Making a Difference on Climate Change

August 6, 2022

If you have become concerned or alarmed about climate change, you are most certainly not alone. In fact, public opinion surveys are showing that today a majority of Americans hold these views. As one who advocates solutions and talks about climate change a lot, though, I have learned that many people experience a big hurdle between worrying about the issue and actually acting on it in ways that feel authentic and work with their lifestyles and budgets. It seems timely, then, to offer some general guidance for how to make a contribution that is right for you. These comments are intended to complement detailed lists of resources and opportunities for layperson climate advocates.

Lifestyle Changes

Let’s first consider what sorts of individual actions can reduce personal climate footprints. This is what many folks have in mind when they think about how they can contribute, and they are perfectly correct. Modest shifts in lifestyle can pay big climate dividends and often save you money to boot, while making few additional demands on your time.

Diet is one key area where it is easy to make a personal difference. Meat has by far the highest greenhouse gas emissions footprint, with beef coming in first and pork and poultry a distant second and third. A major reason is the enormous amount of fossil fuel energy that goes into animal husbandry operations, including growing all the grain and grass feed. This also means that a great deal of land has to be dedicated – land that may need to be deforested to support grazing. For similar reasons, dairy products are next highest on the list, while seafood, grains and vegetable production generate much lower emissions. Even a modest switch in the direction of a pescatarian diet will thus yield substantial savings, and may also offer benefits in terms of improved health. If you do choose to eat some meat, buying it from a local sustainable ranch with humane practices is a good way to go, in part because these smaller operations are better able to implement sustainable practices such as integrating animal husbandry with crop production.

Next up is electrification. The US electricity grid already runs on about 40% carbon-free fuel, and much of the technology is in place to sharply increase this percentage over the next few decades. In fact, rapid expansion of wind and solar power to make electricity is the number one driver of the renewable energy transition. In contrast, the petroleum and natural gas you probably use now for transportation and home heating and cooking is close to 100% fossil fuel (some ethanol or biodiesel mixed in transportation fuel and possibly a bit of renewable natural gas in your utility’s gas mix improves this slightly, but only slightly). This means that your personal climate footprint will decrease to the extent that you are able to drive an electric car (or at least a high mileage car), convert your oil/gas furnace and water heater to the equivalent electric appliances, and do the same for ovens/cooktops, barbecues (wood pellets or charcoal are fine) and clothes dryers. And since the electricity grid is being converted more and more to carbon-free power, your climate footprint continues to decrease over time with no additional effort at all. Electrify once, and you’re done!

Almost every gas or oil-driven gadget for home use now has an electric equivalent, often at comparable or lower cost, but making the leap can sometimes still feel risky. One thing to bear in mind is that even if the up-front price tag is a bit higher, the cheaper cost of use (electricity is much more efficient than gas or oil) and far lower maintenance costs (an electric car has practically none beyond tire rotations) will let you come out ahead. And don’t overlook federal and state financial incentives for green purchases. Finally, it’s not necessary to rush out and replace everything right away; making changes as your old machines wear out is perfectly fine.

Next, where possible, think about reducing the amount of air travel you do for work or recreation. Counting all greenhouse gas emissions (not just carbon dioxide), air travel contributes about 3.5% to global warming, but a large majority of people never fly at all. Flying is really a luxury for the well-to-do, which includes at least half of Americans. The growth in remote work and conferencing has reduced business air travel, but overall the aviation industry is recovering rapidly from the pandemic. A big problem is that there is little near-term prospect for electrifying commercial jets or powering them with sustainable aviation fuels with low carbon emissions.

For at least the next few decades, then, the only way to cut aviation emissions is to fly less. However, if you must fly, it is possible to decrease the climate impact by purchasing carbon offsets, which offer a way to “cancel out” the emissions. The amount of greenhouse gas emitted per mile of air travel is well known, so funding a project (such as reforestation) that will sequester the equivalent amount of carbon will result in net zero emissions. In the past, a big concern about offsets has been additionality – being sure that the other emissions reductions really depend on your contribution, and that they are properly calculated. Fortunately, we now have well-established carbon offset programs run by nonprofit groups that do a very good job of verifying emissions for a host of different types of projects. Climate Stewards USA is one such site where you can calculate your air travel emissions, and donate to well-verified carbon reduction programs. In fact, there is no need to limit your offset calculations and donations to air travel alone: Climate Stewards offers carbon calculators for all aspects of your lifestyle

Finally, consider money management. If you have savings invested in mutual funds, there is a good chance that some of your money is working to support the fossil fuel industry. However, green funds that exclude these investments are proliferating, and there is good evidence that they perform at least as well as their counterparts that include fossil energy stocks. By divesting, you work in concert with an increasing number of universities, investor groups such as Climate Action 100+ that are pressuring companies to cut emissions, insurers that are pulling back from underwriting coal and other dirty fuels, and states that have created green banks to accelerate clean energy development. If you don’t have such investments, consider what your bank may be doing with your money: large US banks such as Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America each loan tens of billions of dollars a year to the fossil fuel industry. Look instead for local credit unions that engage in socially responsible investing.

