06 May 2021

Climate Change: What Can We Do? Political Action

"It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” -- Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

Do something. Start with a place that’s comfortable for you, and then challenge yourself to do more over time. Don’t do nothing. Climate change can feel so big that it’s impossible for individuals to have any impact. But as the BBC reports, Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, has studied non-violent protest movements and discovered that it takes only 3.5% of the population to change the world. More from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe emphasizes the importance of talking to people: friends, family members, co-workers. Conversations about climate change and possible solutions are crucial to changing culture.

Join your local Environmental Commission, or another organization devoted to action and education around climate issues, and volunteer for local events and activities. If your town doesn’t have an Environmental Commission, start going to Town Council meetings and speaking up. If you have the organizational skills, start an environmental commission. If you don’t, persuade someone else to do it. 

Call and write letters to local and state politicians. You’ll be able to make more of an impact at the local level than nationwide. A lot of important environmental initiatives, like plastic bag bans and improved bike lanes, start local.

If you have a retirement fund, disinvest from fossil fuels. Switch to a green portfolio. 

The Rainforest Action Network publishes a list of banks that fund fossil fuels. If your bank is on the list, consider moving your savings and checking accounts to a different bank. Or start a petition to get your bank to divest from fossil fuels.

On a personal level, here's a list of actions individuals can undertake to reduce their own carbon footprint, as well as a catalogue of resources to help you stay educated as the climate scientists learn more and the engineers come up with better solutions.

What Can We Do about Climate Change? Resources

I recently taught a continuing education course on "Understanding Climate Change." The big thing that the students wanted to know was, "what can we do?" 

Do something political even though the problem seems vast. Climate anxiety and depression are real. You'll feel better if you're taking some kind of action, and if you're in contact with like-minded people.

If you want a deep dive into the science of climate change, Oregon State University publishes an open-access textbook, from which this graphic illustrating climate processes and human influences is drawn.

If you are curious about your individual or household carbon footprint, and what elements of your life are some of the biggest contributors, the Global Footprint Network calculator will give you a quick estimate. If you want more detail and have the patience to enter details about your monthly energy bills, you can get a more accurate picture from the Carbon Footprint calculator.

Everything about climate change, and solutions to it, is in rapid flux, between the impacts of increasing global warming to the technologies available to use less energy. Stay informed by reading websites and subscribing to newsletters.

  • Green America provides resources on climate, food, finance, labor, social justice, and green living.
  • Tree Hugger has sections on news, environment business and policy, home and garden, science, animals, culture, design, and “clean beauty.”
  • Earth Talk gives resources for individuals and educators

You can also curate your social media to get the latest information about climate science and solutions: subscribe to relevant Facebook groups, follow climate scientists on Twitter, Instagram, and/or YouTube.

If you're interested in gardening to support the ecosystem, you might start by reading Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard just published in 2020 by Douglas Tallamy. Buy a copy from Bookshop to support independent bookstores. 

  • National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder will help you find plants that are native to your area and will support the widest range of bees, butterflies, and insects to help the entire ecosystem recover
  • New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Invasive Species Fact Sheets has information about plant species and insects that are not native to New Jersey and should be eradicated
  • Identifying and Removing Aggressive Invasive Species contains photos and descriptions of additional invasive species not listed by the NJDEP.
  • See where people have switched to species that support biodiversity, possibly right in your neighborhood. After you’ve switched your yard over from grass and ornamentals to pollinator-friendly native species, upload your information to Homegrown National Park.

To learn more about solutions, go back to the Footprint Calculator, where you can find a quick overview of solutions in the areas of urban planning, renewable energy, population issues, food (impacts of individual foods, food waste), and the planet (conservation and restoration).

Project Drawdown is a collective of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who have ranked the top 100 solutions for individuals, corporations, and government, in the sectors of electricity; food, agriculture, and land use; industry; transportation; buildings; health and education; land sinks; coastal and ocean sinks; and engineered sinks. To limit increased temperature to 2º C, the single most impactful solution is to reduce food waste.

