Article Sustainable Cities Kathleen Les

Engage Your Community in Bold Initiatives on Climate Change

Kathleen Les is a program consultant with the Institute for Local Government’s (ILG) California Climate Action Network. She can be reached at Terry Amsler, program director of ILG’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, also contributed to this article. For more information about the California Climate Action Network, visit

How can local agencies help turn the tide on climate change? Start by engaging the public in a dialogue to promote understanding of the dire consequences of doing nothing and to set the agenda for your city or county. Then be relentless about supporting and compelling the community into action.

California residents are deeply concerned about global warming and its effects on the environment and the economy. And they are clamoring for action. Consider these findings:

  • A Public Policy Institute of California study released in July 2007 found that 54 percent think global warming poses a serious threat to California’s economy and quality of life, and 81 percent believe corrective steps should be taken immediately;
  • In September 2007, the GfK Roper Yale Survey on Environmental Issues found that 74 percent of Americans want their own city or local government to do more to reduce heat-trapping gases that cause global warming; and
  • The Yale survey also found that 71 percent support local subsidies for energy-saving home improvements and 68 percent support a renewed em phasis to concentrate development in city centers.

Given the public’s desire for immediate action, many local agencies throughout the state are embarking on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some local governments are taking the initial step of retrofitting public buildings with energy efficient lighting or converting their vehicle fleet to hybrid or bio-diesel. Others are taking a bigger, more all-encompassing step by assessing greenhouse gas emissions generated in their jurisdictional boundaries and identifying ways to initiate sizable reductions through goals embodied in a formal climate action plan.

Creating a concerted plan for energy and greenhouse gas reduction requires a comprehensive approach to community engagement. Involving residents from throughout the community early and all the way through plan implementation is essential when setting goals and establishing a city or countywide plan for green house gas reduction.

Enlisting the Public in Developing A Local Action Plan

As with all consensus building for local government efforts, the best way to enlist community support is by involving a wide variety of stakeholders — residents, neighborhood groups, and business leaders — who will work hand in hand with municipal staff and elected officials in a meaningful, effective way.

The Climate Protection Manual for Cities, compiled jointly by the nonprofits Natural Capitalism Solutions and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Local Governments for Sustainability, is a helpful source of information for involving stakeholders (online at The community engagement chapter identifies three strategies to involve stakeholders:

  • Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal (LASER) offers free tools on best practices for communities interested in developing sustainability programs (
  • Tools of Change, founded on the principles of community-based social marketing, teaches how to guide behavioral change in the context of glo bal warming, including changes that promote health and environmentally friendly behavior (  
  • Business for Social Responsibility provides tools and resources to encourage corporate responsibility, including how to make the business case for climate protection (

Each approach involves education and the vision to stimulate action across a broad economic and social spectrum of resi dents, businesses and community leaders.

According to the Climate Protection Manual, ”A vision statement drafted by a few people in leadership ? will never engender the sense of ownership and common purpose that comes with full community participation.”

Palm Desert Calls Community To Action on Ambitious Energy Reduction Goal

Steep electric bills to cool buildings in Palm Desert, where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees, spurred a partnership with local utilities Southern California Edison and Southern Cali fornia Gas Company. The partnership assists homeowners and businesses with generous rebates to retrofit old furnaces, air conditioners and pool pumps. City officials soon realized it wasn’t just about saving money on utility bills — they had a responsibility to help curb heat- trapping greenhouse gases generated by their community.

In 2007, Palm Desert adopted a plan to reduce energy consumption 30 percent citywide by 2011. The city established yearly benchmarks to monitor progress, and by the end of the program’s first year, Palm Desert saved 27 million kilowatt hours of energy, representing 12.9 percent of their five-year target.

“Our ambitious goal forces us to think outside the box,” says Pat Conlon, director of Palm Desert’s Office of Energy Management.

