Boulder, Colorado prides itself on its green leadership and cutting edge environmental credentials. Yet the City’s Climate Smart program– essentially an energy efficiency loan program geared toward helping the community meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol that the City voted to meet by 2012 with the help of a carbon tax on electricity– is struggling, as the Wall Street Journal reports in an article entitled “Even Boulder Finds It Isn’t Easy Going Green:”
City officials never dreamed they’d have to play nanny when they set out in 2006 to make Boulder a role model in the fight against global warming. The cause seemed like a natural fit in a place where residents tend to be politically liberal and passionate about the great outdoors.
Instead, as Congress considers how to encourage Americans to conserve more energy, Boulder stands as a cautionary tale about the limits of good intentions.
“What we’ve found is that for the vast majority of people, it’s exceedingly difficult to get them to do much of anything,” says Kevin Doran, a senior research fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Part of the problem is likely Boulder’s relative affluence. As the Kaya Identity formula suggests, economic growth is an important variable, along with carbon intensity and population, in the equation of mounting carbon emissions that contribute to amplified warming of the planet.
Even in the recent economic down-turn, Boulder, with the vast majority of its electrical power coming from the coal-burning Valmont Power Plant, powering a large University and National Laboratories that conduct much of the nation’s research on climate, along with 40,000 people commuting into Boulder each work day, has experienced only a slight negative economic downturn… enough to perhaps explain the slight reduction in emissions that occurred last year.
And as the WSJ article points out, some of the problem Boulder is facing in terms of meeting the Kyoto goal (reducing emissions by 8% below 1990 levels by 2012) relate to the fact that it is easier to talk the talk than walk it. Or, put another way, behavior change doesn’t come easy no matter how well intended the intention, making Boulder a cautionary tale, indeed.
More than 1,000 U.S. cities have pledged to make such cuts, yet analysts say most are stymied—in part because it’s extremely difficult to reduce emissions without a wholesale switch to renewable energy sources. Boulder depends almost entirely for energy on a coal-powered plant.
Jonathan Koehn, the city’s regional sustainability coordinator, feels the pressure keenly.
“People say, ‘It’s Boulder! Kooky Boulder! Of course you can do it,’” he says, and sighs. “Not necessarily.”
It’s worth noting that encouraging people in Boulder (and beyond) to appreciate the urgency and challenges of mitigating climate change as well as to prepare to deal with change that is already occurring isn’t part of the City’s approach. At least not yet.
Some experts dismiss providing climate information to the public as “deficit knowledge theory” because, especially when used for political reasons, it has traditionally had little impact on changing people’s behaviors and can backfire if it is too “gloom and doom” or advocacy oriented.
But how can people ultimately make informed choices and sound preparations without good information, ideally through contextualized education, whether formal or informal?
The key is that the information must be relevant and contextualized, building on prior knowledge and addressing naive or “missed” conceptions as appropriate. And when it comes to addressing climate change and energy consumption– and how they are “coupled”– science must be integrated with practical solutions.
In previous conversations with members of the City’s Climate Smart Program, to see if they were interested in using the program as a “teachable moment” and make use of the Essential Principles of Climate Literacy and related efforts, I was informed that climate science isn’t really part of the program because it is considered “too controversial,” even in the Green Bastion of Boulder. That approach may have to change since the County is starting to develop a Climate Adaptation plan, which will obviously require emphasizing the urgency while offering practical steps to prepare for climate variations and change.
While people in Boulder and beyond are encouraged to measure their carbon footprints, reduce their carbon emissions, and buy carbon offsets (or shun them because they aren’t really “green,”) there is an enormous gap in most people’s understanding of carbon and climate.
No, we don’t need a society of climatologists married to renewable energy technologists to change our course. But the fact remains that today’s students can easily graduate from high school and then college without ever learning the basics of how human activities are influencing the natural greenhouse effect.
Moreover, due to the largely invisible infrastructure that delivers energy into our lives, most of us don’t appreciate and never learn where the energy we consume comes from, or how deeply (and perhaps fatally) dependent our economy is on “buried solar energy,” i.e. fossil fuels.
Fortunately, as we recently noted, there does seem to be strong interest is addressing this massive societal cognitive deficit around climate and energy, with 70% of American adults agreeing that we should teach our children about the causes, consequences and potential solutions to global warming.
Will such understanding lead to changed behaviors or policies? Maybe not overtly, but, without knowledge and some degree of holistic, systems thinking, our choices will be forever reactive, ill-informed and limited.
Attempting to treat climate change merely as an energy efficiency/conservation problem, while ignoring preparedness and adaptation strategies, is clearly not working. It is imperative that we as a society have an adult conversation about intwined climate and energy realities. We need education, outreach and communication strategies that are carefully calibrated for the needs and constraints of different age groups and demographics. And, whether to save money or save the planet, we need to go far beyond defining “climate smart” as merely being energy efficient. That’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
One of the stark realities is that energy efficiency and conservation, however personally virtuous, as former VP Dick Cheney once suggested, are actually not nearly sufficient to address the daunting challenges we face. While they are important and imperative, only by fusing climate science, energy awareness and social solutions will we be able to turn the corner, stem the tide and reverse the trends that don’t bode well for future generations. Or, for that matter, ours.
Photo courtesy of Phil Armitage.