Finally, it is important to be aware that some folks are suggesting that too much emphasis on personal actions is a mistake because it may let the fossil fuel companies off the hook. Indeed, the fossil fuel industry is conducting a campaign of subtle advertising in which it suggests that the climate problem is really about personal responsibility and so should be solved only at that level. Their intention is to use this idea, once it catches hold, as a way of undermining national policies such as economywide carbon taxes or large-scale investments in renewable energy. In doing this they follow a well-worn playbook, exemplified in the famous (and industry-funded) “crying Indian” TV ad from many decades ago, which sought to shift responsibility for pollution to the individual. This strategy is termed a deflection campaign, and is well-described by climate scientist Michael Mann in his book The New Climate War.

We can resolve the issue by understanding that what the fossil energy companies really want is for climate change to be addressed only by individuals. In fact there is no conflict: individuals and governments can and must act at the same time, and will mutually reinforce each other when they do. Climate science tells us that the amount of global warming we will experience is directly related to the cumulative amount of greenhouse gas emitted, since most such gases have very long lifetimes in the atmosphere. This fact reinforces the importance of individual as well as government action. Moreover, for those interested in engaging directly in advocacy (see below), both motivation and credibility are enhanced by “walking the walk” in our personal lives at the same time that we are lobbying government, business and community leaders to act with urgency on the problem.

Direct Advocacy

The power of an engaged citizenry is underappreciated. It shows up in election campaigns and at the ballot box, to be sure, but can also make itself felt in the day to day work of community organizing and in engagement with government at every level. Advocates for a healthy climate have helped limit the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure, defeating projects such as the Midwest Keystone pipeline as well as literally dozens of West coast export terminals for coal, oil and liquefied natural gas. They have pressured lawmakers to enact far-reaching policies in the states and in Congress, accelerating the development of clean electricity, buildings and transportation fuels. And they work to limit the impacts of climate change in areas such as wildfire suppression and protection of coastal communities from sea level rise. The work is often local, allowing relationships among advocates to be more easily forged and influential local businesses, community organizations and faith groups to lend their institutional clout. If you are drawn to this work, the key question is, where do you want to fit in?

For millions of environmentally minded Americans, an obvious portal to climate change action is connected to organizations that they already generously donate to – groups like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy. These are very well-established organizations that got started advocating against air and water pollution and in favor of conserving healthy forests, mountains, rivers and oceans. All of them have added advocacy for a healthy climate to their agendas. A general moniker for these groups is Big Green, and they are distinguished by large staffs, yearly budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and well-developed relationships with business and political leaders.

Big Green groups typically employ professional lobbyists to advocate on behalf of climate and environment at the federal, state and sometimes local levels. As a layperson supporter, your dollars are used to hire these experts, who then function as insiders to engage the process and push the desired policies. To be sure, there are often opportunities to weigh in on specific initiatives, adding voices from grass roots supporters so that, for example, legislator’s voice mailboxes fill up with requests for action at crucial moments. This is a valuable way to contribute that does not take much time and may be the most feasible route for many people. But it also may not yield the same personal rewards that can come from more direct engagement.

One way to discover your climate advocacy niche is to consider whether you are more drawn to direct, highly visible action – such as sit-ins, strikes and protests against fossil fuel projects – or to a more considered and studious insider approach where you can couple your passion with deep learning about specific issues. Both approaches are valuable, and indeed can complement each other. One example of the former was the Sunrise Movement’s well-publicized sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office upon Democratic recapture of the House of Representatives in 2018, which cracked open a large political window for climate action at the federal level. Similarly, ongoing local protests by groups such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future help maintain awareness of climate change in the popular imagination. These youth movements for a healthy climate are especially effective and encouraging because they bring the central question of intergenerational equity to the forefront of the issue.

