While California was approaching tinderbox conditions that erupted into catastrophic fires, an oil industry coalition led by British Petroleum was spending $30 million to persuade Washington State voters that dirty fuel producers shouldn’t have to pay a dump fee on the carbon they dump into our air. As if turning our atmosphere into a carbon dump didn’t have real costs.
If that makes you angry, if you believe that obstructing climate solutions is immoral, or if you simply feel worried by slow progress on policy and technology fixes, here are eight things you can do that add up to a meaningful difference. Some will be familiar, but others may surprise you.
- Partially boycott the pushers. We all are mainlining stuff that we buy from the most casually murderous drug cartel on the planet, and we’re hooked. But despite being addicts, we are not entirely helpless. Each of us has it within our power to some degree to cut back. Walk or take transit when it fits. Use Lyft line instead of Lyft. Invest in an e-bike that you can ride to nearby events on sunny days. Work from home once in a while. Master the art of video conferencing. Get creative about a near-to-home vacation.
Even small fluctuations in consumption put the squeeze on Big Oil by dropping their stock price and profits. Oil lords are messing with our future; mess with theirs. (An added bonus: You’ll be giving the Saudis the finger.)
- Buy time. Clean energy is coming, and the trend lines are accelerating. That’s one reason corporations with in-the-ground holdings are desperate to extract and sell the stuff to us before they end up with the financial equivalent of hot potatoes: stranded assets.Whenever we delay pipes being completed, terminals being permitted, or urban routes being approved for coal and bomb trains, odds increase that coal or oil or methane will stay in the ground permanently. Slower climate change also means more time for people and other animals to adapt. Become part of the friction.
- Get someone to divest. You may not have much in the way of savings but someone you know does. Where do you (or your kids or grandkids) go to school and how do they invest working capital or their endowment? How about your alma maters? Who do you work for? Where are your retirement funds going? Who leads your union? Where does your church keep their reserves? How about the nonprofits you support? Have your friends and family members heard of impact investing?
When individuals and institutions divest from corporations or industry sectors that are bad actors, it reduces capital in these sectors and makes it harder to borrow money for big projects that can have a long harmful lifespan. It also makes other investors—who may care about nothing but profit—more wary about risk. So, the effects can cascade. 350.org can connect you with a divestment group on your campus or in your community.
- Eat smarter. Conservatively, fourteen to eighteen percent of climate change is driven by animal agriculture, with cattle being the worst offenders. Cows fart even more than dads and dogs, and a billion-and-a-half cows farting in unison adds up to a planetary problem. But the methane they produce isn’t the whole story, which includes deforestation for feed, fuel used in livestock transport, slaughter and processing, and more. Rotational grazing of cattle or mixed species can improve soil health, but one clear, direct path toward climate stability is less meat consumption.
Another simple way to reduce your food footprint is to waste less. The USDA says that in 2010 Americans wasted 133 billion pounds of food worth $161 billion dollars. You can help by buying ugly fruit, eating local vegetables in season, shrinking per-person food orders to caterers, ordering smaller portions in restaurants, checking the fridge before you shop, and getting creative with leftovers.
Cellular biologists are scrambling to figure out how we can meet humanity’s growing demand for protein with lab-grown (aka clean or cultured) meat and milk, and alternative plant-based protein options are just taking off. In the last two years big players like Cargill Industries, Tyson, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and the Canadian government have made investments in protein start-ups. As a consumer, you can accelerate this transition by putting your money where your mouth is. Demand drives innovation. It may take some experimenting to figure out which options you find tasty and satisfying—Beyond Meat? Impossible Burgers? Field Roast? Just Mayo? Chocolate Almond Silk? Once you figure out what’s yummy to you, feed it to your guests as well. Future generations and other species will thank you.
