One of the challenges of fighting climate change is that the things you, as an individual, can do to help seem small in comparison to the enormity of the crisis.
Somehow, when you’re contemplating a climate apocalypse that destroys civilization as we know it, turning your water-heater down a notch doesn’t feel like you’re doing much.
That’s where you’re wrong, say the creators of the Sonoma Climate Challenge, a new website — sonomaclimatechallenge.org — designed to show how you can fight climate change by changing how you live your daily life.
“Forty percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from actions at the household level, and that’s what this new tool was created to address,” said Brant Arthur, community affairs specialist with the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA).
The RCPA was formed in 2009 to coordinate climate protection efforts among Sonoma County’s nine cities and multiple agencies. In July 2016, it produced a regional plan called “Climate Action 2020 and Beyond,” which called for greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050.
The problem is 2020 is just six months away, and none of the cities in Sonoma County are anywhere close to reaching this goal.
The folks at the RCPA hope The Sonoma Climate Challenge will help change that by putting the tools people need to understand their contribution to the climate crisis and the actions needed to solve it, into an appealing, easy-to-use website.
The first step of the challenge involves setting up an energy profile for your family that will be used as a baseline. To do this, you answer questions about your house and what kind of car you drive. With your permission, the website can also link into your PG&E account to give an exact accounting of your home energy use. (It can’t link into the Healdsburg Utility as of yet.)
The website offers a list of 67 actions that you can take to shrink the amount of energy you use (and therefore the amount of weather-deranging carbon you release into the air). Then the site shows you the effect of those changes on your family’s energy profile.
In addition to tracking changes in your personal energy consumption, the Sonoma Climate Challenge also allows you to create or join groups or teams, which compete against one another to see who’s using the least carbon.
Healdsburg City Councilmember Joe Naujokas, who is Healdsburg’s representative to the RCPA, said he was initially excited by the team aspect of the website.
“I wanted our city council to be a team, so we could compete against other city councils, but that ran afoul of the Brown Act (the open meetings act), which was disappointing,” he said.
He does have his eye on several actions that his family can take individually, however, such as getting an electric car and installing more energy efficient windows.
“There are all sorts of building changes you can do, and we’re definitely considering some of those,” he said.
Naujokas said he’d already done two of the items on the list — installing a smart water irrigation system and a smart thermostat.
“The city of Healdsburg actually offers rebates for installing those,” he said.
Christopher Peck, a Windsor-based financial planner, has also been looking through the list of actions and “trying to figure out what to take on next,” he said.
“One is — and this is kind of embarrassing — we don’t air dry our clothes. In the middle of summer we’re still putting things in the dryer… it’s so dry and warm here in summer, things would dry really fast. That’s the top of my list right now,” he said. “Not using our clothes dryer could chop a lot off our usage.”
“The other big thing on the list is that we don’t have solar. I really need to get that this year because the tax credits start to step down. It’s 30% this year, then it goes to 26% in 2020. So it’s like, ‘Ooh, I should do that now because that would be very beneficial to us.’”
In creating your energy profile, the Sonoma Climate Challenge site also takes account of things you’ve already done. Peck has already done a lot of what he called “deep energy retrofitting” to his home — including stripping off the siding and replacing the insulation, installing more energy efficient windows — so he got credit for those actions.
Looking back at all the renovations he’s done, the one thing he wishes he’d done differently from an clean energy perspective is gotten a high-efficiency electric induction range instead of one that ran on natural gas.
Natural gas has four times the green house gas impact as electricity. By using electric appliances you can dramatically lower your greenhouse gas emissions, Peck noted.
Last year, he replaced his old gas water heater with an electric air source heat pump water heater.
“We’re just slowly replacing things,” Peck said. “Right now, we have an old gas dryer and when it dies we will upgrade to some super-efficient electric one.”
Electric power is also greener than natural gas because it can run on solar, which Peck hopes will eventually be the main source of power for his home.
Until then, to supply energy to his home, Peck subscribes to Sonoma Clean Power’s Evergreen program, which provides 100% renewable energy from local sources. It’s more expensive than Sonoma Clean Power’s usual program, but for $15 to $30 more a month, you can have the satisfaction of knowing that your power is renewable, clean and local, Peck said.
“That makes a huge difference,” said Peck, who has been an Evergreen user since the program first rolled out.
Naujokas said Healdsburg Utilities also offers a 100% renewable energy option called “the Green Rate.”
“That’s also on our list of things to do,” Naujokas said.
Though he was frustrated in his efforts to form a team with his fellow city council people, he said that as a policymaker he appreciates the program’s effort at “gamification.”
“Humans are so competitive by nature, it seems like a fun and engaging way to create awareness about the effects of things we do every day and how we can do better. Instead of the usual thing of wagging your finger and saying, ‘You should do this,’ the idea of making it a fun thing instead of a burdensome thing was what really attracted me,” he said.
The RCPA’s goal for 2019 is to have 500 households in Sonoma County participate in the Sonoma Climate Challenge.
With 500 participants, an RCPA press release noted that “we could collectively reduce our emissions by 500 tons of CO2 by 2020. This would be the equivalent of 588 acres of forests capturing and storing carbon over one year.”
Thus far, 150 people have signed up countywide to take the challenge.
The RCPA did a stealth launch of the Sonoma Climate Challenge website in May, Arthur said, to give the developers time to work out the bugs. (Peck was one of their Beta testers.)
In Petaluma, the group Daily Acts has taken on the Sonoma Climate Challenge as one of their projects and has signed up dozens of users. In the rest of the county, however, few people seem to know that the Sonoma Climate Challenge even exists.
Naujokas feels this is unfortunate because getting regular people to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of energy they use is key not only to helping Sonoma County meet its climate goals but to solving the climate crisis itself.
“The Earth is a close-loop system,” Naujokas said.
He compared continuing to produce and consume carbon-based energy to “putting your car in a garage, closing the door and running your car — you would soon die,” he said.
“There are now so many of us” metaphorically running our engines in a closed garage, “that we are all going to die if we keep this up. It hits you in the gut when you really start thinking about it that way,” he said.
Naujokas sees programs like the RCPA and the Sonoma Climate Challenge as potential game changers — and as models for the rest of the country.
“For a long time no one was doing anything about climate change. And because the rest of the world wasn’t really paying attention, it felt like an exercise in vanity to try to affect change on an individual level,” Naujokas said. “But now folks are really beginning to pay attention, and you’ve got that kind of collective momentum when all of the sudden things click. I think the whole climate denial crap is behind us — at least in Sonoma County. I think we’re finally at that tipping point. And now we’re in a position to show the country how it can be done.”
Check out the Sonoma Climate Challenge website at sonomaclimatechallenge.org.