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With help from Sweden, 4 Northern Virginia families are 'Climate Pilots'

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010; A01

If Americans really take the plunge and enter a carbon-constrained world, it might look a little like the Stokes family's home in Falls Church.

Nolan Stokes and Kathy Harman-Stokes -- a financial planner and a lawyer with two children in elementary school -- are installing a geothermal heat pump in their front yard that will tap the Earth's constant temperature to warm their home more efficiently. They know precisely how many kilowatts of energy their house is consuming when they wake up each morning. And they've cut back on their consumption of meat because they now know it generates significantly more greenhouse-gas emissions than vegetables.

There's even an official name for the Stokeses, along with three other households in Northern Virginia: They are Climate Pilots, guinea pigs in a Swedish experiment aimed at helping U.S. citizens understand that a lifestyle that curbs greenhouse-gas emissions is not necessarily oppressive, just different. Whether Americans are willing to follow their example is part of the political calculation lawmakers have to make as they consider imposing nationwide limits on emissions in legislation making its way through Congress.

The Climate Pilots program exemplifies the broader dynamics at play in the international climate debate: Europeans impatiently nudging the United States and other countries toward a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.

Many Americans have adopted small eco-friendly measures, such as recycling and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs. A number of Washington area residents have made more significant lifestyle shifts, commuting by public transportation or bicycle and adopting high-efficiency or renewable-energy systems for their homes. But it remains unclear whether there is enough grass-roots support for a dramatic change in U.S. climate policy, especially during an economic crunch, considering that many environmental changes yield long-term, rather than immediate, financial benefits.

Sweden's deputy prime minister, Maud Olofsson, who visited the Stokeses' comfortable suburban home in November, told them and the other program participants that their example could change that.

"We are building something new," she said, sitting at the Stokeses' dining room table. "You are the leaders when you say to politicians, 'Now we are prepared to change.' We want you to be brave when you make decisions. Then they will do so."

The gap between American and European attitudes on global warming was on striking display during the recent U.N.-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen. The Europeans had already decided to impose constraints on themselves and were willing to accept them in an international agreement, while the Obama administration, for all of the president's interest in the issue, was wary of political backlash at home and pushed for a more modest pact.

Throughout Europe, conservatives vie with liberals to claim the title of "most green," and European Union rules require everything from energy-efficient building codes to disclosing a home's overall carbon output when it goes on the market. The oil crisis of the 1970s prompted many European governments to permanently shift direction decades ago, while Americans responded by briefly turning down their thermostats and driving smaller cars, then quickly returning to old ways when oil prices came down.

"It's about getting it into your blood, your DNA," explained Niels Christiansen, president and chief executive of Danfoss, a Danish company that produces thermostats and other components used in heating and cooling systems. Incorporating climate change into Danes' everyday thinking has been "a 35-year-long journey," he said. "Now, I think it can be done quicker. But I don't think it can be done overnight."

It looks like a long road for Americans. In 2005, the United States emitted 23.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases per capita, according to data analyzed by the World Resources Institute, four times the world average. The 27-member European Union emitted 10.3 tons per capita, while Sweden came in significantly lower, at 7.4 tons.

In absolute terms, the United States and China together account for a little more than 40 percent of the world's carbon output.

Tim Herzog, a climate policy analyst at the World Resources Institute, said the difference stems from two basic things: what we burn for fuel and how much we drive. Fossil fuels account for nearly three-quarters of our fuel mix, according to the Energy Information Administration, compared with just more than half of Europe's. Over time, Herzog said, the United States could shift its energy sources and driving patterns.

But the Swedes, who have made climate change a central pillar of both their domestic and foreign policy for more than a decade, are trying to speed things up. They've already done it in cities of their own such as Kalmar, where 12 Climate Pilots cut their average greenhouse-gas emissions by nearly a third in one year. The entire city aims to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030.

Six months ago, a handful of Kalmar residents started coaching four Virginia families, selected by the Swedish Embassy in Washington, on how they could do the same. Swedish officials found a handful of volunteers connected to the Congressional Schools of Virginia, a private school that goes through the eighth grade, and gave them challenges in four areas: food, leisure activities, energy and travel. Their six-month challenge officially ended Thursday, and their Swedish climate coaches will be giving them a report card with the amount of greenhouse gases they kept out of the atmosphere.

At times, there has been a culture gap. Angela Ulsh, a Climate Pilot who teaches second grade at the school, remembered a video conference call with her Swedish coach in Kalmar, who mentioned he had used his car only three times during the past month.

"You've got to be kidding me," Ulsh replied. "I've used it three times in one day."

Other challenges were easier: All four households have shifted their eating habits after learning that raising cattle, pigs and poultry generates significantly more greenhouse-gas emissions than growing vegetable crops.

"I found it's just become second nature to make meatless meals," said Mya Akin, who teaches second grade alongside Ulsh and lives in Alexandria with her husband, Isaiah.

In Sweden, every community has a climate and energy adviser, and the government launched "study circles" on climate across the nation in the early 1990s.

David Kreutzer, a senior policy analyst in energy economics and climate change at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested that the model might not mesh well with this country's traditional values: "Americans might be more inclined than Swedes to see the programs as unwanted busybody interference with their daily life."

But try telling that to Nolan Stokes, who extols the virtues of energy meters and thermal leak detectors to his clients and writes about his environmental activities on a local listserv.

"It doesn't take many adapters to start spreading the word if they're passionate about it," he said on the day that he broke ground on his geothermal unit, with Olofsson wielding a shovel alongside him.

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