Changing the Climate One Person at a Time 

Berkeley's Ecology Center thinks globally, acts locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In terms of addressing climate change, Berkeley is on the cutting edge — possibly more so than any other city in the nation. Two years ago, residents overwhelmingly approved ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Then this fall, the city council adopted an innovative solar financing plan. The city also is on track to finalize a comprehensive climate action plan after the New Year.

But to a large extent, the city's sweeping proposals depend on the actions of others to succeed. After all, Berkeley is unlikely to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years unless power companies and commuters outside the city also turn away from fossil fuels, stop burning petroleum and natural gas, and embrace clean, renewable energy sources on a grand scale. But that doesn't mean there aren't simple things that individuals and small groups of people can do to make a difference.

That's what the Berkeley's Ecology Center is attempting to address. Through a series of free workshops, the center is offering tips and ideas for how each of us can significantly downsize our carbon footprints. The workshops, known as the Climate Change Action Program, feature small groups of people exchanging ideas for how to reduce global warming and save the planet. "It's about individuals trying to meet that goal," said Debra Berliner, the center's climate change action coordinator and facilitator of the workshops. "And community building is a huge part of this, too."

The workshops lean heavily on the Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, a 2006 paperback published by the Empowerment Institute of Woodstock, New York. The book includes numerous ideas for how to reduce your own greenhouse gas emissions and provides some eye-popping statistics about how much carbon dioxide Americans spew each year. For example, the typical US household produces 55,000 pounds of CO2 annually compared to the average German household, which produces 27,000 pounds, and to Sweden, which emits just 15,000 pounds. Taken collectively, the United States is directly and indirectly responsible for 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

The book recommends that you start by calculating your own carbon footprint on the Empowerment Institute's web site. Then by faithfully following the low-carbon diet, the average household can reduce its carbon emissions by at least 22 percent, according to the book's author David Gershon. So what are the tips? Most of them are basic, and assume that you don't currently do much to address climate change, such as installing your own solar system for your electricity and hot water. The tips can be divided into three general areas — home, transportation, and diet:

For your home, weather-strip your doors and windows and turn down your thermostat to 65 degrees to 68 degrees Fahrenheit when you're there during the day and 55 degrees to 58 degrees when you're sleeping at night (or when you're out of the house during the daytime). It means putting on that extra sweater in winter, but on average, it can save up to 1,400 pounds of CO2 emissions annually. Also, you can save 150 pounds of CO2 each year by turning down your water heater to 120 degrees. In addition, replacing your light bulbs with compact fluorescents can slash CO2 emissions each year by 100 pounds per bulb.

As for transportation, there is no bigger thing you can do personally to cut CO2 than get out of your car. According to Berkeley's draft Climate Action Plan, gasoline-powered vehicles represent more than 29 percent of the city's total greenhouse gas emissions. Walking, riding a bike, taking BART or AC Transit, or buying a hybrid are all good alternatives, but if those options don't work for you, there are still things you can do. "It doesn't have to be all or nothing," Berliner notes. "You can still find ways to reduce your footprint."

For example, try limiting your speed to 55 mph and changing your daily route to limit idling in traffic. These simple moves can save 1,100 pounds of CO2 annually. In addition, keep your car tuned up and limit your non-commute trips for shopping and errands — or better yet, try combining those trips with your daily commute.

And finally, in terms of diet, eat vegetables; it'll make a much bigger difference than you probably imagine. "A person with a red meat diet emits the global warming equivalent of approximately 5,000 pounds of CO2 a year more than a person with a vegetarian diet," Gershon explained in Low Carbon Diet. In addition, try growing your own vegetables in your yard, or starting or joining a community garden in your neighborhood. And of course, buy locally grown foods.

The Ecology Center's workshops have been going on now for a few months. Each workshop includes a group of about five to ten people who meet one evening a week for an hour for four weeks. Berkeley resident Sharon Siskin told Eco Watch that she decided to join a workshop with her husband and her ten-year-old twin girls. They made it a family outing and learning experience. Her daughter Rachel said she didn't know that changing light bulbs could make such a significant difference, while her twin Maya said they're now biking to school more often. Siskin said she also got a lot out of the workshops because they coincidentally included some of her West Berkeley neighbors. "It was just nice to know a larger community of people has the commitment," she said.

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