Hi friends! How are you doing today? I hope 2020 is treating you quite well. Today we are going to be chatting about how you can help fight climate change. I spent the bulk of the work week at the 2020 NCSE conference, gathering new information and skill sets, making new friends and connections, and seeing some climate pals from all over.
It was great to re-immerse myself in the climate space. I really truly want to make a difference in this world by helping in any way that I can! I left feeling inspired and polled my Insta fam to see what climate and environmental health science questions people had.
One question I got, which I thought was an excellent question, is “What are some things I can do to be effective to fight climate change?” So today’s post is all about how you – yes YOU – can be an effective advocate in the face of the climate change crisis, and help fight climate change and its impacts!
This list is long, but by no means exhaustive. In fact, I’m sure I’ll think of many things in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, and probably come back and edit this post.
And please do not feel overwhlemed by this list of ideas for how you can help fight climate change. You do not have to engage in all of the listed opportunities below. You can make one change, two changes, or several changes. All efforts are worthy of applause.
But I hope you find it useful. Even though it’s very easy to (understandably) feel overwhelmed by the climate crisis, please, when possible, do not give up hope. It’s important to work together to do whatever we can to combat climate change, which is what I consider to be the greatest threat to our planet and all of its inhabitants.
If you want to get an estimate of your carbon footprint, take a look at this resource from UC Berkeley.
1. Support policies that encourage effective climate change action and the politicians that support them.
But before we take a deeper dive into individual actions to take to reduce your impact on the environment, I want to emphasize that one of the most important and effective things you can do to fight climate change is to advocate for policies that protect and prioritize the environment, including environmental regulations and standards (for things like air and water quality and acceptable levels of pollution), conservation initiatives, mitigation projects (projects that help damage control what’s been done or is happening), decarbonization initiates, and polices that incentivize eco-friendly behaviors or consumerism. Compliance and enforcement polices (aka things that keep us accountable) are great too.
Effective, enforceable policies are one of the most effective ways to make sweeping, large-scale impacts to fight climate change. Which is why I always stress the importance of supporting policies and politicians who advocate for environmental health and climate change action.
Why are regulations and laws so important? Well, think about it. It’s super easy for businesses and individuals to slip up on occasion if they are not being held accountable. Have you ever skipped a ‘required reading’ for a class that didn’t ever check to make sure you did it? It’s a very easy thing to do, even for individuals and businesses that have the very best intentions. And for those with a disregard for climate change and the environment, lax regulations make it very easy to exploit the environment, which is something we can no longer afford.
So how can you do this, exactly?
Well, first of all, if you are in the US, you can track environmental protection laws right and the representatives introducing them with on this government website. You can also check to see how consistently different representatives from your area (and others) have voted in favor of environmental protection with this super neat “Environmental Scorecard” tool.
In addition to seeing how politicians have handled environmental protection policies in the past, you can also check the websites of politicians to see where they stand on environmental issues when deciding how to cast your vote in upcoming elections. If we want to take environmental action seriously, we must advocate for policies that will help us reach our goals.
But what about right now? Want to put pressure on politicians to take action right now? Well, you can.
- Use the websites Vote Smart and GovTrack to gather information on how to get in touch with members of Congress. Use the local district office as a main point of contact, as they prioritize constituent relations.
- Add your representative’s phone numbers to your phone. Consider calling them daily to express how important it is to you that they support policies that take climate change seriously. If you can site bills/laws that are upcoming and will be voted upon soon, that’s even better. Write out a script or talking points if you need to. Remember to always be kind and respectful while expressing your concerns. But be persistent. Consistently calling your representatives is something that is very easy to fall out of routine to engage in. But give it a try if you haven’t already. Public pressure can be effective.
- If possible, show up in person at town halls in your area. Speak up about climate change at these meetings. Physical presence, when possible, can be impactful. Check your local town hall schedule here.
- Consider using online tools to contact your representatives. NRDC has a tool to urge your governor to lead on climate action here. The Union of Concerned Scientists also has a tool to call on your senators to support policies that mitigate the climate crisis right here. You can even personalize the messages and specify how and why this is important to you.
Now, let’s see what other actions you can take as an individual to combat climate change.
2. Educate Yourself. Learn about climate change. But realize you don’t have to be an expert to be effective.
It’s important to be well-informed about the realities of climate change. Some great (free) introductory resources include the NASA Global Climate Change website, the UN’s Climate Change information page, NOAA’s Climate.gov website, NRDC’s website, and the WHO’s climate change page. I also have several blog posts under the “Climate and Health” section here on this page, and welcome topic suggestions at any time (pardon the self-promo).
