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Thanksgiving joy with a side of climate stewardship

November 17, 2022

Ahh, Thanksgiving. Turkey, stuffing, your aunt Patty’s sweet potato casserole with the little marshmallows baked in. It’s a time to express gratitude, to be with our friends and family–and a chance for reflection on what the day may signify for Native Americans and celebrate Native American heritage.

At Generation180, Thanksgiving means thinking about our relationship with the Earth and our climate impact. Thanksgiving involves meat consumption and extra travel, which definitely produce extra CO2 emissions this time of year. But taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint on Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean self-deprivation or riding your bike to visit relatives two states away. 

The holiday can be an opportunity to try out new, more climate-friendly ways to celebrate—that actually add up to make an impact without taking away from the meaning of the holiday.

Pile on the delicious veggie sides

Lowering meat consumption is one of the most high-impact steps individuals can take for the climate. Fortunately, vegan turkey alternatives have come a long way—and some have made the switch to a meatless roast or Tofurkey as the centerpiece of a delicious, planet-friendly feast.

Comic credit: Mark Parisi

If replacing a traditional turkey is non-negotiable, consider purchasing an organic, sustainably-raised bird from a local co-op or market. You also might swap out meat- and dairy-heavy sides with plant-based alternatives.  For example, instead of pork stuffing, give locally-sourced vegetable stuffing a try. 

A big impediment to eating a more plant-based diet is not knowing which dishes to make, and not thinking they’ll taste quite as good. If you know your plant-based side recipe is a winner, it could be a great way to introduce your family and friends to new veggie options. 

Raising farm animals in the US sucks up around half of the freshwater supply. A single pound of beef can require up to 8,000 gallons of water before it gets to your plate, while a pound of tofu needs just 302. Lower demand for meat, especially beef and pork, would mean more precious water to go around, and a healthier environment overall.

It’s up to each individual to decide what they’re comfortable with. Moving on from turkey will make the biggest CO2 impact, but reducing meat and dairy based products will have an effect, too.

Moving people and turkeys around emits a lot of carbon

During last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, nearly 48 million people took to the roads. The ideal way to minimize your footprint consists of two parts—enjoying your meal close to home, and sourcing ingredients locally.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Buying from local vendors has a multitude of benefits, including higher nutrient levels,  supporting the local economy, and of course, fewer emissions. It’s impractical to try to source every ingredient from within a few miles of your home, but doing so as much as possible should be the goal. Whether it’s crab cakes from the local market in Maryland, or farm-to-table cranberry and strawberry sauce in California, take advantage of ingredients native to your neck of the woods.

On the travel side, commuting via an electric vehicle powered by renewably-sourced electricity is the gold standard. EVs are increasing their ranges every year, and charging stations continue to proliferate.

Showing up to your meal in an EV could prompt conversation among family and friends. Take the opportunity to extoll the virtues of EVs—not only are they better for the climate, but they are just better technology and tend to require less maintenance, and many states have tax breaks for new EV purchases.

Ultimately, the less transportation required to move you and your food around, the better.

Sustainable agriculture is making big strides

Emissions associated with growing food, and the deforestation that comes with it, account for a quarter of the global carbon footprint. In order to meet Paris 2050 targets, we’ll have to cut that number by 75%.

Yet other sectors, like transportation and energy generation, have historically gotten much more attention from policymakers and entrepreneurs.

The Biden administration is changing that narrative. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is about to dole out $1 billion in grants for “climate-smart agriculture” projects, and billions more in funding is in the queue. The investment represents an olive branch to farmers, who are often skeptical that directives from the top won’t hurt them in the interest of helping the environment.

Known technologies, such as rotational grazing and cover crops, should see increased adoption from this massive investment. The funding should also move new technologies, like carbon capture in soil and high-tech irrigation, further ahead.

Agrivoltaics are showing promise in improving crop yields in the face of drought and other changes in climate. Promising research has shown that growing tomatoes under solar panels can increase yields and protect farmers against weather challenges.

But growing food is only one piece of agricultural emissions—there’s also the problem of moving it all around. Transportation sucks up 14% of total energy used for food production.

Reducing food waste is probably the simplest way to reduce those emissions. You can get started by bringing extra food from your big meal to a local shelter, making full use of your veggies (homemade vegetable stock or carrot top pesto, anyone?), turning leftovers into sandwiches, and composting your waste. 

 

Photo credit: Delish

Have a great meal and reduce your footprint

If you haven’t been to your local farmer’s market before, perusing the stalls before Thanksgiving could lead you to discover ingredients you never knew were grown locally. A new plant-based side dish could be a hit with your guests, and become a staple of your meal going forward.

Even small tweaks, such as buying local ingredients, including more plant-based dishes, and reducing food waste can make a big dent in CO2 emissions related to the holiday.

So, be sure to enjoy the holiday, and don’t forget the opportunity to normalize talking about climate and clean energy.

 

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Seven practical steps to save our planet: An interview with Hal Harvey

November 9, 2022

Regardless of the final outcome of the mid-term elections, there are concrete steps that you, individually, can choose to take right now for clean energy progress.

In The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet, co-authors Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis lay out how and why individuals can make a big impact. In this week’s issue, Gen180 Executive Director Wendy Philleo interviewed Hal–a leading strategist in the nonprofit sector’s efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change–on what he hopes readers take away from the book.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. See the full video interview here.

Wendy Philleo: All right. Well, welcome Hal Harvey, good to see you again. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your new book, which I have here, The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet that you wrote with Justin Gillis. 

Hal Harvey: Thank you. It’s a delight to be here. And I really appreciate the chance for this conversation.

WP: Great. Can you share a little bit about your background and a little bit about why you came to this decision to write this book. Why now?

HH: Sure thing, I’m an engineer by training with degrees in both civil and mechanical engineering. I got involved in the energy business when I turned 18, because I was obligated to go register for the draft, because Jimmy Carter reinstated it in order to build the so-called Rapid Deployment Force in the Mideast, which was aimed at protecting American interests against foreign oil producers. And so that put a pretty sharp focus on the question of oil and oil imports. What I was doing at the time was home construction solar homes with my brother. And we came to realize that it was not very complicated or difficult to build a solar heated home. 

And to have this dissonance on the one hand between getting ready to go to war, not so long after the Vietnam War wound up in its tragic way – and on the other hand, having readily available technologies to save energy. And this was at the time when cars got an average of 13 miles per gallon. So we weren’t just importing [oil] we were wasting it in just copious quantities, we still are.

WP: Your book felt like almost a call out for a revitalization or renewal of civic engagement, in a way, because you talk a lot about citizens flexing their muscle, exercising influence and finding these levers – sometimes secret levers, because people don’t know about them. Can you talk a little bit about a few actions that you think are most important for people to know about?

HH: So this is the right question, because what motivated us to write the book is to identify the places where citizen actions can make a big difference. I mean, the normal reaction to a political issue that you care about is to write a letter to your Congressperson. That turns out not to be the most effective thing to do. Civic engagement is wonderful, but if you know who makes the decision that most affects the planet, then you can make a strategy for changing that decision. 

