With Earth Day upon us, many of us are considering the role we play in preventing the global environmental catastrophes that climate change has promised. While the ongoing pandemic makes it dangerous to physically protest in the street, there are still ways we can channel our restless energy and participate in meaningful action.
With only 100 companies responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions, many people argue that any real progress will only occur because of big systemic reforms, rather than individual actions. In fact, the focus on personal emissions has even been promoted by climate deniers in order to detract from the support for more impactful regulations.
That said, residents of the most industrialized countries actually do have the ability to reduce their individual impact because our per capita emissions are higher. Individuals can, at most, be responsible for their own behavior. Interestingly enough, a Stanford University study found that the more people reduced emissions on their own, the less support they had for policies like carbon taxes. The danger comes with thinking that we’ve already done enough, which causes our momentum to slow.
By yourself, you are statistically blameless for climate change; your efforts will be better spent promoting government regulations that compel industries and individuals to act sustainably. But we can each play a role in creating the large-scale systematic reform that’s needed by contacting our representatives and putting pressure on political actors—even from home.
If I want to help with bigger-picture climate reform, how can I get started?
The biggest actions that must be taken to slow climate change will not result from individual efforts. Rather, we need to transition away from fossil fuels and to clean, renewable sources of energy as an economy.
It is estimated that clean energy investments must be 50 percent higher than they currently are in order to reach our emission goals. The only way we’ll achieve this is if more people get involved in advocacy. Find an organization that does work nationally or in your area and sign up for their emails. They will likely have calls to action that talk about current legislation and ask you to contact your representatives. The Sierra Club, 350.org, and National Resource Defense Council are a few great choices, though there are hundreds doing similar work. For more information on how to get involved with collective activism, connect with Sunrise Movement and Citizens’ Climate Lobby. For climate and sustainability-focused news, follow Grist and Inside Climate News.
One actionable thing you can do right now: Tell your members of Congress to support a Green New Deal. The Green New Deal that’s been proposed would help transition to a clean energy economy by investing in green energy, replacing lead pipes, and supporting efficient infrastructure. It's easiest to express your support for the Green New Deal via form letter, but if you prefer calling, here's where to find your representatives' contact information and a script.
Since we’re isolating during Earth Day, what online efforts can I become involved with that will have the most impact, politically and collectively speaking, on climate change?
While everyone collectively staying home during the current pandemic has caused a sharp drop in global emissions, it has also substantially reduced the momentum of climate action and policies. The news cycle is filled with constant information about coronavirus, so much so that even election news is sparse. It’s likely that the primary narrative will continue to be about pandemic and economic recovery for the next several months (or even years). But we are still in an election year, and it’s critical that we stay involved in our democratic process. We don’t yet know if social distancing policies will still exist in November, but it will likely be much more safe and efficient to vote by mail. Find out how to vote by mail in your state. Oh, and call your friends and family and make sure they do it, too.
Additionally, now that primaries seem to be wrapping up, make sure you are communicating the importance of climate issues to your chosen candidate. You should be able to find a candidate's climate platform on their website, and if you don't see one, use their contact info to write and ask what it is or if they will develop one. Be clear that your support depends on their taking a strong stance. Push for a progressive climate platform and, if your candidate agrees to support environmental initiatives, support your candidate back. While door-knocking may not be possible at the moment, you can volunteer for candidates by making phone calls and/or texts on their behalf from where you're sheltering in place. Nearly all national candidates offer ways to do this, and many state and local candidates will as well—your candidate’s website will likely offer information about how to get started.
Besides signing up for the climate advocacy work outlined above, you can become involved with a citizen science initiative called the Earth Challenge. As a crowdsourced method of data collection, the program promotes focus areas based on the users’ documentation of environmental concerns. Using your phone, you can contribute to existing environmental data that support better environmental policies, ranging from single-use plastic bans in local communities to monitoring progress against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
What are some climate change advocacy groups I can become involved with or give money to?
While I mentioned a few organizations that are broadly relevant to those who want to support environmental protection, (The Sierra Club, 350.org, and Moms Clean Air Force), a few others are doing especially important right now. While most of the country has been shut down, pipeline construction has not been halted. In fact, construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline is set to resume. Not only is this damaging for local waterways and individual landowners, but the man camps associated with pipeline construction have the potential to bring a new hundreds of new cases of coronavirus to rural areas without the medical infrastructure to handle it. Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth are especially present in the Native communities that will be impacted by KXL and would benefit greatly from your help.
You may have also seen the news that the administration is relaxing the enforcement of the environmental protection laws due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Natural Resources Defense Council has announced it is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for this move. You can donate to them. Plus, they have an Earth Day livestream that features Al Gore, Stacey Abrams, and lots of other people showing support for climate initiatives.
If my Congressional representatives are already on board with climate change policy changes and/or the Green New Deal, how else can I direct my efforts?
There are lots of opportunities to put pressure on your local or state representatives. City councils have the ability to pass directives for climate action, like creating plans that mitigate emissions and promote resiliency in the face of expected impacts. For instance, encouraging your local government to convert all its streetlights to LED (if it hasn't already done so) does far more than converting all the lights in your home.
State legislatures and governors also have the ability to pass laws that have a huge impact on climate change. When the Trump administration backed out of the Paris Agreement, half of U.S. governors chose to commit to the goals outlined instead. In doing so, they have promoted legislation that cuts emissions, invests in green energy, and recognizes how the state will react in climate-related emergencies. Even if your state hasn’t signed on, you can still find bills that promote green policies and contact your legislator and governor in support (or, in the case of bad bills, opposition).
So… are there also lifestyle changes I can make that will actually help?
There are lots of little things you can do that don’t require much effort, and that will make a difference. Here’s a few to which you can relatively easily commit right now, and that could also save you money.
Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Though it’s only a tiny drop in the bucket of what needs to be done, it does significantly reduce waste.
Use primarily LED lighting in your home (after you convince your town to do the same on its streets). LEDs use 90 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs and last 25 times longer. Project Drawdown estimates that making them the primary source of lighting worldwide could save over 16 gigatons of CO2 by 2050. The faster you make the switch and the less energy you are using, the smaller your own carbon footprint.
Reduce your meat consumption. While animal proteins are a major source of global emissions, you don’t have to cut out meat entirely. Simple changes to your diet can benefit the planet—you can choose to eat meat for only one meal per day, or only eat meat for three days out of the week, or opt for meatless Mondays. You can also eat meats that rank lower on the emissions chart, like chicken over lamb. You don’t have to go all in, but the fewer animal proteins you consume, the greater impact you’ll have.
What about recycling?
As for whether recycling practically helps: It depends. For certain goods, like aluminum and steel cans, recycling can save over 70 percent of the energy that would be required to make a new product. However, many plastics do not have an easy path to be recycled and end up in the landfill anyway. Sadly, even those that do become recycled plastic goods don’t end up saving much energy. While recycling has its benefits, it’s far better to reduce the amount of disposable products that we are buying in the first place, and reusing those items as many times as possible before disposing of them. Start a letter-writing campaign to corporations that use wasteful or non-recyclable packaging, letting them know your business is contingent on their changing that, and promote legislation that encourages sustainable packaging.
In all things: Don’t let the pandemic noise drown out the other major ongoing crises, and keep the conversation about our environment going. Stay home, make calls, give money if you have it, and keep yourself informed about ways to help in your community and beyond.
Follow Mariah Gladstone on Twitter.