In the Face of Climate Change, What can One Person Even Do?

by - Thursday, October 11, 2018

Are you freaking out about climate change? I'm freaking out!

This week has been a rough week. We heard from the IPCC that our planet is facing Climate Change at a level that we did not even expect, and we need to have drastic changes completed by 2030 to save our world from catastrophic devastation. Not exactly light reading, and especially soul-shaking because 12 years is not a long time. This is short. This is now. We are on the brink of something truly terrible for the Earth and for our children.

At the same time, yet another huge hurricane devastated the Panhandle. Fueled by especially warm gulf water (from the impact of Climate Change), Hurricane Michael absolutely destroyed the area, and as of right now, 700,000+ people are without power.

How do you cope with this level of terrible news? How can you even begin to process?

Some people straight out reject it. Some people panic. I personally have taken to watching Judge Judy late at night while reading Buzzfeed articles because I just can't sleep with the buzzing of my own brain.

Another response I have noticed is people in public spaces cajoling others to finally get their shit together, give up meat, take public transit, and more. Very often, this is where the conversation starts (if we all stopped eating meat... if we all went zero-waste...). Like climate change wouldn't even be a thing if Sally over there would stop eating McDonald's.

I get that desire. This whole blog is the product of my deep desire for everyone to do a little better. At the same time, we can't solve the problem if we aren't honest with ourselves about what the problem really is.

The truth is 71% of the gases being produced are from the same 100 companies. And the top 10% of wealth is creating like 90% of the carbon emissions. When you look at the companies, it is clear they are doing this by selling fossil fuels (both in terms of automobiles and energy) to all of us. Not just to individuals, but companies that need shipping and power. These companies are the root of the problem, but it branches out from there, only becoming more complicated the longer you look.

How can we stop these people and companies from destroying our planet? What does that even look like? How can we learn from cultures that have already been fighting this battle?

The (half helpful, half terrifying) truth is that this is a big complex problem that we all played a part in making (some of us much more than others), so the solution is likely also complex.

This means that you could do everything perfectly right, and that won't be enough. You as an individual cannot do this.

Everyone could adopt one solution wholeheartedly, we could all become vegans, and it probably wouldn't be enough. One solution cannot fix this. (Actually, doing away with fossil fuels for energy could probably do this, but even that will take a large number of political actions to actually happen).

The bright side of this report is that we can see this as an opportunity. 

An opportunity to push our leaders to make the changes they should have long ago. An opportunity to connect with other people who care as much as we do. An opportunity to back up what we say with what we do. Any effort we make couldn't possibly make things worse, right?

We each can do a lot, but it may not be how you expect. This problem is so huge, and we are so small, but we have things to contribute. Let's do this.

1. Vote (Be as Active a Political Citizen as you Can)

If you live in the US, the most important thing you can do for the environment in the next month is vote. Vote. No seriously, vote. We know that curbing Climate Change is deeply dependent on a government who is willing to stand up to corporations (especially fossil fuel companies) for the greater good of the planet. We know that in the US, we do not have this now.

A few days ago, when the IPCC published the report, the president treated it with disdain, saying he wanted to see who was "drawing" it. No concern, only an immediate instinct to discredit it. This is very consistent with this administration; though they have not succeeded in many of their campaign promises, their big moments of bluster and nonsense have consistently hidden another huge success for corporations. The EPA has overturned regulations left and right, making it legal to pollute our waters (with mercury, coal runoff and more), they are allowing more radiation (because everybody loves getting cancer!), shrinking nationally protected land (to sell to oil companies), and are even trying to bring asbestos back? All the while, pollution targets vulnerable populations first and those who have been fighting this battle the longest, especially Native Americans, are being disenfranchised. Seriously, what the hell.

I 100% believe you can be a Republican and an environmentalist, but I don't see that at play right now on the national scale. That doesn't mean it isn't going on in local elections where you are.

If you care about the planet surviving, you need to vote for initiatives and leaders who will stand up for the environment and green energy. If you don't feel like your representatives are doing this enough, you need to call them. Like on the phone. Use a resource like 5 calls to learn the numbers of the people representing you, and call them. They want to be re-elected, and if they start getting enough calls to see this matters to their constituents, they will shift their own priorities. Write politicians and tell them what you think of their stance on environmental issues.

Fossil fuel companies (the primary culprits of cliimate change) have so so so much money on their side. We have to have a stronger voice than they have money. That's the challenge, and it is a big one. Vote, and get vocal.

2.  Join Environmental Groups

Because fossil fuel companies do have so many resources at their disposal, it is pivotal that the people organize to pull bigger funds, smarter minds, and louder voices than these companies. There are many organizations working on national and local levels to find climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and plastic waste.

Join them. Try going to a meeting. When they are having an event, go. Adding your voice to an already existing chorus makes it stronger, and you can learn from the many activists who have been fighting this fight for a long time. Your new investment will give them energy and encouragement as well.