And that’s what the book is all about. When you send in your utility bill at the end of the month, does that money land on green choices or dirty choices? Who decides whether your money goes to solar and wind or coal and natural gas? And the answer is the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of your state. How many people have stood before their state’s Public Utilities Commission and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this straight. We need to quit cooking the earth.’ How hard is that? And how complicated is it? And what happened? So we tell in this book, not only how to identify those levers of power, but stories about how people got involved and pulled those levers that made a big difference.

WP: Just how many Public Utility Commission Commissioners are there in the U.S.? 

HH: Just over 200. So roughly five per state. These people control 40% of the carbon emissions in our economy. That’s amazing. That’s a big number, and those 200 people are obligated to listen to you. They’re called Public Utilities Commission’s because they’re supposed to serve the public. They have hearings and you can stand in front of them and make your point. Now, a lot of the conversation at these meetings is a sort of a regulatory patois between utility lawyers and PUC lawyers. And that requires lots of specialized knowledge. 

But let’s say you live downwind of a big coal-fired power plant and your kid has asthma. The PUC is obligated to listen to you and your kid. You can tell them what it’s like to be a mom to have a kid who can’t breathe, and that it’s the PUC’s responsibility for that, and therefore it’s on them to change. You know, the climate change picture is pretty horrifying if you study it closely. My suggestion is people should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.

“People should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.”

Because that’s enabling. It’s energizing as well. And when you focus on solutions, your strategy becomes much more pointed than just raising awareness. It turns into how do I save this planet? How do we keep it from just burning right up?

WP: I think the problem with energy issues is that it feels complicated, and it feels like it should be left to the experts. Right? So what do I know about building codes? Or what do I know about utilities? I do feel like there are barriers around this type of engagement—how does the average person get comfortable doing this?

HH: Well, it’s good to have some logic, I would recommend a couple of days study before working to intervene in one of these decision-making venues. It’s also a great idea to look and see who else is doing this work in your region and if you can piggyback onto them. 

Every good argument has ethos, logos, and pathos. So ethos, this is your ethical standing. Every single National Academy of Sciences scientist has argued for rapid action on climate change. You don’t have to be that scientist, but it’s totally legitimate to point out that they are all saying it, there’s your ethos. Your logos, it’s now cheaper to build a solar farm from scratch than to just pay the operating costs of a coal-fired power plant. It’s amazing. Again, you don’t have to fight every detail there. And pathos – how does it make you feel when your kid has asthma or when soot is sitting on your windowsill at the end of every single day? So take those elements, put them in human terms and present them. It turns out, that’s a very hard combination to defeat.

WP: Love that. That’s very empowering. How has the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act changed the equation for you in terms of the recommendations that are in this book?

HH: We wrote the book before that all happened. So the question is, do those recommendations survive? And it turns out, they not only survive, they thrive. We argued for rapid decarbonization of the electric grid by switching from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. Well, the IRA just made that even easier because economics is now a tailwind instead of a headwind. So across the board, I think it accelerates and emphasizes the suggestions in the book. We have reached an interesting point in the energy economy of the world – it’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.

“It’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.”

WP: I think one of the things that’s frustrating is knowing that renewable energy is popular across the ideological spectrum – that most (70%) of Americans support climate action. It’s actually a more popular issue than people realize. How do you deal with the disconnect in how people see momentum at the state and federal levels? 

HH: Well, to some extent, the waters have been purposefully poisoned by people who resist change. I mean, if you look at the Koch brothers who have made close to hundreds of billions of dollars in the oil and gas business, and then you look at their political contributions, the answer becomes sort of glaringly obvious in some cases. But we also have some responsibility ourselves to think about civic action and how to overcome this. It’s often counterproductive to talk about climate change, instead of clean energy, because the numbers for clean energy are even higher than for climate change, regardless of the fact that they’re the same thing. Start with interests, bring in local examples, and identify those secret levels of power – there’s still powerful economic interests that will fight this, and we can’t win by being too precious. 

WP: I thought it was really interesting at the end of your book that you added a chapter around religion. That was a surprise to me, and I thought it was really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about why you added that and more broadly about what role you think culture needs to play in terms of speeding up this transition?

HH: You know, there’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?

“There’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?”

Do we have the right to destroy the topsoil, to alter the weather patterns to extinguish life in the oceans, to let mighty forests burn, to flood out entire towns? More than half of Pakistan was underwater this year, in terms of the population. So I don’t think we have that right. I don’t think we have the right to cheat future generations for our near-term. And I don’t think we have to. We have to make some hard choices. Avoid doing that. So from my perspective, it is an ethical question, not a religious one. I’m not a religious person. But I hope I’m an ethical person – I try to be on a good day. And that’s where the question arises, you know, what is our obligation? 

WP: And from a broader cultural perspective, what do you feel needs to happen on that front? It feels like a real shift needs to take place in terms of speeding up the rate that we need to act. 

HH: You know, we need to first of all be optimistic about the future, rather than harp on problems. A little bit of optimism goes a long way. I had a friend who said optimism is a social change strategy.

“Optimism is a social change strategy.”

And he’s right. That’s one thing we have to do – ‘pull up your socks’, as they say, in England, go get something done. 

WP: I think that’s part of the challenge, right? Like how do we make building codes, heat pumps, you know, Public Utility Commissions sexy so people think about these issues? It’s not an easy thing, but I think there’s a way to do that and starting with the solutions and the optimism and reaching people in different ways is really important. I’m glad to hear that you feel optimistic and that we’re up to the task. If there is one takeaway that you want to leave people with, what is it?

HH: There’s a lot you can do. It seems like a big intractable problem, but there are opportunities in every corner. In order to find those opportunities, you have to know something – not a lot – but something about the energy system in which decisions are the most critical, who makes those decisions, and how you can intervene in those decisions. It takes a couple of days of homework. It pays to look for groups that are similarly strategic in your region, and then jump in without fear. Right? If we have an ethical duty and great opportunity to quit poisoning our children, let’s do that. 

WP: And take advantage of this opportunity of innovation and economic gain as well.

HH: Yes, exactly. It’s all right there in front of us. 

WP: Well, thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it. 

HH: Thank you Wendy, really delighted to have this chance to catch up.

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Why Art Matters

November 2, 2022

Ultimately, our laws and policies change because the hearts and minds of people change. One way in which we can bridge the gap between scientific facts about climate change and the emotions necessary to inspire action is art.

The art of Nicole Kelner has attracted attention both in and outside the climate and scientific community. Learn more about her work and the role art has to play in the climate movement in this Q&A.

Generation180: Tell us about your background as an artist.

Nicole: I have not always been an artist, but I grew up loving art. I took AP art and took a college level class in high school that I had to drive all the way to Philadelphia for. I didn’t pursue any art classes formally after high school, but creativity has always been a part of my work.

