A lot of stories about climate change conclude with the statement “We must act now.” The picture is dire. The changes that many of us have already made — driving less, using less plastic, composting, putting on sweaters rather than turning up the heat — aren’t nearly enough. But what does “We must act now” really mean? What are the most important things that I, as an individual, should be doing right now? What are the most important things that we as a society should be doing right now? And how can I, as a citizen, help influence what society is doing?
I reached out to some environmental activists (a former nonprofit head, a consultant, and an environmental lawyer) to ask them these questions. Nobody minced words about the gravity of the crisis. All felt that the most crucial actions now have to be political and economic. But they also pointed to the value of individual action. Here’s a boiled-down version of what they said — a kind of green wallet card for people like me, who are overwhelmed by the complexities of climate change and looking for the best ways to make a difference.
▪ If you are a homeowner, retrofitting your house can make a difference. Insulate the attic. Replace old windows with new efficient windows. Replace your old oil or gas heating system with an air-source or geothermal electric heat pump. (Rebates and financial incentives may be available for these retrofits.)
▪ Look at where your electricity is coming from, and switch to a renewable source. If your house is suitable for rooftop solar panels, install them; the energy they create can be sold into the grid, so that you produce all or most of the energy you consume, reducing both your electric bill and your carbon footprint. And whether or not your house is suited for rooftop solar panels, get your electricity from a community solar facility or a reputable 100 percent renewable energy provider.
▪ If you have to buy a car, make it an electric one, or a plug-in hybrid.
▪ Reduce the amount of beef in your diet, or eliminate it altogether.
Help bring about societal change
▪ Vote. Make climate the decisive issue in local, state, and national elections. Continue to elect people who support policies and laws that will lead to a carbon-free economy within 30 years. Press government to create incentives supporting the growth of local renewable-energy businesses, like solar and wind power. Hold the state and the federal government accountable to address the climate needs of all communities, not just rich ones.
▪ Exert pressure through what you buy and what you don’t buy. Begin with the house, car, and food choices listed above. Don’t buy products that are made using petrochemicals, especially plastics. If you have retirement funds or other investments, make sure the money is invested in fossil-free funds. And pressure any institution you contribute to — e.g., colleges and universities — to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.
Some of the actions on this list were new ideas for me, and others were familiar. Some of them I was already doing. My husband and I had signed up a year ago to get our electricity from a renewable supplier, and the changeover was so painless that we grumbled for months about what was taking so long, before we finally looked at the fine print on our electric bill and realized that it had already happened. And I’d pretty much given up red meat — this from someone whose first word was “hamburger.” But others I will now work on. We currently have four separate gas appliances in our house — stove, dryer, boiler, and water heater. They’re all aging, and we can start now to think about different, clean-energy replacements.
I don’t want to give the impression that these climate-change experts said that all we need is a collection of small individual actions. Our politics and our economy need to be transformed to end our dependency on fossil fuels. But there is still an important place for what individuals can achieve.
If enough people make these choices, societal norms will change. If we start to see enough plugged-in cars, or visit enough houses heated and cooled by heat pumps, we start to think that these are viable and desirable choices. As one of my experts said, “How does a song become a hit? We hear it enough and it catches fire, because we’re social animals.”
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.