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Empowering a Climate Change Movement -- Part 2: An Inconvenient Truth Finds a Convenient Solution

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This is the second of a six-part weekly series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. This series is an attempt to build new momentum for a climate change movement that has lost some of its mojo because of the failure of Copenhagen and the forces lined up against bold and timely national legislation in the U.S. While government has a very important role to play in setting the rules, the transformative and rapid change needed to address this issue is a lot to ask of a legislative system purposefully designed for incremental and slow-moving change. Or what I call social change 1.0. But we are justified in placing our hope in bottom-up change--social change 2.0--as this is how all major change in history has occurred.

To that end, this series shows how over 300 communities in 36 states--not satisfied to wait for the slow and torturous pace of government solutions--have built a bottom-up movement 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 directly and strategically addressing carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy to scale up over the long-term.

In case you missed Part One of this series here's the link:

Along with the immense gratitude so many people felt toward Al Gore for raising our collective consciousness about the threat of global warming through his movie An Inconvenient Truth, came some criticism that he did not spend enough time helping people understand their unique contribution as individuals and what they could do to mitigate it; the problem came across as out of our control. While this may be fair criticism, it was not his primary aim to tell us precisely how to solve this problem. That is a tall order. His job was to tell us, the blissfully unaware passengers on the Titanic, that we are about to hit an iceberg and sink unless we dramatically change course.

Many have taken heed of his warning and are developing ways to help humanity make the necessary course correction as rapidly as possible. Al Gore is among the most prominent of these, advising the Obama administration on how America can take a leadership role on global warming and advocating for a shift to a 100 percent renewal energy system. But one of his less visible roles is as a thought leader shaping a strategic way of thinking about the process of change around this issue. It is in this role that he provides an answer to the question posed to him about what we can do as individuals, and as Americans. He offers a strategy that both empowers and holds us accountable as individuals.

"When people take personal action on global warming," Gore explains, "it leads inevitably to their desire to have changes in policies. They begin communicating with their representatives at the local, state, and national level. They say 'Look, I've made these changes in my life and I want you to work for changes in policy.' They are linked together. And when enough American citizens become part of this new critical mass and the U.S. changes policy, then it becomes much more likely that China will make the changes it has to make. We're all in this together." What I like about his thinking from a social change point of view is that it is a whole-system approach and therefore capable of generating the synergy we need to accelerate transformative change within the limited time available to us.

What I find unusual and noteworthy coming from a person who has spent his career as a policymaker is his understanding of personal action as a strategic lever that can work both the demand and the supply side of the equation. Many people who spend their time formulating public policy tend to undervalue the importance of personal action--the demand side of the equation. This is mostly because they are not familiar with how to build demand for change of this nature and scale up personal action; and so, rather than trying to crack that nut, which is a hard nut to crack indeed, they stick with what they know. In this context, that would be passing climate change legislation that provides subsidies and tax incentives to homeowners for taking actions like putting solar panels on their roofs, insulating their homes better, or buying new energy-efficient automobiles. But people need to be motivated to want to make these purchases and to adopt low carbon lifestyle practices. As the old maxim goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. A supply of policy solutions without demand for them will not get us across the finish line.

But Gore goes further than just encouraging personal action; he recognizes that people who are invested in this issue as individuals, when mobilized, can be remarkably effective advocates for supply side solutions. They know exactly what policies will help them lead a low carbon lifestyle. Carbon-literate and committed citizens become a true force for policy change when they can say to a political leader, "I am doing my part, but need your help to go further. These are the specific things that will help me. And by the way, most of the people in my neighborhood have made similar behavior changes and are also very eager to see these policies adopted." What political leader would not be motivated to vote for a more aggressive climate change policy knowing that they will be rewarded by their constituents?

The wider and deeper the constituencies of people who have taken personal action, the stronger the impetus available for policy change. As Gore noted, "They are linked together." When EcoTeam members from our sustainable lifestyle campaign advocated for environmental policy change in conservative Kansas City, Missouri, after having taken personal action, and made it clear that there were many more people like them, they encouraged conservative city council members to vote for policies they might not have otherwise.

To help further this personal action and policy advocacy strategy Al Gore created The Climate Project and personally trained 1,000 community leaders from all across America to present his slide show. In return for the training, each agreed to make at least ten community presentations. This is where Low Carbon Diet came in. He gave the book to his trainees so that they would have a resource for the personal action part of his strategy, and invited me to offer a webinar for those who wished to apply it in their communities.

To take full advantage of this webinar I realized that participants would need more than the book and some tips on how to organize their communities; they would also need the community-organizing tools we had developed over the past two decades. This was clearly a teachable moment in America for these empowerment tools, so we posted them on our web site as an open source social technology and encouraged people to use and modify them as they wished.

