03/20/2013 11:14 am ET Updated May 20, 2013

Dirty Dishes and Climate Change: Taking a Small First Step Toward a Safer Future

I hate cleaning the kitchen. I put it off until it becomes a growling, reeking monster. Dishes piled high in the sink; the ancient garbage evolving into a cranky sentient creature. Of course, at that point there's no way I could even imagine starting the job. It's too overwhelming, too big. Usually, the only way out of this mental standoff is a catastrophic event, like friends or family visiting on short notice. Then I whirl into emergency mode working frantically to clean everything up.

As I've been told many times, it doesn't have to be this way. Even when the job seems too big, take it in chunks, something easy first, build your momentum. The science of behavior change supports our common sense instincts on this. Shrink the problem, shrink the change. It turns out, this approach works for big problems beyond my kitchen -- from eating healthy to getting more exercise to moving away from dangerous fossil fuels and tackling climate change.

Sometimes the first step can be the hardest ("the dishes or the trash?"). Other times it's as easy as flipping off a light switch. o, not permanently; just for an hour, Earth Hour.

On Saturday, March 23, the world will celebrate the 7th annual Earth Hour. Earth Hour began in 2007 in one city, Sydney, Australia, which had seen the extremes of a climate future first hand, including devastating droughts and wildfires. Local activists felt that regular folks in their hometown needed a way to show that people like them cared about the growing risks of climate change.

So Earth Hour was born. In an unprecedented event, big buildings, little restaurants and homes all over Australia switched off their lights for one hour to show support for climate action. A total of two million people and 2,000 businesses joined in. By last year, Earth Hour had become the largest voluntary action for the environment in human history -- people celebrated on all seven continents, in nearly 7,000 cities and 152 countries. And it started with those first small steps in Australia.

Small first steps -- tackling the dishes or flipping a light switch -- create momentum for next steps. And getting ahead of a big problem like climate change before those catastrophic events start becoming commonplace is critical. So last year, the Earth Hour City Challenge was born, allowing people all over America and in six other countries to take action in their hometowns to stand up to extreme weather and climate change. Over the past 12 months, Americans in 2,000 U.S. cities have challenged their mayors and city councils to switch to renewable energy and prepare for climate change. Many of those cities have responded to the challenge and created plans to prepare for climate change and switch from fossil fuels.

I wrote about a few of those cities here, including the amazing story of Cincinnati, Ohio switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy for 100 percent of its electricity needs by 2014. Now, that even makes cleaning up my kitchen look like small potatoes! Or San Francisco which was just chosen by an independent jury of experts as the first "Earth Hour City Capital" in the United States. Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, San Francisco takes climate change and sea level rise very seriously. Its inspiring plan to power the city with green energy, produce zero waste and bring all parts of city government, the private sector and the public together to prepare for climate change makes it an example for communities around the world.

This kind of change is possible, it's happening and it's because of small steps by normal folks like us. On Saturday at 8:30 p.m., you can take your next step during Earth Hour. Urge your community to participate and send a small ripple of change out into the world. Then switch off for an hour -- have a candlelit dinner, host a dance party in the dark. Who says change has to be hard?

Now about that kitchen...