- Rethink support for no-kill shelters. This may be a tough one, but bear with me. Companion animals bring happiness into millions of lives, and some people choose a dog or cat when they can’t afford or don’t want another child. That adds up to a lot of goodness. But the planetary cost of our devotion to feline and canine predators is substantial. If American dogs and cats made up their own country, they would come in fifth in global meat consumption. That adds up to 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, as much as 13.6 million cars.
We may determine that the benefits outweigh the costs for many companion animals—I myself believe so—but our sympathy for dogs and cats has created a system that pushes people to adopt them regardless of the cost-benefit. It also has created a plague of feral cats—70 million in the U.S. alone—that are decimating songbird populations. If love of furry critters is top-of-the-heart for you, consider this: We raise animals in factory farms under nightmare conditions to feed these pets and former pets—pigs and chickens in cages so small they can’t turn around; cows shut away from sunlight and grass. The land and water resources required to raise feed for animals that become pet food also means that fewer wild animals are able to feed their own young—who are starving and burning to death from climate impacts.
- Sweat a little. Or roll up your sleeves. As summers get hotter it becomes more and more tempting to buy an air conditioner, even if you live in a place where people traditionally have kept cool in other ways like using fans, swamp coolers, misters, swimming holes, or cellars. Resist the temptation! According to drawdown.org, the refrigerants in most air conditioners have 1000 to 9000 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. And because they are most likely to leak as they age or at the time of disposal, they are problems in the making. We saved the ozone layer in the 1990s by turning to something that, from a climate standpoint, is even worse, HFCs.
If you can hold out, a global treaty signed in 2016 has phase-out of HFCs beginning in 2019. Climate-friendlier options will be available. In the meantime, if your fridge needs replacing, look for one with an alternative refrigerant like ammonium or propane. To stay cool, do what your parents and grandparents did. Get a fan. Take a swim. Sleep downstairs on the hottest days. And persuade your office mates that long sleeves in the summer are fashion nonsense.
- Accelerate the contraceptive revolution. Human population is a straight-up multiplier in the carbon equation, but population growth is driven entirely by unintended—and often unwanted—pregnancy. State-of-the-art contraceptive technologies for women (IUDs and implants) take human error out of the equation and drive accidental pregnancy to near zero. So, this part of the problem is super solvable. But as of today, options for guys still suck. Consider: The implant has a 1-in-1000 annual pregnancy rate; for couples relying on condoms that’s 1 in 8. If you think that’s not fair, speak up about it. Demand better, and think about donating to male contraceptive development through the Population Council or Male Contraceptive Initiative.
In the meantime, while we’re all depending on female-controlled methods, if you yourself have a top tier IUD or implant that you love, evangelize it to your friends. And work to make sure that less privileged women have access to the very same excellent options that you have. Thanks to advocacy by Melinda Gates, a hormonal IUD for a poor woman in a developing country costs less than $10. Planned Parenthood International can get a copper IUD to her for less than a dollar. These contraceptives have bonus health benefits and bonus economic benefits. Being able to time or limit childbearing also helps families survive climate impacts like famine and conflict.
- Reform democracy. Societies are most able to create a better future when the private, public, and philanthropic sectors all pull in the same direction, each doing what they do best. Better climate policies could accelerate solutions. But we all know that some electeds are more loyal to lobbyists from dinosaur industries than to we-the-people. Some couldn’t care less about climate impacts on future generations, the ultra-poor in the global south, or other species—none of whom make campaign contributions.
Replacing electeds who have been bought by oil companies with representatives who act on climate is going to require that we first focus on fixing our democracy—replacing antiquated and corrupted electoral systems with modern ones that more accurately reflect the public will. Educate yourself and your friends about wonky topics like gerrymandering reform, automatic voter registration, proportional representation, multi-member districts, and ranked choice voting.