Finally, here's a quick list of a lot of the things we can do as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. 

Green Your Life (Radical and Non-Radical Versions)

We all need to make fundamental changes to the ways we live, shop, and vote. Many state and local governments are on board, as well as the new presidential administration, but we need to push politicians to do more. We can influence corporate behavior through our shopping habits. And there are a lot of things we can do as individuals that, if many people did, would make big differences.

The Short List
  1. Go vegan
  2. Don't fly
  3. Don't waste food, and don't buy any food with packaging
  4. Kill your car, and use feet, bike, and ground-based public transit instead
  5. Kill your lawn, and replace it with native shrubs and trees that support the ecosystem
  6. Don’t buy new things
  7. Install solar panels on your roof
  8. Refuse consumer culture
  9. Have fewer kids
  10. Get involved with your local environmental group
  11. Talk to friends and family members about what you're doing

I know, I know. That's a pretty extremist list. I'm not there yet, myself.

I still own a car. I have put 50,000 miles on it in the past five years. I moved to a suburban community where it's a lot harder to buy groceries without driving. But I'm working on it.

I have not figured out how to buy food without packaging. But I am making efforts toward less packaging -- dry beans instead of canned, vegetables that aren't wrapped in plastic, and come home in my own reusable bags, home made cashew yogurt and hummus instead of buying them in plastic tubs. I'm committed to buying my clothing used, and my last two electronics purchases were refurbished, but I'm still working on shoes. The list goes on.

The above list is aspirational. I'm working toward it. The ways our communities and infrastructures are organized makes some of these things very difficult.

So here's a list of smaller ideas. Pick something that will be relatively easy for you, so you can get started with success. Find a way to make it a habit. Then pick another. In five years, you'll have changed your life.

Along the way, talk to people about what you're doing, and why. Become an activist, even if it's on a small scale.

The Non-Radical Version
  1. Drive less
  2. Eat less lamb, beef, and cheese, and more plant protein
  3. Say no to fast fashion
  4. Take ground transportation instead of a short haul flight
  5. Move to a smaller home
  6. Downsize to a smaller car
  7. Go for a hybrid, or a plug-in electric car
  8. Take the train instead of driving, and definitely instead of flying
  9. Combine errands instead of making individual trips by car
  10. Call your elected representatives and tell them you support a carbon tax
  11. Postpone a purchase, and think about if you really need it
  12. Repair something instead of buying new
  13. Compost
  14. Recycle
  15. Eschew excess packaging
  16. Bar soap instead of liquid (see above)
  17. Turn off the tap
  18. And extra lights
  19. Add insulation
  20. Call your town administrator and advocate for laws favoring native, non-invasive plants
  21. In the winter: put on a sweater and turn down the heat
  22. Summer: drink ice water, use a fan instead of, or in addition to, air conditioning
  23. Haunt thrift shops: buy used instead of new (clothing, household items, and more)
  24. Vote for mass transit
  25. Be obsessive about food waste
  26. Make sure your car and your a/c units aren't leaking refrigerant
  27. Get off junk mail lists (both snail and email)
  28. Don't buy anything packed in styrofoam
  29. Get a reusable coffee cup
  30. Drink shade grown, bird friendly coffee (and tea and chocolate)
  31. And other organic foods -- they might be healthier for you, and they're definitely healthier for farms workers as well as for bugs, birds, and other critters all up and down the food chain
  32. Stop drinking bottled water
  33. While you're at it, give up soda -- it's not doing you or the environment any good
  34. When you need to replace an appliance, get an energy efficient one
  35. Get your community to invest in good sidewalks and bike lanes
  36. Vote for renewable energy
  37. Eat local food as much as possible
  38. Persuade your school, workplace, religious institution, and other places you spend time to adopt environment friendly policies
  39. Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or washing dishes
  40. Take shorter showers
  41. FINALLY: Keep educating yourself about environmental issues, and keep finding ways to make change. Here's a list of resources.

