Krista Kurth, Ph.D.
Now Is the Time to Double Down on Climate Action
Where will you focus your attention?
2020 was a year of rude awakenings. One of those awakenings was around climate change. Even with much of the world locked down for a significant part of the year, the needle on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions did not move enough. The latest U.N. Report on the state of the climate, released in early December 2020, confirms that the climate crisis was in full swing in 2020.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres put this in stark terms in a speech on the state of the planet at Columbia University. He said, “Humanity is waging war on nature.” Then, after outlining how we are doing this, he encouraged the world to take significant action now while we still have time to act. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere…. The door is open; the solutions are there. Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world—and with each other.” In a follow up speech during the virtual climate summit on December 13th, he stated that “…the central objective of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a truly Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality by the middle of the century.”
“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere."
Fortunately, the president-elect in the United States is heeding the call to do more in 2021 to put the United States on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. His creation of Climate Change cabinet positions is encouraging. However, this doesn’t mean that we, as individual citizens of the world, can sit back and relax. We too need to heed the call to do more in 2021. We need to double down on our climate action. Like U.N. chief Guterres said, everyone everywhere needs to act now to avert the climate crisis.
The good news is there is a lot we can do to increase our climate action. To help you look at how you might double down and play a more active role going forward, I’ve put together an outline of some actions you can take in the key sectors most affecting GHG emissions. The sectors, which I’ve listed in alphabetically order, below are key transitions that World Resources Institute (WRI) has identified as important for for tracking progress on climate change solutions. (Note: I am a member of the Global Leadership Council at WRI).
You can double down on your current action by:
Expanding the number of individual actions you take in a particular sector
Taking action in more sectors, and/or
Engaging in more community focused action in each sector.
As you look at the list of climate actions below (not a comprehensive list), notice what draws your attention. Take Jalaluddin Rumi’s advice to listen for “What in your life is calling you, when all the noise is silenced, the meetings adjourned… the lists laid aside, and the wild iris blooms by itself in the dark forest… what still pulls on your soul?”
I wish you all the best in determining how you will double down on your climate action this year. May you be consistent and committed throughout the year. I will write future articles with more details on actions in each of the sectors to help you engage further.
Ideas for Doubling Down on Climate Action in 2021
Increase Efficiency. When buildings are more efficient, they use less energy to function, reducing GHG emissions. Look for ways to make your home more energy efficient. Contact your local utility to see if they have a program to help you assess what you can do. Ask for building efficiency improvements at work or your children’s schools.
Manage Refrigerants: When released into the atmosphere, the chemicals used in refrigeration are more impactful than carbon dioxide. So, properly disposing of your appliances that use refrigerants at the end of their life is important. You can also join campaigns, like Green America’s Cool it for Climate to ask companies that use large refrigeration systems to manage leaks in their systems and replace refrigerants with more emission friendly alternatives.
Eliminate Plastics: Plastics cause pollution that harms the environment and wildlife and keeps fossil fuel sourced products around for centuries. The less plastic we use, the better for everyone. Use water bottles and your own reusable shopping bags all the time. Seriously, do it! Time to stop forgetting them at home. Buy items at the grocery store that are not packed in plastic. Ask companies to use alternatives to plastics for packaging. Join with 550 environmental groups to urge the incoming U.S. administration to take eight key steps to create a plastic free environment.
Significantly Reduce Buying New Items: We act as if the earth has unlimited resources. It does not. A recent study concluded that the amount of stuff humans produced now outweighs the biomass of the planet by itself. It is time we use what we currently have and stop looking for happiness in new things. Go on a clothes diet. When you need something, buy it used. Offer and find items on give-away sites like Freecycle. Ask companies you buy from how they are taking part in the circular economy.
Reduce Waste: Currently, as a throwaway society, we are contributing both to climate change and a scarcity of resources. While many still think recycling is an answer, recent reports show that most of what we put in recycle bins is never recycled. Since this approach isn’t working anymore, we need to turn to reusing, repairing, and repurposing much more. We need to send as little trash to dumps as possible and move toward a zero-waste lifestyle. Pay attention to how much waste you create. Learn where your garbage goes. Ask the businesses you buy from to move from a linear economy to a circular based one, like nature. Read this article on five key steps to a circular economy and share it with your employer.
Transition to 100% Renewable Energy: Unlike fossil fuel sourced energy, renewable energy does not produce GHG emissions when providing electricity. Make the transition in your own home by purchasing renewable energy through your local utility or by joining a community solar program. This is particularly effective for those who don’t own their own homes. Many programs include options for lower income participants. Check out Shared Renewables, NREL, or the National Community Solar Programs Tracker to see if there is a program where you live. If there isn’t one, contact the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA) if you live in the U.S. to learn more about advocating for community solar in your area.
Electrify your Home and Community: To make the most of renewable energy resources, we need to move away from heating our homes and buildings with natural gas and oil. If possible, replace gas appliances with electric ones and install a high efficiency heat pump instead of maintaining an oil furnace. Work with your landlord to get them to electrify your building. Write to your local school board asking them to upgrade school buildings’ heating and cooling systems.
Align Banking with your Values: When you bank with the large financial institutions, your money is most likely supporting the extraction of more fossil fuels. Instead of maintaining accounts with these banks, move them to community and regional banks. That way your funds support growth in your local community. Green America has a guide to help you bank responsibly, including how to break up with Mega Banks. They also have campaigns you can join to ask the large banks to stop funding climate destruction.
