What if you could get every home and business in your entire county to switch to renewables, all at once? Begins with a single citizen…(Joe Galliani in 2014, now you!)

This is essentially what’s happening in my state, California: a quiet revolution awkwardly named community choice aggregation. Nine years ago, I moved with my family to Altadena, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County nestled against the San Gabriel mountains. My only option for electricity was a for-profit, investor-owned utility, a monopoly whose profits came from higher rates, and which offered no option to purchase renewably sourced electricity.

Then, in 2010, California’s first CCA switched on in Marin County, up the coast. It faced a well-funded public misinformation campaign mounted by the county’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, but persevered; in 2011 the state passed a law preventing utilities from mounting such campaigns. There are now eight California CCAs, with seven more starting this year.

Community energy tells a story that people desperately need to hear: We can do something about the climate, despite all the money in politics and despite the denier in chief.

Whereas a typical utility offers its customers little or no choice about where their power comes from, CCA programs enable coalitions of cities and counties to choose. The utility then delivers that electricity using its pre-existing infrastructure. The result for an increasing number of California communities is cleaner and cheaper power.

Local control brings tangible community benefits, such as job creation and economic growth. It also allows communities to express their values. For example, communities that value climate action can pursue renewable generation, adopt efficiency programs, provide electric vehicle charging stations, adopt fair net metering rates to encourage rooftop solar, and choose to site projects in front-line communities.

Renewable energy is only getting cheaper.

So far these benefits have not come at a premium, and renewable energy is only getting cheaper. Sonoma Clean Power charges 28 percent less than PG&E for generation, even while emitting 46 percent less carbon dioxide. However, because utilities purchase electricity via contracts that span years, or even decades, they’re allowed to add a power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) to account for stranded energy purchases. (Choosing where to set the PCIA is perhaps the most controversial aspect of CCA.) After the PCIA, Sonoma Clean Power’s electricity is only 1.5 percent cheaper than PG&E. CCA proponents therefore take care not to oversell their program, promising cleaner electricity at competitive rates.

The story of CCA in Los Angeles County begins with a single citizen from Redondo Beach. In 2014, Joe Galliani attended a community Earth Hour forum featuring a founder of Sonoma Clean Power. Inspired, Galliani dove in as a volunteer, first learning all he could about CCAs, then forming a working group and meeting one on one with municipal leaders to develop support.

Marin County’s CCA had faced stiff opposition from labor unions, so Galliani found common ground with local electricians over a shared vision of a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity that would, of course, create electrical work. By September 2015, his working group had grown to 45 members, providing guidance on economic, legislative, design, governance, and public outreach issues; and 13 cities had signed a resolution for a feasibility study. The county board of supervisors voted unanimously to fund the study.

This would create at least 50,000 local construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.

Today, three years after one committed citizen’s inspiration, CCA is imminent in Los Angeles County. Earlier this year, county supervisors voted—again unanimously—to form the CCA with $10 million in startup funding. The business plan calls for the enrollment of 5 million county residents by 2019 and installation of several dozen 50-megawatt solar plants. This would create at least 50,000 local construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.

It’s long past time for an all-out climate mobilization, and CCA is only a small piece of the puzzle. A California transition to 100 percent renewable energy would translate to a global GHG emissions reduction of only 0.2 percent. So far, six other states allow CCA, but even a national electricity transition would translate to just a 4.5 percent global reduction. CCA must therefore be pursued in parallel with more comprehensive and far-reaching tools such as a carbon fee and dividend; the climate emergency calls for an all-of-the-above approach. Within this context, though, CCA provides a hopeful message: We can do this.

Peter Kalmus wrote this article for Just Transition, the Fall 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Peter is a NASA climate scientist (he writes as a citizen, not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech). His new book is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

My name is Peter Kalmus. I’m a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the father of two happy boys. I also grow food and largely avoid burning fossil fuels, which requires some creativity in today’s world. I now emit about 1 tonne of CO2 per year, down from 19 tonnes per year, which is about the U.S. average.  A few years ago, my awareness of global warming reached the point where I had no choice but to respond in some meaningful way. But this is a tall order: global warming is intertwined deeply with our lives, physically, socially, and spiritually. How can we respond, as individuals? What can we do, right here, right now, and with what we have? How can we live happy and fulfilling lives in the shadow of global warming?

I’ve written a book about how normal people can respond to global warming, based on my own experience. Our predicament has deep roots in our society, our structures of thinking and belief, and the ways we relate to the biosphere, each other, and ourselves. Being the Change is now available to order and will be sold at fine bookstores everywhere starting August 1!

Here’s an interview on the RootSimple podcast with Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen.

Here’s an article on the climate cost of flying I wrote for YES! Magazine.

I enjoy participating in the municipal decision process (it makes a difference, and it’s kinda fun), hanging out with my friends in Transition Pasadena and exchanging homegrown food with my neighbors (RIPE Altadena). Even something as simple as growing food in my front yard is a community-level action. Here are results from the Great Fruit Project, a survey of amateur Altadena-area fruit growers.

I also enjoy speaking in my community about be-cycling and about the science of global warming (what we know, what we don’t know). These are two distinctly different talks—but also connected.

There are many ways to get involved in your community and to share your unique gifts. I think we humans evolved to do this. Sharing my gifts helps me to feel fully actualized.