You don't have to be a Greenpeacer hanging off of a bridge to do good. There are so many parts to play, and you have something to offer. Plus, nothing will make you feel better. One of the worst things about all of this is the feeling of helplessness, but you are not helpless! This is a way to DO something.

So, what organizations should you join? Here are some broad ones for everyone, but be sure to do some research on groups near you that are doing work:

350- This beloved (by me at least) global grassroot movement's name stands for the uppermost safe level of CO2 in the air (we have surpassed it at 400).

The Arbor Day Foundation- This group plants trees around the country and promotes the planting of trees by individuals.

The Audobon Society- Fighting for bird species and their habitats.

Greenpeace- Yeah, you have heard of it. This organization is all about political activism, stepping up to fight injustice where it is happening and lobbying to protect the environment, fight big oil, and step up against injustice. 

The National Wildlife Federation- This group aims to protect American wildlife, maintaining biodiversity on our continent.

Natural Resources Defense Council- This coalition between lawyers, scientists, and members has created and continues to fight for vital legislation for clean air, clean water, and the protection of our natural world. Vitally important at this moment in history.

The Nature Conservancy- This organization is conserving a huge number of vital, yet at risk parts of our natural world.

Sierra Club- A huge grassroots organization that fights on many fronts to protect the environment, focusing on pipelines and the banks that fund them.

The Story of Stuff- This book and film transformed into a movement. They fight on multiple fronts, focusing on packaging and overconsumption, but you might also be interested in their fight against water privatization.

World Wildlife Fund- This organization protects animals- especially the most vulnerable.

It doesn't even have to be huge- you could join up with a local groups out to plant trees (and we need as many trees as we can get). Just get started. 

Even if you are not in a season of your life where you can attend meetings or protests, you can still join all of these groups online and be available to help when they need signatures or phone calls. There are so many parts to play, and that can be intimidating, but look at it like you have lots of possibilities so you can tap into something that you can really do.

3. Change How You Participate in Consumer Culture

It's true; changing our purchases cannot solely solve climate change. But it can do all sorts of good. Here's why:

1. Every purchase sends a message to companies, marketers, etc. on what the public is willing to put up with. You can scream "I am against plastic waste" all day long, but if you buy a pack of disposable water bottles every week, that says more. They hear the message of your money.

2. What you do should line up with what you think. We can pride ourselves on being kind or caring for the environment, but if we ignore the mistreatment of our "Made in Poverty" cheap clothes, or continue to waste and pollute by shipping all of our stuff around the world, we undermine ourselves. Voting and speaking up is important, but we have to practice what we preach.

3. It adds up. In college, I worked summers as a waitress at a King's Family Restaurant. I made my money a dollar or two at a time, one truck driver or Amish family at a time. I am so grateful for this, because it really showed me that small things add up if you keep at it. Especially on the issue of waste, you absolutely can make a profound difference by quitting your most wasteful habits.

Every purchase we have is a vote, and even if we can't totally solve the problem with those votes, if we keep at it, those votes together can have quite a voice. This is what this blog is all about, and you can find greener options for most anything you would ever buy here, but I will throw out some basic tips that will do worlds of good.

1. Just Buy Less. Ask yourself if you want this brand new thing more than you want to avoid the catastrophes of climate change. There aren't that many things that can pass that test.

2. Join Buy Nothing and Freecycle Groups. You can shift your whole paradigm by joining into the Buy Nothing Project, gifting the things you don't need and being gifted things you do. Way less waste, way less shipping, and it shifts your relationship to your stuff.

3. Buy WAY Less Meat. The production of meat (especially red meat) and animal products creates a lot of greenhouse gases (go research cows and methane), overwhelms the land with waste (seriously toxic shiz), and uses up a lot of natural resources like water and food. You can read more about this here. It's dramatic enough that everyone giving up beef alone could significantly curb emissions. Need help making meatless meals? Oh I have got you covered.

4. Shop Secondhand. Brand new items tend to be shipped much further and in more plastic packaging. Shopping secondhand keeps things out of landfills and minimizes our use of resources. If your secondhand stores are junky and you want to try online, I have this resource for you.

5. Skip Plastic. Plastic's connection to climate change is still understated, but it is made of petrochemicals, keeps other things from breaking down properly, and is leeching all sorts of terrible chemicals into our water and food. In a generation, our children will be shocked we let it anywhere near our bodies and food. Anywhere you can avoid plastic, do so- here is a list to get you started.

6. Keep an Eye on your Food Waste. Also contributing to climate change? Food waste, which is one of our largest problems globally (we throw away 40% of what is grown- how dumb is that?). First, if you switch to composting in your own home and only buy what you need, you can stop some of this in it's tracks. Secondly, eat out at places you know are making responsible choices for the environment and avoid big chains.