Generation180: Can you walk us a bit through your background in the climate space and your shift into art full-time?

Nicole: I co-founded an after school program teaching kids how to code and sold that in 2019. After completing a zero-waste challenge in 2019, I had a wake-up call. I did a lot of research in order to live a zero-waste lifestyle for that long in a city and decided that I wanted to devote the rest of my career to working in climate. I didn’t know what that would look like, especially since I didn’t have a formal climate-related degree. I was overwhelmed thinking about how I could make a difference on climate as one person, but I eventually found my place.

I started by leveraging my operations background and worked with both Climate Finance Solutions and Dashboard Earth. During the pandemic, like everyone looking for ways to stay positive, I started painting for fun. I challenged myself to paint a watercolor a day for 100 days and began painting a lot of pieces about climate.

My art quickly gained a lot of attention. I quit my job in April and now make art about climate change full-time. I used to just be a member of My Climate Journey, but now I’ve come full circle and am thrilled to be part of their team as their artist-in-residence.

Generation180: You’ve gone viral on Twitter on multiple occasions. Tell us more about how you share your work with others.

Nicole: Primarily Twitter! It’s a great space both for finding inspiration, networking, and sharing my work with others. I also share my work on Instagram and LinkedIn, and offer climate art workshops.

I’m wrapping up my first book, A Brighter Future: Illustrating Climate Change and Solutions, that’s available for pre-order. 

Generation180: Do you have a favorite piece? Explain why.

Nicole: That’s a hard one. In August, I made a piece when the IRA passed that’s still being circulated widely.

It was one of the first pieces that I feel like I made unique content that is useful, actually helps people understand a wonky climate policy, and was fully formed in my brain alone. This piece really showed me that art can make a complex climate topics (read: 300 pages of policy jargon) accessible to everyday people. I’ve even made additional local and state versions, too. 

Generation180: Are there any recent projects that you’re excited about?

Nicole: I just finished a piece for The Guardian and got to work with an investigative journalist which was new for me. I also loved my latest work for RMI and UndauntedK12

Generation180: Who are your favorite artists and which influencers are you following?

Nicole: There are so many—lots of climate scientists and illustrators. I love Pique Action, Ed Hawkins—he inspired my climate stripes piece, creators like Alaina Wood, and illustrators like Mari Andrews.

Generation180: Do you have any advice for artists looking to engage more in the climate movement?

Nicole: We need more of you! Finding any way of taking your own superpower and turning it into climate action is my general advice for anyone, and it can be applied to artists.

“Finding any way of taking your own superpower and turning it into climate action is my general advice for anyone.”

Just get started! Do a side project in climate just to begin to dabble in it, like a musician could do one song in their next album about climate.

Generation180: What gives you hope about our clean energy future?

Nicole: Honestly, all of the investment going into it. By working with MCJ, I get to hear about the companies in our portfolio and learn about the inspiring, innovative technology being created to advance climate solutions. Then, I get hired by them to illustrate their mission. 

I am constantly in the hope mindset and I keep my art focused on hope (with a little dose of we need to do heavy lifting). But it’s essential for us to have hope to be able to get the work done. 

“It’s essential for us to have hope to be able to get the work done.”

Want more? Check out Nicole’s print shop here, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Your Vote Matters

October 19, 2022

If you are a human living on planet earth (which most of us are), then clean energy is an issue that affects your life and your future.   It is most definitely “on the ballot” this November.

It doesn’t take much to see how differently candidates for office see our future – some want to increase Americans’ access to solar, electric vehicles, and other sources of renewable energy, while others want to stay entrenched in polluting, climate-harming energy sources that rely on fossil fuels.  We need people in power who listen to scientists rather than downplaying the certainty and scale of the climate crisis at hand.

We need to let candidates know voters care about clean energy and plan to elect candidates that do, too. It matters for federal, state, and local elections too—places where much of the clean energy action is happening. 

Americans want clean energy

Americans across the political spectrum recognize the importance of climate change as an issue and want clean, renewable energy now. Roughly half of registered voters say climate change is either “very important” or “one of the most important issues” in their vote for who represents them in Congress. 

With increasing weather extremes and hurricanes, climate change is now top of mind for many Americans. In fact, public support for government climate action is higher among U.S. adults who have been personally affected by extreme weather events than those who have not. Bold public investment in clean energy is critical to moving us towards a better future. 

Across both sides of the political spectrum, there is broad support for clean energy policy. In fact, many red states are poised to benefit from clean energy development and local jobs, especially as the South turns into a hub for EV manufacturing.

Climate doesn’t have to be as partisan as we’ve made it out to be. Climate Leadership Council CEO Greg Bertelsen argues that “Republicans in Congress can work on climate change and be on rock solid ground with their base,” pointing to their candidate’s success in previous election cycles. 

In a time of polarization, clean energy continues to poll as a winning issue. The 2021 cycle offers many examples of candidates who emphasized clean energy and climate change more than before, and won. For example, Michelle Wu was elected mayor of Boston following a campaign in which she emphasized environmental justice, sustainable transit, and the need to cut carbon emissions across the economy.

If you care about climate change, head to the polls

Politicians listen to their constituents, so showing up and voting is just as important as who you cast your ballot for. We need more voters showing up at each election and at town halls, telling their representatives that climate is an issue that matters to them.

Since 2015, Environmental Voter Project has contacted 8.6 million non-voters and seldom-voters, and over one million of those people have become “super-voters,” meaning they cast a ballot in every election. These were all once environmentalists who never or rarely voted, but now they consistently vote their values, electing climate champions and voting for clean energy. Now every election, one million more voices elevate the importance of climate as an important issue not to be forgotten.

Your vote matters, so make sure it counts

So if you’re ready to head to the polls, make sure you’re registered and know where your polling place is. Until election day, it’s time to be vocal and influence your networks. Tell your friends and co-workers about why you are voting and what issues matter to you—hint: climate change, clean energy jobs, affordable energy, etc. You can also level-up and take your advocacy to the next level by volunteering with Environmental Voter Project and help turn environmentalists into voters, or volunteer to help staff your local polling place and ensure we have safe, fair, and efficient elections for all.

Want to know who the best climate champions are in your upcoming state and local elections? Check out the nationwide candidate endorsements from Sierra Club. Climate Cabinet has some handy state scorecards for AZ, MN, TX, and NC. Your local Sierra Club chapter should be able to provide greater details regarding local races and ballot measures, too.  The League of Conservation voters has a national environmental scorecard, too. 

Americans support climate policies, but at the same time, we underestimate popular support for climate action by nearly half. The climate movement can’t afford to only get political every 2 or 4 years—having climate champions in local offices are key to moving climate policy forward year-round.

We need your voice. Show up to the polls this election—and every election—to vote clean energy.

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Meeting the Moment—What’s Next for the Clean Energy Movement

October 5, 2022

This blog comes from the desk of Wendy Philleo, the Executive Director of Generation180.