A climate scientist who decided not to fly

I’m a climate scientist who doesn’t fly. I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm to humans and to nonhumans, today and far into the future. I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly. Back in 2010, though, I was awash in cognitive dissonance. My awareness of global warming had risen to a fever pitch, but I hadn’t yet made real changes to my daily life. This disconnect made me feel panicked and disempowered.

Then one evening in 2011, I gathered my utility bills and did some internet research. I looked up the amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by burning a gallon of gasoline and a therm (about 100 cubic feet) of natural gas, I found an estimate for emissions from producing the food for a typical American diet and an estimate for generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity in California, and I averaged the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Environmental Protection Agency estimates for CO2 emissions per mile from flying. With these data, I made a basic pie chart of my personal greenhouse gas emissions for 2010.

This picture came as a surprise. I’d assumed that electricity and driving were my largest sources of emissions. Instead, it turned out that the 50,000 miles I’d flown that year (two international and half a dozen domestic flights, typical for postdocs in the sciences who are expected to attend conferences and meetings) utterly dominated my emissions.

co2 emissions yes magazine
YES! Infographic

Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you’ve just emitted three tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year. Flying first class doubles these numbers.

However, the total climate impact of planes is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone. This is because planes emit mono-nitrogen oxides into the upper troposphere, form contrails, and seed cirrus clouds with aerosols from fuel combustion. These three effects enhance warming in the short term. (Note that the charts in this article exclude these effects.)

Given the high climate impact, why is it that so many environmentalists still choose to fly so much? I know climate activists who fly a hundred thousand miles per year. I know scientists who fly about as much but “just don’t think about it.” I even have a friend who blogged on the importance of bringing reusable water bottles on flights in order to pre-empt the miniature disposable bottles of water the attendants hand out. Although she saved around 0.04 kilograms of CO2 by refusing the disposable bottle, her flight to Asia emitted more than 4,000 kilograms, equivalent to some 100,000 bottles. I suspect that most people simply don’t know the huge impact of their flying — but I also suspect that many of us are addicted to it. We’ve come to see flying as an inalienable right, a benefit of 21st-century living that we take for granted.

The quantitative estimates of my emissions guided me as I set about resolving the dissonance between my principles and my actions. I began to change my daily life. I began to change myself.

My first change was to start bicycling. I began by biking the six miles to work, which turned out to be much more fun than driving (and about as fast). It felt like flying. Those extra few pounds melted off. Statistically speaking, I can expect biking to add a year to my life through reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other moves away from fossil fuels turned out to be satisfying as well. I began growing food, first in the backyard and then in the front, and I discovered that homegrown food tastes far better than anything you can buy. I began composting, an honest and philosophical practice. I tried vegetarianism and found that I prefer it to eating meat; I have more energy, and food somehow tastes better. I began keeping bees and chickens, planting fruit trees, rescuing discarded food, reusing greywater, and helping others in my community do the same.

I stopped taking food, water, air, fuel, electricity, clothing, community, and biodiversity for granted. I became grateful for every moment and more aware of how my thoughts and actions in this moment connect to other moments and to other beings. I began to experience that everyday things are miracles: an avocado, a frame of honeycomb crowded with bees, a conversation with my son. Now, I feel more connected to the world around me, and I see that fossil fuels actually stood in the way of realizing those connections. If you take one idea from this article, let it be this: Life without fossil fuels is fun and satisfying, and this is the best reason to change.

But none of these changes had the quantitative impact of quitting flying. By 2013, my annual emissions had fallen well below the global mean.

I experienced a lot of social pressure to fly, so it took me three years to quit. Not flying for vacations was relatively easy. I live in California, and my wife and I love backpacking. We drive on waste vegetable oil, but even normal cars are better than flying. Four people on a plane produce 10 to 20 times as much CO2 as those same people driving a 25 to 50 mpg car the same distance.

My wife and I drive 2,000 veggie oil miles to Illinois each year to visit our parents. Along the way, we sleep under the stars in the Utah wilderness. This is adventure travel, the opposite of fast travel, and it has deepened my relationship with my parents. After such a journey, I more easily see how precious my time with them is.

Not flying is an ongoing challenge as I progress in my scientific career, but I’m finding that I can thrive by doing good work and making the most of regional conferences and teleconferencing. Not flying does hold back my career to some extent, but I accept this, and I expect the social climate to change as more scientists stop flying.

co2 falling yes magazine
YES! Infographic

In today’s world, we’re still socially rewarded for burning fossil fuels. We equate frequent flying with success; we rack up our “miles.” This is backward: Burning fossil fuels does real harm to the biosphere, to our children, and to countless generations — and it should, therefore, be regarded as socially unacceptable.

In the post-carbon future, it’s unlikely that there will be commercial plane travel on today’s scale. Biofuel is currently the only petroleum substitute suitable for commercial flight. In practice, this means waste vegetable oil, but there isn’t enough to go around. In 2010, the world produced 216 million gallons of jet fuel per day but only about half as much vegetable oil, much of which is eaten; leftover oil from fryers is already in high demand. This suggests that even if we were to squander our limited biofuel on planes, only the ultra-rich would be able to afford them.

Instead, chances are that we’ll live nearer to our friends and loved ones, and we won’t be expected to travel so far for work. Those both seem like good things to me.

With the world population approaching 8 billion, my reduction obviously can’t solve global warming. But by changing ourselves in more than merely incremental ways, I believe we contribute to opening social and political space for large-scale change. We tell a new story by changing how we live.