As the climate crisis intensifies, scientists and experts agree that systemic change is critical. But while individual efforts alone aren’t enough to reverse global heating, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. We asked several climate scientists and advocates about individual actions that can make a difference.
What’s one thing you do in your day-to-day life to combat the climate crisis?
Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist: I have transitioned over 80% of the talks I give to virtual online events (100% these days!), and when I do travel, I bundle my requests and commitments such that I am doing anywhere from 4-5 to as many as 15-25 events in each location that I fly to, in order to minimize the carbon footprint of each individual event.
Adrienne Hollis, climate justice and health scientist: I am being mindful about the water shortage. I like to plant around my deck, and I use my rain barrel to water my plants. It’s a small thing, and it’s a big thing. I get up at about 6 to water my plants, and I grow my herbs and peppers. It makes me feel like I am making a difference. And feeling like you’re making a difference is important. It’s finding your way of contributing. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the fight.
Sonia Aggarwal, energy policy expert: I recently found a great deal on a gently used electric car, and I have been loving it for those essential trips when I can’t walk, bike, or use public transit. One thing I didn’t expect: this electric car is the most fun to drive! It’s peppy and quiet and it just feels so good to breeze right past the gas station without a second thought.
Michael Mann, climatologist: I speak out about the climate crisis, and the importance of taking action, using every medium, vehicle, forum or platform that is available to me.
What can I do in my personal life to address the climate crisis?
Catherine Flowers, environmental justice leader: Use less plastic or no plastic, recycle, eat less meat, reduce our own carbon footprint, build better – there are lots of things we can do. Don’t buy unsustainable products, choose something else. That’s the quickest way to get people to change is to make another choice, then of course the market will adjust.
Aggarwal: Home energy use is responsible for 20% of US greenhouse gas emissions, between the electricity we use and the fuels we burn on site. There are some cool new technologies out there that can support the same or better service at home, while reducing energy use and emissions.Those include super-efficient heat pumps and new induction stoves that are safer than gas and offer the same or better temperature control. Many utilities and states offer rebates for appliances like these.
Klaus Jacob, geophysicist: It’s fine to put solar panels on our roofs and take only a 3-minute shower instead of a 10-minute shower. But what is really needed is that the individuals participate and communicate in neighborhood actions where you have the best chance to make a difference.
l live in a small village on the Hudson river. As sea level rises, so does the Hudson. Over the last two decades, I have made sure that our village is one of the most aware that it is losing a good portion of its housing before the year 2050. We already have flooding on our streets.
What one thing would you like to see happen politically to make progress? And what is the most important political action individuals can take?
Flowers: Vote – that’s the most basic thing.
Mann: Reducing your carbon footprint via climate-friendlier lifestyle choices is certainly important. It sets a good example for others and can help make a dent in the problem. But the most important thing you can do is demand policy action and systematic change. Individuals can’t provide subsidies for clean energy or put a price on carbon, but governments can.
We need politicians who will support climate-friendly policies. And we need to get rid of those who won’t. Voting is one critical way to do that, and if you live in the US, it’s absolutely critical that you vote on climate in the upcoming general election – from president all the way down to dogcatcher.
Hollis: We need to be more proactive in conversing with our elected officials about renewable energy and the climate crisis. We also need to recognize the importance of our votes. Really ask yourself, “Who cares about me and the planet?” That doesn’t cost you anything, and it’s worth a little time especially if you don’t have money. You have your voice.
Hayhoe: The US needs a national plan to cut carbon across the economy. In my opinion, that plan needs bipartisan support, to ensure it doesn’t just turn into a hot potato as administrations change. And it must address the injustices and inequities inherent to fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts.
Aggarwal: I have been heartened to see increased alignment on the essential policies and actions we need to reduce carbon across the economy, and support good, family-sustaining jobs in the process. The most important political action we can each take is to get out and support local, state, and federal leaders who will prioritize clean energy action – by voting and campaigning for these folks.
Another often overlooked political opportunity lies with your Public Utilities Commission (PUC), a body that oversees electricity choices in each state. Each state PUC is led by just three to seven individuals – meaning only about 200 people preside over some of the most important questions facing America’s clean energy transition. Check out a PUC hearing and make your voice heard.
Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University
Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist, the Union of Concerned Scientists
Sonia Aggarwal, vice president, Energy Innovation
Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center, Pennsylvania State University
Catherine Flowers, founder, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice
Klaus Jacob, special research scientist, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory