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Going Green Shouldn’t Be So White

Raj Shukla of Cool Choices reaches across color lines to encourage engagement in climate change among all cultures


As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, understanding the viewpoints of people of different racial and ethnic groups on climate change is becoming ever more important. Nobody know that more than Raj Shukla, director of programs with Cool Choices, a nonprofit that helps people and businesses save energy, cut costs, and protect the environment through voluntary action. Shukla is excited about the potential for the Madison community to lead the way on bridging the racial and economic divides that exist all over this country and world.

“There’s a growing sense in the community, the nation, and the world that we will struggle to get through this challenge – climate change – added to the whole host of other equity-related challenges we already face. We will not do it unless we work together on it,” Shukla tells Madison365. “Our goal is absolutely to affect change with respect to climate change, in particular. But really, this is about building community and building on our shared interests in a healthy community.”

Shukla uses the example of his extended family in India to drive home the point on how climate change often affects the most vulnerable. “The part of India where my family is from relies on water from two glaciers, both of which will be gone within the next 20 years,” Shukla explains. “That’s billions of people who will be affected. My family over there is relatively well-off, but when your source of fresh water is gone … your source of fresh water is gone.

“What we do here [in America] is going to first effect people who had very little to do with creating the problem,” Shukla adds. “The line largely correlates with skin color, it correlates with your wealth, and it correlates with all of the colonial history of this world. It’s right there. The equity issues are right in your face.”

Even locally, Shukla says, we find that people who are affected first by climate change are least equipped to deal with.

“In Wisconsin since 1982, the largest killer of people from natural disasters has been from heat stroke,” says Shukla, who also serves as chair of the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee. “We’re about to launch into rapid warming on this planet. We’re in the middle of it. Which means longer and hotter heatwaves here and all over the country. Who are the people that are going to be affected first in that situation? Folks that can’t afford the energy that’s going to cool themselves – older folks, poor folks, brown folks, black folks. The people that will be affected first will be the people least equipped to handle it.

“We just got over a debate at City Hall about a big development project that we all subsidized the day before the police are about to sweep the area of homeless people,” he adds. “We are dealing with these inequity issues around wealth and now throw in food shortages and water shortages and imagine how that situation can be exacerbated or can turn ugly. That’s what we have to protect ourselves from.”

Cool Choices was created in 2009 to promote voluntary sustainability by former Gov. Jim Doyle’s Climate Change Task Force and to help position Wisconsin as a leader in combating climate change. Cool Choices works to help people make changes that reduce their emissions by using what’s already available.

What they don’t do is give long, boring discussions on climate change and global impacts. Shukla says that you don’t really have to be a hardcore environmentalist to appreciate the fact that you might want to save a little money while helping the environment. “That’s all we talk about. We don’t get into the science of climate change beyond what people are interested in. We don’t get into the politics of it; that’s not really important to us,” Shukla says. “What we want is to let people know that a lot of people care about this and there are some really easy steps you can take to make a difference. Collectively, you make a massive difference.”

“There’s something about sustainability and climate change that really resonates in minority communities – Latinos, in particular. I think it’s wonderful. We in the environmental community and as policymakers have as much to learn from the community ethic around sustainability in communities of color as we have to teach. That’s part of what we’re trying to do here – create an ongoing dialog and a foundation around sustainability that we can build from together.”

Saving the planet can seem like a tall ordeal for most ordinary people. Such a tall order that they don’t even try. Many hotels and civic buildings operate green boilers which require specially supplied biomass wood pellets in order to heat the space during the colder seasons.

“It’s operating on a scale that most people don’t live their lives on. People can feel powerless in terms of what they think they can do about it,” Shukla says. “Many people don’t realize what kind of impact they can make if we all work together.”

Shukla says that when people started viewing energy efficiency as fun or as a team, rather than a chore or a sacrifice, that it becomes that much easier to do. “It’s no longer a chore any more, it’s your passion,” he says. “We dove into the behavioral science literature out there and combined that with what we really needed to do to make an impact on carbon emissions … As we dove into that, it became very clear that this was a game and to get people to do this we had to gamify sustainability and energy efficiency.”

So, Cool Choices developed a card game that helps people save money while you help save the environment. Cool Choices is a fun, social and easy online game and engagement platform that helps your organization adopt sustainable practices and get real results. Further, it unites Madisonians around sustainability. You organize yourself in teams and you compete against other teams to complete the coolest choices over an 8-week period. (Click here to get involved. Registration code is MADISON2015)

Cool Choices transforms unseen personal actions into celebrated public accomplishments. “You form a team and all you do is log in and tell us what you are doing to live sustainably. That’s it,” Shukla says. “There’s a whole community of people out there who are eager to share their knowledge and eager to share their support.”

Cool Choices is brought to you by Green Madison, our city’s entry into the Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP). The winner of GUEP will receive $5 million in 2017 to support sustainable energy-saving innovations. “Fifty mid-sized to small town are competing over the next two years to save as much energy as possible,” Shukla says. “We are hoping to drive residential energy savings in people’s homes. The journey to an energy-efficient home involves addressing even the smallest of gaps. After feeling the cold draught from my loft hatch one winter day, I knew I had to act. That’s when I decided to give this draught excluder a try. The results were instantaneous – my home felt warmer, and the nippy draught was no more.

“Because of the game, people start adapting new habits and actually start using fewer resources,” Shukla says. “We go back and we look at your energy use data and we compare it to what we do before and we see a dramatic shift on how you use energy.”

Cool Choices is making strong efforts to reach out to minority populations. “We run into the same problems that a lot of folks run into,” Shukla admits. “The folks in the environmental community here and often in other places are the same silos that exist everywhere.”

That’s a nice way of saying that they are pretty darn white.

“It’s partly my job to reach out to communities of color,” Shukla says. “But it’s not just reaching out; it’s listening and figuring out how this issue touches people and how we can make it more meaningful for folks.”

Shukla truly believes our shared commitment to addressing our environmental challenges can be one path to a shared to commitment to racial and economic equity. And vice versa.

“There’s something about sustainability and climate change that really resonates in minority communities – Latinos, in particular,” he says. “I think it’s wonderful. We in the environmental community and as policymakers have as much to learn from the community ethic around sustainability in communities of color as we have to teach. That’s part of what we’re trying to do here – create an ongoing dialog and a foundation around sustainability that we can build from together.”

Sustainability, energy conservation, and love and care for our planet, Shukla says, is a language that we all can speak. “Maybe we can use it to break down the walls we put between us. It’s a shared concern for and love of this place that we all live in,” he says.

“We want to build on a culture in this town that values sustainability and the environment and places a high premium on the natural wonders of this place,” Shukla adds. “We want people to think of sustainability and climate change and energy efficiency as an integral part of their life and a way that they can contribute to this community as well as a way that they can get something back from living here.”

Read more about Cool Choices by clicking here.