In wake of Copenhagen, we must all step up

The political leaders of the world who gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, 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 what is certain is the immensity of the challenge ahead. The speed and magnitude of change required goes well beyond anything political leaders have ever had to contemplate. And, unfortunately, the Social Change 1.0 tools at their disposal — command and control and financial incentives — were designed for slow, incremental change.

The dilemma we face is what systems theory calls second-order change — change that requires a system to transform and reorganize at a higher level of performance. When the easier-to-implement solutions prove inadequate, 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 and sticks alone are not able to meet our needs, 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?

My three decades of behavior-change research have 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. 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 across the planet. I call this approach “Social Change 2.0.” Here’s what a Social Change 2.0 strategy looks like 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. 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 ourselves the critically needed time for the more incremental solutions to scale up. This would also provide us the moral authority to ask more of other countries, such as China and India.

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.

In 2006 I began testing this solution by creating a community-based environmental behavior-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 organized into neighborhood-based peer-support groups — EcoTeams — who reduced their environmental footprint 25 percent in cities ranging from environmentally progressive Portland, Ore., to middle-of-the-road Columbus, Ohio.

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 that were wishing to engage their citizens; 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” slideshow; and faith-based groups like Interfaith Power and Light, representing some 5,000 congregations, wishing to engage congregants. 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 350 Cool Communities in 36 states across America, with participants achieving on average a 25 percent carbon footprint reduction.

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. 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 the Empowerment Institute and founder of the Cool Community movement.