, sponsored by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. This effort inspired many local governments to take on climate change by making their own municipal operations more energy efficient. This was a relatively simple sell since doing so also saved them a lot of money. But, no city had attempted to help its residents lower their carbon footprint in any serious way. In accordance with its plan's goal of reducing carbon emissions 10 percent, Portland was looking to see if our behavior-change model could get a 10 percent reduction per participating household.

I was intrigued by this opportunity, but wondered if people would be willing to take on an issue that seemed so big and out of their immediate control. Up until then, whatever widespread education and outreach efforts there had been around the issue were principally focused on energy efficiency. Addressing global warming was seen as a bit too complicated to sell in its own right, so it was described as an "added value" to energy efficiency. This, in fact, had been the way our sustainable lifestyle program had described it. I knew we would easily meet the 10 percent goal if we could get people to participate in this program, since we were already getting a 15 percent reduction through our sustainable lifestyle program.

I decided to give it a try. Susan offered me the support of her department's energy expert, Michael Armstrong, who was smart and creative and relished the opportunity to help pioneer something like this. We identified all the actions in our sustainable lifestyle program that had a C02 impact and could realistically be measured. I knew there was a carbon footprint for each of the actions in the program that used fossil fuel, but until I dug in I was not aware of just how much opportunity there was to reduce it. This was a much more interesting process to me than just saving energy and some money, or even than doing the right thing; I now felt like I was saving the planet. I wondered if others would feel the same way.

The actual actions were quite simple to take. Some required changes of habits, like turning off lights. Others required making our mechanical systems more efficient, like tuning up our furnaces or cars. Still others required a one-time change, like paying our local utility a small monthly fee to provide us electricity from renewal energy rather than fossil fuels. None of these things was difficult to do, but they wouldn't get on a priority list, unless people thought they were important.

Building on Michael's technical expertise we began developing a carbon footprint number for each of these actions. It was fascinating and a bit shocking to see every aspect of my daily use of energy through the lens of how much CO2 it released into the atmosphere.

Coming up with these numbers, though, was not easy. There were so many assumptions we had to make to establish a carbon reduction number for each action. For example, we discovered that a full dishwasher load is much more efficient than washing dishes by hand, but that a small load is not. So how many dishwasher loads might we project for the average family over the course of a year? What is the carbon reduction difference between average use and this more efficient use? We had to immerse ourselves in studying the daily inefficient usage of an average household compared with more efficient usage. Believe it or not, companies that make these appliances have this type of information.

Once we figured all this out we could get the energy usage and finally the carbon footprint. This was certainly based on much extrapolation and was as much art as science. But even though the actual numbers might be off by as much 20 percent on a case-by-case basis, relatively speaking, this type of feedback would help people become aware of the carbon footprint reduction opportunity in each aspect of their daily lifestyle. At the time, we were the first to do this type of carbon footprint exercise. Now, fortunately, there are many more people doing it.

Our next task was to create a carbon calculator to help participants identify their current carbon footprint. If you were going to reduce your carbon footprint you needed to know where you were starting this journey. We approached some colleagues at the consulting firm ICF who had developed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's carbon calculator, and with the financial support of the EPA they helped us construct a Portland-specific calculator. This was becoming such an interesting experiment that we had no trouble attracting backing.

Participants used this online calculator by entering their annual electricity and oil or propane usage, miles driven, and miles per gallon for each car in their household, among other things. Once they gathered this information, it only took a few minutes to enter it into the calculator and get their annual household carbon footprint. (Carbon calculators have now proliferated over the Internet and at last count there were over a hundred versions available.) The hard part would be getting people to take action based on this knowledge. Here is where our behavior-change program of action recipes and peer-support group model of EcoTeams would be tested.

Knowing that so many people in Portland pride themselves on what they had already done, we decided to create a rating system from 1 to 10 depending on their footprint. A rating of 1 would represent a footprint of over 80,000 pounds of carbon used annually, with 10 being carbon neutral. This would allow people to start at a level that reflected all of their previous conservation efforts.

Measuring one's carbon footprint also allowed people to set very specific carbon reduction goals. They could easily ascertain, for instance, how many pounds they needed to reduce in order to go, say, from level 4 to level 5. They could also compare themselves against others in a friendly competition. Because everything was measurable it was much more interesting than just doing green actions. How many pounds can you lose in what period of time? Thus came the perfect name, Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds. This was starting to be fun.

