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.