It’s hard to read the latest news on climate change and not start to freak out. “Historians may look to 2015 as the year when the shit really started hitting the fan,” writes Eric Holthaus in Rolling Stone, and then goes on to list a few of the many ways that climate change is already here: Fires in the Pacific Northwest rainforest, record-setting heat waves in India and France, drought in California. There’s new evidence that sea levels could rise 10 times faster than expected. And this, of course, is just the beginning.
When Holthaus and a group of scientists showed up in a Reddit AMA about the article, two questions stood out. Is it already too late to fix this? And if not, what can any of us do as individuals?
The good news: It’s still possible to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. As Holthaus wrote on Reddit:
We are currently passing, or have already passed, points in the climate system that have locked in essentially irreversible change on timescales of hundreds of years. There are many more points in the system that we’ve yet to cross, however, which is where the call to individual action comes in.
And while it’s obvious that systemic change is necessary, individuals can also make a difference. Half of American emissions come from residential energy use, for example, and even tiny tweaks at home could have a large impact. “U.S. households could easily reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by over 7%,” says Tom Dietz, who has researched the potential of consumer action. “This is equivalent to zeroing out the total emissions from France.”
Politically, citizens can make an even greater difference. Here’s a short list of what you can personally do to fight climate change, from the personal to the political.
Maybe you already take the subway to work instead of driving; maybe you’re vegetarian. Or maybe you travel so much you’ve racked up tens of thousands of frequent flier miles. Start by using a carbon footprint tool to calculate where you’re personally having an impact–and what you might change.
It’s something that people usually tend to get wrong, focusing on something like reusable bags or vampire energy–which have a relatively tiny impact–instead of what actually matters. “We don’t see how much energy is used,” says Dietz. “So naturally people aren’t very well calibrated about those sorts of in-the-house energy uses. We naturally tend to overestimate the small things and underestimate the large things.”
Even if you think you’re already doing a lot, you might be missing the biggest part of your own carbon footprint. Saul Griffith, an engineer, meticulously calculated every part of his footprint–from the underwear he bought to the carbon emissions of wars his tax dollars supported. He bikes, saves energy at home, and generally does everything he possibly can. But he realized that his carbon footprint was actually worse than the average American’s because he had to fly so much for work.
(For people who want to mitigate the effects of flying, there are a couple of options. A few people, like Holthaus, decide to take the radical step of never getting in a plane again. Others, like Effective Altruism guru William MacAskill, buy carbon offsets; after evaluating more than 100 options for effectiveness, MacAskill recommends one called Cool Earth).
Beyond finding a leverage point at home, you can also consider what influence you might have at work, your kids’ school, or elsewhere in your community. “You sort of have to multiply where the places are you can save energy by how much influence you can have,” says Paul Stern, one of Dietz’s co-authors on the study of the role of consumer action, and a staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council. “People who want to do something about this can try to do that mental calculation.”
Despite the slowly declining popularity of the car, almost 9 in 10 Americans still drive to work. More than three-quarters drive alone. When Dietz, Stern, and their fellow researchers evaluated where most people could have the most impact, one of the biggest answers was changing the commute.
The best solution: Ditching the car completely for the train, bus, walking, or one of the many new electric bikes on the market. For those who can’t give up a car, the next best choice is buying a new Tesla or Leaf. Buying a new EV is an example of how much more difference a single action can make than hundreds of less effective ones.
“What we find over and over again is that the first things that come to mind–daily behaviors–have less impact than things that are done infrequently,” says Stern. “Replacing your car with a hybrid, for example, or an electric vehicle that runs on your solar collectors, has a much bigger impact over time.”
Still, even smaller changes in driving make a difference. Carpooling can shave up to 4.2% of a household’s total energy use. Other things also add up, like getting frequent tune-ups and driving a little slower. When the researchers added up all of the easy changes drivers could make with their existing car, it added up to nearly 18% of a home’s energy use.
Like driving, electricity use is one of the biggest leverage points for most people. Luckily, solar power keeps drastically falling in price. And even for those of us who rent, it’s possible to support solar power using someone else’s roof, through Airbnb-like programs. You can also plug your gadgets into a device that automatically calculates how much power you’re using, and offsets that with solar energy.
It’s a simple step–no new technology required, and no extra cost. But research shows that meat is one of biggest contributors to climate change, accounting for around 15% of global emissions. In particular, beef, which produces around 11 times the emissions of something like rice or potatoes. Some have suggested that giving up meat might even have more impact than giving up a car (depending on how much you drive and your love of hamburgers, of course). But even cutting back on meat, rather than going completely vegetarian, makes a difference. For those who are vegetarian, cutting back on milk and cheese can help.
“Getting politicians who understand the science and are willing to act on climate change is probably the most important step,” says Dietz. “A recent study shows that U.S. states that have relatively ‘green’ politics have substantially lower emissions than less green states, even taking account of other factors.”
Most of the changes that have to happen need to happen on a bigger scale–whether it’s making cities more walkable, so commuters are automatically less interested in driving, or redesigning the power grid to better support renewable energy. Many experts argue that passing a carbon tax would be the best approach to quickly cutting emissions. But it’s not likely to happen without more political support.
Don’t know where a candidate stands on climate? Look it up through the League of Conservation Voters. Then start contacting your senator and representatives in the House–some say as often as once a month–asking them to support clean energy legislation and put a price on carbon.
Together, these actions can make a difference. “Climate change is a big problem,” says Dietz. “No single technology, policy, or action will be enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the levels we need to avoid danger. But a mix of actions can do that. In the jargon, this is called the ‘wedge’ approach with each ‘wedge’ some kind of action that helps and all the wedges together getting us to the emissions reductions we need.”