Community Enrichment Group Finds Solutions to Climate Change

Corvallis Mayor Charlie Tomlinson talks to NICE organizer Chelsea ThawBy: Nick Engelfried
August 31, 2010

Ever wondered what a community-wide transition to a more sustainable future would look like?  This summer one neighborhood in Corvallis, Oregon got to find out.  Residents of close to half the households in Corvallis’ Job’s Addition neighborhood participated in an eight-week Community Carbon Challenge that spurred neighbors to act in concerted fashion to reduce their carbon footprints and their contribution to global warming.

Over the summer the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment, also known as the NICE, recruited college students from throughout the Northwest to help make the Community Carbon Challenge a success.  Originally designed by the Corvallis Community Energy Project, the initiative was intended to bring students and community members together to find solutions to fossil fuel consumption.  Students scoured Job’s Addition, knocking on doors and asking residents to participate in the carbon challenge.  More than 200 people agreed to take the next step, and were urged to choose three new actions they would take to reduce their consumption of energy from fossil fuels. 

Organizers with the NICE, which is dedicated to helping communities in the Northwest live more sustainably, chose Corvallis for their focus during an annual “Summer of Solutions,” partly because the Corvallis Community Energy Project had already begun the work of making city neighborhoods more sustainable.  “This year’s Summer of Solutions was about scaling up the efforts of this community group to accomplish even more,” said Nathan Jones, a NICE organizer. 

Actions neighborhood residents could choose to reduce their carbon footprint included everything from putting a lid on the hot water kettle to prevent wasted energy, to installing home solar panels.  Carbon challenge organizers used an online survey to monitor how many of these steps were actually taken.  According to Jones, residents of Job’s Addition committed to taking more than 600 individual actions over the summer to cut back on carbon consumption and energy use. 

By the end of the eight-week program, five teams were formed in the neighborhood to continue the work of helping the community cut carbon emissions.  While the work of these teams continues apace in Job’s Addition, Jones hopes the next few years will see the NICE expand efforts to other Corvallis neighborhoods and to communities throughout the Northwest.  “I would love to see us organize three neighborhoods in Corvallis per summer over the next three years,” Jones said.  “We hope to work with a total of ten neighborhoods throughout the Northwest next summer.” 

As environmental groups work to phase out polluting power plants like Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, projects like the Job’s Addition carbon challenge could help answer the question of how to replace energy now produced by dirty coal plants.  Large-scale renewable energy projects are likely to be part of what displaces old power plants; but the work of NICE organizers also suggests communities can get engaged in reducing the amount of energy they need to consume in the first place. 

Through gradually weaning neighborhoods off their dependence on fossil fuels, Jones believes communities can make large, polluting power plants not just undesirable, but largely irrelevant.  Sustainability projects may start out with simple energy-saving measures, but could continue to build momentum until neighborhoods and eventually whole cities are producing their own energy with rooftop solar panels and home wind turbines, allowing them to exit the fossil fuel-based energy economy. 

“We want to help communities innovate until we push the need for centralized energy generation and carbon intensive resources out of the picture,” Jones said.  “It’s time to start looking at cities as potential energy producers that can serve as their own power plants and export energy to rural areas.” 

The Summer of Solutions carbon challenge is a testament to the results that come from engaging communities and helping neighbors work toward a shared goal.  During the course of eight weeks, residents of one neighborhood in Corvallis found 600 ways individual actions can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and take a bite out of global warming.  It’s enough to make you think twice about leaving the lid off the hot water kettle. 

Photo credit: Jared Schy, Summer of Solutions organizer

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