Polling tells us that a major reason why concerned Americans do not get engaged on climate is that they do not identify as “activists”. This is likely because the word “activist” is connected in the popular imagination with things like street protests, which many are uncomfortable with. Identifying as an “advocate”, though, avoids this baggage: even very staid, conservative lawyers are advocates for their clients. This distinction is important, because it is one thing to open a political window, but quite another to mobilize elected officials and business leaders to step through it. This is why much effective climate advocacy takes place in business and government settings where the nitty gritty of policy development comes to the fore. Advocates are effective in these settings, and citizen advocates can be especially so.

The importance of educating yourself if you want to advocate in these venues cannot be overestimated. No matter what the specific issue, whether it be the length of tree rotations in timber harvesting, the impact of a proposed wind farm on endangered species, or the social equity aspects of a new energy-saving mass transit plan, one thing you can reliably count on is that opposition to your agenda will appear. Given this, it should be clear that smart and politically savvy advocacy is the best way to win the day.

Climate change touches so many dimensions of American life that there are an enormous range of issues that you might get involved in. Of course, the choice is a highly personal one. Where is your passion, and what can you envision spending your time (and there will be a lot of time) learning about? Whatever it is, think about specializing and making yourself an expert on the detailed subject. Your new friends in the advocacy community may know all about the electricity grid or the benefits of hydrogen for long-term energy storage, and when the time comes for a key action, you can certainly help them out. But perhaps when it comes to climate-smart agriculture, your friends will be coming to you. Even more striking is that, over time, your depth of knowledge may enable you to become a resource for the decision makers. For example, how much do you think the average state legislator, who has to vote on every issue, knows about climate change? Some are savvy, but most are not, and they can all be influenced, and not just by money. 

Climate advocacy is not something that is done well on your own; to be most effective you should join a community of like-minded folks whom you can bond with. Fortunately, the scope of advocacy in the US is very large and includes organizations that span a good range of the political spectrum, from progressive to center-right. For the new advocate, it is especially helpful to connect with local chapters of organizations that have national scope. It is then possible to become immediately immersed in the local advocacy community while also gaining access to the resources of the larger group. One activity that every advocate should engage with is the Climate Reality leadership course, a three-day training that includes lectures and question and answer sessions on climate science and policy, as well as participatory exercises that build skills in climate communication.

When you investigate your local options, you will likely find that the most common political orientation of climate advocacy groups is progressive. Many of these groups, such as, explicitly connect their climate work to social justice initiatives. These often include issues like fair housing, equitable access to mass transit and other aspects of community development. Indeed, the successful growth of these groups is the reason why equity is now at the forefront of the climate conversation, a position easy to justify given that global warming has increased global economic inequality. The Green New Deal emphasizes that climate policy must be situated in the context of a fair and just energy transition that involves the redress of systemic injustices to frontline and vulnerable communities.

Many groups embrace this principle, but certainly not all. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for example, takes an explicitly bipartisan approach to climate advocacy, with a membership that includes conservatives, moderates and progressives alike. It has local chapters throughout the country as well as a significant international presence. CCL has historically focused its advocacy only on Congressional enactment of an aggressive economywide carbon tax. However, the scope of its advocacy has recently expanded to include healthy forests and the clean energy economy; like carbon taxes, these are also issues where substantial bipartisan support exists. 

“Eco-Right” groups, such as Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship and RepublicEn tailor their messages to a conservative rather than bipartisan audience. These organizations accept the basic principle that global warming is happening and humans are responsible, but advocate for market-based approaches to the problem. Some Eco-Right groups do not connect their work to the science-based climate roadmaps that underlie much of today’s policy agenda, advocating instead for a more limited set of conservative-friendly approaches that may not be sufficient to keep warming within tolerable levels. Nonetheless, important policy initiatives such as land conservation and government support for renewable energy are held valuable by all advocacy groups.

Finally, I wish to emphasize that unity among climate advocates is crucial because of strong institutional resistance from the Republican party and its supporters in the fossil fuel industry. These groups, unfortunately, have deep pockets and can be counted on to oppose just about every initiative that will move us significantly toward a green economy. We must bear in mind that the differences in policy perspectives between progressives and more centrist groups are small compared to what separates us from the opposition. We should also remember that a healthy majority of Americans are on our side. The success of the Biden administration in enacting the Inflation Reduction Act is a great victory and will rally more Americans to the cause – especially in state and local venues where these new federal policies still have to be effectively implemented. Achieving a healthy climate is the great project of our time, and our obligation to future generations. Please join in.