Hope for a Climate Change Solution in the Wake of Copenhagen -- If Governments Can't, People Can

The political leaders of the world that gathered in Copenhagen had the unenviable responsibility of forging a strategy to pull humankind back from the brink of a dire future.
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The political leaders of the world that gathered in Copenhagen had the unenviable responsibility of forging a strategy to pull humankind back from the brink of a dire future. What ultimately will come from this meeting is uncertain, but whatever occurs, the challenge ahead is immense. According to conservative climate change science, we need to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide at 400 ppm and then begin reducing it to 350 ppm to avoid triggering a cascading set of irreversible tipping points. We are currently at 390 ppm. To be successful in this task requires us to develop a solution to achieve by 2020 what the current treaty being negotiated hopes to achieve by 2050 -- an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

The scale and speed of change required goes well beyond anything political leaders have ever had to contemplate, much less achieve. And even if the political will were there to achieve this level and speed of carbon reduction, the social change 1.0 tools at their disposal -- command and control, and financial incentives -- are not designed for this type of rapid, transformative change. They were purposely designed over two centuries ago for gradual, incremental change.

Putting aside the issues of speed and magnitude of change for the moment, passing a law that commands us to adopt new behaviors, and then penalizes us if we don't, is not politically feasible. And although offering us financial incentives to change is sending the right signal, we are still free not to avail ourselves of these incentives. When we are not already predisposed to changing, financial incentives have a limited effect. Even when we are amenable to changing, financial incentives are very slow moving and cumbersome to implement.

If command and control and financial incentives are not enough to turn the tide in the necessary timeframe, can renewable energy and new breakthrough technologies come to the rescue of humankind? While a low-carbon future critically depends on new technologies, there is no credible scenario by which they can be brought to scale in the ten-year window within which our scientists tell us we must make major carbon reductions.

The dilemma we face is what systems theory calls second order change -- or change that requires a system to transform and reorganize at a higher level of performance. When the easier-to-implement solutions prove inadequate for the speed and magnitude of change required, the system goes into stress and must evolve, or it will break down.

We as a human species are being called on to reinvent not only our world but also the process by which we achieve this reinvention. If the current social change tools of carrots, sticks and technology are not able to meet our needs in the available time, what else do we have? Are there assumptions we might rethink about what motivates people to change? Taking a page from Thomas Jefferson's playbook, might we be able to motivate ourselves to change because of a dream that inspires our imagination, enlivens our sense of possibility, and lifts our spirit as human beings? Or, to ask this question in a more tangible way, how might we empower ourselves to voluntarily adopt new behaviors that help us, our community, our organization and our planet operate at a higher level of social value?

My three decades of empowerment research has taught me that we human beings are willing to change when we have a compelling vision and the necessary tools to help us bring it to fruition. The vision must touch our core to engender the necessary passion and commitment needed to overcome the inevitable obstacles on the path of realization. To stay motivated, we need others of like mind going on the journey with us. And, with a well-designed change platform that is replicable and scalable, these behavior changes can be widely disseminated throughout a community, country and organization, and across the planet. I call this approach "social change 2.0." Here's what a social change 2.0 strategy looks like as applied to climate change.

America represents 20 percent of the planet's carbon footprint, with half of these emissions coming from the fossil fuels we use to power our homes and cars. And at the community level our collective carbon emissions are between 50 and 90 percent. If, as U.S. households, we were able to reduce our carbon footprint by 25 percent and take this to scale community- and nationwide, we could significantly lower America's carbon emissions in the short run and buy us the critically needed time for the longer-term solutions to scale up.

Furthermore, by engaging the citizens of a community to lower their carbon footprint we would be stimulating demand for the green products and services needed to grow a local low-carbon economy. And as we aggregate these low-carbon economies nationally, we see the path forward toward the green U.S. economy on which the country is pinning its future. Moreover, this will send a message to the world that as Americans we are reducing our high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the planet, which will afford us the moral authority to encourage other countries such as China and India to up their ante.

But can we mobilize Americans, not known for our conservation ethic, to change? An encouraging study by Yale University indicated that 75 percent of Americans recognize that our own behavior can help reduce global warming, and 81 percent believe it is our responsibility to do something about it. But how do we actually transform our current energy consumption patterns into low-carbon lifestyles in a meaningful timeframe?

In 2006 I began testing a solution by creating a community-based environmental behavior-change program called Low Carbon Diet. The program consisted of twenty-four steps to reduce one's carbon footprint by at least 5,000 pounds in thirty days and to help others do the same. It was based on my experience working with 20,000 people organized into neighborhood-based peer-support groups -- EcoTeams -- who reduced their environmental footprint 25 percent in several cities, ranging from the environmentally progressive Portland, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, to the more middle-of-the-road Columbus, Ohio, Kansas City, Missouri, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The program empowered the movement that had been building around personal action and community-based solutions, and immediately took off. It was driven by the many local governments committed to the issue of climate change who were wishing to engage their citizens; faith-based groups like Interfaith Power and Light representing some 5,000 congregations, wishing to engage congregants; and environmental groups, like Al Gore's Climate Project, which gave the book to the 1,000 people he trained to lead his "An Inconvenient Truth" slide show. This interest resulted in the development of a strategy to scale up the program communitywide, creating what came to be called a Cool Community.

Three years later there are now over 300 Cool Communities in thirty-six states across America. Participants are achieving on average a 25 percent carbon footprint reduction and reaching out to fellow citizens to accomplish the same. A growing number of these campaigns have committed themselves to a three-year effort to mobilize up to 85 percent of their communities' residents to reduce their footprint by at least 25 percent. And in Massachusetts -- one of the nation's leaders in enacting bold climate change legislation--the Cool Mass campaign has been launched to help the state achieve its carbon reduction goals through developing Cool Communities statewide.

A Cool Community also enables a city or town to enjoy the immediate practical benefits of more livable neighborhoods, greater environmental sustainability, and economic development. Furthermore, it creates a robust long-term carbon reduction capability by building the community leadership, carbon-literate citizenry, and political will necessary to sustain this type of change over time.

And, at the most fundamental level, when individuals become personally part of the solution, it creates a new dynamic in the way we tackle large societal challenges. It allows us to move beyond the traditional social change formula of business as the problem and government as the solution -- the familiar paradigm in which nonprofits lobby government for better regulations against business while disenfranchised citizens sit on the sidelines complaining about the coziness between politicians and business. When citizens are empowered to adopt socially beneficial behaviors, such as a low-carbon lifestyle, an opening can occur for traditionally adversarial relationships to establish new arrangements of cooperation and collaboration. When the whole system begins working together and there is no "other" to combat or protect against, more innovative and generative solutions start to emerge. Everyone is now a participant in shaping the future.

The Cool Community movement is building Mount Everest base camps in communities across the nation for the long climb we must make to address climate change. It is also providing fire for the soul to inspire community leaders to reach for new visions of what is possible, with some committing to reduce their carbon footprint 80 percent by 2020. Nelson Mandela, an exemplar of taking on large, epic challenges, describes the journey this way, "It always seems impossible until it is done." But the journey must begin somewhere with someone. That somewhere is our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities. And that someone is us.

David Gershon is the author of Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, and recently published, Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. He is CEO of Empowerment Institute and founder of the Cool Community movement.

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