Future Tense

Five Genuinely Useful Things You Can Do to Fight Climate Change

Waves lap ashore near condo buildings in Florida.
Waves lap ashore near condo buildings in Florida on the day the United Nations released a climate change report. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The recent United Nations climate report, which states that humans have heated the planet and the effects of it may be irreversible for centuries, may have you feeling like anything you can do as an individual would be futile. It’s true that personal actions won’t eliminate carbon dioxide emissions entirely: The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies are accountable for more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But the actions of individuals can still play a vital role in slowing climate change—especially for people who live in wealthy countries and so are responsible for more carbon emissions than the average citizen of Earth. Here, we have collected the best tips from specialists who reacted to the climate change report.

Power your house with solar panels.

“Go solar,” suggested journalist Michael Grunwald, who focuses on government policy, especially as it relates to the climate and environment. In 2017, he shared his story of purchasing solar panels for his house in Miami in an article for Politico. He wrote that he spent about $60,000 for installing the system, but since then, his monthly bills for electricity dropped to $80 from $500 per month. He expects his expenses to pay back by 2025. “It’s like having a risk-free 12% bond on my roof,” he says. Meanwhile, solar panels are getting more and more affordable experts remind that apart from saving on electricity bills and reducing carbon footprint, going solar also allows you to increase the house value if you decide to sell it.

Fly and drive less if you earn more than $38,000.

This is the advice of Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden. According to her newsletter “We Can Fix It,” people with an income over $38,000 a year “cause about half of all household climate pollution.” The main reason: Wealthy people drive and fly more. Nicholas compares the harm of a roundtrip flight from London to New York to 10,000 plastic water bottles.

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Environmentally friendly alternative to planes can include trains. And though now even some major cities like Las Vegas, Nashville, and Phoenix, do not have Amtrak train stations, it plans to open service there and in many other cities by 2035. On Tuesday the Senate has passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $66 billion investment into Amtrak.  Of course, going on long distances by train instead of plane is more time-consuming. But Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter and the author of the book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, has a suggestion: “You can take longer to travel, for example, if you had 5, 10, 15 weeks’ vacation instead of 2 if you’re lucky, no?” Sounds like a dream, but maybe your employer agrees to count the time you spent on rails as sick or personal days? Or perhaps your boss won`t mind if you work from a train?

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If you truly can’t avoid traveling by plane, it may be worth considering flying somewhere close to home and using economy class instead of business: The carbon footprint of a traveler in business class is three times higher than in economy. When it comes to driving, the obvious green solution is public transport. Pierre-Louis jokes that “mass transit would be more palatable if it adopted the slogan ‘you can always get home from the bar after drinking.’ ” Certainly most people won’t get rid of their cars altogether any time soon. However, walking or biking short distances instead of using a vehicle may help. Surprisingly, according to the New York Times, more than one-third of all car rides are less than two miles.

Waste less food. 

“We waste almost one third of our food, which means we waste the land and water and fertilizer and pesticides used to grow it,” Grunwald tweeted in his thread. Moreover, when food rots in a landfill, it emits methane—a greenhouse gas. And waste of food is a waste of money. According to a recent study, the average American household dumps $1,900 worth of food every year. One of the main reasons behind food waste is the consumer’s confusion over “best by” and “use by” date labels on products. Specialists explain that these dates indicate when the product passes its peak freshness or quality, but not safety. Don’t just toss the package without looking closely at the food and smelling it—it may be perfectly fine to eat.

Don’t feed your dog beef or lamb. 

Another tip from Grunwald. Cows and sheep produce methane when they belch and fart. (The Natural Resources Defense Council calculated that each kilogram of beef produces 26.5 kilograms of carbon emissions.) Of course, the ideal scenario for the planet would include becoming vegetarian or at least stop eating red meat. Still, for those who are not ready for such radical measures, the expert recommends starting with changing the diet of their pets.
There is plenty of dog food based on chicken or turkey. And dogs adore meat-free treats, like peanut butter, cheese, or eggs.

Put pressure on policymakers. 

Don`t forget to reach out to those who have more resources to fight climate change: politicians on the local, state, and federal levels. Some users on Twitter shared that they started their Tuesday with contacting officials in regard to this issue. Instructions from the Natural Resources Defense Council can help you prepare to talk to your representative (or, more likely, their office). The good news is that due to COVID, communication has become even more accessible—constituents can join the videoconference instead of an in-person appointment. One of the issues you can ask legislators to vote for is mass transit, writes Kendra Pierre-Louis. She also suggests to advocate for other issues: “We need you to go to planning board meetings and push against development in places we know will burn/flood … and push for development in safer places”.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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