The first Earth Day occurred in 1970, long before anyone started to worry about what was, at first, called “global warming.” So those trying to get Americans to change their behavior for the planet’s sake are fighting a battle against eco-fatigue, born of repeated exposure to environmentalist messages, and their inevitable fadeout.
In Charlottesville, one organization is leveraging group psychology to spur regular people to reduce their carbon footprints. “We noticed that the largest sector emitting greenhouse gases is the residential sector, at nearly 30 percent,” says Claire Habel of the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative, or C3. “We said ‘Hey, we should really be engaging households.’”
Through C3’s Home Energy Challenge, groups of friends and neighbors around the city have been attending “power parties,” where they set carbon reduction goals and resolve to track their progress as a group. The idea is that working in teams, with an element of competition and accountability to one’s teammates, might keep folks more committed to making those little shifts in personal habits that add up to a larger impact. “It’s known to be pretty effective—this positive peer pressure,” says Habel.
On a warm evening in March, Chris and Mirentxu Meyer assemble trays of snacks in the kitchen of their roomy new house in Fry’s Spring, while Habel talks with a reporter about how the Home Energy Challenge works. “Many of our participants have done a lot of the actions already,” Habel says, explaining that the HEC offers teams a menu of carefully quantified, footprint-reducing actions they can take. If participants have already, say, bought an electric vehicle or switched to LED light bulbs, there are still ways to earn points for their teams, through actions “geared toward lifestyle”—for example, line-drying clothes.
Chris Meyer already works on climate change through his day job, as executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program. He says that when he and Mirentxu moved into this subdivision, Oaklawn, where construction is still underway and heavy equipment blocks the street, they wanted their investment to reflect their green values, so they installed geothermal heating and solar panels. “I’m interested in seeing more done locally,” he says, referring to the City of Charlottesville’s carbon reduction goals, which have been relatively modest.
Wanting to do more on a personal level, he volunteered to host this power party and lead a team in the second season of the Home Energy Challenge. The Meyers’ first guest to arrive is Beau Dickerson, whose company Echelon developed this new neighborhood, and who lives just up the street. Soon, six more neighbors have arrived, and everyone settles in for a presentation by Habel.
With 11 teams having been part of the HEC’s first season—it wrapped up in February—Habel has clearly had practice leading folks through her spiel. She points out that while Richmond and Blacksburg have set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals—80 percent by 2050, in some cases—Charlottesville’s goal is a wan 10 percent by 2035 (the city is currently working on a revised, more ambitious goal). Her audience expresses dismay. Habel piles on a little: Charlottesvillians create more annual greenhouse gas emissions than the average U.S. citizen (11.2 tons per person as opposed to 10 tons) and more than twice as much as the average Brit (5.2 tons).
With everyone in the room now feeling a little guilty, Habel offers hope: The 192 households that participated in the first season of the HEC saved a collective 186 tons of carbon. “We have to think about it in terms of numbers, because it’s the little things that make an impact,” Habel says. “Last season, we soared past our goal.”
Those 186 tons saved seem small compared with the 6.5 million tons annually emitted across the U.S. (that’s the EPA’s number for 2016). As Leo Connally, another HEC participant, puts it, echoing a very common sentiment, “When I start to think about global climate change, it’s such an overwhelming thing.” Very bad news from the U.N.—whose report last fall predicted catastrophic effects from climate change sooner than previously expected—and climate-change denial on the part of President Trump may well cause people to despair.
Yet the crux of the issue—and the sweet spot where C3 is trying to do its work—is to keep people focused on doable steps and incremental change at the local level, in the belief that widespread improvements are built of many tiny positive shifts. In her presentations, Habel also appeals to her audience’s wallets, pointing out that eating one fewer meal of beef each week can save a family of four $100 per year.
Connally says he, for one, has seen some real savings. “We installed a water-saving showerhead and started being more diligent about monitoring our thermostat,” he says. “Our gas bill went from $110 to $57.” He and his girlfriend have also cut their trash volume in half by composting through the city compost program.
“That’s a tangible thing,” he says. “What appealed to us with HEC is that it kind of brought all these different things together in an organized way. I can take a couple steps and watch and see the impact.”
Of course, transportation and business sectors are also major GHG polluters, and government regulation—from the local to international levels—is needed to promote drastic change. “It’s a little bit frustrating to me that the onus is on the individual,” says Connally. “I wish I saw more effort on behalf of some of the larger corporations.” Still, he and many others hope to step up their own personal games.
“I’m a work in progress here,” he says, “but I have the best of intentions.”