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Petaluma jockeys for $1M climate program, in latest bid to reach carbon neutrality

Petaluma could soon be adding another tool in its push toward carbon neutrality, as leaders and activists compete to join an inaugural statewide climate change program and angle for its $1 million grand prize.

Two city council members and more than 150 residents are ramping up their efforts this summer to win a leading spot in the Cool City Challenge program, designed to mobilize neighborhoods into volunteer teams that encourage residents to take small, actionable steps to help the planet.

Sign up for a local informational meeting here.

Check out the program here.

Championed by council member D’Lynda Fischer, the program would last throughout 2022, with the goal of enlisting up to 400 participants and hosting more than two dozen informational meetings on water conservation, energy use, disaster preparedness and other related topics.

“While the city council enacts various policies, and our Climate Action Commission does its work, and hopefully our regional organizations also help to lead, this program is a way to really empower community members to help us get to carbon neutrality by 2030,” Fischer said.

Created by the Empowerment Institute, the Cool City Challenge and associated Cool Block program aims to help cities reach carbon neutrality – in which carbon emissions are balanced by carbon offsets – by 2030.

Fischer said Petaluma is a front-runner in the race for a $1 million grant, which is awarded to the top three California cities, pitting Sonoma County’s second-largest against Irvine, San Jose and Los Angeles - cities with four to 60-times Petaluma’s population.

A pilot of the program ran in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Palo Alto, achieving an average household carbon reduction among participants of 32%, according to organizers.

Fischer’s co-leader, local business owner and climate activist Natasha Juliana, said she’s seen a surge in interest in the program over the past month. More than 70 residents showed up to an information session this week, with more meet ups scheduled over the next two weeks.

And as wildfire smoke blankets the North Bay yet another summer, Juliana says she’s noticed a greater sense of urgency and interest from Petalumans to expand their role in tackling climate change.

“Everyone we’ve talked to so far seems to have a hunger to have something to do,” she said. “That’s what we always hear, ‘What do I do? What can I do?’ We hope this program will help answer that question.”

For average residents, Juliana said this could mean having a Cool Block volunteer knock on their front door for an invitation to a series of nine meetings that touch on issues like emergency preparedness, water conservation and sustainability. Participants would walk away with a clear checklist of things to do that could make their homes more efficient and carbon neutral, she said.

This latest effort comes a few months after the Petaluma City Council grabbed widespread attention for its first-in-the-nation ban on future gas station construction, and not long after the city outlawed natural gas hookups in new construction and committed to an ambitious climate emergency framework action plan.

City leaders have repeatedly sought to position the community of 60,000 as a bellwether in tackling climate change.

“If we’re chosen, we could essentially be a model for the world,” Fischer said of the Cool Block program. “Because the goal is to expand this program next year to another 25 cities in the U.S., then expand it over to the EU.”

Council member Dennis Pocekay joins Fischer as one of the program’s two council representatives, and a handful of community organizations have already committed to joining the 25-member leadership team, including the city of Petaluma, Petaluma People Services Center, Aqus, Daily Acts and Rebuilding Together.

Fischer said this week she and a core team are currently drafting policy proposals for the application, and looking for more Petaluma residents to join the effort to reach a 200-person benchmark before a Sept. 7 deadline. Winners will be announced mid-October.

“The whole idea behind this is that individual actions really do matter, and collectively, can really make a difference,” Fischer said.

Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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