As we head into a very busy fall season, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the new clean energy landscape before us and what it means for Generation180’s work and our potential for impact. 

A year ago, the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) was being signed into law. That $550B action paved the way for the $54.2B in the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS) and the largest investment in clean energy America has ever made with the $369B Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed into law this summer. 

Combined, the brain (CHIPS), backbone (IIJA), and engine (IRA) will spur clean energy innovation while building out essential infrastructure to scale clean energy technologies quickly. They will also create long-term certainty for industry to keep innovating and driving down costs.

All of this is to say, these three pieces of federal legislation are a very big deal. They make the biggest investment in clean energy and climate in U.S. history, and while it took decades of advocates demanding action to get here, arguably the most challenging work is now ahead of us in implementation. Now that we have federal funding, let’s get to work and start proving how clean energy benefits all Americans. 

While it took decades of advocates demanding action to get here, arguably the most challenging work is now ahead of us in implementation.

Here’s where we see the greatest gains for solar schools, electric vehicles (including school buses), and homes.

More Schools Powered by Clean Energy

With nearly 50 million students attending over 130,000 K-12 schools, the education sector – schools in  particular – have an important role to play in our country’s transition to clean energy. Our recent Brighter Future report  found that since 2015, the amount of solar installed at K-12 schools has tripled. Despite this growth, only 9% of schools have gone solar. 

We are on the path to a brighter future, but we have a long way to go to reach our goal of 100% clean energy powered schools. More than $500 million in new federal funding will soon go to readying schools across the country for clean power solar installation and more energy efficiency. These investments benefit schools and the climate while improving indoor air quality and introducing Pre-K students to STEM. Schools ready to go solar can find out more here.

How students get to class each day also matters. There are nearly half of a million school buses on the road today, and the vast majority are dirty diesel buses. The millions of children currently riding these buses are breathing in toxic tailpipe pollution, and we have the opportunity–with more than $5 billion in federal funds for school districts–to switch to clean, zero emissions buses, charging infrastructure and operations.

Electric buses improve air quality and health outcomes, particularly for low-income communities and communities of color that disproportionately suffer the harmful effects of air pollution. Switching all of the nation’s school buses to electric would reduce the emissions equivalent to taking over 1 million cars off the road.

Electrification of Everything Becomes Easier

Which leads us to the choice that all drivers have to make their next car electric. The recent legislation has incentives that make EV ownership a no-brainer with rebates for new and used electric vehicles, $5 billion to build the nationwide network of fast chargers deployed across all 50 U.S. states, and the added benefit of supporting a renaissance of American jobs and manufacturing with EV battery plants and semiconductor factories dotting the country. 

U.S. automakers have picked up on this market demand signal and are working to deliver new EV models at unprecedented speed. With transportation being the leading source of climate-harming carbon emissions in the United States, EV adoption could come at no better time. Our national Electrify Your Ride campaign is helping to capitalize on national momentum around electric car driving by busting myths and encouraging Americans to sign the Going Electric pledge. 

Electrifying your life may begin with a major decision like owning an EV, but it doesn’t stop there. Choices we make every day–like what kind of transportation we use, how we heat the air and water in our homes, cook our food and dry our clothes–can all be electric. 

Americans in every zip code across the country can reduce their energy bills and electrify their homes through new federal tax credits and direct rebates that offset up-front costs. In addition to solar system and EV rebates, benefits for homes include credits for electric stoves, dryers, battery storage, heat pump water heaters, breaker box upgrades, home energy audits, electrical wiring, weatherization, and efficiency improvements. These seemingly small changes add up to big benefits for your wallet, climate, and personal comfort.

What You Can Do

Through this influx of new federal funding, individuals are incentivized to take action. For specific steps you can take, check out our list on how to make your energy matter. The best way for individuals to maximize their impact is to use their voice to influence change at the local, state, and national level.

The best way for individuals to maximize their impact is to use their voice to influence change at the local, state, and national level.

We need to discuss this issue at the dinner table and in our daily lives. Almost 80% of Americans support climate policies, yet a recent study shows that we underestimate popular support for climate action by nearly half. Americans need to raise their voices on this issue and show up to vote for clean energy at every election, whether it’s a local, state or national race.

While this nearly $1 trillion investment spanning the next 10 years is significant, the process of drafting and passing these bills largely left out environmental justice communities – key voices who experience frontline injury from entrenched fossil fuel interests across the U.S. These investments are only a beginning in terms of supplying critical resources to bolster community resilience to floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters made worse by climate change. 

Unprecedented Times Call for Unprecedented Communications

We are in uncharted territory with this new funding. For this earthshot to be successful, organizations, leaders, and advocates will need to double down on efforts to help schools and communities understand and utilize these new clean energy investments. 

We need a historic investment in communications and outreach to help Americans take advantage of these incentives. These incentives are useless if Americans don’t even know about them. In addition, we need to pay close attention to state implementation to ensure rapid execution and deployment of the funding in these bills and keep the pressure on at the local and state levels.

This is a moment for our country that we will never get back. We have a limited window to make the changes we need in time. Fortunately, we have the solutions and public support to fight climate change is at an all-time high. We just have to step on the accelerator.  Our collective momentum as Americans to demand a better  – a cleaner energy future for all  – is dependent on what we do in the coming years to make the clean energy balancing act finally tip in our favor.

Together, we’ve got this.

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How to cope with eco-anxiety

August 24, 2022

Gen180’s Designer, Bri Graves, wrote this piece for us to share her strategies for coping with the stress of climate change.

My little sister and I are 17 years apart in age. I’m like the cool aunt that swings by with gifts and games, while my parents take on the daily tasks of raising her. That being said, we as adults all share the burden of thinking about her future. Having her in my life has made me think of the future of our home—earth—in a deeply personal and emotional way.

In some ways, I feel a sense of relief now that the most prominent piece of climate legislation in a generation isn’t just being talked about, but finally becoming action. The Inflation Reduction Act is a 10-year investment in averting the worst of what we anticipate climate change to look like. However, anticipating the worst is a strange outlook to have and I know millions of other Millennials feel the same. 

Facing climate change is just one of many global (and personal) crises we are all navigating while attempting to fully live every day.

“Eco-anxiety” is the new term for this widespread fear of the planet’s future, and it can be debilitating. The problem isn’t going away tomorrow, so I rounded up some tools and strategies to cope with it.

What is eco-anxiety, and who does it affect?

The American Psychological Association defines it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”

A Gallup poll showed that 70% of 18 to 34 year-olds “worry a great deal/fair amount about global warming,” while just 56% of those 55 and older had the same level of worry. A similar poll, which surveyed 10,000 young people in 10 different countries, found that nearly half of respondents believe “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”

Many of these anxious young people (AKA me), are resorting to therapy for relief.