Progress on climate is being stalled by people who place short-term self interest over the common good—corporate leaders and investors willing to maximize profits even when those profits are taken from vulnerable people and future generations. But progress also stalls out when those of us who care get overwhelmed and so don’t exercise the power we have. As individuals, we can’t fix climate change, but we can slow it and shrink it, both of which matter. You or I may never know how our actions shape the future and touch other lives, but we can know that in aggregate they do.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Great column, Valerie! Uplifting and funny all at once! I hated to see I-1631 lose, both for the future of this state, and for the potential of showing other states the way. Your words give a lift to those of us out here who are still suffering from I-1631 post-election-depression.
And our government never, ever, speaks, or seems to draw a straight line to, the consequences (particularly the GOP) of untrammeled population growth (particularly the GOP). I privately applaud every woman who’s had an abortion for not only saving herself, but also saving a tiny part of the planet.
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Before I ran across Guy McPherson, my concerns about climate change were not as deep as they should have been. Afterwards, I got concerned enough to go to his workshop on near term human extinction. You did not mention him, or any other scientist such as Paul Beckwith or Peter Wadhams. Those two do not foresee extinction in ten years, but do see it happening before 2100 if we continue business as usual.
Although not as bleak, and without as much reference to refereed papers as most of McPherson’s lectures, this one named Hothouse Earth provides background on abrupt change:
One site that covers abrupt change is chaired by Stuart Scott at Scientistswarning:
There are plenty of McPherson videos on YouTube as well as the ones on Scott’s site. I would be interested in your comments on abrupt change and on those people trying to get the message heard.
Thank you — Joe
Is it already too late? This article says the time to do something was 1970 to 1989.
We had climate expert Michael Mann give a talk at our university in late 2015. According to him and other leading scientists it seemed likely that we could still do something, although the 2016 election was crucial for that. At the time, looking at the clown car of Republican primary candidates we foolishly though it might even be possible to win the house, senate, and presidency. Obviously that didn’t happen, and important policy changes by the country with the largest carbon foot print, and second largest carbon producer was lost. So I don’t know that 1970-1989 here is correct as being the time that we needed to do something, but certainly the fact that we won’t be doing anything for the next two to six years is problematic. The scientific uncertainty at the exact tipping point makes not doing anything at all, at any time ethically unwise in my opinion. Even slowing down the change can give populations that need to relocate as climatic patterns shift more time to adjust to changes or relocate if necessary.
I recommend reading “Renewable energy without the hot air” by David J.C. MacKay FRS. There is a free pdf to download & free to view on line edition.
Wikipedia article about him says, ” British physicist, mathematician, and academic. He was the Regius Professor of Engineering in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and from 2009 to 2014 was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).”
I’ll attempt a concise summary: there needs to be a massive leap forward in battery technology & nuclear fusion in order for a modern civilisation to live without fossil fuel. There isn’t even enough uranium for nuclear fission to supply the whole world long term. However nuclear power stations should be part of the mix.
On national grids, supply and demand must balance 100% of the time otherwise you get black outs.
Natural gas is needed for gas turbine electricity generators to ensure that national grid demand is always met at times when intermittent supply from wind turbines and solar power is inadequate.
Actually the correct title is “Sustainable energy without the hot air”
Sorry my summary was too pessimistic. I read some of David Mackay’s book again and was reminded he said one realistic step forward that could already be done would be if there were millions of electric cars in each country then their batteries could combine to supply electricity back into the grid when required. ( I guess that is a similar idea to every house having a Tesla power wall. )
There are so many different points that could be focused on that it is easy to cherry pick the negative ones rather than the positive ones depending on your disposition.
He has an interesting idea about demand side management: that if fridges were designed to pick up on a drop in supply frequency then they could also be designed to switch off for a few minutes when the national grid was struggling to meet demand. However this made me laugh as you could end up with a situation where your electric shower switched off when you turn the kettle on or the electric room heater turns off when you switch the oven on.
Respect! Yet again! So, so needed: A calm, common-sense approach to the costs and benefits of what we do. We really do need to make our personal decisions more wisely. Thank you.