I had no idea what to expect, but I hoped for the best. People chuckled when they saw the book title. This was a good sign. Within a few months we had started seven neighborhood-based EcoTeams. To my amazement, we increased our neighbor-to-neighbor recruitment rate from 25 to 43 percent. Tackling this issue directly was very appealing for people in this environmentally conscious community. We had tapped into a pent-up desire to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

The program itself also exceeded our expectations. Households from the participating EcoTeams reduced their annual emissions by 6,700 pounds. And they more than doubled the 10 percent reduction goal the city had set, with an average carbon footprint decrease of 22 percent.

People liked the program and found it to be user friendly. They liked the community-building aspect and the way it set up a challenge. John Wadsworth described how the program helped him to get his daughter involved and make changes she would never have otherwise. "It's a pretty cool thing to know your carbon footprint. Bringing my daughter, age nine, to one meeting helped her get on board for a five-minute shower. This inspired me to look into solar hot water, which in the normal course of things I wouldn't have done."

It was very encouraging to see how ready the residents of Portland were at a time when the world felt like a very different place. In an environmentally aware city like Portland, people naturally saw this as the next important issue to take on and so were quite enthusiastic. Susan and I had approached this project with a modest expectation and so we were thrilled with the results. This was proof beyond doubt that a program like this could work.

We approached the city for funding to expand the pilot. While it provided the city bragging rights in the local government climate change community, the initiative was not a budget priority. There was no political will to take it on at a community level at that point in time.

But this social experiment had registered indelibly in my mind. I knew there would be a time when American communities would need to help citizens reduce their carbon footprint. When it came, I would be ready. Fortunately for our planet, that time has now come, and none too soon.

In 2006 I could see the tide was turning on the issue of global warming. It was time to make Low Carbon Diet available to a wider audience. I updated and expanded the book to include new actions on food, and on starting EcoTeams in workplaces, neighborhoods, social networks, faith-based groups, and communities, thus allowing people to run with the outreach aspects of the program on their own. The expanded book made its debut in the fall of 2006. Since then it has been quite a ride. It won the Independent Publishers 2007 "Most Likely to Save the Planet" book award and tapped into the huge groundswell of demand for personal and community action on global warming that was stimulated by Al Gore's documentary.

In December 2006 the Christian Science Monitor published a seminal story about this emerging grassroots movement and the role of Low Carbon Diet as a tool supporting it. Written by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, it was widely passed around the Internet because it helped people see and understand the growing momentum behind personal carbon reduction that was taking shape in America. He writes:

"The timing for a book offering day-to-day solutions to an overwhelming global problem couldn't be better. Gore's group, The Climate Project, which recently began training 1,000 volunteers to give his now-famous slide show, is handing out copies of the book at the end of the session. Many environmental and religious groups are also recommending the book to their members such as the Regeneration Project, a San Francisco-based interfaith ministry, which has linked to the book on its main page. Indeed, preceding and perhaps contributing to the demand for Low Carbon Diet is a remarkable prior effort by The Regeneration Project and its Interfaith Power and Light national network. The organizations showed An Inconvenient Truth to 4,000 congregations nationwide, reaching an estimated 500,000 people. After seeing the movie, audience members around the country asked what, exactly, they could do about global warming."

Velasquez-Manoff goes on to ask "whether the book is a beneficiary of, or a contributor to, this grassroots movement." What I experienced was one of those moments that come along rarely where the forces perfectly align to support change. This confluence was a result of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific consensus reports on the peril the planet is facing; Al Gore's highly effective communication of these risks in his movie; grassroots organizations stepping up to the challenge and recognizing that empowering people to take personal action is one of the most important solutions available; and the availability of the Low Carbon Diet and Cool Community organizing tools.

The rest of this chapter tells the story of this growing grassroots movement, and of how these transformative tools are helping it change the game around global warming one household and community at a time. We begin by taking a closer look at this diverse movement of environmental organizations, local government agencies, community and faith-based groups, businesses, and activist citizens.

To be continued... Part two of this six-part weekly series will appear in the Huffington Post Green Section on Monday, February 1.

David Gershon, founder and CEO of Empowerment Institute, is a leading authority on behavior-change and large-system transformation. He applies his expertise to issues requiring community, organizational, and societal change, from low carbon lifestyles, livable neighborhoods, and sustainable communities to organizational talent development, corporate social engagement, and cultural transformation. Gershon is the author of eleven books, including his recently published Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World, winner of the 2009 National Best Book Award and Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds. He co-directs Empowerment Institute's School for Transformative Social Change and consults with communities wishing to develop Cool Community initiatives. To learn more about Cool Communities or register for the next free tele-training on how to implement one in your city or town visit

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