Dr. Thomas Doherty, a psychologist who specializes in climate, was one of the few therapists who recognized how a bleak environmental future could negatively affect people’s psyches. His area of expertise is in such high demand that he’s built his own practice to help those suffering from eco-anxiety. Many of his clients report frustrations with other therapists who dismiss their climate worries and advise them to focus on themselves instead.

Besides a pervasive sense of “environmental doom,” there are big life questions that people are struggling to answer in the face of an uncertain future.

Am I complicit in climate change if I travel by car or plane? Should I avoid living in coastal cities due to flood risks?

A common ingredient in the eco-anxiety stew is a healthy dose of guilt. Many recognize that everyday activities like driving to work or eating red meat are worsening the problem, and feel shame for not being able to fully eliminate their carbon footprints.

It’s actually fossil fuel conglomerates that triggered the shift in blame from companies to consumers. British Petroleum (BP), one of the biggest oil companies in the world, hired a PR firm in the 2000s to promote the idea that individuals are to be blamed for climate change, not big oil companies. Thus, the concept of a “carbon footprint” was born, and the company set up a footprint calculator so consumers could see just how much damage they were responsible for.

I’m not trying to say here that the idea of a carbon footprint should be thrown out the window, but you shouldn’t have to entirely give up traveling while fossil fuel companies continue to make billions with far greater planetary impacts. Making more informed travel decisions (ie., fly less, take the train or bus over flying, carpool) is a great place to start.

The decision of where to live in a changing climate also is a tricky one. The University of Maryland has a website that estimates what the climate of various cities will look like in 60 years. Unfortunately, cities like Miami are at high risk for frequent flooding in the future and I worry about my loved ones there. I think about where my parents are going to retire with climate projections and longevity in mind.

What about having kids? I always thought that skipping this step was the most impactful climate decision I could make.

My generation is having second thoughts about bringing more people into a rapidly-worsening environment. Eleven percent of childless adults point to climate change as a “major reason” for why they don’t currently have children. More people means more emissions, the logic goes.

But is that really the case? Scientist Kimberly Nicholas doesn’t think so. She doesn’t deny that having fewer kids could reduce our collective carbon footprint, but thinks that couples that want to start a family shouldn’t hesitate to do so.

We only have a few more years to avert the worst impacts of climate change, and the timeframe for when babies will become significant carbon emitters is much longer than this. Many studies show astronomical climate impacts from having children, but these studies largely ignore changes in government policy in the future, which are highly likely.

Plus, children raised in an environmentally-conscious household could grow up to be government leaders, or entrepreneurs, or breakthrough scientists. So, if you want to start a family, do it! But if the feeling still nags at you, and if adoption is on the table, there already are lots of children that need a home.

Strategies for coping

There are several strategies that therapists like Dr. Doherty recommend to cope with eco-anxiety:

  • Focus on resilience. When anxiety has us in its vice grip, focusing that energy on growing more resilient can be a relief. As medical and mental health practitioners Cook-Shonkoff and Tummala explain:

“Think about personal resilience like a rubber band: If you stretch it a reasonable amount, it naturally springs back to its original form when released. But if you keep stretching, it will snap. With the climate crisis here, we must choose to stretch ourselves, pulling on our resilience as much as we can.”

  • Look to groups like the Climate Psychology Alliance and the Good Grief Network for support. They focus on alleviating eco-distress. Connecting with others who have similar feelings can be comforting.
  • Acknowledge difficult emotions, and give them space to breathe. Emotions can be like whack-a-mole—if you try to keep pushing them down, they’ll just reappear later. Meditation has gone mainstream and is a wonderful way to clear and open your mind. If sitting in Lotus position for long periods of time isn’t for you, a simple walk around the block or a 10 minute journaling session works, too. Try these exercises, track what works for you, and develop your catered-to-you routine.
  • Schedule a “worry break” into your day. During this time, give yourself space to identify your fears of the future, and feel them fully—accepting emotions and can actually help you process them, especially painful emotions like fear and anger, more quickly.

Acknowledging how eco-anxiety affects us isn’t a sign of defeat for yourself or the planet. Remember what flight attendants tell us before takeoff—be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.

One of the best ways to combat anxiety is to take direct action.  Joining Generation180 has alleviated much of my climate-anxiety by giving me purpose and a voice in the movement. Check out the many ways you can help accelerate the transition to clean energy—trust me, it will help.

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I want to buy an EV… now what?

July 20, 2022

With many of us grappling with months of high prices at the pump, it’s no wonder that 36% of people recently polled by Consumer Reports said they plan to buy or lease an all-electric vehicle (EV). Hundreds of thousands of prospective EV owners have pledged to make their next car electric. If you’re ready to go electric today, after talking to an EV owner – what’s your first step?

1. Consider your driving habits

Do you live in an urban area where you routinely take short trips (the average daily commute is only around 30 miles) or will you need a vehicle with a greater range? This will impact what type of EV you’re looking for: an older EV model (typically with a smaller battery capacity) or a newer model with an extended range. (The Hyundai Ioniq 5 can go more than 300 miles on a single charge!)

2. Map out your accessibility to charging infrastructure

In the Consumer Reports poll, 61% of those responding they were not planning to get an EV cited charging logistics as a barrier, while 52% pointed to costs. Many EVs can charge using a common 110 volt electrical outlet (the same type of outlet you’d plug your toaster into), but it will take longer to charge the battery. Faster charging options cost more to install, but give greater certainty you’ll get into a car with a fully charged battery. 

Charging infrastructure now is widely available in many cities across the country in shopping centers and other areas where people tend to drive and leave their cars for long periods of time. More workplaces are even jumping on the charging infrastructure wagon to encourage employees who may want to return to the office. You can also have a Level 2 charger installed at home for even faster charge times—it runs on the same power as your dryer—but requires an electrician to install. Many dealers can help you find an experienced local electrician to help.

3. Check your insurance coverage

With any large, long-term purchase, you’ll want to protect your EV whether you are leasing it or outright buying it. Calling ahead to check auto insurance rates will give you a full picture of any potential changes in coverage amounts, deductibles, or other unanticipated costs. While you’re at it, confirm with your homeowners or renters insurance carrier of any changes that might occur to that policy should you install a charging system. 

4. Check for incentives to cash in on all of the benefits of EV ownership.

Many states offer their own financial incentives – in addition to the federal rebate – for EVs. Remember, the federal government also offers up to a $7500 rebate on most models to EV drivers when they purchase the vehicle – and that’s money that can go toward insurance, charging infrastructure, or buying a car with even more range. 

5. Review your past three months of electricity bills. 

While you’ll no longer be at the mercy of the world oil market prices, you’ll still need to fuel up your EV. Being aware of your current electricity rate will give you a sense of the long-term savings after the upfront installation costs. Also think of the time you’ll save not taking those trips to the gas station and charging up at home—that’s time and money you get back.

6. Plan your trip to the DMV. 

Most U.S. states treat electric car purchases no differently than a traditional fossil-fuel-powered purchase. Whether you get your car in or outside of the state you live in, the DMV of your home state will want the following information. Tip: if you buy from an auto dealer, they do all of this for you.

