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Making Slow, Steady and Widespread Change
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by Clark Williams-Derry

I got kind of excited when I saw that The Seattle Times will be reporting on a fairly typical suburban family of four -- the Faleys -- who are trying to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent in in a single month. Bully for them, and best of luck!

But as I read the article, something stuck in my craw: a casual reader would get the the impression that reducing carbon emissions is a total pain in the behind. Take a look:

[The Fraleys] will try to reduce the household's greenhouse-gas emissions by using some common-sense ideas that nonetheless may be inconvenient. [Emphasis added.]


"I realized this wasn't going to be a cakewalk. The easy changes were already made, and the next one will be more -- painful is not the word -- but will take more effort."

Jeez, that makes sustainability sound like sackcloth and ashes. Good luck signing people up for that.

Just to be clear, I think reducing your family's emissions by 15 percent virtually overnight -- as if on a whim -- is a fantastic experiment. The Fraleys' experience is bound to teach them, and us, quite a bit.

But -- and this is a big but -- what the Fraleys are attempting has only a passing resemblance to the way an smart, effective, and well-designed global warming policy would work.

A smart climate policy almost certainly wouldn't target families like the Fraleys, or mandate across the board sacrifices. Instead, it would look throughout the economy for cheapest and easiest ways of reducing climate impacts. Plucking the low-hanging fruit -- the most glaring waste and inefficiencies, wherever they may occur -- will pay for itself quickly, possibly within months. And that would create a more robust economy that's able to make deeper investments in conservation, efficiency, and renewables.

A smart climate policy would also wind up giving families like the Fraleys more choices, and easier ones. They wouldn't be "going it alone." Instead, they'd find a market that had reoriented itself to helping families like the Fraleys save energy -- guided by policies that made sure they found a wealth of products and services to improve their lives while reducing their carbon footrpint.

And perhaps most importantly, a smart climate policy wouldn't mandate overnight change. Instead of 15 percent reductions in a single month, an effective policy would aim to reduce emissions a few percent per year -- and sustain those reductions over the course of decades. Compounding across-the-board reductions of a few percent a year, every year, can create the kind of dramatic CO2 reductions we'll need in the decades ahead.

Such societal changes might be dramatic, but if made slowly and steadily, the changes the Fraleys themselves make would make wouldn't just be painless -- they'd barely be noticeable, against the background of continual change that has become a hallmark of modern life.

Just imagine, if you will, that the Fraleys had 5 years to make those changes, not one month.

Over the course of 5 years, they might have to replace a major appliance or two, or maybe even a furnace. Or they might buy a new car, or new tires. They might have time to take a home energy audit, and follow the most cost-effective recommendations for saving energy. If he's lucky, John Fraley, a piano teacher with clients scattered around suburban Seattle, might be able to concentrate his newer students closer to his home. They might even move, choosing to relocate to a home that's closer to stores, services, jobs -- or in John's case, closer to potential students.

If, each time they made a major decision, the Fraleys made an energy efficient choice -- an efficient car, or trading a personal car for a Flexcar; low rolling resistance tires; an Energy-Star (or beyond) fridge; a 90%+efficiency furnace; a high-end programmable thermostat; simple home weatherization -- they might wind up saving even more than 15 percent on their energy bills. With good rebate programs for efficiency, they might save some money on their appliances, too.

And they'd do it while barely even noticing the changes. No sackcloth, no ashes -- just life as (almost) normal.

For years, it's seemed to me that one of the biggest political obstacles to a sane climate policy is that we simultaneously overestimate how rapid and disruptive the changes will have to be, and understimate how powerful slow change really is.

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for Sightline Institute, a nonprofit, Seattle-based think tank that promotes sustainability, a healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in place. Read more from Clark at Sightline's blog, the Daily Score:

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I really appreciate this discussion with one exception.

With adequate support, that 15% cut in home GHG emissions (putting aside vehicles/such) is relatively easy to do in one fell swoop. A home energy audit combined with a decent energy-related loan and 15% would seem to be low. This, however, assumes that it is time to/there is the potential for: sealing air gaps; insulation; new heat/cooling system; new appliances; changed lighting; etc ...

But, agree fully that, as a society, we should be exploiting the high-payoff energy savings options ASAP, to build momentum and to foster resources for the next step. To me, the poster child of home energy efficiency meets this criteria: the CFL, fast payoff, very easy to implement, and affordable for basically all to implement (even in incrementally). Problem is, of course, that most people don't "see" the energy savings.

Posted by: A Siegel on 23 Apr 07

I just built a free tool for families like the Fraley's,, that gives them suggestions on how to reduce their CO2 and it tracks their progress in order to provide positive feedback.

393 people have signed up and made lifestyle changes to reduce 1,110 tons of CO2 annually. That's a 21% reduction on average.

Let's hope that families like the Fraley's all over the US decide to make the 15% cut and find it gratifying.

Posted by: Jay on 24 Apr 07



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