Green City: Meeting the Climate Challenge

A race to turn the lights out

GREEN CITY It is easy to become discouraged by environmental problems, but a few San Franciscans are reminding us that we have collective power to make positive change. And we might even have a little fun along the way.

Paul Scott came up with the idea of the San Francisco Climate Challenge, a citywide contest to reduce household energy consumption. Scott is a lawyer and founding member of One Atmosphere — a nonprofit created by North Beach neighbors concerned with sustainability and conservation. "I think a lot of folks are concerned about climate change, but frustrated by the seeming inaction by the government to solve the problem," Scott told the Guardian. "The purpose of the San Francisco Climate Challenge is to give people something they can do right now."

A joint project by One Atmosphere, the Sierra Club, and SF Environment, the Climate Challenge officially starts Oct. 25 and registration ends the day before. Two top prizes of $5,000 (cash!) will be awarded for greatest overall energy savings and greatest percentage reduction in energy use. Winners will be determined by comparing last November's Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bill with this November's bill, so participants must pay their own utility bill and have lived in their current home — apartment, condo, or house — for at least a year.

Private residences account for about 20 percent of San Francisco's carbon emissions, so the SF Climate Challenge is specifically focused on reducing household emissions. "Hopefully, this contest will increase people's awareness of what they can do and the environmental damage done by normal activities," said Jonathan Weiner of One Atmosphere. "Simple changes can have significant impacts."

And what are some of these simple changes to make at home? Turn off lights when you leave a room, replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat. And something that people often forget is that appliances use energy even when they're turned off. So plug your television and stereo into a power strip and, when you're done watching TV or listening to music, turn that power strip off.

"Eliminating unnecessary, wasteful use and being more efficient with the energy we do use is important," said Aaron Israel of the Sierra Club's San Francisco chapter. "But you don't have to eat in the dark or live like a monk. There are very easy things you can do if you're just a little bit more aware."

Contest participants can sign up for the Climate Challenge as individuals or teams. So far, there teams have been created by neighborhoods, social groups, and sports teams. Even the Board of Supervisors has formed a team, with supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Aaron Peskin, and Sean Elsbernd already committed to participating. Word on the street is that even the Mayor's Office may compile a team.

The Climate Challenge is also about building community. "This is an initiative to bring together a bunch of folks around how we, as residents in the city, can do things differently," said Mark Miller of One Atmosphere. "The more we see how we're connected, the more we see how much we affect each other."

Making simple, painless changes at home is a great place to start taking responsibility for the health of our communities, city, and planet. Hopefully, the San Francisco Climate Challenge will inspire people to think about the environment in terms of the positive changes we can make instead of the overwhelming problems we feel helpless to fix.

"We need to paint a vision of our own lives that is better in the future than it is right now, so we are all motivated to take action," said Cal Broomhead of SF Environment. "How can we transform our neighborhoods so they're more sustainable?

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