Environmental activism, scientific papers on climate change and rebukes of government inaction are not the way to move towards a low-carbon lifestyle.

A new report says real change comes from the community.

The report by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria has shown that mobilizing local communities leads to realistic changes that, overall, could add up to a country-wide movement.  

It appears that the last 50 years of scientists waving red flags about warming global temperatures, polar bear perils, rising sea levels, floods, droughts and other doom-and-gloom scenarios has not been enough to motivate the average citizen to change the way they live.

Likewise, the extreme actions of environmental groups who chain themselves to old-growth trees or place their boats in front of whaling ships, while dramatic and effective at raising awareness of the issues, leave the average person living in an urban area wondering, "Those problems are so big, what can I do?"

How to effect change

Well, it turns out we, as individuals, can do a lot by focusing less on the global issues and turning our attention towards our immediate surroundings.

Climate change

While international environmental talks get a lot of media coverage, they don't necessarily lead to workable solutions to the problem of climate change. (Canadian Press file photo)

The recent report is a synthesis of several research projects that were carried out in communities around British Columbia between 2009 and 2014. These involved a variety of activities, including interactive workshops on community planning, 3D visualizations, mobile apps and demonstration projects that brought together local citizens, business people and politicians.

The idea is to mobilize the "silent majority" by identifying specific, affordable projects that relate only to that community. Then, through a group effort, the community can come up with realistic ways to make them happen.

Projects ranged from community gardens to bike paths, improved public transit and rooftop solar installations. These kinds of changes may seem small, but if everyone buys into them, they have the potential to change the community into a greener space.

One effective way to demonstrate the potential of a local area is a visualization method that takes a photograph of a street, then through computer graphics, morphs it into what it could look like as a greener space: a rooftop garden on the apartment buildings over here, hot water solar panels on that house over there, more trees along the boulevard, local shops at street level, a few buses instead of a lot of cars.

Modifying behaviours

The idea is to make small changes to what already exists rather than tear everything down and start over. Along with this visualization comes a discussion with residents, business people, the mayor and local action groups to come up with affordable ways to realize these projects.

In addition to the physical changes to a community, some of the initiatives were simply changes in behaviour, such as the student-run "Do it in the Dark" project, which took place on six university campuses around B.C., involving 20 residence complexes.

Students were asked to track the energy consumption of their buildings and reduce it by turning off lights when not in use, shifting activities done at night to daylight hours, reducing heat and wearing sweaters, even having "eat in the dark" parties. The students managed to reduce energy consumption in their buildings by 16 per cent over the three-week test period.

The study has shown that small changes at the local level can make a big difference if scaled up to the whole country. That is how we will make the transition to a low-carbon society: from the ground up.

But these initiatives had the added benefit of bringing communities together, and that's always a good thing.

With the advent of big-screen TV, computer games and social media, people are spending more time isolated at home, glued to devices, and less time interacting face to face with their neighbours. Kids are "nature deprived."

Knowing your community and getting involved with it not only offers the chance to make it a greener place — it makes it a safer one as well.