Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 6: The Cool City Challenge

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Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 9:30 am

“The world’s cities are responsible for up to 70% of harmful greenhouse gases while occupying just 2 per cent of its land. They have become the real battleground in the fight against climate change. What goes on in cities, and how they manage their impact on the environment, lies at the core of the problem.”

“Hot Cities: Battle Ground for Climate Change” from UN-HABITAT’s 2011 Global Report

The purpose of the Cool City Challenge is to scale up a proven community-based social innovation to achieve deep carbon reduction while building resilient neighborhoods and a low carbon economy in three early adopter California cities (the five city finalists from which we will chose three are San Francisco, Palo Alto, Davis, Sonoma, and San Rafael) and then disseminate this strategy nationally and worldwide. The ultimate goal of the Cool City Challenge is to change the game around greenhouse gas reduction in cities and provide a viable path forward to address climate change.

With international climate change legislation failing to get traction and the long timeframe required to scale up new technological solutions and renewable energy, the world is searching for feasible and scalable strategies for addressing global warming. Since cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions and citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent between 50 and 90% of these emissions, cities and their citizens provide the world with an unparalleled opportunity to address global warming. Further, this serves as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.

What would it look like if we were able to scale up a robust demand-side intervention? Here is an historical account from the future for the Cool City Challenge. Hopefully it will look just like this in 2020.


Three of the most progressive California cities and their citizens embarked upon a bold adventure to develop a game changing social innovation around greenhouse gas reduction. Its goal: rapid and substantial carbon reduction in the short-term and carbon neutrality in the long-term, with vibrant livability and disaster-resiliency for its citizens, and green prosperity for its businesses. And they are succeeding!

Here’s how they did it…

Over a three-year period citizens substantially lowered their carbon footprints and in so doing built demand for green products and services, as a result local low carbon economies emerged. With this carbon literacy and sense of self-efficacy, these empowered citizens continued pushing the envelope and advocated to their local politicians to become carbon neutral cities, which these elected officials heartedly accepted. Carbon neutral cities became the new “cool” in California. And the race began to achieve the coveted title of the first city in California to become carbon neutral. It also did not hurt that an “X Prize” was established that awarded ten million dollars to the first city to accomplish this audacious goal.

These communities sent a profound message to the world that citizens in the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitting country were willing to lead the way in reducing their high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the greater good. But paradoxically, rather than this being a sacrifice, they discovered it opened up a whole new set of unexpected benefits. People now knew their neighbors, their neighborhoods had become more resilient and livable, and civic participation had become the new coin of the realm for people young and old.

At the community level, to the delight of the community economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, many green businesses had sprouted up and were flourishing. And with them, numerous high paying green jobs were being created. This was because between 25 to 75% of the citizens of these communities were now engaged in reducing their carbon footprint by an average of 25%, entire blocks were becoming carbon neutral, and each of these cities was reinventing its technological infrastructure to become carbon neutral. These cities were realizing the potential that many communities had talked about, but few had come close to achieving – a thriving local low carbon economy.

Knowledge about the amazing success of these three cities began to spread and soon other California cities came to learn from them. This was not only because they wanted to replicate this success in their communities, but also because the state of California had wisely decided to invest a portion of their cap-and-trade revenues in helping its communities make these types of changes. The universities in these cities became repositories for this learning and played a key role in their dissemination to the visiting cities. These universities also attracted many students who wished to be part of a real-world social innovation laboratory around an issue so vital to their future. The students were fully integrated into the community-organizing aspects of the program and many built green businesses that grew out of the first-hand knowledge they gained about services needed to meet the burgeoning demand for GHG reduction.

All this success spawned a strong sense of confidence, civic pride and a can-do spirit in these communities. Combining this with the new competencies they had learned in how to engage the whole community and design transformative social innovations, engendered an outpouring of social inventiveness. These cities were now not just devising new ways to reduce their GHG emissions, but generating solutions to a wide variety of social, environmental, and economic issues as well. They were also living the maxim, “many hands make light work.”

