A stark report released Monday by the world’s top climate scientists shows the Earth is warming much faster than previously predicted, and immediate action will be vital to stave off the most catastrophic consequences. But given the massive scope of the threat, can individual lifestyle changes do much to slow the tide of climate change?
Experts say yes.
The nearly 4,000-page United Nations report makes it clear that human action, namely the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for the dangerous warming of the earth’s climate, setting the stage for longer and more intense heatwaves, droughts, and sea-level rise. While the time frame to avert the most dire scenarios is narrowing, individual choices, like cutting the amount of meat in your diet, driving less, and even voting can make a difference, scientists say.
“I think what the report really emphasizes is that our choices really matter right now,” said Mathew Barlow, a professor of climate science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s not a question of hopelessness. If we want to make change, it’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s important.”
Here are six steps people can take in their daily lives to help minimize their contribution to a warming planet.
1. Eat less meat and make more sustainable food choices at the grocery store.
Peter Fox-Penner, director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, said reducing meat consumption can conserve the enormous amounts of energy and water needed to raise livestock and produce meat products.
According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly 25 percent of Americans are already consuming less meat. Health was listed as the primary reason for the decrease, but the survey found that environmental concerns were the second most common reason for cutting back on a carnivorous diet.
In addition to eating lower on the food chain, people should also double-down on sustainable and locally sourced food at the market (and at farmers’ markets) to reduce emissions associated with transportation, said Cutler Cleveland, a Boston University professor of earth and environment.
“If you look at all the energy used to grow grain and livestock, to transport it, to processing it, to refrigerating it and distributing it, and then preparing it in our home, that takes a lot of energy and a lot of fossil fuel energy,” Cleveland said.
2. Reduce unnecessary plastic packaging — and push businesses to do the same.
To reduce individual energy consumption, reduce the amount of disposable packaging you use on a daily basis, Fox-Penner said.
“We use so much packaging ... instead of reducing, reusing, and recycling it. Material usage accounts for quite a bit of energy,” he said.
A 2018 study from Hawai’i University showed that plastics emit the greenhouse gases methane and ethylene as they decay. (Methane, which is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming, is also an issue in raising livestock. One cow alone can produce roughly 220 pounds of methane each year, according to the University of California Davis.)
Reducing the amount of methane — the gas responsible for roughly 30 percent of global warming — in the environment is the “strongest lever” the world has for moderating climate change in the next two decades, Inger Andersen, the director of the UN Environment Programme, said in May.
Janet Domenitz, the executive director of MASSPIRG, said she supports a statewide ban on single-use plastics in Massachusetts to help reduce waste. She also called on companies to eliminate their own consumption of single-use plastics.
“There’s a lot of ways that we can ... vastly reduce the amount of waste we generate,” she said.
In Massachusetts, 144 towns already have regulated single-use plastic shopping bags, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club. Boston’s own plastic bag ban went into effect in December 2018. The ban, along with similar measures around the state, was suspended temporarily during the pandemic, but is now back in effect.
3. Invest in clean energy, like solar panels for your home.
Cleveland said people should support more “low-carbon electricity” by putting in solar panels, which significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere by decreasing the use of electricity generated by fossil fuels.
“Doing that on your home helps scale up the industry as a whole,” Cleveland added, “producing lower costs for solar energy for everyone.”
He also cited Community Choice Aggregation, legislation implemented by local governments that allows them to buy clean electricity for their area.
Greg Cunningham, the director of the Clean Energy and Climate Change program at the Conservation Law Foundation, said that the country needs to take “big necessary actions” to divert money away from oil and gas industries to clean energy resources.
“As a matter of policymaking, we need to ensure that we don’t have competition between the dirty and the clean [energy]. We need incentives for the clean, otherwise, this transition is going to take a lot longer, and the impacts will be felt much more severely,” he said.
4. Travel less, but when you do, take public transportation. Buy an electric vehicle if you can.
Transportation is a big component of an individual’s energy consumption, Cleveland said. He noted that choosing to walk, bike, or take public transportation can have a “major impact” on a person’s daily emissions.
Transportation emissions accounted for 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, public transportation systems in American cities still lag behind those in other countries.
Electric vehicles also can serve as an option for reducing transportation emissions.
“They’re becoming quite cost-effective, and they are fun to drive,” Fox-Penner said. “Their maintenance costs are lower. You can charge them at home if you have a driveway or other access to a charging station. Once you’ve driven an electric car, you never want to go back.”
5. Pay attention to climate change policies at the ballot box.
Barlow said that the “two most important” actions individuals can take regarding climate change is voting and pushing elected representatives “at all levels” to recognize the severity of environmental problems.
Domenitz said policy steps are necessary to tackle the growing environmental problems and hold policymakers and companies accountable. She said young people are especially committed to leading the charge in this arena.
“With the planet literally on fire, we need to demand wholesale systemwide change from the decision-makers and the actors who can do that,” she said. “And so I definitely think that people are getting more focused on that, and that actually gives me hope.”
6. Talk about climate change in your community.
Sarah Finnie Robinson, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, said people should engage in conversations about climate change with their social circles and other members of their community.
In Massachusetts, 69 percent of residents say they are worried about global warming, but only 42 percent discuss it occasionally and just 45 percent think it will harm them personally, according to a 2020 study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Communicating about the threat of climate change can help people make smarter decisions about the steps they take individually and collectively to help the environment — action that can’t come fast enough.
“It’s a community problem,” said Deb Pasternak, the director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, “because it’s going to take us coming together to bring everybody along to address this problem.”