Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 5: Taking a Cool Community to Scale

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Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 3:42 pm

This is the fifth of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It shows how over 300 communities in 36 states 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 scaling up household and community carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy over the long-term.

I had created multiple versions of community-based behavior change strategies over the past couple of decades and got a little wiser each time about the conditions that needed to be in place for them to be brought to scale. Based on this learning, the time was as right as I had ever seen for Cool Communities. Over 1,000 early adopter cities had signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors carbon reduction initiative and needed a lot of help to accomplish this. The vast majority of the public in these cities was aware of the need to take action on this issue. And our Low Carbon Diet and Global Warming Cafe tools were tested, performing well, and ready to go. But no matter how ready the tools and communities were, a venture of this sort was not for the faint of heart. Success would be hard won. My job was to make sure those who wished to go on this journey knew what they were getting in to, had the staying power, and were well prepared.

I would tell interested communities that embarking on this adventure brought to mind Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy. He was fond of saying that “democracy was the worst form of government except for everything else.” In a similar vein I would tell these communities that trying to bring a Cool Community campaign to scale was the hardest thing they could do to reduce their carbon footprint except for everything else. If they were still interested I would offer them the following eight-step strategy and provide training and coaching to help them implement it.

Form a balanced organizing team. A Cool Community campaign can be initiated by a local government, community group or business. All three sectors should be represented on the organizing team to network within their peer groups and help model this initiative as a whole-system solution. Given that the heavy lifting for the campaign is delegated to partner organizations who form the EcoTeams, the bulk of the responsibilities for the team are around recruiting and supporting partners. Consequently, a campaign can be managed initially by one full-time equivalent staff position. And because the campaign is a set of discreet tasks, this function can be split up among different members of the core team so that no one individual or organization is overloaded. With many hands making light work, this initiative can be implemented in a cost-effective manner.

Identify the carbon footprint of the community’s residential sector and set a reduction goal. As the management mantra goes: You can’t change what you can’t measure. While communities are now starting to measure their carbon footprints, very few organize their data from a household point of view. As a result, residents of the community do not understand their collective carbon contribution. When communities crunch these numbers they discover that the household carbon footprint is between 50 and 90 percent of the overall community footprint. If a community wishes to lower its footprint, it must engage residents in this undertaking.

I recommend using 25 percent as the average carbon reduction goal for participating households. Based on our initial results this is quite achievable, and with good participation, will allow the community to make a substantial dent in their footprint. This is far and away the low hanging fruit for a community who wishes to reduce its carbon footprint.

Create a three-year plan with quarterly benchmarks. Here is an example of how the organizing would work in a city of 50,000 people. With 2.5 people per household on average, this equates to 20,000 households. The campaign’s maximum participation target based on innovation diffusion research is 75 percent, or 15,000 households. With an average of eight households per EcoTeam, 75 percent of the households represent 1,875 EcoTeams. To achieve this number requires the participation of approximately thirty-eight local organizational partners, each forming fifty EcoTeams over a three-year period of time. A community could also start with a, relatively speaking, more modest goal of 25% participation and work up from there.

For a Cool Community campaign to achieve this ambitious goal they will need clearly articulated benchmarks. I recommend that this plan consist of twelve waves rolled out every three months over a three-year period of time. Year one the goal is to get the early adopters on board, representing 15 percent of the community. The goal for year two is the participation of the early majority, representing the next 35 percent of the community. The year three goal is to engage the late majority, or the last 35 percent of the community. The laggard population of 15 percent will never participate and are not worth investing the time to recruit. They will eventually be brought along through renewable energy and new technologies being brought to scale. While a Cool Community campaign may plateau well before the late majority, unless it sets its sights high it will have no chance to get there.

Given how few feasible opportunities exist in the short term for substantive carbon reduction in a community and the magnitude of this crisis, my view is that if we can we must.

Identify partner organizations. The community-organizing strategy is based on leveraging existing networks. Campaign organizers need to identify potential partner or partner groups capable of forming fifty EcoTeams over a three-year period—or between fifteen and twenty EcoTeams a year. Depending on the turnout this could be accomplished by one to three Global Warming Cafes a year. Partner organizations without the ability to form fifty teams can collaborate in co-hosting Global Warming Cafes. Local elected officials will already have connections with most of the organizations in a community.

Host a recruitment event to enroll partner organizations. Because local government has the authority -- and in some states will soon have the statutory obligation -- to help a community reduce its carbon footprint, it is a key player in implementing a campaign. The mayor or the equivalent top elected official, as the spokesperson for the municipality, invites partner organizations to a special invitation-only event. With the organizing team, the mayor shares the vision and strategy for implementing the campaign. Partner organizations are invited to participate and commit to forming EcoTeams. The municipality also participates as a partner organization and forms a high-profile Turbo Team of local elected officials to serve as a role model.

Build capacity of partner organizations. A big learning from my work with communities is how important it is that organizers are well prepared to scale up an initiative like this. Otherwise they go down unnecessary dead ends that undermine the goodwill of volunteers, and the campaign eventually flounders. People’s discretionary volunteer time is limited. To attract and retain the most talented people in partner organizations, the campaign needs to be well conceived and effectively executed. This is all the more essential given its ambitious carbon reduction and participation goals.

To accomplish this level of effectiveness requires capacity building training for participating partner organizations. The training should include teaching partner organizations how to publicize and host Global Warming Cafe recruitment events; change leadership and empowerment skills; and the social change 2.0 design principles and practices upon which the campaign is built. At its conclusion a peer support system should be established consisting of buddies, master classes, and one-on-one coaching.

Mobilize students and businesses to strengthen outreach. The bigger the labor pool the easier it is to mount a Cool Community campaign as this allows for more people to help in forming EcoTeams. Two excellent and often underused community resources for this are students and corporate volunteers.

For high school and college students climate change is their issue and no one has more moral authority than they do, because it is their future at risk. The perfect role for students is starting neighborhood-based EcoTeams among the people not reached through partner organizations. Students can do this as volunteers or, if their school wishes to play an active role in the campaign, it can organize this as a service-learning program and provide students credit for their participation. An added value of the Cool Community campaign is it is building the capacity of the next generation of environmental leaders in a sophisticated community-organizing model. We call this program the Cool Community Corps.

As Nike demonstrated, the Low Carbon Diet is attractive to companies because it helps employees reduce their carbon footprint and take that knowledge back to the company and out into the community. The company increases employee loyalty through doing the right thing for the planet, has carbon-literate and emotionally engaged employees to help in their internal carbon reduction activities, and generates goodwill and an enhanced image locally. Corporate volunteers can play many roles in the campaign, from participating in neighborhood organizing, to taking on various campaign leadership roles, to enrolling other companies as partners.

We call this program Cool Corporate Citizen and it is representative of an emerging and very positive new trend in business: the evolution from corporate social responsibility -- “I minimize the harm that I do” -- to corporate social engagement -- “I maximize the good that I do.” Along with Nike, two other pioneering Cool Corporate Citizens are Seventh Generation and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—two of Vermont’s finest.

Engage media and partner organizations to promote campaign successes. To keep people motivated and bring the campaign to life, it needs to be kept in front of people regularly. Local newspapers, TV, and radio stations should be encouraged to do regular feature stories about EcoTeam and partner organization successes. Given the huge number of community members and organizations involved, this will be a major media attraction. Another effective way to tell the ongoing story of the campaign and showcase its successes is to have someone on the organizing team with media and video skills interviewing various participants. These down-home interviews could include EcoTeam members, partner organization volunteers, the mayor, and city council members talking about the things they did, large and small, that week to make a difference in furthering the campaign. These two-minute interviews would then get posted on YouTube and sent to partner organizations to disseminate.

A number of communities have signed on to take this journey. Their first task was to prototype the program with at least a hundred households so they knew what it was all about and would be credible taking it to this next stage. But going from a hundred households to many thousands is a large chasm to cross. In the final installment of this series I will talk about my latest undertaking, the Cool City Challenge, whose goal is take three early adopter cities to scale, and if successful, disseminate this model widely.

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