A scientist creates a competition to encourage a grass-roots battle against global warming through individual lifestyle choices.
Bigfoot is a myth. Climate change is real. Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist with NASA before retiring to the Olympic Peninsula, has combined the two in a way that he hopes will encourage people to lessen their negative impact on the planet.
He and dozens of volunteers are behind a community competition called Taming Bigfoot, in which teams of people compete to reduce their carbon footprint. Carbon is the major greenhouse gas, and greenhouse gases form a blanket in the atmosphere that keeps heat from escaping the planet.
During his career, Bindschadler spent lots of time researching the melting of Antarctic glaciers — he’s a leading expert on glaciers — and testifying before Congress about his work. “I’m not optimistic that real solutions will come from the top down,” he said. “Real solutions will come from the bottom up.”
As the temperature rises, the glaciers melt and climate changes around the planet, causing a growing impact on wildlife, plants and human communities.
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Taming Bigfoot started in Jefferson County, which is where Bindschadler and his wife settled after retirement. Bindschadler, who grew up in Pittsburgh, has loved the Northwest since his parents drove the family to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair.
He earned his Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Washington and vowed he’d come back to the area to live someday. They’ve lived in Quilcene for the past five years and during that time Bindschadler has continued to give talks on climate science.
After one local talk, people in the audience wanted to know what they could do to slow global warming, and how they could tell if their efforts would matter. That discussion led to the creation of the bigfoot competition. There were brainstorming meetings, and outreach to businesses and local media, and city and county officials.
He and some dedicated volunteers decided to create teams so there would be both cooperation and competition. Fifteen teams started and 13 completed the three-month competition. Teams could have as many as seven members, but they had to be a mix of ages and lifestyles.
The participants started in January 2016 and spent that month recording data using a spreadsheet Bindschadler designed to keep track of their carbon footprint in three categories: home (energy, water use, garbage), transportation, and food and shopping.
It was a rough measure, but enough to get a baseline. Over the next two months, the teams competed to see which would lower its carbon score most from its starting point.
Bindschadler said the primary objective is to educate people about their own habits and about where the biggest carbon costs are. Taking a plane has a huge carbon footprint, for instance.
One woman told him that during the competition she wanted to visit her sister who’d moved to Oregon, but she didn’t want to fly and raise her team’s footprint. “So she looked at taking the train, and at a carpool,” he said. “In the end she did a rideshare. She got to see her sister without having a great impact.”
Last March about 40 of the 100 people from that first year came back for a check-in to see if they were still reducing their energy use. Many had maintained their new habits and the ones who hadn’t kept it up promised to do better. That was OK with Bindschadler. It’s good to have people thinking and talking about their lifestyles and spreading the word. “We encouraged them to share with their neighbors and friends.” Many of the people who participated already were concerned about global warming, but their experience might rub off on skeptical friends.
Word of that competition spread through local environmental networks, and both Edmonds and Seattle have competitions this year. Edmonds began Jan. 1, and the Seattle competition will kick off Jan. 21. Deejah Sherman-Peterson, chair of the Taming Bigfoot in Seattle steering committee, said about 20 teams have signed up so far in the city.
Bindschadler hopes the competition will keep spreading and our collective carbon footprint will shrink. Individual awareness and action matter in reducing carbon emissions and in addressing a whole range of other problems.
Sometime the only leadership is grass-roots leadership.