If cities around the world hope to mitigate or adapt to the now unfolding consequences of climate change, David Gershon says they will need to convince citizens to change their current behavior.
“As President Obama stressed on Tuesday in announcing a federal response to climate change, government alone can't meet the challenge,” Gershon said. “If current trends are to be reversed, it will require deliberate efforts at the local, grassroots level.”
Gershon, co-founder and CEO of Empowerment Institute, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on behavior-change and community engagement. He says cities are on the front lines of climate change because they generate 70 percent of the planet’s carbon emissions and because they have the most to lose when climate-related disasters strike.
“Since citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent 70 percent of these emissions,” Gershon says, “helping cities empower their citizens to reduce their carbon footprint provides the world with an unparalleled opportunity to address climate change. Further, he says, that engaging citizens can serve as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.
“Behavior change and community engagement”, according to Gershon, “is the next frontier in addressing climate change but its success will require a transformation in thinking and skills from traditional information campaigns, which research shows at best raise awareness but do little to achieve actual behavior change.”
Gershon is the author of 11 books, including award-winning Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World, and the best-selling Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds. He co-directs Empowerment Institute’s School for Transformative Social Change, which teaches change agents to design and implement stakeholder engagement and behavior change initiatives.
On July 16, Sustainable City Network will host a free one-hour webinar in which the author will share his Empowerment Institute’s two-decades of research around what is needed to create an effective behavior change and community engagement initiative to address climate change, disaster-resiliency or any other issue that requires citizens to adopt pro-social behaviors. Click here to register.
Gershon will also be leading an in-depth 12-hour “Master Class in Behavior Change and Community Engagement” beginning in October. The series of six 2-hour webinars will provide the opportunity for change agents to work with Gershon to apply his proven methodology to enhance an existing or create a new behavior change and community engagement initiative. A registration fee applies for this course. Click here for more information.
Gershon’s program addressing carbon reduction in cities starts with local governments, civic organizations and/or business groups introducing it through events called Global Warming Cafes, at which trained facilitators engage citizens to participate in a Low Carbon Diet peer support group called an EcoTeam. The structured Low Carbon Diet behavior change program consists of a menu of 24 carbon reducing actions that are implemented over four meetings. The first meeting is to build and organize the team; the second one helps participants adopt low carbon lifestyle practices; the third one helps team members make their household systems more energy efficient; and the final meeting is to help team members replicate the program with others.
Not only are the EcoTeams effective in creating lasting reductions in carbon and energy consumption among the participants, but Gershon identifies five significant "adjacent possibilities" that the teams have fostered in communities that implemented the program:
1) Green economic development: Businesses that address household energy retrofits and renewable energy had major uptakes of new customers, as did stores that sell green products. The program became a demand side driver of green economic development and the consequent green jobs that come with it.
2) Social capital: The connections, cooperation and collaboration fostered by the EcoTeams strengthened neighborhoods and the social capital generated by this process was redeployed to tackle a myriad of community social issues.
3) High performance teams: The training helped residents hone powerful team-building and leadership skills that were used in other civic and business environments.
4) Social innovation: New ideas were generated. "Almost every team would come up with one or two new ideas. It’s amazing how many social innovations resulted," Gershon says.
5) Socially engaged citizens: EcoTeam members often went on to become block leaders, program coaches, political advocates, social entrepreneurs and civic leaders. Many became environmental activists, city council members and mayors. In one example, Gershon says Ava Frisinger's EcoTeam helped her become mayor of Issaquah, Wash., where she is now in her fourth term.
Gershon says more than 300 U.S. cities and others around the world have used these techniques to engage community members to lower their carbon footprint. He has lectured at Harvard, MIT, and Johns Hopkins and served as an advisor to the Clinton White House and the United Nations on behavior change and sustainability.
Gershon is currently heading up an international climate change initiative, the Cool City Challenge, which recently won the NASA/Sustainable Silicon Valley global competition as "the most outstanding solution addressing human impact on the planet." To learn more about this initiative and the methodology that will be taught in the Master Class watch the Cool City Challenge video.