While the information is important, don’t be overwhelmed or feel as though you have to be an expert to make a difference. You can be absolutely effective as a climate advocate even if you are not a climate scientist.
Climate change impacts all of us, so we must all come together to learn about its impacts and potential solutions, and work towards a greener future together. The more people on board to fight climate change, the better. More people = more pressure for policies that can make serious and impactful change.
3. Start conversations with others about climate change, and discuss how you can fight climate change together.
Engage with your community, and spread awareness about how climate change is already impacting our planet, and exchange ideas about how we can work together to combat climate change.
A super interesting 2019 survey conducted the Yale Program on Climate Communications found that Americans tend to underestimate the social consensus on climate change. It turns out 69% of Americans believe ‘global warming’ is happening, and that it is a problem, but only 54% of Americans believe other Americans feel the same way. It’s important we start connecting with others about climate change, exchanging our concerns and informing one another of effective ways to take action.
If you’re looking for resources on how to talk to climate skeptics effectively, consider your goal and your audience. Focus on empathy, shared values, shared struggles, common ground, and point out ways in which taking climate change seriously is vital to every living being on the planet.
Discussing ways in which climate change are meaningful to the audience and empower specific action (ie, exchanging ideas for how change can be made) can also be effective. For more information on talking to skeptics, check out this resource from Harvard School of Public Health or this scientific journal article.
4. Eat a more sustainable diet.
The global food system contributes 19-29% of the total human-created global greenhouse gas emissions, meaning the foods we eat can help us make a difference in the future of our planet. Sustainably eating has garnered much attention in the past few years, which is exciting because it’s a meaningful way for individuals and feeding entities to make an impact.
How can you eat more sustainably? Well, first you can start by decreasing your meat consumption. In particular, livestock agriculture foods (like lamb and beef) contribute an estimated 14.5% of all anthropometric greenhouse gas emissions, which is a significant amount. While some have said that grass-fed beef is better for the planet and its people, research shows it carries an even larger eco-footprint.
Dairy, another livestock entity, also emit a significant amount of greenhouse gasses; in fact, cheese has a larger carbon footprint than does chicken. Eating a more plant-based diet can help you reduce your eco-footprint. You do not have to go fully vegan to make a difference, so do not strive for perfection if you find that intimidating.
Reducing consumption of carbon and water-intensive animal products is one of the most impactful ways to reduce the eco footprint of your diet, and your life. A report in Science states that even the lowest-impact meat causes “much more” environmental impact than the least sustainable forms of plant-food production.
There are many other factors that contribute to the sustainability of various foods, including seasonality, transportation distance, storage conditions, cooking methods, and amounts wasted in production, etc. Scientists are still working on ways to measure all of the factors that go into determining the carbon and water footprints of many things.
But there are a few things you can do that are widely-accepted to improve the sustainability of your diet. I wrote an entire article on this subject called “Count Your Carbon, Count Your Calories Too” for Planet Forward, so if you’re interested in learning more, you can find the piece here.
In addition to reducing your meat and dairy consumption, try to purchase local and seasonal produce when possible (although this only contributes to about 11% of the total greenhouse gas produced by food). Aim to buy in bulk and avoid unnecessary packaging if possible. Compost food scraps (I plan to do a whole post about this soon as well, but for now, see this helpful composting resource) whenever you can.
And whenever possible, try your best not to waste food. I am planning a whole blog post on reducing food waste, so stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, try simple things like buying only what you’ll use, and freezing things you may not use right away.
Try to be a conscientious consumer when dining out of the home. Consider politely asking local cafes and food business you support to add composting and recycling initiatives to their businesses if they do not have them already. Express why this is important to you.
If you are hosting a meeting, party, event, or conference, consider serving primarily plant-based foods.
5. Switch to green energy in your home or apartment.
Many energy companies offer a renewable power option, such as wind or solar. Check your existing company to see if they offer such an option (I suggest checking their website). Often times, switching to renewable takes a simple phone call. There can be an additional charge or surcharge to make the switch to green energy, but the fee is usually small. That said, if you cannot afford the upcharge, do not feel guilty.
There are many other things you can do (and hopefully one day the eco-friendly choice will more often be the less expensive choice)! If your provider does not offer a renewable option, you can look into switching to a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) provider.
