8 Meaningful Things You Can Start Doing for the Climate… Today
Should we do nothing or should we do something?
There’s a lot we can ask ourselves about climate change, but in the end, this is the question that really matters in the immediate experience of living our lives. Should we put our very own shoulders to the wheel before us, grinding out, through our own efforts, a transformation of our culture, our economy and, really, life as we know it, or should we lie down before this rising sea of troubles, accept the futility of opposing them, and hope that we somehow survive in what is rapidly becoming a less and less livable world?
I started asking this question because I had become fixated on an essential disconnect that keeps many of us on the sidelines of climate action. On the one hand, awareness of the problem has risen markedly in the last few years and many more Americans want to do something to fix it. On the other hand, most scientists and policy makers have correctly identified the crisis as far bigger than the scope of what one person can do. Both perspectives are valid. But when they collide, the psychological effect on the average citizen is paralysis. “Where is my place in all this?” a person confronted with this dilemma wonders. “What can I possibly do that is meaningful?”
This paralysis is particularly evident here in the United States. For when you dive down into the numbers, America stands out starkly as a place that is profoundly stuck. Presently the United States is, per capita, by far the most prodigious emitter of carbon dioxide among the world’s leading economic powers, with a carbon footprint of around 16 metric tons of CO2 per person per year.
The UN suggests a global target for per capita emissions of a little over 3 tons. India at 1.8 tons of CO2 per person is already there. One could argue that this is only the case because India lacks the industrial infrastructure of more developed nations. But many economic powerhouses show that advanced development and low emissions are not incompatible. France, the UK, and Italy all have per capita emissions around a third of what the United States puts into the atmosphere. China handily bests us as well. Two citizens of the People’s Republic emit less CO2 than a single American.
There is no way to avoid it: the world desperately needs America to go on a climate diet.
But here’s the problem. Most diets fail. They fail mostly because after a period of bingeing we set unrealistic goals for reforming our bad ways. In time, self-control breaks down and we hunger to throw open the cupboards and binge again.
Still, some diets do work. Those successful diets tend to be modest in their goals, incorporating small changes over long periods of time. That we need to transform the very roots of the American economy is without doubt and something that must be fought for intensely. But not every well-meaning American will engage in a protracted political struggle. Not all of us are Dr. Seuss’s raging Loraxes, who “speak for the trees.” While we might not want to admit it, most of us are go-about-our-business Seussian Whos.
Fortunately, there are smaller, maintainable changes that would allow American Whos to go from carbon obese to just a little bit carbon overweight. And, in the end, the transformation of that sizeable carbon-obese American middle to a modest paunch would do more for reducing total global emissions than if a hyper-virtuous 2 percent came to subsist on lentils and solar panels.
To shrink that middle, we need to find climate actions that can be taken up by both coasts and the heartland.
For the last year, I’ve been interviewing experts in a wide variety of fields, asking them for a list of exactly those kinds of actions. There are too many to include in this short excerpt. But to kick things off on Earth Day I wanted to share a handful that might reach beyond the usual echo chamber. Some you might find too timid. Others might seem counter-intuitive. But we can’t afford to treat climate change as a partisan issue any more. With an eye toward getting the greatest amount of Americans on a Climate Diet here is something of a beginning.
If you don’t go vegan, stick with chicken…
Much has been made about the climate benefits of going vegan. If we switched to a vegan diet, we could cut our carbon dioxide emissions by 0.3 to 1.6 metric tons per person per year. I have largely made this change, but I doubt I could persuade a large portion of the country to choose pea protein over pot roast even when packaged as Beyond or Impossible meat. For the legume-averse, chicken is relatively low impact. According to a study published by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, beef can require more than 27 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of meat eaten (much, much more if you compare foods based on protein content per unit of weight). A kilo of chicken, however, costs the planet about 6.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide. True, it’s not tofu (2.0) or lentils (0.9), but most red-blooded Americans know how to cook it.
