For many, the enormity of climate change can produce a sort of paralysis: What can I possibly do to make a difference?
My answer is: plenty! Every little bit helps, and you never know how many others you might inspire through your own actions. Doing something — anything — also has a way of producing an essential frame shift. You’ll find yourself moving from deflection or depression or denial of the problem to a feeling of positive engagement. Moreover, because climate change arises from so many different kinds of human activity, it means that any one individual can tailor a meaningful plan that still aligns with their own priorities and needs.
To see how, let’s start with a quick look at the major drivers of a changing climate. Most attention tends to fall on our sources of electricity and heat, and for good reason — think of Katowice’s coal-laden air — yet while a critically important piece of the pie, this sector accounts for only one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The combination of modern agriculture and forestry practices is just as large. Transportation checks in at about 15 percent of the global total, while a host of industrial and manufacturing activities— cement, steel, various types of manufacturing — produces about 20 percent. Inefficiencies in our residential and commercial buildings add a good chunk to the total, as do those in our food systems. For the latter, nearly a third of the food we produce never hits our plates, and that waste stream creates about 8 percent of the global greenhouse gas burden.
Look a bit more under the hood of any of these major sectors, and you start to see how, as individuals, we connect to them all. From the food we choose to eat, to the types and volume of products we buy, to the places we choose to live, to the ways in which we travel, it all matters.
For some, the best way to lessen a personal greenhouse gas footprint may be to fly less, as a single round-trip across the U.S. equates to about one-fifth of a full year’s emissions from an average car. For others, perhaps it’s cutting back on meat consumption; worldwide, beef, pork, and chicken production sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than do all forms of transportation. Choosing a fuel-efficient (or better yet, electric) vehicle helps, as does employing a range of strategies to improve the energy efficiency of your home — many of which are relatively cheap.
Not everyone can do all of these — some may have to fly more than they desire for personal or professional reasons, while others cannot afford a more efficient vehicle or home. But everyone can do something, and rarely does it mean putting a true dent in what matters most in our lives.
Finally, we can all make choices that matter in who we support — in our philanthropy for those with means, and at the voting booth for us all. Panic will do no good, but we must act with urgency and intention to create a future our children and theirs deserve. Part of that means electing leaders who will take climate change seriously and realize that its solutions are not only essential to a sustainable human society, they can go hand in hand with economic opportunity. So too can they address essential issues of social justice and equity. As an example, empowering and educating women and girls, along with support for better family planning, are two of the most effective ways to slow a changing climate.
What you do matters. What we all do matters. The greatest barrier to slowing climate change is not a lack of technical know-how, it’s human will. One by one, we can tear that barrier down.