RECs are a lot to explain and aren’t the main focus of this post, so if you’d like to learn more about them, check out this EPA resource, and find a local REC provider in your area with this link. You can also check to see if there is a community solar option in your area using this resource from energy sage.
You can also change incandescent light bulbs to LEDs (light emitting diodes). LED light bulbs often do cost more, but they use about ¼ of the energy as incandescent light bulbs and last ~25 times longer. EnergyStar certified lightbulbs may use up to 90% less energy.
Avoid CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) bulbs when possible, because although they use up to 9 as they emit ~80% of their energy as heat and contain mercury. See this lightbulb energy purchasing guide for more information.
When purchasing new appliances and electronics, if possible and within your budget, try to look for EnergyStar options, which are certified to save energy.
And, obviously, aim to use less! Turn off lights and electronics when not in use. You know the drill.
6. When possible, travel and commute in more eco-friendly ways.
Take public transportation, use ridesharing apps, or consider walking or biking when possible/practical instead of driving independently. If you are able to afford a new vehicle and are interested in selecting a lower-emissions model, this tool can help you gauge the eco-friendliness of your vehicle.
When driving, try to reduce unnecessary accelerating/breaking, and carpool when possible. It’s worth noting that not all people have access to reliable public transportation and/or are able to afford purchasing an eco-friendly vehicle. If this is the case for you, recognize that you are doing your best and can make a difference in other ways.
When you travel for work or leisure, if the distance is short, train or bus travel is often a more carbon-friendly means of transportation. That said, it is not always possible or practical.
Many airlines or business now offer carbon offset purchasing to negate the carbon emissions created by air travel. While this sounds like a simple way to clear the conscious, if you are purchasing carbon offsets, it’s important to select a carbon offset project that does more than capture carbon, but rather actively initiates and engages in creating projects that promote carbon capture (for example, the installation of new wind power infrastructure, tree planting, etc) as an additional offset initiative in combination with the carbon capture/offset work already being done. This resource from NRDC gives some good advice on how to gauge whether or not a carbon offset is worthy of purchasing, or if its a scam.
7. Decrease single-use plastic and paper consumption.
We produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste ever year, which is roughly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Only about 9% of all plastic waste is recycled. 12% is incinerated and 79% ends up in landfills or dumps. Once in the environment, plastic waste can persist for centuries. We are facing a large single-use plastic problem, and taking swift action is important.
Over the past couple of years, there has been increasing attention on our world’s large production, consumption, and disposal of single-use plastic. Bans on plastic straws and bags have inspired hope. However, there is much work to be done. Some counties in the United States don’t even have recycling programs.
Holding local and federal governments, as well and industry responsible for upholding proper recycling infrastructure is important (see #1 for getting involved politically). Supporting businesses and policies that strive to shift our single use plastic consumption is also helpful.
On an individual level, you can use reusable shopping bags, pack reusable water bottles, coffle tumblers, and a set of utensils in your bag or backpack to have on hand at all times. When offered a plastic product you really don’t need, say “no thank you” (ie: plastic silverware at a business luncheon when you’ve brought your own). If possible, consider carrying around a glass or collapsible tupperware container with you.
This can help you reduce your need for plastic plate or to-go containers. Politely talk to your favorite local restaurants and shops about considering plastic alternatives in their establishments. If they don’t have recycling bins, ask if they’d consider adding them. And let the businesses that manufacture your favorite food and other products know how much you’d appreciate efforts they make or could make in reducing plastic packaging. Submitting feedback on their websites, or getting in contact with them via social media can be effective.
If you smoke, consider quitting. Cigarette butts are one of the largest sources of plastic pollution in the world. They also contain chemicals, which add an additional layer of harm to the environments they end up in, in addition to the plastic.
To reduce your paper consumption, try to replace paper towels with kitchen towels and paper napkins with cloth napkins. Change your bills to “paperless,” and purchase recycled paper and notebooks when you can. Recycle junk mail and used paper you no longer need.
8. Use less water.
In many parts of the developed world, water flows freely and at a low price. It’s very easy to forget that in some parts of the world, clean water (any water for that matter) is a scarce resource. Even in the US, some communities are facing water shortages, and projections show water shortages are likely to increase in the coming decades. It’s important to start considering our water consumption habits.
