Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 6: Cities Step Up and Help Citizens Cut Carbon 25%

This is the last installment in my six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement, Cool Community campaigns, focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink--one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by scaling up household and community carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy over the long-term. In case you missed previous installments of this series here are the links to parts one, two, three, four and five.

In this final piece we look at a city, region and state that have embarked on a remarkable three-year journey to engage between 25 and 85% of the households of their communities to reduce their carbon footprint by 25% using the tools and strategies I have described previously. They are pioneers for the many communities across America and around the world that will need to follow in their footsteps if they wish to substantially reduce their carbon emissions. We also look at the Cool Community dividends these cities are beginning to accrue of environmental sustainability, low-carbon economic development, and social cohesiveness that will enable them to be more livable and prosperous.

Davis, California: A Local Government Steps Up to the Plate

Mitch Sears, the sustainability director and person responsible for addressing climate change for the city of Davis, California, attended our webinar to learn how to develop a full-scale Cool Community campaign. The City had set an aggressive goal of reducing the community's carbon footprint 40 percent by 2015 and to become carbon neutral by 2050.

After much research, they determined that a Cool Community campaign offered them one of the best possibilities to achieve these goals. "Community education and engagement on global warming is the foundation of the Davis climate action strategy, said Sears. We believe that advances in technology must be matched by action at the household and business level to achieve meaningful GHG reductions. At the local level, we need practical, cost effective tools to enable community engagement and near-term action on global warming. We've not found a more effective tool to accomplish this than the Low Carbon Diet program and Cool Community campaign to bring it to scale."

Davis is a city of 65,000 people and describes itself as "a progressive, vigorous community noted for its small-town style, energy conservation, environmental programs, parks, preservation of trees, red double-decker London buses, bicycles, and the quality of its educational institutions." It is also internationally renowned for its sustainability and energy conservation practices.

The city organized 100 households to participate in Low Carbon Diet EcoTeams. Participation included the city council and staff; University of California, Davis, administrators, faculty, staff, and students; local businesses; and community members at large. Results were received from 65 percent of the households who reported reducing their carbon footprint an average of 5,516 pounds.

They are now gearing up to take this program to scale over a three-year period with the participation of 75 percent of the community's households. They will be working in close collaboration with a consortium of partner organizations, including the University of California, Davis, faith-based groups, community organizations, and the local schools. Davis has once again stepped up to the plate to demonstrate what is possible. The world will be watching with great anticipation.

Rochester, New York: Who Says One Person Can't Make a Difference?

Another city mounting a Cool Community campaign is Rochester, New York. Their aspiration is to be the "best midsized city in America." And their motto is, "Oh yes, we can!" Their can-do attitude has allowed them to receive many awards, including one from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for their "creative tools and processes which bridge the gap between residents and government." They got onto my radar screen a number of years ago for their pioneering citizen engagement program, "Neighbors Building Neighborhoods."

Bob Siegel, a Rochester resident, learned about the Low Carbon Diet at a Global Warming Cafe I led for a group of sustainability-oriented businesses and nonprofits. Bob approached me after the cafe and said that he would like to launch a Cool Community campaign in Rochester. I wished him well but did not expect much given the number of hurdles he would need to surmount to organize a campaign. Not an endeavor for the faint-hearted, this was all the more challenging as he did not have any backing or an organization to help him do this.

Six months later Bob had formed an organizing team and convinced the mayors of Rochester and surrounding communities to launch the "Low Carbon Diet Challenge." They organized 120 households into neighborhood, workplace, and faith-based EcoTeams, which achieved an average carbon footprint reduction of 10,828 pounds. Just as important was the enthusiastic and tangible support his organizing team garnered from local businesses, and university, civic, and government leaders who served as community role models by actively participating in EcoTeams.

Rochester's Low Carbon Diet Challenge culminated in a major celebration at City Hall in which Mayor Robert Duffy handed out awards to the program participants, saying, "I look forward to a future award ceremony honoring citizens who have participated in this program taking place at the Riverside Convention Center" (which can accommodate 20,000 people). At that same event, Bob Siegel, now Executive Director of Cool Rochester, offered up the next stage of his vision. "Cool Rochester's goal is to engage the participation of 100,000 people to achieve carbon reduction of a billion pounds by the end of 2012 and put Greater Rochester at the forefront of low carbon communities across the nation."

Given the drive and enthusiasm of Rochester's citizens and mayor, and the organizing skills of Bob Siegel and his team, this community is another serious contender. And a demonstration of what committed citizens can do if they take to heart Rochester's mantra, "Oh yes, we can!"

Cool Mass: Taking Cool Communities to Scale Statewide

By far the most ambitious Cool Community campaign effort is taking place in Massachusetts under the auspices of the state's largest climate change organization, Massachusetts Climate Action Network (MCAN). This is a coalition of local governments and organizations promoting carbon reduction in their communities and leveraging their collective clout to encourage bold climate change policy at the state level. They have built a climate change movement second to none, which represents more than fifty cities and towns encompassing most of the state's population. And they are not only a potent force in Massachusetts, but their Climate Action Network (CAN) model has diffused nationally.

Susan Altman, the outreach manager responsible for supporting these local chapters, had attended our webinar and said that she wished to scale up Cool Communities across the state when the time was right, but her goal for now was introducing the Low Carbon Diet to all of their chapters. Eighteen months later she and Executive Director, Rob Garrity, contacted me. They said that thirty-two of their community chapters had collectively taken more than 1,000 households through the Low Carbon Diet program and achieved an average carbon reduction of 25 percent. Given this success and platform, they felt it was time to take the next step.