  • The vehicle’s title 
  • A record of the odometer mileage (if the vehicle is less than 10 years old).
  • A smog certification (check with your state – no tailpipe might mean no smog test)
  • Applicable state and EV fees and a use tax.

7. Start Shopping

It is a seller’s market for EVs right now with most models being very tough to come by, but that shouldn’t stop you from jumping into the test drive process. Start by contacting local dealerships to see if they carry the model or meet the criteria of the type of EV you’re looking for. If they don’t have a model currently on the lot, ask if they anticipate a delivery or get their recommendation for who to contact next. You can also search car sites like carmax.com, edmunds.com, or carvana.com to learn more about inventory in your area and where you’ll soon drive off with the EV vehicle of your dreams. 

8. Can’t get your hands on an EV? 

You can still sign the pledge to make your next car purchase electric and become an ambassador for electric vehicles to drive public adoption and bust misconceptions. Already signed it? Send the link to a friend (or teenager and soon-to-be-driver) who should join you. 

Remember, at the end of the day, an electric vehicle is still just a car—it’s just a better car that is more fun to drive, saves you money, and has zero tailpipe emissions.

Want more? Here are some excellent resources that won’t leave you driving a lemon.

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Should I buy carbon offsets for my summer vacay?

June 22, 2022

After a grueling couple of years, that summer vacation you kept putting off is right around the corner.

Between thoughts of piña coladas and palm trees, a wave of guilt washes over you—how much environmental damage will that round-trip plane ticket cause?

You’re not alone in this thought. Businesses and consumers alike have embraced the carbon offset market in recent years as a way of canceling out environmentally-damaging activities like flying.

The process for buying these offsets as an individual is a breeze—websites like Cool Effect make estimating your planned emissions and purchasing equivalent offsets easier than kicking back on the beach.

But, when you look under the hood, problems with this market start to emerge. Offsets can be greatly exaggerated, allowing companies to greenwash their efforts by claiming “net zero” operations while still producing substantial emissions. In many cases, that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of carbon offset ethics, let’s take a step back to understand how they work.

Carbon Offsets 101

Carbon Offset Guide defines an offset as “a reduction in GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions – or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or the planting of trees) – that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.”

It’s as simple as it sounds—your seat on a plane to Cancún represents a percentage of the flight’s total emissions, which is theoretically offset by a carbon-reducing activity initiated from your purchase.

Credit: The Guardian, Berger & Wyse

The more emissions you’re responsible for, the more offsets you need to buy. Bill Gates, who racks up emissions jetting around the world, has said that he spends “about $5 million every year to offset [his] family’s carbon footprint.”

While carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most well-known climate change culprit, it isn’t the only pollutant traded in these markets. 

Other compounds like methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) also have a warming effect. In order to compare apples to apples, each compound is calculated as a “CO2 equivalent” (CO2e). In simple terms, if a compound has triple the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, it would have a CO2e of three.

Methane and CFCs have much more GWP than CO2—so why the incessant focus on carbon?

Mostly, it’s because CO2 makes up the overwhelming majority of GHG emissions. Other compounds have higher GWP, but their concentrations in the atmosphere are far lower.

The point is—emissions offsets are priced in terms of CO2 equivalents, even if CO2 isn’t the compound being offset.

Voluntary vs Cap and Trade Markets

There are two types of carbon offset markets—voluntary and cap and trade. When you’re thinking about purchasing credits to offset vacation emissions, you’re in the former camp. Just as it sounds – voluntary means that individuals and companies are proactively opting into choosing to offset their emissions debt. This practice can be both altruistic and a form of greenwashing by some companies looking to gain public goodwill.

Cap and trade works a bit differently. In order to incentivize emissions-reducing innovations, governments allot a total number of metric tons of CO2e that each company within an industry is allowed to emit each year. Companies that stay under this cap can sell their excess emissions capacity to others whose operations put them over the limit.

With each passing year, the cap gets lower and lower until it eventually hits zero. The idea is that this scheme gives companies time to adjust their operations to a net-zero world, with innovative companies being rewarded in the meantime. Cap and trade is a mandatory policy lever that more than a dozen U.S. states participate in to meet their climate goals.

And some companies, like Tesla (ever heard of it?), have cashed in.

In the first quarter of 2021, Tesla generated an eye-popping $518 million in emissions credit revenue, representing nearly all of its profit for the quarter. As an automaker, the company receives credits that it doesn’t use, since it exclusively produces electric vehicles (EVs). It sells those credits to combustion-engine producers that need more than their allotted share to stay under the cap.

This all sounds good on paper. Tesla is doing the environment a favor by mass-producing EVs, and is rewarded with a double advantage—its competitors lose money from purchasing credits, and that cash goes directly into Tesla’s pocket. I imagine there’ve been many curse words directed towards Elon in Detroit boardrooms.

So, what’s the issue?

While offsets may work relatively well in the auto market, credits sold from other sources—especially protected forests—are more dubious.

Not all credits are created equal

Many assert that offsets have rightly hastened the transition to an EV future. But the question becomes thornier when offsets in the form of forest protections are sold.

Municipalities across the U.S. have their eye on the pot of money offsets represent. Michigan has already gotten into the game.

The state anticipates generating 10 million credits via forest protections over the next decade, creating a windfall for its government. The problem is, its forest managers don’t expect any change in how the land is managed as a result of the credits. There will be no reduction in timber harvesting and no increase in protected areas.

So, if management of the forests isn’t changing as a result of the credits sold, have the credits actually done anything to reduce GHG emissions?

Welcome to the problem of additionality. An offset is considered ‘additional’ if its purchase creates an environmental benefit that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. So, credits sold in the name of protecting a forest that’s already protected wouldn’t meet this criterion. States like Michigan assert that, in the absence of the revenue generated from selling offsets, timber harvests would drastically increase. Upon closer examination, this claim seems suspicious.

Forest management is a delicate exercise. Competing interests such as ecological protection, timber harvesting, recreation, and wildfire management all need to be balanced, and it isn’t easy to drastically increase or reduce harvesting quotas without knock-on effects.

And additionality isn’t the only cause for concern. Permanence is the second pillar of a high-quality carbon credit—it refers to the likelihood that the offset-induced carbon reductions will last forever, or at least a really long time.

In the case of forests, this is a precarious assertion. Just last year, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon burned nearly 400,000 acres, wiping out a fifth of forests set aside for offsets. Purchasers of those offsets were promised a one-hundred-year survival.

With the majority of carbon offsets in the U.S. being designated as “Improved Forest Management,” additionality and permanence concerns cast doubt on the future of the market.

Keep it local for a greater impact

If it’s not clear by now, the carbon offset market has a long way to go to become sufficiently transparent and reliable. It’s a good concept, but needs more robust enforcement.