How did they achieve a high level of com munity participation? The city has a wide- ranging marketing and promotions program to inspire residents to take advantage of financial incentives to trade out energy-guzzling appliances. A regular newsletter, The Bright Side, featuring energy-saving tips is sent to every home and business citywide, and 30-second TV and radio spots encourage energy conservation and give information on rebate programs.

The city held its first annual Bright Idea Exposition in March 2008, featuring solar vendors, green builders and many activities for kids, attracting families and parents. The program also conducts home energy surveys to provide advice on energy conservation and appliance replacement.

“Climate change can be a harder sell be-cause we are asking people to open their wallets and invest in energy efficiency,” said Conlon, who is confident that repeated marketing efforts to reach residents will promote understanding that money spent today is money saved in the long run. For more about Palm Desert’s energy reduc tion program, visit

Ventura County Partners With Locals

After the statewide energy crises of 2001, business and community leaders in Ventura County came together to seek ways to better prepare for the next energy crisis. They formed a joint powers authority, the Ventura County Regional Energy Alliance, which comprises the county, four cities, the local school district, water district, community college district and sanitation district. The alliance now focuses on averting climate change.

The Ventura County Regional Energy Alliance ( educates its members and the community at large about the importance of energy efficiency. Over the past three years, the alliance, in partnership with the Southern California Gas Company and Southern California Edison, launched 75 energy efficiency projects in public buildings, including schools, hospitals and jails. These efforts reduced energy costs by $1.4 million in the region and lowered carbon emissions by more than 5,000 tons per year.

“Working in collaboration, a number of small local governments have been able to show leadership in their individual communities by undertaking energy-saving projects that reduce carbon and support a framework for further community action,” said Cheryl Collart, executive director of the regional alliance.

While many of the Ventura partnership’s programs are geared toward local agencies, residents in the 10-city area are also en couraged to reduce their household energy consumption. The partnership engages the community’s attention with an online newsletter featuring energy saving tips, training seminars where participants can learn about green building and Title 24, and through kiosks placed strategically around the county featuring energy conservation information.

Berkeley Engages Community On Many Levels

Two years ago, Berkeley began to take stock of its carbon footprint and develop a vision to cut its size. The city’s efforts to engage the community every step of the way are among the most comprehensive in the state.

“We knew for a plan to be effective, we needed to have widespread community support,” said Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s climate action coordinator.

City staff met with a variety of civic groups and stakeholders throughout Berkeley to gauge interest in undertaking a plan to address climate change. They took the additional step — with city council support — of placing an initiative, known as Measure G, on the ballot to ask the entire community if the city should adopt an aggressive plan to address greenhouse gas reduction. A resounding 81 percent of voters said yes.

After Measure G passed, the city conducted an inventory to determine the extent and sources of carbon emissions within the city. City leaders held a series of workshops and meetings with residents to solicit carbon-reduction ideas, which included everything from converting local schools to solar energy to making public transit more readily available. This input formed the basis for the Berkeley Climate Action Plan, with a goal to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The Berkeley plan, posted on the city’s website (www.berkeleyclimateaction. org), encourages residents to comment and features the Berkeley Climate Action Pledge, which they can sign to show their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. It also provides extensive re sources to help guide green building, recycling and choices on solar energy.

The city recently secured a $40,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Manage ment District to establish working groups to monitor follow through on its plan. As part of the grant project, Berkeley will establish numerical benchmarks for goal attainment, build a database of stakehold ers and launch additional community meetings to share feedback on annual progress toward energy reduction.

Embracing Collaborative Governance to Solve Energy-Related Issues

“Whatever the desired outcome in developing a climate action plan, a city or county will have a better chance of succeeding if the community is sup portive and involved,” said Terry Amsler, program director for the Institute for Local Government’s (ILG) Collaborative Governance Initiative. The ILG program ( provides tools and resources to help guide informed and inclusive decision-making at the local 
level (see “Why Ask the Public?” ).

“Local governments should engage people to learn together in order to make changes together,” said Amsler. “And residents should be assured that their voices will count too.”

This article appears in the May 2008 issue of Western City
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