Five Steps You Can Take to Jump-Start Action on Climate Change

Michael Gunter, Jr.

Climate change. That’s a polarizing phrase in America, one that too often shuts down discussion before it ever begins. Heck, former Florida governor and now sitting U.S. Senator Rick Scott banned state officials from even using the term during his gubernatorial tenure. He did this even as our planet is warming an astounding ten times faster than at any other period in the last 66 million years, with anthropogenic greenhouse gases the primary culprit.

In my lifetime alone, our emissions have changed the very chemistry of our atmosphere to create a new epoch, what Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen and his marine science collaborator Eugene F. Stoermer label the Anthropocene. And yet, climate change mitigation efforts in the United States remain stalled, decade after decade, because we have failed to build a bipartisan political base that demands action. With Earth Day right around the corner, here are five ways you can help change that:

1. Talk about climate change.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says this is the single most important step individuals can take. Talk about climate change with friends and family as well as decision makers in your community, from school administrators to office managers, from those who oversee the restaurants, gyms, theaters, and places of worship you frequent to fellow attendees at dog parks and youth soccer practices. Our climate problem is economic and technical. And it’s cultural and political. It is critical for conservatives and liberals to find a common interest here, and that can only happen if folks sit down and speak respectfully with one another about their shared values.

2. Travel to someplace where you don’t need a car.

It could be a transformative experience that inspires you to reduce dependency on a key culprit of greenhouse gas emissions, the personal automobile. Based on age-old arguments from philosophers Jean-Jacques Rosseau and John Dewey as well as travel writers Mark Twain and Rick Steves, travel helps us better understand not only places farther afield but also the homes from which we come. It brings our own strengths into sharper focus—and it inspires creative ideas to address our weaknesses. Of course, if not done conscientiously, travel exacerbates our carbon problem. Where and how you travel matters, but most importantly, how you adjust your daily life afterward determines whether the benefits outweigh the harms. As esteemed environmental activist and author Bill McKibben asserts, we must make our travel count.

3. Upon returning home, advocate for more choices in how you live your daily life, namely choices with less of a carbon footprint.

Too often our options are limited back home. Many of our communities do not have viable public transit. Residential neighborhoods are typically isolated from commercial districts, making walking or biking between the two difficult, if not impossible. It does not have to be that way. Push for changes to be made in your community, from the transportation to energy sectors. Start by talking with others, but then magnify your voice by linking with those with similar interests. Join a solar co-op. Connect with an environmental group like Earthwatch or Citizens’ Climate Lobby. You’ll soon realize many more people out there are eager to effect change too.

4. Use your wallet to make change.

Buy green not only in terms of items like homes, appliances, and cars (when necessary) but also in terms of how often you pay for the energy to warm, cool, and simply use them. After all, there are many shades of green. One that always shapes how I live, and I’m guessing how you live too, comes in the form of the U.S. dollar. Using less energy for your housing and transportation needs will pay immediate dividends. And this comes with an added bonus of future dividends to your children and grandchildren, who otherwise will be forced to pay the carbon-caused debts we are accumulating.

5. Live with less, especially less plastic.

How and what we consume matters. Targeting your diet deserves attention: eating local, consuming less meat, and reducing alarming rates of food waste. Transportation (highlighted above), driving less and biking and walking more, is another area to focus on. Arguably the most simple, immediate impact, though, might be made by avoiding plastic, particularly single-use plastic, as well as plastic bags and bottles whenever possible. After all, plastic, which most Americans don’t even know is made from oil, accounts for 10 percent of all fossil fuel burned on the planet. To package water alone, the United States uses 17 million barrels of oil. With the energy required to refrigerate and transport the bottles, our bottled water industry consumes up to 50 million barrels of oil per year.

In closing, we need to get our act together when it comes to climate change. That starts with you. Individual actions are admittedly small steps—but small steps can add up to large results. Take those first strides now as we approach Earth Day, and every day forward, as those are earth days too.

Michael M. Gunter, Jr. is a Cornell Distinguished Faculty Member and Arthur Vining Davis Fellow at Rollins College. He is the author of Climate Travels: How Ecotourism Changes Mindsets and Motivates Action.

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