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Climate Change - What's a Private Citizen To Do?

By Edited Jun 24, 2016 4 14

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.

The Dangers of Climate Change
Credit: Photo credit unknown

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.

Do something!
Credit: Climate Change North

Drive Less

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.

Drive less - your dog will approve
Credit: Photo credit unknown

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!

Forget the treadmill - outside has a better view.
Credit: Photo credit unknown

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?

Save gas, go electric(113824)
Credit: Car Advice/AutoRenovable

Go Solar

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.

The Power of Sunshine
Credit: Solar Power Homes

Go Vegetarian

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[5156]. 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[5157]. 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! 

Feeding the cows
Credit: Better Farm

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[5159]. 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.

Staying cool
Credit: kuljitmann

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.

The Shrinking Water Supply
Credit: Lane Report/Andy Olsen

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.

Compost - recycling life
Credit: Photo credit unknown

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.

Fixing the planet
Credit: NASA/explainthatstuff.com


Oct 4, 2012 12:56am
This is a really interesting article that focuses on a huge, life-altering situation for humanity. I have a number of suggestions to offer include planting more trees, donating to environmental charities eg the David Suzuki Foundation, and reducing personal consumption of non-essential items, particularly those produced and shipped from the other side of the planet. There is a lot of fuel usage and air pollution involved in transporting goods long distances. Where possible, buy locally-grown food, or grow your own fruit and/or vegetables in your backyard or a community garden. You can also make a point of shopping for eco-friendly products that are recyclable, organic and chemical-free and created by businesses that are devoted to a sustainable future.
Oct 4, 2012 5:26am
Thanks for these great ideas! There are lots of steps we can all take, but we have to stop thinking it will be easy and we won't have to change the way we live. That's no longer possible - just no one wants to tell us that!
Oct 4, 2012 6:51am
Nice article. As you mentioned, it is already too late to avoid many of the cataclysmic changes headed our way. The only real solution I see at this point is some type of geo-engineering to cool the planet until a real solution can be found.
Oct 4, 2012 7:13am
Thanks, Wayne! I have done some research on geoengineering and I definitely think we should prepare to use some form - I gravitate towards non-chemical approaches such as a solar shield or sea water aerosoling. But we can't rely on that to solve anything - we know some of the answers now and we need to start! If we continue polluting while shielding ourselves from some of the effects with geoengineering methods, things will ultimately get worse.
Oct 4, 2012 7:05am
Thanks for the ideas. I have done a lot of research on solar power, and it (like wind energy) is still more costly than it's worth, and the lifespan of the solar panels isn't typically long enough to pay for itself with actual energy savings. Recycling consumes a lot of energy in processing, too, so it's not like we're actually reducing the entire cost of producing from new, but it's a great start. Like you, I wish I knew the answer. Congrats on the feature!
Oct 4, 2012 7:16am
Thanks, psidwell! I see part of the problem with solar power is that commercialization isn't keeping up with technological advances, particularly those made for space solar power, which are considerable. This is largely due to insufficient market demand - something we need to address by installing more solar panels. Even if at the end of the day we end up spending more money to generate our energy, that is money we need to invest. I think we will find, however, that we will be saving when we get a critical mass on board. A $500 portable solar generator can pay for itself within a year.
Oct 4, 2012 9:49am
It is important to take into account that our Earth circles the Sun. The Sun is not a stationary bright object. Its source of energy comes from within and its atmosphere is constantly changing. It releases solar flares and has sun-spots because of its very complicated magnetic field. If it starts releasing more energy, the Earth will receive more energy. We wouldn't exist long if the Sun's energy output doubled overnight.

The Sun operates on cycles which affects global weather, taking us in and out of ice ages goo.gl/TQb3k . Weather can be predicted by solar activity as seen here goo.gl/ZODqb .

I think the ideas you have in your article are very cool! I can see that if anyone uses just one of the ideas above, they can save a ton of money in this harsh economy.

Congratulations on being featured!
Oct 4, 2012 11:52am
Thanks, Tim! You are absolutely right about the solar cycles and there is much we don't yet understand in that respect. But it has been pretty clearly demonstrated that the magnitude of change we are seeing in the climate substantially exceeds the magnitude of changes due to solar cycles. Many, even scientists, are also under the impression that when the solar cycle is at a minimum, hazards are at a minimum. That actually isn't so, since low solar activity allows more galactic radiation to reach the planet which is actually more energetic than solar radiation. Although we're getting better at forecasting space weather, our "predictions" are still on the order of hours certainly not years. Very interesting stuff to keep an eye on!
Oct 24, 2012 10:57pm
Africa is worst hit by climate change.The private citizen can hardly do anything to address the problem due to abject poverty,a living biting scourge.
Oct 25, 2012 7:50pm
Thanks for your comment, Januarius. You raise an important point. Africa is suffering a good deal from desertification, which is partially due to Climate Change and partially due to land use issues, although I can't say they are worst hit - Asia is in a pretty bad position for flooding risk. I have to disagree with your conclusion that poverty precludes taking steps to counteract Climate Change, however. For instance, much of the population of Africa relies on wood fires for daily cooking and energy needs. A much more resource efficient strategy would be to use solar cookers and heaters - African countries certainly have enough Sun! Unfortunately, western world interference has taught many poor Africans to hold out for the fancy technologically sophisticated solar panels donated by charities instead of building their own simply but effective tools at home. Such tools would vastly improve their lives and drastically cut wood fire emissions while leaving more live trees in place to absorb our CO2.
Nov 20, 2012 8:16pm
This is a great article. People frequently talk about the deteriorating environment, but nobody explains how ordinary people can make a difference. Thanks!
Nov 22, 2012 11:58am
Thanks for your feedback, oblanton! I ran into the same experience, with everyone looking to someone else to provide some answers. I thought it was time we put our own minds to work coming up with solutions. With the latest forecasts out estimating more severe impacts more quickly than previously thought, every single person's going to need to pitch in.
Jul 15, 2013 4:18pm
I think this is all very true. I also think scientists are just so tired of people disbelieving, not even noticing they have convinced quite a bit of the population.

Anyhow, I think reducing your meat intake is very important. Most people eat over the limit daily...but not eating meat for some people is a bad idea. But the point is significantly reducing meat intake. Agriculture makes up a lot of carbon.
Jul 15, 2013 5:19pm
Thanks for weighing in, mkomma! You are absolutely right, there is plenty of room to start with reducing meat intake to USDA recommended levels. If you think back a few decades, it used to be the norm for a family to enjoy meat as a treat once or twice a week, whereas many people now see it is a required component of every day's dinner and have trouble building a meal without it. Combined with the increase in portion sizes, no wonder our agricultural system has trouble keeping up!
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  1. Cornell University "U.S. Could Feed 800 Million People With Grain That Livestock Eat." Science Daily. 26/09/2012 <Web >
  2. Environmental Protection Agency "Ruminant Livestock." US Environmental Protection Agency Climage Chane Home. 26/09/2012 <Web >
  3. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy "Air Conditioning." American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 26/09/2012 <Web >
  4. Energy Star "Heat and Cool Efficiently." Energy Star. 26/09/2012 <Web >

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