11 November 2020

Open Letter to President Bush: Save Democracy

I have written the letter below to former President Bush at info@georgewbushlibrary.com.

Please feel free to copy or adapt to send to President Bush or any other former Republican with any power who you think might be willing to act.


Dear President Bush,

I am writing to you to ask you to take action to preserve democracy in the United States.

As a Republican former president, you are uniquely positioned to reach out to current Republican leadership, including President Trump and Senators McConnell and Graham, and urge them to pay heed to the results of the election, concede the loss to President-Elect Biden, and allow the transition of power to proceed smoothly.

I also urge you to talk with more moderate Republicans in the Senate with the goal of persuading them to vote out Senate Majority Leader McConnell and replace him with someone whose only goal is not to obstruct any actions of government coming from the House or the President.

Thank you for considering this request.

Heide Estes

03 September 2020

Hey New Jersey, Prioritize Bike and Pedestrian Street Access

This week, I'm taking part in a virtual course led by Al Gore for the Climate Reality Project to become a more effective climate activist. One of the tasks in the course was to do some research on climate impacts and solutions, and write about it. I took a look at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection web page, and I had some thoughts.

Governor Phil Murphy is committed to addressing climate change, and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has a page called Take Action with sections addressed to business owners, households, local governments, and schools, plus a summary of “New Jersey’s Key Initiatives.”

The homeowner section includes a carbon footprint calculator that allows people to see how much carbon they are using, and where. This is a great resource to start your own journey with awareness of your own impact.

To help the environment, the page recommends several actions, including using energy efficient light bulbs, appliances, and heating and cooling systems; driving “green”; installing home solar panels; saving water; recycling; and planting trees. 

According to the page, “the majority (42%) of New Jersey’s Greenhouse Gas emissions come from transportation.”  To mitigate this, the state is encouraging residents to buy plug-in electrical cars while also planning to buy electric vehicles for use by state offices and as part of the public transit fleet. New Jersey is committed to transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, so the electricity powering all those electric cars would ideally come from wind and water, not from coal and gas.

The NJDEP site also contains the 148-page 2019 New Jersey Energy Master Plan: Pathway to 2050, and this more comprehensive document includes several references to improving public transit and rethinking streets to make pedestrian and bicycle access more widespread and safer. But the “Take Action” page does not make any reference to these goals. 

A third of all car trips in the United States are less than two miles long.  If there are safe options for walking and bicycling, many of those trips can be made without using a car at all, which is good for emissions, and also good for people’s health.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the state’s public-facing recommendations don’t do more to encourage people to take short trips on foot or on a bicycle, and provide information and resources to make it easier for individuals to do so. 

The state could create an ad campaign on radio, television, and the web about how drivers can behave to make bicycling safer, as well as reminding cyclists to ride with traffic, be visible, and signal intentions. Municipalities could give out helmets and demonstrate the use of baskets and panniers to carry groceries or schoolbooks. Increasing the number of bicyclists on the roads also makes them safer for pedestrians.  

Instead of just encouraging drivers to buy electric cars, the state of New Jersey should build infrastructure, disseminate safety information, and give away gear to bike riders, in order to make the streets safer for everyone, reduce emissions, and improve the health of the population.

01 March 2020

Reduce your Carbon Footprint for Lent

The suggestion comes around every year that instead of giving something up for Lent, folks should use the season to declutter their homes, finding one item per day to give away.

The problem is, we're drowning in excess stuff. Decluttering, whether to spark joy or find God, doesn't address the problem of how we got all that stuff.

I'm going to suggest, instead, taking action to reduce your carbon footprint for the days of Lent.

Instead of giving things away for Lent, we could give up buying things. Give up a category, like clothing, and make the things you have in your home work for a few weeks longer.

Or give up food waste. Or plastic supermarket bags. Or single-use plastic packaging.

Or give up beef, as the meat that's highest in emissions, and for the 40 days of the holiday eat only fish and fowl. Or reduce the quantity of meat you eat rather than the kinds.

