I recently had occasion to work on a climate change related research project. I admit it was not a topic that previously interested me much – particularly the politicizing of science. But after spending several months deep in the data, I joined the ranks of the alarmed. Aside from avoiding property acquisition within 50 miles of a coastline, however, what is a private citizen supposed to do to address the problem of climate change? The typical answers I hear – replace your incandescent light bulbs, print fewer pages, recycle your recyclables – are deeply unsatisfying. Even if every single person took those steps, how much of a dent would it really make? We are decades beyond the point where such small changes can shift the momentum of climate change progression.
I took this question with me to a conference of climate change scientists this summer, convinced that intelligent, analytical people working in the field day in and day out would be certain to have some good insights. Instead, I found climate change scientists nearly obsessed with convincing the “unbelievers.” Now, I can understand that it is frustrating for people – large volumes of vocal people – to shrug when you yell “fire.” But, here is the challenge I posed to those scientists: There are thousands of people who are already convinced that climate change is a problem. Why not focus on those thousands: what can they - what can we - do to stop climate change?
The scientists had no answers for me, and the reason is a simple one: the steps that must be taken are not painless. (Well, that and scientists are specialists in their area, not big picture thinkers, entrepreneurs, or social planners. We need scientists, but they can’t provide ALL the answers.) Based on already committed emissions, significant climate change is already locked in. That means: little, easy changes are not going to cut it! It is time for each of us to make big lifestyle changes in the name of progress and securing our own futures. Here are some concrete steps we can all take – without waiting for the politicians.
Last year I spent a number of months in France, without a car. It’s a wonderfully freeing feeling – no parking, refueling, or idling in traffic jams. Instead, I did a lot of walking and biking. I felt more fit without dedicating time to go to the gym. Then I came back to the metropolitan US – and boy do you notice the car culture then! America is a huge country, and we need cars to get around, without question. But I have found that some of those trips don’t need to be made by car. Now I walk 2-3 miles to the food store every morning, I buy the food I need for the day and carry it home. It keeps my car off the road, me fit, and limits the junk food I can pick up while I’m there. The old-fashioned Sunday drive needs to go. Try a Sunday bike ride.
Trade in Your Treadmill
You pay money to power your treadmill so you can dissipate the energy you generate while exercising in the comfort of your house. If that isn’t a double waste of energy, I don’t know what is! It would be wonderful if there were commercially available treadmills that would actually capture your energy output from running and use it to operate your appliances. But alas, no one has quite figured out the business plan on that one yet. But the least you can do is not waste electricity at the same time. Either use a non-powered manual treadmill or get out of the house and go for a run!
Trade in Your Car
When it comes to energy efficiency, some cars are clear winners – and others just as clear losers. Trade in your gas guzzler for an electric or hybrid vehicle. It will save you fueling costs in the long run and will support a market that needs to grow if we’re to massively reduce vehicle emissions in the coming years. Besides, who wants to pay $60-100 to fill up the tank every week?
Come one, haven’t you seen enough neighbors put up the solar panels? This is no longer cutting edge technology, it’s practically old-fashioned. What are you waiting for? Yes, it is an investment, but as Bill Nye the Science Guy will tell you, it’s awfully fun paying off that $5 electric bill at the end of the month. Don’t own a house? Try a solar generator. At least you can take your laptop and cell phone off the grid.
Why is vegetarian more green? There are two factors involved. One, it takes a lot of resources to raise livestock. Livestock consume grain and water and produce methane, a greenhouse gas. In the US, 41 million tons of plant protein are consumed to produce just 7 million tons of animal protein. Producing a kilogram of beef (about half a pound) consumes 100,000 liters of water – whereas a kilogram of potatoes consumes 500 liters. Eating the plant crops directly instead of feeding them to the livestock and eating the livestock in turn is a MUCH more efficient use of available resources. Ruminant livestock like cattle, sheep, and goats are responsible for 28% of global methane emissions. US cattle alone produce 5.5 million metric tons of methane each year. Keep in mind, methane is a “more effective” greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide, meaning it warms the planet even faster. Go green – eat your veggies!
Open the Windows
Really, a little fresh air won’t kill you. Put off turning on the air conditioning for a few extra weeks. When you do, keep it within 10 degrees of the outside temperature. There is no reason you need to maintain exactly the same room temperature year round. Dress for the season and see how much you enjoy those days when the temperature turns up just right. On the heating side, it’s not always possible to stay within 10 degrees of the outside temperature if you live in a place with cold winters. But, be reasonable and heat your home just enough that you are comfortable while wearing a sweater – not shorts sleeves and shorts. You’ll save money too – heating and cooling consumes up to half of the energy costs in an average US home. You can also minimize your energy consumption by not generating heat when its hot - for instance save baking for cooler days or evenings - and use sun exposure for warmth by opening the shades strategically. There are plenty of ways to keep comfortable without throwing electricity at the problem if you just stop to think about it.
Watch Your Water
Water shortages are already occurring across much of the world and climate change is only going to make the problem more severe. More fresh water will become salinated and precipitation will be less frequent. All of this will make processing and distributing water more energy intensive. Stop watering your lawn and washing your car with fresh water. You can collect rainwater for these type of tasks. Take shorter showers and use an efficient dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Wear clothes twice before laundering – this was standard practice in the days before washing machines when laundry day meant stewing over a boiling pot of clothes or dragging heavy baskets to the nearest well or stream. They survived, so can we.
Start a Compost Heap
Organic materials, such as food scraps, in landfills decompose releasing methane into the air. Methane, as we already discussed, is a potent greenhouse gas. If you take those same scraps and compost them in your backyard, instead of releasing that carbon into the atmosphere, you will help the soil absorb it. Soil is the biggest carbon sink after the oceans (which are hitting their maximum absorption capacity). It recycles carbon from waste into new plants, thereby putting the carbon to good use while keeping it out of the atmosphere. You’ll produce nutrient rich soil on the side, so start planning your vegetable garden.
Sound like a lot of work? I never said it would be easy. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you started. Remember, change is hard but in the long term you - and your children - will be glad you took up the challenge.
Oh, and do replace your light bulbs, winterize your house, and remember to recycle. Just because it’s easy is no reason not to do it.
Have more suggestions? Share them! Then get to work – this climate’s not going to fix itself.