Confronting Climate Change: A new Journals’ series tracking the efforts of Minneapolis residents, neighborhoods and city leaders working on innovative ways to raise awareness about climate change and advocating for policies to combat the problem.
At least 50 people crowded into a Whittier home last January (600 were invited), toting their own plates and silverware for a potluck. The basement was stacked with fliers and petitions to sign. Attendees learned about the rate of global warming from a city staffer, and they were invited to pick up worms for compost. They stood up to give one-minute “soapbox” pitches and discussed topics like winter biking and car sharing.
The new social club has formed with the goal of giving people tangible ways to confront climate change and other community issues.*
“Every time an issue is raised it’s done in light of: Here is the opportunity to do something,” said Tim Harlan-Marks, co-founder of the new group.
It’s called the “Give-a-Shit Social Club.”
“It’s exciting to care. It’s exciting to give a shit,” said Whittier resident Grayson Carr.
The roots of the group come from the year-old Whittier Project, which is a neighborhood network of people who meet socially and share information about local issues on Facebook.
“What the Whittier Project has been most successful at is cultivating a network of people paying attention and pumping each other up to do really good things,” said Harlan-Marks.
The founders of the group come from widely varied backgrounds. Harlan-Marks is the Sierra Club’s training and leadership development director, and plays in two local bands. Max Musicant is a placemaking consultant who is currently focused on the lobby of Capella Tower. Katherine Bisanz is co-founder of Social Workers for Reproductive Justice and works at the Sexual Violence Center in North Minneapolis. Matt Barthelemy organized the Red Hot Art & Music Festival in Stevens Square, and leads an annual spring pledge to exercise and avoid booze, caffeine and smoking for a full month.
The founders say their causes are interrelated — they’re committed to reducing exploitation of all kinds, and they want to boost a sense of community.
“One of the interests we have is eliminating the barriers between people who advocate for one issue or another,” Harlan-Marks said.
Harlan-Marks said he’s noticed that virtually all of his friends believe something needs to be done about climate change. Yet few are involved in actually trying to make change, he said.
“Why is that?” he asked. “If we all see this as a threat to our survival, why aren’t we acting like it?”
Harlan-Marks and fellow club founders have developed a few theories about why people feel paralyzed.
One area to place blame is journalism, he said. Much reporting focuses on the problems in society, rather than solutions, which can leave people feeling overwhelmed and depressed.
“Many who ‘give a shit’ are turned off by the argumentative, zero-sum nature of politics they see modeled on TV news and elsewhere, and conclude that if that’s what it looks like to be politically engaged, it’s not for them,” Harlan-Marks said.
He said journalists often present two opposing sides of a story, leaving readers in doubt about what to do. And nonprofit communications can feel like a sales pitch, he said.
“It’s different than a neighbor saying, ‘Here’s something we care about that’s happening in the community,'” he said.
Another barrier can be traditional community engagement strategies, he said — community meetings are simply boring. A trip to testify at City Hall should include something fun, like a happy hour.
“We want to make sure that every time we get together it’s primarily social,” Harlan-Marks said.
Bisanz said the more connected people are to their community, the more likely they are to take care of it.
“Naturally we want to preserve the community that we live in,” she said.
A climate-focused city
Despite the challenges, Harlan-Marks sees reasons for optimism in Minneapolis. The City Council recently launched a Clean Energy Partnership with Xcel and CenterPoint to reduce greenhouse gases. The partnership could support the development of renewable energy in the city, or encourage more residents to opt in to existing renewable energy programs. As part of the new partnership, the advocacy group Community Power is also pushing for LED streetlights, energy programs for rental properties, and affordable community solar gardens.
Solar gardens are in development through groups like Cooperative Energy Futures, which aims to make solar power affordable for people of all income levels.
Another source of optimism is the progress in bike accessibility, Harlan-Marks said. Annual traffic counts since 2007 show that rush-hour biking is up 73 percent and walking is up 25 percent. The city has added dozens of miles of on- and off-street bike lanes in the past decade, and is ranked the No. 4 bike commuting city by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The White House named Minneapolis one of 16 “climate action champions” in the country, citing its reduced emissions targets and the aforementioned clean energy partnership with utility companies. The city is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 levels by 15 percent in 2015, 30 percent in 2025, and 80 percent by 2050. (The city already hit the 15 percent target in 2012, but saw a setback in 2013 when the cold winter increased natural gas consumption.)
According to the New York Times, Minnesota relies on more wind power than all but four other states, and the amount of coal burned at power plans has dropped by a third from its 2003 peak. And Minnesota’s decline in electricity consumption per person is falling faster than the national average, the Times said.
“Our community deals with big issues all the time,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures. “A sense of intimidation, or that this is too big to handle, is very common. At the same time, as people start to work together, they have the realization that a lot of people in our community are doing impactful, really big things.”
Musicant said systemic change is needed to fix really big problems, but much of it still comes down to specific choices: the types of new buildings going up in the city, for example, and the parking requirements they have.
Whittier resident Justin Kader said eating less meat can also impact climate change. A recent report by the Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, said livestock accounts for more global greenhouse gas emissions than transport.
“A lot of times people don’t see the connection between food and climate change,” Kader said.
Harlan-Marks said impacts might be easier to make than people think. Surprisingly few people advocate to city council members, he said — if elected officials get five phone calls about an issue in a day, they know people are paying attention.
“With a little bit of engagement, a lot of big things can happen,” he said. “It feels really right, like we’re on to something.”
Easy ways to live more sustainably
— Opt in for Minneapolis organics recycling, which will roll out citywide thru the spring of 2016. In the meantime, collect organics and drop them off in the green bins at Armatage Park or Pearl Park
— Leave the car behind and walk/bike/car share
— Host a weatherization work party through Cooperative Energy Futures (free to neighborhoods along Lake Street)
— Use Community Supported Agriculture programs like Stone’s Throw, which offers produce from urban farms in the Twin Cities
— Use caulk, weather stripping and insulation to seal up drafty homes
— Conserve water: Fix leaks, only run the dishwasher with full loads, turn off the water while shaving or brushing teeth, water gardens during the coolest part of the day
— Opt to buy renewable power as part of home utility bills
*This story is corrected to note that climate change is one of many issues of focus for the club. The first meeting was devoted to climate change, but Give-a-Shit Social Club is about bringing people together around all manner of issues.