After several years, knowledge of the bold social experiments taking place in these three pioneering communities—who were now actively exchanging best practices and collaborating with one another—had spread far and wide across the state, country and world. Many communities had come to learn and were now beginning to replicate this success in their cities. And California – it had once again served its role well as the planet’s premier social laboratory for visionary public policy initiatives.


While getting people to reduce their carbon footprint – energy efficiency – is the low-hanging fruit to CO2 mitigation in the short term, will we be able to pick it? Can we empower citizens to get out of their comfort zones and adopt low carbon lifestyles? Will cities be willing to expand their social change tool kit beyond legislation and financial incentives to directly reach out and engage their citizens? And if cities and citizens are both willing to make these changes can such an initiative be brought to scale?

In 2006 our Empowerment Institute began attempting to answer these questions by creating a community-based environmental behavior-change program called Low Carbon Diet (which is described in detail earlier in this series). This program, based on the proven behavior change and community engagement model we developed over two decades, organizes households into block-based peer support groups of 5 to 8 households called EcoTeams.

Because of our track record, the ease-of-use of the program and the pent up demand for personal action and community-based solutions, Low Carbon Diet helped empower the climate change movement that had been building in America. 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 community engagement strategy called a Cool Community.

There are now over 300 Cool Communities in thirty-six states across America with participants achieving a 25 percent carbon footprint reduction and reaching out to fellow citizens to accomplish the same. Low Carbon Diet and the Cool Community model has also been translated and culturally adapted for China, Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

But wide proliferation of these tools is not the same as effectively applying them. After several years of watching many cities dive into this behavior change and community engagement process with gusto, but fizzle out after they bumped up against the hard work and deep knowledge required to be effective, it became apparent that we had gone a mile-wide and an inch deep. Having an effective carbon reduction tool and community engagement strategy was just the first step; we now needed to help communities skillfully deploy them if we wished to realize the potential of a demand-side GHG reduction strategy.

It also became clear that this next phase was going to take very special cities – those with a very strong commitment to carbon reduction and determined political and civic leaders. This endeavor was not for the faint of heart. Our search for the right cities eventually led us to California because of the political commitment of the state to GHG reduction as evidenced by their historic and bold global warming legislation – AB 32. To a specific part of the state, Northern California, because of the widespread sustainability ethic that permeated cities and citizenry in this region. And eventually to identifying five cities (from which we will select three) that had demonstrated early adopter credentials around taking climate action and was a manageable size for such an innovative endeavor. Those cities are Davis (population – 66,000), Palo Alto (population – 65,000), Sonoma (city and county—Sonoma Valley—population – 50,000), and San Francisco (one district, population approximately 60,000) and San Rafael (population – 58,000).

One of these cities, Davis, first showed up on our radar screen in 2008. They had sought out Empowerment Institute’s Low Carbon Diet program and Cool Community methodology after they determined that 75% of the community’s carbon footprint was being generated by the residential sector. They concluded that their “climate goals could not be met without the community becoming the primary driver of local GHG emission reduction.”

From October 12, 2008, through November 10, 2008, the city organized 150 households to participate in Low Carbon Diet EcoTeams. Participation included the city council and staff; University of California, Davis, administrators, faculty, staff, and students; local businesses; and community members at large. Results were received from 65 percent of the households who reported reducing their carbon footprint an average of 5,516 pounds.

Inspired by these results, they reworked their Climate Action and Adaptation Plan in 2010 to have the city become carbon neutral (the first city in America to make this an official city policy) and committed to engaging 75% of Davis households by 2015 to participate in household GHG reduction.

However, when they tried to scale up the pilot program, their lack of expertise in this behavior change and community engagement methodology combined with limited financial resources led to several unsuccessful efforts. But undaunted and now more cognizant about just what it takes to be successful, they sought out the Empowerment Institute for help. In many ways it is Davis’ aspiration to push the envelope around bold carbon reduction and citizen engagement, and their can-do spirit that led to the development of the Cool City Challenge.