In the meantime, there are better ways to reduce your footprint rather than purchasing carbon offsets:

  1. Instead of flying, take a train to your destination, if possible. Travel by train cuts your carbon footprint in half versus flying. (Author’s note: The problem is, there aren’t many trains to island destinations).
  2. Better yet, calculate the cost of offsetting your emissions using a calculator like Cool Effect. Once you have a total cost, donate that money to a local environmental initiative. This way, you can actually see a tangible climate benefit from your cash.
  3. Put that money towards savings for an EV or solar panel for your house. Switching to renewable energy sources is one of the most high-impact behaviors individuals can take to battle climate change.

This is all to say that navigating the carbon offset market is murky right now. But, there are a number of nonprofit groups, businesses, and individuals working to make it clearer for the millions of altruistic individuals and companies that want to make good on their intentions for the planet. Funding climate mitigation projects thousands of miles away may make sense for some companies making large offset purchases. In the meantime, individuals can make the biggest difference to minimize their carbon footprint through local choices made every day about where to eat, what to buy, or the types of transportation to use.

By keeping your climate impact local, you can inspire others and see a tangible benefit from your actions. Until carbon offset markets have matured, this is your best bet for minimizing your carbon footprint and inspiring action in others.

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Investing in the climate while you sleep

June 8, 2022

This post originally appeared in Looking Forward, the climate solutions newsletter from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. It was written by Fix’s climate solutions fellow, Marigo Farr.

Earth with green dollar bill texture for land

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Shortly after I was born, my parents and grandmother started investing money that would be passed on to me as an adult. I didn’t think much about it until my early 20s, when I asked my father if he had any idea what kinds of stocks they had purchased. He said something like, “I believe I told the bank guy, ‘No guns, no tobacco, no oil.’” I hoped he was right, but I didn’t look into it for another decade. When I finally did, I realized he was wrong.

On this Earth Day eve, I’ve been thinking about what we do with our dollars — not by donating, which is also important, but by asking the question: “Where does my money sleep at night?” This concept was shared with me by Robert Mante, director of consumer investments at Amalgamated Bank. It essentially means that money doesn’t just sit around like treasure in a vault. Banks (or you) use it to finance something concrete in the world. The question is, what?

If you don’t know the answer, it likely includes something you wouldn’t be happy to support. The world’s 60 largest banks directed $4.6 trillion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2021. In addition to personal investments managed by these banks, everyday customer checking and savings accounts also contribute to a bank’s income stream, enabling the financing of things like fracked gas pipelines, Arctic drilling, and mountaintop removal.

But consumers are taking notice and demanding alternatives, calling on big banksuniversity endowments, and other institutions to divest from fossil fuels. And in parallel, new, greener banking services and investment options have emerged. In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d share some of the choices I’ve made about where my money sleeps, and how I’ve moved it to help support the kinds of projects I value.

If you have any amount of money in a bank

Blue piggy bank surrounded by dollar-textured leaves and yellow coins

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Just like you consider environmental impacts when weighing options at the grocery store, you can do the same when choosing a bank. After years of feeling intimidated by the myriad choices out there and the potential for “greenwashing,” I finally opened up a checking account at a green bank. I chose Ando and researched it enough to discern what buzzwords like “sustainable” and “green” actually meant to the company — no lending to fossil fuels, as certified by the third-party organization Bank.Green. Ando also gave me the option of naming my priorities, such as clean energy, sustainable transportation, and green buildings.

If you’ve been pondering a switch, you can check out other Bank.Green fossil-free certified banks here, or use the platform Mighty to customize a search for banks that reflect a range of values that are important to you. From my experience, it takes less time to switch than you think. A lot of these services do the heavy lifting for you, including quick account setups online and automatic transfer of your money from your existing bank.

If you want to try investing for the climate, with as little as $100

Hand cupped with dollar-textured stem growing from palm and yellow coins surrounding

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

In addition to divesting my personal accounts from fossil fuel lenders, I’ve been pondering the question, “What is the alternative I want to invest in?” I learned about an approach often referred to as community investment. Unlike purchasing publicly traded shares in for-profit companies, the idea is to put your money directly into mission-driven projects that often have community involvement, or mission-driven funds that finance those projects.

Energea and Sunwealth are both solar developers that let individuals invest in community solar projects. For me, helping to make a specific solar project possible felt like a really tangible way to start. With Energea, you can invest as little as $100 and receive monthly cash dividends immediately. If you’re new to this kind of investment, like I was when I put in my first $500, the Energea returns calculator is a helpful tool for visualizing projected outcomes and experimenting with different cash inputs.

Another example is Kachuwa Impact Fund, which provides financing for multiple mission-oriented companies, such as solar cooperative Namaste Solar and woman- and POC-owned energy-efficiency company ​​COI Energy Services. The fund is open to everyday investors at a minimum of $5,000.

You can also go the route of investing directly in your own community, if you know of projects you care about that are looking for backers.

If you want to explore the stock market, and do it as green as possible

Yellow arrow zig-zagging on blue graph paper with dollar-textured leaves surrounding

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Last year, in my efforts to divest from fossil fuels, I sold all of my personal investments and put them into renewable energy portfolios like iShares Global Clean Energy ETF and portfolios screened as “socially responsible” or meeting Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. It felt like a good step, but since then, I have learned that some ESG portfolios can include fossil fuel companies. The good news is, there are investment services that can provide you with transparent, curated investment portfolios screened for fossil fuels — one example is Amalgamated Bank’s Fossil Fuel Free portfolio, which consists of a “sustainability” component as well as a strictly screened ESG component. (It does have a $15,000 minimum, but there’s no stated minimum for starting your own portfolio at Amalgamated, which you can customize with the help of an adviser.)

There are also plenty of investment management services, such as Natural Investments and Revalue, that specialize in environmentally and socially responsible publicly traded stock options as well as direct and community investing. And it’s worth noting that renewable power investments have been outperforming fossil fuels for years — a trend that’s likely to continue, according to Forbes.

The 2022 Banking on Climate Chaos report, compiled by Rainforest Action Network and other environmental orgs, states that in order to move toward a world that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and “fully respects human rights,” banks must prohibit financing for all fossil fuel expansion projects and phase out financing for existing fossil fuel infrastructure. I believe that is a call to action — and one that we can all be part of answering. I didn’t dramatically change my lifestyle in order to take steps toward aligning my money with my values. Mostly, it was a few conversations and clicks of a mouse. By doing that little bit of extra work, we can be levers in the shift to a greener, more compassionate economy.

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In predicting the future of climate change, we are the X factor

April 20, 2022

Over the past few decades, climate modelers have been busy tinkering with their datasets and scenarios to try to make sense of where we’re headed. For the most part, it looks daunting – greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and at the current rate we’re unlikely to be able to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century (the stretch goal of the Paris Agreement). But most climate models are telling only part of the story – and that’s actually a good thing, especially for those of us who want to make a real difference on climate and clean energy. 

