“There’s no question that climate change is the challenge of our time,” Supervisor Dave Pine told those attending a Sustainable San Mateo County event called “Mobilize Your Community to Solve Climate Change” on June 15 at the San Carlos Public Library.

The San Mateo County supervisor explained how that message was driven home to him during a recent trip to Australia, where he snorkeled among coral reefs and some of the world’s oldest rain forests, which are in danger of disappearing due to extreme temperatures. “I was wondering if I’m going to be one of the last people to see these things,” he said.

Noting that “San Mateo County is the most exposed city in the state for sea level rise” because of its coastlines, he nevertheless expressed optimism because renewable energy is growing exponentially, and electric vehicles and community choice energy are being embraced. “Ten years ago, we talked about these things, but we didn’t have anywhere the momentum we have now,” he said.

Four other speakers offered suggestions on how to engage community members in sustainability efforts. Kathy Kleinbaum, deputy city manager of San Mateo, said her city’s Sustainability Commission succeeded in creating and implementing a Climate Action Plan, hosting a minimum of 12 public workshops a year and engaging 250 households in the CoolCalifornia Challenge. She discovered the most powerful outreach tool to be the online Nextdoor community. But she found that, while it’s easy to get people to attend events, it’s hard to get them to remain engaged. A grant-funded “Connect San Mateo” campaign informing people about their transportation options was, she said, “staff intensive and expensive.”

Sigalle Michael, sustainability coordinator for Burlingame, created a Climate Dashboard on the city’s website that tracks greenhouse gas emissions on various projects. She said the city reduced emissions by 4.6 percent between 2009 and 2015 and is now focused on a number of programs that weren’t in existence when its Climate Action Plan was adopted in 2009, such as installing high-speed electric vehicle chargers, promoting Peninsula Clean Energy (the county’s community choice energy program) and designing a new community center with net zero energy use. She said LimeBike is one of the easiest energy-saving programs a city can adopt. The bike-sharing program is free to cities and is easy to get up and running quickly. Burlingame began a pilot program in January and has had 5,930 LimeBike riders take 13,143 rides for a total distance on 10,171 miles as of late June.

Steve Attinger, environmental sustainability coordinator for Mountain View, said his city of 80,000 people has two sustainability task forces that have produced three environmental sustainability action plans since he came on board in 2008. With renters comprising 55 percent of the population, he said, “The loudest call is for EV chargers, so they can feel secure buying electric vehicles.” One of his city’s biggest engagement projects was “Energy Upgrade Mountain View” in 2012. A local company provided a way for residents to log their energy use data and receive customized recommendations for reducing energy use. The average energy savings after the campaign was 6 percent on electricity and 16 percent on natural gas, with a 4 percent cost savings. Attinger has done outreach through a variety of channels but found that “Nextdoor is the primary channel through which cities engage residents.” Surprisingly, the city got the most signups for its Energy Upgrade campaign by enclosing a simple black-and-white flyer printed on colored paper with utility bills. Slicker flyers with graphic didn’t get nearly as much response. He said successful engagement depends on tailoring your message to specific audiences and addressing their specific concerns.

Laura Richardson, director of partnerships for the Every Voice Engaged Foundation, said, “Collaborating teams are our best hope of solving a lot of important problems.” She recommended involving groups of five and not more than eight people in participatory projects and using a framework to achieve results. The process can be structured like a game, where everyone understands the objectives and also the constraints. A framework can be as simple as asking people if they like or don’t like something, or it can be more complicated, such as asking people to consider tradeoffs when proposing allocations for different departments in a city budget. She said San Jose has “cracked the code” of engaging people around complex issues by including a subject matter expert on every part of a budget under consideration, so questions can be answered on the spot. If you don’t involve enough people in decision making, she warned, “You’ll spent six months trying to justify the decision.”

Author: Terry Nagel