"A problem as universal as climate change requires a solution as universal," said Garrity. "The Cool Community campaign will bring our carbon reduction work to scale, rebuild our fractured communities, and engage a whole new generation of leadership. Success is not measured simply in pounds of carbon avoided, but also by people engaged - who then engage others, creating the exponential increase in participants the challenge of climate change requires."

The state of Massachusetts has set the country's most ambitious carbon reduction goal of 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Since 47 percent of the state's footprint comes from the residential sector, they must engage citizens to achieve this ambitious target. To help the state accomplish this goal, MCAN needed to scale up Cool Community campaigns and they invited me to join with them to build the capacity of the participating communities--an offer I relished. We created what we called Cool Mass--the first goal of which was 25-25-2012: Twenty-five percent of the households in the state (approximately 700,000) reducing their carbon footprint 25 percent by 2012. We would then move to 50 percent of the households by 2015 and 75 percent by 2020.

Rob and I launched Cool Mass at MCAN's annual conference at MIT in front of 350 climate change movers and shakers from across the state. There were representatives from local MCAN chapters, municipal and state government, a multitude of community groups, and climate change-related businesses. We announced our Cool Mass goals and stated that our intention was to serve as a prototype for bold and timely carbon reduction action for states across America. We invoked the Massachusetts brand and invited those gathered to start the second American Revolution. Their response to this salvo was a loud and prolonged standing ovation.

After my talk, I led a workshop for communities interested in being selected to start the three-year adventure to get up to 85 percent of their residents through the Low Carbon Diet. I invoked my usual Winston Churchill caveat about this being really hard to do. In spite of this injunction, fifty-nine people representing forty-five communities signed up to be considered. Through a rigorous application process we selected our first wave of communities: Boston, Braintree, Brookline, Dedham, Hingham, Hull, Milton, Newton, and Winchester. They ranged in size from 7,200 to 590,000 for a total population of 955,000. One of the questions we asked them in the application was for their vision of Cool Mass. One answer particularly epitomizes this venture.

"While the goal of Cool Mass is ambitious, it is at the scale that stabilizing climate requires. If we are successful, the culture of our communities will be transformed. Beyond our cities and towns, however, Cool Mass creates a learning network among communities and ultimately a movement through which to set an example for the rest of our Commonwealth and our nation. In so doing, it shows the world that the American people are willing to provide positive leadership in reversing our past unsustainable resource use."

After leading them through a robust two-day training they are now off and running.

Winchester, Massachusetts has gotten off to the fastest start. "People are excited to be part of this grassroots effort because it has many benefits including helping them save money on their energy bill, create community, and help the environment," said Carolyn Starett, president of Sustainable Winchester. She continued, "Cool Winchester has a very ambitious three-year goal to get 85% of the households in our community to participate in EcoTeams with each achieving a 25% reduction in their carbon footprint. Working in collaboration with our local government, we have had a very positive reception among many different community organizations including the nonprofits, businesses, faith-based organizations, and schools - 18 organizations so far. These groups have collectively committed to starting 67 EcoTeams which represents 8% of our goal."

The Green Decade Coalition in Newton, Massachusetts, one of the oldest and most respected community-based environmental organizations in the state, has also gotten a strong response to their campaign. "People are eager to find a venue to make an individual contribution to solving the climate crisis," said Jay Walter, co-director for the Newton initiative. He continued, "The Low Carbon Diet program is an easy-to-use vehicle for people to do this. Our goal is to get a minimum of 25% of the residents of Newton to participate in this program over the next three years. So far we have twenty-two organizations on board including the faith community, Rotary Club, League of Women Voters, YMCA, parent-teacher organizations, and the local colleges. Our first quarter goal was to get to 50 EcoTeams and we are already at 34."

The citizens of Massachusetts, with their huge can-do attitude, passion and commitment, have fired the first shot and are once again leading an American Revolution--in this case, helping America become a model of citizen accountability for the creation of a livable planet.

The Cool Community Dividends

The word "crisis" in Chinese is signified by two symbols, one for danger and one for opportunity. The danger for a city or town in attempting to scale up a Cool Community campaign is that it does not fully reach its goal. The opportunity provided by a Cool Community campaign is in a word--sustainability. This sustainability plays out in three very powerful ways. Environmental sustainability through active citizen participation in conserving the community's natural resources, economic sustainability through building a locally-based green economy, and social sustainability through the generation of massive amounts of social capital from the formation of EcoTeams that can be easily redirected into building a more livable and resilient community.

Beyond these immediate benefits however, a Cool Community generates the civic pride that can only come from rising to a great challenge. With this spirit a community can transform whatever dangers the twenty-first century may bring into opportunities.

And the dividend that accrues to humanity from successful Cool Community campaigns occurring across America and the planet is, in a phrase--rite of passage. The human species will have crossed a threshold by rising to the challenge of our time, smarter, more connected, and more empowered, with the capability of transforming whatever dangers the twenty-first century may bring our planet into opportunities.

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 which empowers social entrepreneurs and change agents to design and implement cutting edge social innovations. He has lectured at Harvard, MIT, and Duke, and served as an advisor to the Clinton White House and the United Nations on behavior change and community empowerment issues. To learn more about Cool Communities or register for the next free webinar on how to implement one in your city or town visit www.empowermentinstitute.net/lcd. To learn more about the social change 2.0 strategies and practices visit www.socialchange2.com and our YouTube channel.