In the solar year, Lent crosses the last few weeks of winter and the first few weeks of spring, a time when many of us are waiting eagerly for light and warmth, the change of season that will bring more light and enable more outdoor time and allow us to manufacture more vitamin D as we shed winter layers and take a big breath of relief that the dark cold of winter is over

For our ancestors, it was the hungry time, when stores of late summer and fall crops like potatoes and apples were running out and the spring lettuces and early berries had yet to grow.

Giving up a category of food as a religious exercise was a way to give meaning to the season's privations.Today, though, while poverty is an entrenched and serious problem, it doesn't follow the solar seasons the way it used to.

Today, referigeration and global shipping allow us access to wide varieties of foods year-round -- so much so that if you didn't grow up in a rural community, you might not actually know what foods are seasonally available in your local area.

Lent is a short time frame during which you can try out an action that will reduce your carbon footprint, and see if it will work for you in the longer term.

What do you think?

09 February 2020

Circular Economies

To slow the release of carbon into the atmosphere, we can turn to renewable energy and biodegradable packaging, but to stop it, we need to return to a circular economy, with localized nodes all over the world.

Our current global and local economies depend on "natural resources" and "human resources" with the assumption that these are limitless, that the earth possesses or will continue to generate enough raw materials for the endless production and transport of new goods. In fact, many of our global industries depend not just on stable markets, but continuously growing ones, for financial stability. We have now reached the point where this will no longer allow for environmental sustainability.

In order to reach a point of truly circular economy, we need to reuse, recycle, compost, or burn (as fuel) everything we produce. And we're doing a terrible job at that.

While glass and metals can readily be recycled and similar products created, with less energy output than refining new materials, recycling plastic is much more difficult. Plastic, once produced, can't be melted down and re-used in the same form.

Water bottles (#1 plastic), for instance, can be made into fleece sweaters, but not into new plastic water bottles. There's a problem, though: every time you launder that fleece, you release microplastics into your town sewer system, and they end up in the ocean where they're killing wildlife.

Here's a table from Oxford University that summarizes how plastics are generally recycled by communities:

Go here for the full-size image

It turns out, though, that the situation isn't quite as dire, in theory: Plastics labeled  #2, #3, #4, and #5 can be turned into plastic wood. The town of Long Branch started a program last year to recycle plastic bags and wrappers (#4). They promised a park bench after 500 pounds of packaging was collected, and this January, the first bench was installed near Lake Takanassee.

Meanwhile, the town of Middletown, NJ recently opened a styrofoam recycling center, open to residents of the entire county. It only collects styrofoam used in packaging and shipping, not food-grade products, so you still need to get a reusable mug for your Dunkin Donuts coffee, and avoid take-out that's packaged in styrofoam.

There's a breakdown, however, been theory and practice. Between 1950 and 2015, the amount of plastic products produced annually rose almost 200-fold, from 2 million metric tons per year to 381 million metric tons, and only 9 percent of that was recycled.

We need to do better, and when it comes to plastics we need to address this in several different ways.

Governments need to enact carbon taxes to encourage corporate and individual consumers to use less carbon, by making it more expensive.

Producers of plastic products need to do a better job of making containers out of more easily recyclable products when possible, researching and developing biodegradable containers, and avoiding excess packaging.

Consumers need to send a message through individual purchases and buying habits that we don't want plastic. We need to:

  • stop buying bottled water and other products packaged in single-use plastics
  • refuse excess packaging, for instance when we buy loose produce
  • advocate with local and state governments to enact plastic bag bans, and meanwhile make the choice to use reusable bags for our shopping
  • boycott Dunkin Donuts and other corporations that still use styrofoam instead of paper hot drink cups, and tell them why
... and more. Those are starting points, not end points. We need to move to an economy where everything we produce can be repurposed in some way. It's going to take imagination and persistence. If we don't do it voluntarily, the effects of climate crisis will force the issue.