This webinar attracted the early-adopter grassroots organizers within his cadre of trainees and they spread the Low Carbon Diet and these community empowerment tools far and wide. When the full story of Al Gore's many contributions to helping get America on a low carbon path is told, one of the important credits he deserves is helping spawn this community empowerment movement committed to furthering personal action. I am very grateful for his leadership and the opportunity he provided me to share our work with his community.

Empowering a Movement

I posted the times I would be leading this free webinar on our web site and requested that Al Gore's trainees register so we knew how many to expect and who was on the call. Because we were posting this in a public space, it would be awkward to say this was only for The Climate Project trainees, so we allowed anyone who might come across this posting to attend. Since the only advertising was by The Climate Project to their trainees, we didn't really expect anyone else. That proved to be an erroneous assumption. News of this free training for community organizers and other individuals wishing to address climate change spread rapidly among the many grassroots networks around the country. There was such a paucity of resources other than carbon calculators and checklists on web sites, and such a pent-up demand for taking action stimulated by An Inconvenient Truth, that when a proven approach to household behavior change and community organizing became available, we found ourselves inundated with interest.

As of this writing I have given this webinar twenty-two times and trained more than 600 individuals from environmental, faith-based and community groups, local governments, and large and small businesses; university and high school student environmental leaders and unaffiliated citizen activists have participated as well. People have come from thirty-six states and over three hundred cities and towns across America. The largest interest has come from California with forty-eight cities participating, followed by New York with forty-two, Massachusetts with thirty-nine, Washington with thirteen and Oregon with ten. There have also been participants from Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan.

The webinar format consists of people introducing themselves and their community and briefly describing how they wish to apply the program. This introduction process allows these change agents, who are often working in isolation, to experience the wide diversity of committed people like themselves who are part of this climate change movement. To further enhance this connection, we send everyone a list of all the attendees on the call, their community-organizing background (which they send us when they register) and e-mail addresses. This allows them to get a better sense of one another and follow up to exchange ideas with those applying the program in similar venues.

After this introduction I present what I call the Cool Community slide show. This is posted on our web site and participants view it as I go through each of the slides. It begins by making the case for the need to achieve rapid carbon reduction based on the urgency communicated by climate scientists. I then explain how conservation at the household level is the low hanging fruit, makes up half of America's footprint, and buys us time for the longer-term solutions to kick in. I briefly talk about the five Social Change 2.0 design principles so that they have an understanding of the operating system embedded in the tools and can make future adaptations in their organizing strategy based on them. I then describe our behavior-change and community-organizing research with the sustainable lifestyle campaigns to build their knowledge of and confidence in the model they are about to use. Finally, I explain the design of the Low Carbon Diet, and the tools and strategy for taking it to scale.

I tell participants that this slide presentation is itself one of the community-organizing tools in that it allows them to make the case for an effective residential carbon reduction program to key community stakeholders, and they should feel free to customize it as they see fit for such presentations. I then take questions, which vary from requesting more technical knowledge on how to implement one or more of the tools, to asking for additional strategies for getting started.

I conclude with an exercise, in which I offer consultation on the community-organizing plans of three represented cities based on a template we provide in advance of the call and which they subsequently submit to us. The template asks participants to answer seven questions:

1. Who is your target population?
2. How will you engage them in the program?
3. What is your carbon reduction goal through engaging this population?
4. By when do you wish to achieve this carbon reduction goal?
5. What do you see as your greatest challenges in implementing this program and how are you addressing them?
6. What questions would you like to have answered to help you implement your strategy?
7. What is your next step in implementing your strategy?

This is when the webinar comes alive for people because we have real people with real strategies in real communities with real problems to solve. Based on the slide presentation, we also have a community-organizing framework on which to build. These interactions provide me an opportunity to share some of the experience we have acquired over these many years and help both the person I am speaking to and the others on the call to see how all this works on the ground. Based on the feedback we get from people, they leave this training inspired by one another, hopeful that there is a practical and immediate way to begin addressing global warming, and empowered with concrete tools and a strategy for taking action in their communities.

On a personal level it is very gratifying to share the fruits of all these years of trial and error with such receptive people from all over the country and world. What a difference it makes when an idea's time has come. Although pushing a boulder up a mountain is a good upper-body workout, it certainly is more fun when it is poised to go down the other side on its own momentum. While we are not at that point yet, it seems to me, based on the large number of competent and committed people attending these webinars, that we are edging ever so close.

To be continued... Part Three of this six-part weekly series, "Instead of Cursing the Dark, Light a Candle - One Person Making a Difference" will appear in the Huffington Post Green Section on Monday, February 8.

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 webinar, March 11, on how to implement one in your city or town visit

Previous posts by David Gershon on this topic:

"Empowering a Climate Change Movement -- Part One: Low Carbon Diet and the Cool Community"

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

"Stepping Up to Save the Planet: From Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Social Engagement" Stepping

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