7. Buy Local. Your stuff has traveled way further than you have. The materials travel from one place, to another to be manufactured, to another to be distributed, then finally to the store you bought it from. It's true of your food too! On average, most food products travel thousands of miles from its source to your plate. Thousands. That's a lot of fossil fuels needlessly going to waste. Stop buying things that weren't made in the country you live in (it's not impossible when you pair that with shopping secondhand). Join your local co-op.

8. Buy Recycled. Avoid plastic, and for paper, get it recycled. We are in desperate need for more trees. so we shouldn't really be wasting them on your minor spills, sniffly colds, and toilet times. There are easy, affordable replacements out there, some are reusable and many are recycled. You can do this. Really. Check out this list.

When a company you love can't help you live up to this standard, tell them so. Make it a habit to yelp restaurants that are wasting tons of food or plastic. Write Target to ask why the heck they still use plastic bags. Ask your favorite spot to offer some vegetarian options. Again, the key is to get vocal.

4. Look at your Green Energy and Travel Options

If you are looking at the impact of your life, two of the key issues would be where you get your energy fro and how you travel. Sometimes you have control over this, sometimes you don't, but you won't know until you take an hour or two and do the research.

Check websites for your city about whether any green opt-in programs have begun. If not, start calling and annoying people to ask why. You can also look into solar or wind energy for your home if that is something you can afford. Just take that minute to look, because you might be surprised. I also know some cities will do energy audits to help you understand where you are wasting the most energy in your home. We had one done here in Seattle, and it was super interesting and helpful. Look. Research. Ask questions of the officials where you live.

Similarly, we kind of all assume if you want to travel a significant distance, you are going to fly. Flying tends to have a dramatic impact on your footprint (we have done some carbon footprint calculators, and we generally do great until we put our flights in... at which point we fail). So we are trying to fly less, and consider other travel options.  The greenest travel option we have right now is to travel by train.

Maybe as you consider trips for the next few years, you could do a cross country train adventure instead of flying. Or take half as many trips next year. You could also buy carbon offsets every time you do travel.

Equally important is reconsidering your options for your daily commute. Could you carpool? Or take the bus? Could you walk or bike? Could you ask your employer about doing a shuttle? So many of these are great options, and what works best really depends on your ability and location. We live in a city of bikers, but continue to mostly be walkers ourselves. My goal is to only drive two days a week.  Our routine travel is another space where we can take a little chip out of our carbon use everyday (and that adds up).

5. Have the Babies You Want (and No More)

Another narrative we hear a lot is that the best way for an individual to minimize their footprint is to not have children. We hear anxiety about overpopulation and its effects. This is, again, only half the truth, because the most wealthy 10% of the world's population creates about 80% of the emissions. You can read more about this here. So no one who wants a child should feel like they are dooming the world to ruin by spawning.

That said, we know that only having the children you want to have will have a positive environmental impact. We also know that about a third of pregnancies are unplanned and even unwanted. So, if you are a person who has potentially reproductive sex, you should use protection. Get on the pill. Get a vasectomy. Whatever you can do to not have kids when you do not want kids is a positive and important step.

And no matter what kind of sex you are having, have safe sex. It's really important. If you want to learn more about things you can do to treat your private business in a more eco-conscious way, check out this post.

6. Be THAT Person. Actually Talk About It. 

I think it can be generally assumed that people really hate to hear they are living their life wrong. They also really hate to think about how the Earth is going to die a heat death relatively soon if we don't do anything. These are all really unpleasant things. I wouldn't recommend leading with them.

On the other hand, if you are going to plant trees in your backyard to help offset your impact, invite your friends to come with you and offer to do the same for them. Have a "no gift" birthday party, and don't apologize (in a friendly way, unless you want to be really badass about it) when people note how weird it is. When someone compliments your outfit, brag about how it is secondhand and how much you love secondhand clothes. When you talk politics with someone, be upfront about how you are really supporting leaders who are helping the environment.

In other words, model caring and be positive. But talk about it. Talk about it any time you can. Pick some people in your life who you think will listen, and start there.

Will you be annoying? Probably! I am annoying with this blog every dang day, and a few years in I can tell you it is not so bad. Friends who I love brag to me about their new recycling plan or the unsponges they bought, and it is wonderful. I don't mind annoying or boring people anymore, because I figure even if I just change someone's mind a little, I have done something really good.

Because the kind of world-saving action we need will take everyone, including the person you are worried about annoying.

how individuals can fight climate change

None of this is easy, especially because all of it is freaking terrifying, but you aren't alone in feeling the way you do, and all hope isn't lost. Especially if now is the moment you really decide to get involved, to fight for our planet, and to shop in a way that is consistent with your values. There is a lot of reason left to hope and a hell of a lot worth fighting for. So let's fight together.

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  1. Climate change is certainly overwhelming, but it's great that there are so many changes we can make on an individual level. I'm a big believer in point number 3, although I still need to work on decreasing the meat intake in my household.



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