You can start to decrease your water consumption in relatively simple and intuitive ways. Taking shorter showers, turning off the water when brushing your teeth, avoiding letting the sink run when washing dishes, etc, are all actions you can start making today.
You can also strive to only do laundry when you really need to or run the dishwasher when it is truly full (rather than half full, etc). Outside the home, you can strive to create water-smart landscapes (see this EPA resource for ideas) and/or consider an in-ground irrigation system, if within your means. Maintain all water faucets and hoses to prevent leaks, which waste water.
When purchasing new appliances, if possible and within your budget, try to look for EnergyStar options, which are certified to save energy, and WaterSense labeled products, which have been verified for water efficiency and performance. Installing a low-flow showerhead can also help.
9. Simply, buy less stuff.
Love to shop? Consider buying less stuff. Practice integrating a simple “Stop before you shop” mindset: meaning, before you purchase a good, assess whether or not you actually need it. Why is this important? Because a lot of stuff ends up in landfills and/or incinerators, meaning more greenhouse gas emissions.
The uprising of ‘fast fashion’ (meaning cheaply priced and lower quality clothing) has lead to an increase in clothing consumption, which according to some assessments, contributes up to 2% of the global CO2 emissions (often because these garments travel long distances and quickly end up in the trash).
If you can, consider investing in pieces that will last a long time rather than purchasing a larger quantity of lower-quality clothing that will not last as long. Shopping second hand and/or repairing clothes that become damaged (rather than replacing them with new items) can also help.
E-waste is another large issue. E-waste refers to appliances and electronics that are discarded at the end of their useful lifecycles. An undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the US and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the proper capacity to safely dispose of these wastes, and often times, the e-waste gets disposed of in improper ways that harm both humans (most often children) and the planet due to their toxic outputs of heavy metals including lead, mercury, PVC plastic, flame retardants, cadmium, among others.
A 2012 EPA report found only 29% of e-waste was recycled. How can you help? Buy only electronic devices you really need. And when you are looking to dispose of old electronics, try to do so responsibly. Check with the device manufacturer to see if they have a trade-in or recycling program. You can also check out EcoATM, a kiosk company that recycles old phones in exchange for cash.
9. Try to remain hopeful, and to spread messages of hope and empowerment.
If you feel overwhelmed and disheartened about the environment, remind yourself of the progress that has been made and all of the individuals working to improve the state of our planet in the future. Plant Forward is an awesome organization that publishes student pieces on inspiring progress and innovations that help our world combat climate change, and surfing their site can be great for inspiring hope if you need a pick me up. Advocacy, whether it be in rallies, town halls, or in your own home, can also inspire hope in oneself and in others.
10. And if you’re really feelin’ it…
Consider getting more involved. If you have a professional degree (such as MD or JD), use your authority to advocate for change and educate others about climate change and its impacts.
At the NCSE conference, one thing that really struck me the most was hearing from young climate activist Xiye Bastida. She spoke about how she and her friends were applying to colleges in environmental studies, policy, etc, but that we can’t afford to wait for them to get their degrees.
She’s right. It made me really reflect on using what I’ve learned in my MPH in Environmental Health Science more effectively and forced me to consider how I can make a larger impact to fight climate change.
If you already have the privilege or knowledge and authority and feel empowered, I encourage you to use it. You can learn more about how to do so effectively in a couple of ways: become a science champion with the Union of Concerned Scientists or apply to the Climate Reality Leadership Corp.
If you are a student, consider studying the environment or related fields in some capacity. See if your school has an environmental focus or minor, or some extracurricular organizations that focus on climate change advocacy. Planet Forward is a great way for students explore climate communications and meet other students (personally, I’ve gained many skills, friends, and inspiration from being involved with their organization).
And, if you want to study environmental health science and public health specifically and want to hear about my experience, feel free to reach out to me on social media (links below) and I’d be happy to gush about my time at Mailman School of Public Health for hours and hours!
Take Home: How You Can Help Fight Climate Change
There are lots of things you can do the help fight climate change, and I hope you leave this post with some insight of effective ways to help fight climate change and its impacts.
From political action to changing how you get to work to making more informed purchases, I hope you feel empowered to live a more climate-friendly life. If you feel overwhlemed, start with a simple change or two, and integrate other actions into your life as it feels right.
Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive. I just wanted to share some actionable resources for those eager to start making change.
Please share this information about how to fight climate change with your family and friends, and feel free to reach out to me with comments or questions at any time in the comments below, and/or Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. Have a great day!
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