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Ostrom makes case for local action on climate change

Indiana University professor and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom has given presentations around the world about the need for a "polycentric" approach to fighting global climate change, with individual, household and community actions complementing larger-scale agreements.

But at a meeting this month at IU Bloomington, Ostrom dispensed with the lecture and PowerPoint slides and convened a community discussion about steps that can be taken in Bloomington.

"I think what's most important is what's happening here -- that people begin to recognize that we can work together and there are things we can do," she told 100-plus people at Alumni Hall in the Indiana Memorial Union.

Sustainability Conference

Elinor Ostrom speaks at a Dec. 2 forum on local responses to climate change.

Print-Quality Photo

Ostrom, Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, was the featured speaker at a forum on local responses to climate change sponsored by Sycamore Land Trust. She and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, have been involved for nearly a decade with the land trust, which preserves Southern Indiana natural areas through purchases and conservation easements.

A year ago Sunday, she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences; it was awarded for her work on economic governance, especially the commons.

"She has changed the way the world approaches and perceives a wide range of issues," said Indiana University Chancellor Ken Gros Louis, who introduced Ostrom at the Dec. 2 land-trust forum.

The meeting included presentations on local initiatives aimed at reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas pollution, which is blamed for climate change. Speakers also included Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, Monroe County commissioner Iris Kiesling, city sustainability director Jacqui Bauer and Sycamore Land Trust director Christian Freitag.

Ostrom said environmentalists may have made a tactical error by focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive externalities associated with behaviors that reduce greenhouse gas production.

"If we can bike and get our health better, we're benefiting," she said. "If we insulate our house, we're benefiting because our heating bill is going down. We need to be thinking about the household, the immediate community, the campus, the city and the county -- and obviously the state and beyond."

Ostrom talked up the importance of individual behaviors, such as making houses more air-tight and turning down the temperature on water heaters to avoid wasting energy. And she praised community initiatives to reduce energy consumption and promote self-reliance, including IU's Energy Challenge competition among dorms, fraternities and sororities and academic buildings and a community garden in Bloomington's Green Acres neighborhood.

She suggested the Bloomington community look to what it can do to make bicycling safer and more convenient and install solar collectors on parking lots and garages as eventual power sources for electric vehicles.

"We're trying to figure out how to make Bloomington, which we love, a fantastically improved place," she said. "If we just stay in our little silos, we won't make that happen."

While individual actions may seem futile in the face of a global climate crisis, Ostrom said, it's better to work together on projects that matter than to wait in despair for national and world leaders to act.

"It won't happen overnight," she said. "It's step by step by step. Let's go!"