What on earth do we do about climate change now?
Last year, in my Notes from the Director, I reported the consensus view that in order to keep global warming to 2° centigrade, we would need “committed effort from government at every level, from corporations and organizations of every stripe, and from each one of as we go about our daily lives.” That was before the November presidential election. Well, while our current president is in office, it is apparent that we can forget about committed effort from the federal government, at least committed effort to slow climate change. The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is just one anti-environmental step among many. We have to expect not just indifference but actual hostility to environmental preservation, even to maintaining the data that allow us to monitor the state of the environment. (Those might be the unkindest cuts of all.) We therefore need to re-double our own individual commitments and our efforts at the local and state level.
This past year the college devoted itself to an intellectual examination of the theme, “Confronting Climate Change,” bringing to the campus world-renowned speakers from every discipline and walk of life to talk about climate change: environmental leaders, geoscientists, legal scholars, chemists, environmental justice activists, sustainable-business investors, eco-critics, economists, ethicists, philanthropists, philosophers, writers, and more. They described the changes to the earth’s climate that have already occurred and possible trajectories or future changes, explained why it is so hard to motivate individuals and governments to address climate change, and forcefully communicated the disastrous consequences of failing to rein in CO2 emissions. I took the opportunity to ask them all what they themselves were doing in response to the threat of climate change and what they felt others should do. I list a few of my gleanings below.
Know that you are not alone. I’m sure that as you read the latest environmental news you veer between anger, frustration, pessimism—very occasionally optimism—and resolve. So do the people who devote their professional and personal lives to the environmental challenge of our generation.
There are things that we can do that can make a difference. Voting is one of them. We can organize and we can vote. When it comes to voting, keep in mind that the lesser of two evils is less evil; the perfect is the enemy of the good—anyone who believed that there was no difference between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump has surely been disabused of that illusion by now. Get involved at the local level, where zoning can make or break renewable energy initiatives. Get involved at the state level too. State subsidies for solar power and wind power make a huge difference; so do utility regulations that affect the net metering rates and the barriers to community solar projects. So do state level decisions that set the boundaries of congressional districts. Call and write to your representatives in Congress and the Senate; attend their meetings with constituents. Speak up.
We can vote with our dollars as well. Consume more mindfully; it is a canard to say that nothing we can do as individuals can make a difference. Recognize that we can’t “delegitimize” the fossil fuel industry if we continue to demand its products at an undiminished rate. Cut down on air travel. Buy an electric or hybrid electric vehicle. Install solar panels. Replace any remaining incandescent
bulbs. Avoid wasting water (astonishingly, approximately 25% of California’s energy consumption is used to transport and treat water). Eat less meat. Buy less stuff.
Donate funds to environmental organizations that are effective at the local, state, national and international level. There are great organizations that deploy the legal system on behalf of the environment, and while we may not be able to stop all of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental initiatives, it may make a huge difference if we can slow them down. There are other kinds of environmental organizations devoted to private protection of critical ecosystems and afforestation programs; today, this may be more important than ever.
If you have money to invest, invest it in ways that increase the resources going to environmentally positive initiatives. Do it thoughtfully. Remember that buying shares of stock of publicly traded green companies does not deliver any money to those companies. Instead, invest your money in funds that get money to startups or that are themselves undertaking alternative energy projects.
Measure your carbon footprint. There are personal carbon calculators on the websites of The Nature Conservancy, TerraPass, the EPA (at least for now), and elsewhere. If you can afford it, try to compensate for your carbon footprint by buying carbon offsets. If you don’t travel too much by air, it would probably cost you about $300-$500 per person per year to purchase legitimate offsets to make up for your own CO2 emissions. Even if you can’t afford to fully offset your carbon footprint, just regularly calculating your carbon footprint—and what contributes most heavily to it—can help you to make better consumption decisions. Buy offsets as presents for family and friends.
Donate your skills. Are you a lawyer? A chemist? A public relations expert? A writer? An economist? An engineer? A banker? The organizations fighting to save the environment need all these kinds of expertise and more.
Get arrested. Seriously, Bill McKibben said that getting arrested at an environmental demonstration should be on every person’s bucket list. Especially senior citizens. (It isn’t going to affect your career prospects!) And, he says, you get to meet some great people.
Confront climate change.
Chair, Environmental Studies
& Professor of Economics