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How communities can combat 'climate fatigue'

(Editor's note: Kimmett is blogging about From the Ground Up, a conference on sustainable communities, hosted by the Columbia Institute last week in Harrison. This is her third entry.)

Dawson Creek has a reputation of being one of B.C.'s most progressive municipalities when it comes to renewable energy.

So when councilor Cheryl Shuman completed Al Gore's climate change training in Montreal last spring, she thought residents back home would be thrilled to hear the inconvenient truth.

Instead, she became "that climate change girl, almost in a derogatory way," she says.

"Even though the resident of my region are very keen to talk about renewable energy and saving energy and energy efficiencies…the minute you start talking about climate change, they start arguing with you."

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. There were signs of a general climate fatigue amongst the public two years ago, and media coverage of climate change in 2008 dropped to pre-An Inconvenient Truth days.

Shuman says she put Al Gore on the back burner and started working with the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, whose work she believes is more relevant to her community.

"It's better, I guess, to just frame it as doing things in a better, cleaner way," she says. "Talk about the solutions."

While most North Americans talk about doing things better, the island of Samso, Denmark is close to perfection, and could soon reach its goal of being energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral. Writer Chris Turner visited while researching his book, Geography of Hope, and says officials there viewed the task as one of social engineering as much as anything else.

They brought beer to public meetings, for one thing, and explained what citizens stood to gain, not what they had to lose. One farmer invested in a wind turbine as a retirement plan, recalled Turner.

"They learned to talk to people about renewable energy on a scale that makes sense," said Turner.

The best way to engage citizens is to talk to them directly, says Norman Gludovatz, a partner with social marketing and public relations firm Tactical Outcomes.

"One things people seem to sort of forget in our world of technology is that you can have real relationships with people in real life," he says. "I believe that ultimately, when we have citizens involved we actually reflect the needs of citizens."

Bringing the topics of climate change and peak oil down to a manageable scale is Stacey Corriveau's task, as she is attempts to turn the village of Clayburn into British Columbia's first Transition town.

"The first step is educating people to peak oil," said Corriveau, director of the BC Centre for Social Enterprise. "There are some people in Clayburn who think it's a big conspiracy, but they totally resonate with the community building and social inclusion part of it."

One of Corriveau's tactics is to get the local store to start stocking staples, so villagers don't have to drive to Mission to get a loaf of bread or jug of milk.

"I'm working with the store to do that, and working on a market survey of Claybourne to figure out what prices people could sustain," she says.

"One thing I'm learning is that you've got to get people excited. If you can't get that passion ignited at the beginning, people will wait for a crisis situation to change. And then it’s not really change, it's just that their options are taken away."

Colleen Kimmett writes for The Tyee

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