Experts tell us things big and small we can do to help reduce climate change
A guide to the personal, political, and social actions you can take to save the world
Climate change is already here, and experts say that it will bring more extreme weather, wildfires, and flooding to Canada. If it rises to only 2C above pre-industrial temperatures, scientists predict "severe, pervasive and irreversible" effects on the planet. Unfortunately, based on current policies and pledges, Earth is on track for an increase of over 3C by 2100. This is very bad. At 3C, parents will stop worrying about university admissions and start trying to get their children into a decent sewer tribe. The ship is sinking, and the... visionary prometheans are fleeing. If we don't change course, we're headed towards a disaster of biblical proportions.
Fortunately, our fate is not yet sealed. Last month, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report outlining what it will take to hold temperature rises to 1.5C. It's not that a 1.5C rise isn't bad, but it's much less bad than 2C. A 1.5C rise in temperature would still require significant adaptation, but the earth might be livable for our grandchildren. Meeting this target won't be easy. According to the report by the world's leading climate scientists, holding temperature increases to 1.5C will require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". We need to act boldly and immediately. This means major changes to policy and consumption. It means global political coordination. Still, it's feasible and it's affordable. At least, it's more affordable than doing nothing.
The IPCC report is directed mainly at world leaders. Not all of our readers are heads of state or UN committee chiefs, but we all face the anxiety of impending environmental disaster. Is there anything we can do, as individuals, to help?
I asked this group of climate change experts what we, as individuals, can do to help save the world from this particular apocalypse:
- Dale Marshall, National Climate Program Manager, Environmental Defence
- Catherine Abreu, Executive Director, Climate Action Network
- Max Thabiso Edkins, Climate Expert, World Bank Group's Connect4Climate program
- Jesse Firempong, Greenpeace Canada
- Marilyne Lavoie, Environment and Climate Change Canada
There are two things that really stand out in their answers. First, none of them seemed to despair. Everyone I spoke to seemed to believe that humankind is capable of making the required changes. Second, the advice they gave me was remarkably similar. According to these experts, there are three main categories of actions that we should all be taking to do our part: personal, political, and social.
1. Personal consumption: consume less, consume smarter.
The most obvious way of fighting climate change is to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Canadians produce more carbon pollution per capita than almost anyone else in the world. It's certainly nothing to be proud of, but it does mean that any changes we make will have a relatively large absolute effect. Here a few main areas where our consumption habits can make a difference.
Food: go vegetarian, go local, go organic
Livestock production takes up a lot of space, produces a lot of emissions, and is just really bad for the planet. And cows are the worst of them. That's why scientists say that avoiding meat and dairy is the single best way to reduce your negative impact on the planet. According to one recent study, if everyone in the US substituted beans for beef in their diet, that one dietary change would go 46%-74% of the way to achieving their (since abandoned) greenhouse gas emission goals. This doesn't mean you have to go vegan. Every reduction helps, and will probably help your health too. The main upside of eating beef every day is that it might kill you before you have time to do much harm.
Transporting food requires burning fuels, and that sends carbon into the atmosphere. Where possible, eat locally produced food.
Both Max Thabiso Edkins told me that in terms of food consumption, we ought to "go vegetarian, go organic, go local, use recyclable and biodegradable packaging, reduce and reuse food waste." Catherine Abreu told me "local first, organic second."
- The key here is to minimize your use of carbon-based fuels. You can do this by
- Travelling using our own energy by walking or cycling.
- Shortening your commute or avoiding commuting altogether.
- Using public transport.
- Switching to a more fuel-efficient vehicle. It doesn't have to be electric, any improvement counts.
- Flying less often. Flying generates a lot of greenhouse gases, so it should be avoided. Use the train bus or carpool instead. When you do fly, be sure to buy carbon offsets. However, there are some exceptions. If you absolutely must fly a long distance (say from Montreal to Vancouver), flying may be more efficient than driving solo (which you also should avoid). For more details on how to make flying more green, see this article in The New York Times.
For most people, where they live is one of their most important choices as a consumer. And it also makes a big differences to our carbon emissions. For instance, choosing to live in a suburban single-family home means you'll likely use three times more energy than if you chose to live in an urban multi-family unit (apartment, condominium). Even if you retrofit that suburban house with all the green tech you can, you'll still use twice as much. Here are some things we can do to improve on this front:
- Live in a smaller space. Smaller homes tend to use less electricity and fuel over the course of their use, and also use less building materials. Better still, smaller spaces enable greater density which also leads to less energy used on transportation.
- Choose a place closer to the other places you have to go, like work. This will reduce the need for commuting. Research shows that a single-family suburban household will use three time more energy than a family living in an urban apartment.
- Insulate your home well. Heating and cooling are major energy drains.
- Use energy-efficient appliances. Marilyne Lavoie, a media rep for Environment and Climate Change Canada recommends ENERGY STAR-certified appliances and LED light bulbs to reduce energy use.
- Look for eco-friendly design in any house you plan to rent, buy, or build. Max Thabiso Edkins says that passive design architecture and low-carbon building materials are all good ways to improve the carbon footprint of your home.
2. Politics: make sure your representatives take action
The most powerful tools that we have to fight climate change are political ones. Deciding to cycle to work can reduce your personal footprint, but changing emissions regulations on new cars or putting a meaningful price on carbon can make a much bigger difference. As Jesse Firempong of Greenpeace Canada told me, the key to success is "to connect individual action with the systemic issues that need change for Canada to make the necessary progress on climate change. A big part of this is creating the political will for the bold action needed." Here is some advice from our experts on creating political will.
Vote for climate action: Rewarding politicians who do not take action encourages them to keep doing nothing. At every level of government, you can make a difference by supporting politicians who are committed to fighting climate change by voting, volunteering or donating.
Contact your representatives, all your representatives: Politicians have got their hands on the levers of power. Ultimately, the most important decisions affecting climate are political ones.
Dale Marshall from environmental defence told me that "our number one tip for individuals is to contact their elected officials - local, provincial and federal - and tell them that climate change is important to you and that you expect them to take action." The more they hear from that climate is important to you, the more likely they are to address it. This is true whether you voted for them or not.
Litigate: Another possibility of collective action is through the courts. Groups of environmentally-minded citizens around the world have started bringing lawsuits against governments and big oil and gas companies to hold them to their obligations and to prevent them from harming citizens. These citizens are inspired by past legal victories over big tobacco or the racial segregation of schools in the US.
3. Win hearts and minds
Catherine Abreu of the Climate Action Network told me "If you are only changing your individual consumption choices, you aren't doing your part." It's good if you think fighting climate change is important, but it's better if everyone you know also does. Political change is often driven by broader cultural change, and hearts and minds can be won on the individual level. Abreu told me that research shows that people are reluctant to talk climate change with their community members, but also that conversations with people you trust is one of the best ways to change minds.
This means you should make the effort to have these conversations with the people you know, and keep posting climate stories to your social networks. It may feel uncomfortable sometimes, but it's only by spreading the message that you can help generate the political will for change. For advice on how to communicate about climate issues, Climate Outreach, a UK organization, has done a lot of research on how to communicate effectively about climate to different audiences.
Take action to avoid despair
There is plenty of reason to be anxious about the fate of our planet, and that anxiety can often turn into despair. But it doesn't have to. According to Abreu, "we have to pivot anxiety from despair to action. The answer to despair is action." By embracing the suggestions in this guide, you'll not only help improve the world, you're also likely to start feeling better about our prospects.