As a result of the large carbon footprint of cities and citizens, they provide a key leverage point for addressing the climate change issue. But even though more than 100 local climate action plans have been developed in California alone over the past few years, they often lack implementation strategies and face stiff headwinds in community awareness and acceptance, much less financing. And these action plans tend to focus on high-level targets with no methodology for structured implementation, measurement or verification. Moreover, state and local approaches focus on technology-based solutions and policy adoption but generally lack strategies that include human and social factors that can either drive or hinder technology and policy adoption.

Initiatives for residential energy efficiency retrofitting programs targeting single-family homeowners have not been successful or cost-effective despite hundreds of millions in federal and state funding. Concurrently, personal transportation is the “800-pound gorilla”—the largest source of emissions in many cities—and city officials are largely vexed by this sector, with little in the way of short-term policy fixes and/or affordable technological solutions.

Fundamentally, this is a systems problem spanning multiple issues and perspectives: people’s attitudes and behaviors, how people view and use energy, technology choices and cost considerations, existing policies and incentives, market acceptance, and larger social contexts such as norms and values. Traditional approaches to climate change mitigation that focus on technology, policy, and markets often neglect or underestimate the human and social factors that interact with policy acceptance, technology adoption and market development.

Unlike conventional top down climate action approaches, the Cool City Challenge is designed to work from the bottom up by empowering citizens to reduce their carbon footprint through participation in a structured behavior change program—the Low Carbon Diet—with a peer support group of neighbors. A full suite of 24 carbon reduction actions is provided including transportation, home energy and food. And it does this by engaging not just citizens, but the whole system including local government, local businesses and civic organizations.

The Cool City Challenge brings to scale community-wide Empowerment Institute’s proven behavior change and community engagement methodology. Centered on household level GHG reduction, it uses the existing social infrastructure present in neighborhoods and community organizations. This behavior change methodology is based on two decades of rigorous research and social learning that has demonstrated how a peer support system combined with recipe style actions set in the context of a structured program and compelling community vision, move citizens to take action.

The Cool City Challenge initiates a new paradigm in addressing climate change: coupling state-of-the art behavior change and community engagement strategies with deep data collection and analysis, and enabling technology adoption, policy adoption and market development. See schematic below.

If the early adopter cities targeted by this initiative are able to achieve significant carbon reduction they will serve as role models and teaching cities to the many communities throughout California and across America looking for a cost effective and replicable climate change solution.

We have assembled a world-class team of experts and institutional partners to support implementation, research and scaling of the Cool City Challenge including Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the participating cities.


Here are the seven goals.

1. Engage between 25% and 75% of their households to reduce their carbon footprints by a minimum of 25% with a minimum of 40% of doing home energy retrofits.

2. Develop a plan to transition to carbon neutrality.

3. Develop a low carbon economic development strategy around the increased residential demand generated by the campaign for low carbon goods and services, energy efficiency retrofits, and renewable energy.

4. Redeploy the social capital generated by block-based teams to increase the individual and collective resiliency of residents in neighborhoods to address climate-related risks and enhance overall sustainability and livability.

5. Create a whole system solution through engaging and building the transformative leadership and community organizing capacity of the city’s local government, civic and faith-based groups, university and high school students (Cool Community Corps) and businesses (Cool Corporate Citizen). This approach will not only enable the campaign to accomplish its EcoTeam recruitment goals, but leave a legacy of enhanced community leadership, strengthened community partnerships, and a deepened environmental stewardship ethic.

6. Carefully document, measure and evaluate the GHG reductions, retrofits, community participation levels, economic and social outcomes, and community engagement processes to increase social learning and assist in future dissemination of the Cool City Challenge.

7. At the completion of the three-year Cool City Challenge, based on a successful demonstration, disseminate this methodology throughout California, nationally and internationally.

The Cool City Challenge has the potential to be a tipping point solution. It can achieve substantial carbon reduction, effectively engage people, be immediately implemented, be brought to scale, and is cost effective relative to other solutions. In addition it provides a blueprint for the reinvention of our planet's cities contributing to the development of more environmentally sustainable, economically prosperous, socially cohesive, and resilient cities.

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