Align your Purchasing with your Values: Use your money to buy environmentally friendly products from businesses that support local communities, fair wages, and a healthy planet. Green America also has a Vote with Your Dollar Toolkit to help you double down on climate action in this way.
Expand the Use of Socially and Environmentally Responsible Funds: If you are fortunate enough to set aside enough to invest, put those funds in Socially Responsible Investments (SRI). Find out if your organization has a retirement savings plan with SRI options. Then allocate your savings to those funds if available. If not, ask your workplace to add these funds to the plan. Use this site to help you work with your workplace. Use resources like Fossil Free Funds and the Heart Rating, which assess mutual funds based on various environmental and social criteria, to help you identify funds in which to put your savings.
Reduce Food Waste: About one third of food produced is never eaten. This means that all the resources used and GHG emissions were a total waste. You can reduce your own food waste by planning your meals, buying only what you need, and eating or freezing leftovers before they go bad. Do a Fridge Reality Check at Stop Food Waste. Check to see if your local grocery stores and restaurants give the food that they remove from their shelves to food banks instead of discarding them. Write to your elected officials asking them to create policies, like France did in 2016, to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away food that can still be eaten and to donate them to charities and food banks.
Shift to A Plant Rich Diet: Recent research has shown that “animal foods demand a greater input of resources like water, fuel and land, and contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss, than plant-based foods.” When we eat more vegetables and less meat, we not only help address the climate crisis, we also reap health benefits. You don’t need to go vegetarian overnight. You can gradually add 1-2 plant focused meals a week and gradually increase as you learn more. There are many delicious vegetarian recipes online. Read more tips on how to make the switch in this article and this one from Forbes. Ask your public school system to include more tasty plant based meals in the lunch program. Learn more from the World Wildlife Fund about their recommended food policies.
Compost: A final step in the zero-waste lifestyle involves full using your food scraps. Instead of throwing them in the trash, compost them. It keeps this waste out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. You can get an inexpensive compost bin for your backyard (some cities offer them for free) or take part in a community compost program in your local area. The EPA and many other sites offer tips on composting at home. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has many resources on community composting in the U.S. Find out if your town has a municipal composting program you can join.
Forests and Peatlands
Protect and Restore Forests: Trees are a part of the natural carbon cycle and absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere. You can plant trees in your local community, buy only FSC certified wood for building projects. You can also donate to organizations planting trees in tropical locations, like the Rainforest Alliance and the Rainforest Action Network. Other organizations, like the Global Peatlands Initiative and the World Wildlife Fund forest project, work to protect and restore temperate forests and peatlands, which store twice as much carbon as forests. Write to your Congressional representatives asking them to enforce existing anti-logging laws.
Protect the Oceans’ Ecosystems: Climate change and the world’s oceans are intricately interconnected. Oceans act as a natural carbon sink, their “Blue Carbon” mitigating the impacts of climate change. They are also supply us with free food and services, like oxygen. However, the climate crisis has taken a huge toll on their health. We need to protect them now if we want to ensure we have a secure a living ocean and a healthy global climate. You can play a part by only purchasing sustainably caught fish. If you live in the U.S. check out this guide on Oceana’s site. If you live elsewhere, look for your country on this WWF site. Make a donation to or join a campaign coordinated by organizations working to protect the world’s oceans, like Oceana, Environmental Defense Fund, and other non-profits.
Reduce and Clean Up Litter and Plastics: The amount of litter and plastic in our waterways and oceans is increasing each year, impacting both the health of ocean life and those who rely on the ocean for food. Reduce the amount of plastic you use. Check out your plastic footprint and then pledge to lower it. Buy a reusable water bottle. Refuse single use plastics. Dispose of litter properly. Join a campaign to ban single use plastics in your community or demand companies use non-plastic sustainable packaging. Take part in and/or organize waterway, beach, and ocean clean ups in your community.
Protect and Restore Coastal Wetlands: Mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows are natural carbon sinks. We need to restore those that have been degraded and protect those that still remain to support the planet, people and business. WRI research shows that “every $1 invested in mangrove conservation and restoration yields $3 in return, including through benefits like increased fisheries productivity, avoided damages from storm surge and more.” Learn more about the importance of wetlands. If you live near one of these habitats, join a group, like Wetlands International, working to restore and save them. Donate to organizations, like those listed on World Organization’s site, that restore coastal wetlands.
Decrease Single Car Trips: Driving around in our cars produces significant GHG emissions. You can up your climate game by doing what you can to reduce your single use of combustion engine cars. Use public transportation as much as possible. Carpool, walk, ride a bike, work from home more often. Ask your local officials to make public transportation and bike lanes more available. Vote against expansion of highways.
Support the Transition to Electric Vehicles: It is becoming clearer that electric transportation is inevitable. If you can afford to buy an electric car, do so. More are becoming available at affordable prices. If an electric car is out of range for you, buy a hybrid car (new or used). Write to your local representatives asking them to transition the school and municipal bus fleets to electric vehicles. WRI has information on how to help cities adopt electric buses. Sign petitions asking companies, like Amazon, to speed up their purchase of electric delivery vehicles.
Decrease Air Travel: During the pandemic we have learned that we don’t need to travel as much as we used to do. When the pandemic is over, make a commitment to keep your air travel to only necessary trips. When possible, take the train instead of flying.