In the end, the transformation of the carbon-obese American middle to a modest paunch would do more for reducing total global emissions than if a hyper-virtuous 2 percent came to subsist on lentils and solar panels.
… Or fish
Though there are major problems with the global fishing and aquaculture industries as documented most recently in the film Seaspiracy, fish and shellfish can make for surprisingly carbon-dioxide-light meals. Not everything from the sea shrinks one’s emissions waistline. America’s favorite seafood, shrimp, can far exceed chicken and even rival pork. At the same time, a kilogram of most American-caught finfish, like the Alaska pollock, used for McDonald’s fish sandwich, comes in at a tofu-besting 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. And depending on how you adjust for nutrient content, some varieties of farmed mussels can cost us just 0.6 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of mussel meat. Take that, lentil.
Do nothing… only better
Many fret about actually having to do something to address the climate crisis when they already are flummoxed by managing their daily schedules. But doing nothing better can add up to something. A 2018 study in the journal Nature notes that tourism accounts for about 8 percentof global greenhouse gas emissions. Just one long-haul flight emits around a half-ton of carbon per person or a full ton of greenhouse effect if one considers other gases a jet puts into the upper atmosphere. Business and first-class air travel generates three to four tons of carbon per long-haul flight because of the extra space those fancier seats take up. So doing nothing at home for your next vacation is an easy choice. Other better nothings include turning off your car rather than letting the engine idle, which accounts for about 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States a year.
Shut down your tech at night
Similarly when your appliances do nothing, they are often still burning fossil fuels. Standby power accounts for 4.6 percent of residential carbon emissions. Address this by turning off your internet router at night, shutting down your computer, unplugging your cellphone when it’s fully charged and choosing appliances that have low standby power requirements. To go beyond saving standby power, Karl Coplan, the author of “Live Sustainably Now,” suggests “depriving fossil fuel companies of their sales revenues by switching to a renewable-electricity contract and upgrading to an electric car the next chance you get.”
Drink from the tap
What could be lazier than shuffling to your own sink and pouring yourself a glass of water? And yet nowadays we often replace this most low-effort of American habits with driving to a store and buying a plastic bottle of water. This can end up costing us significantly more in carbon dioxide emissions than drinking water from the tap, according to one 2009 Italian scientific analysis.
Ditch the car one day a week
Collectively Americans drive more than three trillion miles annually. (Over 10 years that would take us all the way to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.) That comes out to about 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per vehicle a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Transportation is the largest single contributor to American CO2 emissions, the agency says. So skipping a day of driving each week would significantly decrease an individual’s contribution to emissions.
Donate to a carbon-sequestering program
A smartphone does not carry a huge carbon burden. Apple reports that a single iPhone 11 results in the emission of about 70 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions over its life cycle. But if you donated the several hundred dollars you typically spent on a phone upgrade to a program managing a carbon-sequestering ecosystem, you could shave a much greater portion of carbon from your budget. For the best possible carbon sequester, think mangrove. Mangrove forests are one of the world’s most powerful carbon sinks; those in the Amazon store twice as much carbon per acre as the region’s rain forests.
Make a personal divestment from fossil fuels
All of us are implicated in the carbon economy through our daily financial transactions. The headline of a recent New Yorker essay by the climate activist Bill McKibben read, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” How to address this? “Switching to a fossil-free index fund is a no-brainer: Among other things they’re outperforming the market,” Mr. McKibben wrote me recently. For those who don’t invest but do own a credit card and a bank account, Mr. McKibben suggested going a step further. “cut up your Chase card or move your money to a new bank — JPMorgan Chase has become by far the largest funder of the fossil fuel industry.”
Here lies the truly profound global effect of the carbon-obese American economy, according to data compiled in a recently released “fossil fuel finance report card” by a group of environmental organizations. Four of the world’s five largest institutional investors in fossil fuels are banks headquartered here in the U.S.A.
This essay was adapted from The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint, now out from Penguin Press.