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The journey to a low carbon future begins with us

By David Gershon - posted Monday, 4 January 2010


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 stabilise concentrations of carbon dioxide at 400ppm and then begin reducing it to 350ppm to avoid triggering a cascading set of irreversible tipping points. 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 per cent 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 behaviours, and then penalises 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.

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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 reorganise 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 behaviours that help us, our community, our organisation 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 realisation. 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 behaviour changes can be widely disseminated throughout a community, country and organisation, 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 per cent 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 per cent. If, as US households, we were able to reduce our carbon footprint by 25 per cent 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 US 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.

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But can we mobilise Americans, not known for our conservation ethic, to change? An encouraging study by Yale University indicated that 75 per cent of Americans recognise that our own behaviour can help reduce global warming, and 81 per cent 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 behaviour-change program called Low Carbon Diet. The program consisted of 24 steps to reduce one’s carbon footprint by at least 5,000 pounds in 30 days and to help others do the same. It was based on my experience working with 20,000 people organised into neighbourhood-based peer-support groups - EcoTeams - who reduced their environmental footprint 25 per cent 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.

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About the Author

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.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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