Current modeling relies on a few key solution areas when developing pathways for how we might (collectively) avoid the most devastating impacts of a heated planet. Most of these scenarios hinge on the critical role of “supply-side” technologies to bring down emissions – things like ramping up wind and solar power, finding more efficient ways to heat and cool buildings, and shifting to low-carbon ways of getting around, like electric vehicles. These are all good things, of course. (Some models also consider options like removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is less proven and more controversial.)

Fossil fuel companies (rightfully) get the lion’s share of the blame for the crisis we find ourselves in. They have rigged the energy and political system for years — including bold-faced lying to Congress for decades and showing no signs of stopping. However, our individual lifestyle choices have also contributed to this mess. With all the focus on techno-solutions, models overlook this key variable: us. Or more specifically, human choices and behavior.

In part, it’s our activities and lifestyles – and the infrastructure and systems that we’ve developed to support them – that contribute to carbon emissions. We need to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions, but it turns out that individuals can have an outsized impact in being part of the solution.

Our hidden human potential

A quick glance at the data reveals what’s at stake here. Studies show that around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to household consumption – by our rapacious demand for everything from energy to the latest iPhone, from burgers to… all the rest. So while we unquestionably need to adopt new clean tech that will enable us to keep fossil fuels in the ground, changing how we live (i.e., our behavior) is also crucial. What we eat, where we live, how we travel, and what we do for fun all have an impact on our planet. And all of these individual choices add up — far more than we think. According to the United Nations, to achieve the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, each person on Earth, on average, would need to be emitting around 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2030, and only 0.7 tons by 2050. For comparison, the average American emits 16 tons annually, one of the highest rates in the world. Getting to a climate-compatible future would require reducing U.S. lifestyle emissions more than 90 percent.

Getting to a climate-compatible future would require reducing U.S. lifestyle emissions more than 90 percent.

Fortunately, our daily activities and choices are also our secret emissions-fighting weapon. Studies show that, individually, we can make the biggest difference on climate by cutting our emissions in food, housing, and transport – transitioning to plant-based diets, adopting clean energy by installing solar or participating in community solar programs, and choosing alternatives to personal car use and frequent flying. As individuals – and collectively, as families, neighborhoods, and societies — we can make decisions overnight to change our behavior – for example, to stop eating beef or to take a bus or train instead of a plane. Often, this can have quicker results than, say, waiting for our local electricity system to transition to renewables (which of course also needs to happen). 

Shifting the narrative

In taking climate action, we need to operate on multiple fronts, recognizing that while we have impacts as individuals, our decisions are also constrained by the systems that surround us. That’s why we need all hands on deck: we’ll have to shift our lifestyles as well as the systems that normalize how we live. But advocating for behavioral change is tricky: nobody wants to tell people what to do. So it’s no surprise that modelers, policymakers, and even environmental groups have tiptoed around lifestyle interventions as a climate solution. 

The thing is, we’ve been telling the story all wrong. Living more sustainable lives isn’t necessarily about “giving up” or “reducing” (unless you own five mega-yachts, but that’s a different story). It’s about finding opportunities for all of us to meet our needs and live healthy and happy lives, but in ways that use fewer resources and release fewer emissions. This requires thinking more broadly about our ways of living and asking: how can we enjoy many of the same pleasures and relationships, and feel the same sense of abundance, but with vastly lower carbon footprints?

The good news is that, compared to a decade ago, the narrative is already shifting. Nearly everywhere you look, people are embracing creative new approaches to living sustainably. More than 70 percent of Americans are now interested in buying electric cars (and they’re feeling good about it). This year, the UN is focusing World Environment Day (June 6) on the theme Only One Earth, highlighting the need for “transformative changes – through policies and our choices – towards cleaner, greener lifestyles.”

In even better news, a clean energy lifestyle brings a higher quality of life. The reduced pollution, cheaper prices, and better experience of clean energy all improve our lives in tangible ways.

Tweaking the models

Which brings us to why – just maybe – we can start to be more optimistic about climate modeling. Because modelers haven’t been telling the full story about the role of human behavior in shaping emissions, there’s a lot of potential for tweaking – potentially radically adjusting – our scenarios, to get to more informed (and perhaps more hopeful) outcomes. Rapid change in human behavior isn’t just possible, it can have real, measurable impacts – we only have to look back to the Covid-19 lockdowns for proof that behavior change (like driving less), at a massive scale and in a short time period, can lead to a dramatic drop in emissions. Popular lifestyle changes, like adopting an electric vehicle or rooftop solar, can go viral quickly as people influence family, friends, and peers to make the switch.

 

We only have to look back to the Covid-19 lockdowns for proof that behavior change (like driving less), at a massive scale and in a short time period, can lead to a dramatic drop in emissions.

Studies affirm this. For example, researchers with the University of California at Davis recently tweaked their modeling to explore how evolving social norms and behaviors could lead to potential tipping points in the uptake of clean energy, thereby accelerating emission cuts and changing the global emissions trajectory. Of the 100,000 possible futures generated in the model, nearly a third showed emissions falling rapidly due to positive feedback loops linked to human behavior, resulting in warming of only 1.8°C by 2100 – close to the targeted 1.5°C, even without the use of carbon removal technology. Overall, the study finds that by considering social factors, global warming could be around 0.5 degrees Celsius lower by 2100 compared with what was predicted following last year’s UN climate summit.

Encouragingly, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in early April, gives unprecedented coverage to the role of cultural and lifestyle change in reducing emissions, noting that incorporating human behavior into climate models “will expand and improve long-term mitigation scenarios.” The IPCC report highlights the value of modeling “low energy demand” scenarios that factor in more efficient resource use and adjustments in people’s consumption patterns, such as shorter showers, lower heating settings, reduced appliance use, teleworking, avoiding travel, shifts to public transit, uptake of less meat-intensive diets, and reducing food waste. Such interventions could result in additional gigaton-scale emission savings – “beyond the savings achieved in traditional technology-centric mitigation scenarios” – and at lower overall costs. 

Given the IPCC findings that lifestyle choices — when adopted at large — can make significant impact in reducing global emissions, and the UC Davis findings that individuals — when acting communally — can instate positive feedback loops that convince others to adopt these lifestyle changes, it is clear that individual actions matter — a lot. Your sphere of influence is larger than you think it is, and when your actions help inspire collective action, bigger pieces fall into place—both politically and in your local community. Alice Larkin of the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says “while governments do need to take tough action, they derive their courage to do so from the conduct of citizens.”

Lifestyle interventions aren’t just “another area to consider” in addressing the climate crisis. They’re critical to advancing our climate and sustainability goals — here’s the kicker: in combination with structural changes and political action that enable us to make low-carbon choices. 

So yes, there is a (really big) role for individuals to play in the climate and clean energy movement. In fact we need individuals to adopt a lifestyle that aligns with their values and then talk about it — to their friends, families, employers, and legislators. We need a secret weapon in the fight against climate change, and it turns out it’s the person reading this.