This Earth Day, a scientist shares tips for building climate action into everyday life

A woman riding an orange bike takes a selfie
Sara Smith takes a selfie during her evening bike commute as the sun sets above the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis on Jan. 31.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Monday is Earth Day, an event created in 1970 to raise awareness about protecting the environment.

Back then, climate change wasn’t a household term. But this past winter was the warmest on record in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The global problem may be more visible in people’s lives than it was a few years ago, but that has not made it clearer how they can help solve it.

University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership Director Heidi Roop published a book called “The Climate Action Handbook” to help people figure out where to jump in.

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She joined MPR News host Nina Moini to hear how some Minnesotans are approaching everyday climate action and share advice.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: Today is Earth Day, an event created in 1970 to raise awareness about protecting the environment. Back then, climate change wasn't a household term, but this past winter was the warmest on record in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. This global problem may be more visible in people's lives than it was a few years ago, but that doesn't make it any clearer on how to help solve it.

Climate scientist Heidi Roop published a book called Climate Action Handbook to help people figure out where to jump in. She's Director of the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership, and she joins me now. Thanks for being here, Heidi.

HEIDI ROOP: Thanks for having me. Happy Earth Day.

NINA MOINI: Happy Earth Day. I really, really love that you've created this resource for people. Because a lot of people do wonder, I know I could be doing more. How do I put it into action? So what are the first steps you recommend for people who don't really know where to start?

HEIDI ROOP: Well, I will be clear. Even though I'm a climate scientist who thinks about climate and wants to be part of the solution every day, I had that same nagging question.


HEIDI ROOP: What can I do? What do I do? Is it enough? How do we contribute to be part of a solution for such a large and massive problem? If there were a single answer, I'd, of course, give that to you. But what can people do-- and again, this is something I ask myself every day-- is finding a place to start. So we talk a lot about different climate and environment-friendly solutions. I'm sure people are familiar with the adage, "Earth Day is every day, or every day is Earth Day."

The handbook was really a way to learn about the ways that I could show up today with little, individual nudges and behavior changes, like slowing down the shipping of packages that may or may not arrive on my doorstep at a higher frequency than I care to admit along with things like being more energy efficient with my home and also pushing towards the much-needed collective and systems-based changes that are essential to confront the climate crisis.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, just little pivots here and there that can add up. Well, let's hear from a couple people about what they're doing to address climate change in their lives. Sophia was at Boom Island Park with her family for an Earth Day cleanup event on Saturday. Take a listen.

SOPHIA: We have those far three rain barrels. That's enough to water our garden or maybe wash our car with it as well. We try to turn off all lights, too, and we have solar panels at home. We try to go out on hikes to make our little girl aware of what nature is and how to help out with it. So yeah.

NINA MOINI: Those are good, good things that they're doing. They got federal tax breaks and help from a local nonprofit to get solar panels on their house. Heidi, do you have any advice for renters who need energy but want to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels?

HEIDI ROOP: That's a great question and one that comes up a lot. I also am not able to use solar panels as a source of energy in my home, as are many renters in Minnesota and beyond.

And so increasingly, our utilities have opportunities to opt in to more renewable energy, supports the renewable energy mix. So you can be getting more renewable power by way of signaling your support through your utility. I know in the territory I am in for my utility, those programs are oversubscribed. Increasingly, there are opportunities for community-based solar.

And we can be doing things at home, no matter where your home is, whether it has solar panels on it or not, to be more efficient with the energy that we do use. So these are things like making sure you're using LED light bulbs but also other energy efficiency things. One I learned and deploy is washing all of my laundry in cold water, still get clean clothes, use a lot less power, often much of that fossil fuel to clean those clothes. So just a few, again, building that climate-action mindset in those small things and those big things we can do.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, good tips. Thank you. So, Sophia, who we just heard from, who had the solar panels, has taken a lot of steps in her own life. But she also had this question.

SOPHIA: I'd like to maybe get tips on how to make our friends or family more aware of climate change, of what they could do to help out.

NINA MOINI: That's a really good point, Heidi. I mean, people that you want to nudge in your life around you. Do you have any advice for her on that?

HEIDI ROOP: Yes. And this is a-- talking with your family and friends is a great place to start. I think we hear this a lot, but more importantly, talk about solutions. So figure out, what are those things that your friends and family members care about? What values do you share? Maybe it's a place you love or a hobby you have in common. That is a great place to start to have a climate conversation but critically connecting it to action.

And we don't have to tell people that they have to believe or do everything differently, but giving them examples of what you're doing, what works, and again, why you care with a solutions mindset is a great place to start. It's easy to focus on the problem. I'm a climate scientist. I'm great at telling you all the problems we have. But people don't necessarily get motivated by a whole bunch of problems and bad news. So again, point to what's being done, what you're doing, and ways they can make a positive change.

NINA MOINI: That's a great point, to be positive and solutions oriented. We also heard from Cayleigh Falink, who lives in Minneapolis.

CAYLEIGH FALINK: I mean, I was a vegetarian for over half of my life, so I did kind of try to work with climate change that way. And then also I do a lot of thrifting, so I love to use reused clothes. And so that way, I just kind of reuse-- reducing the whole textile landfill problem that we're having right now. And actually, right after this, I'm going to a clothing swap. So kind of getting rid of old clothes, getting some new clothes.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, so she's coming at this from a consumer angle. What are some of the choices people can make that makes an impact here, Heidi? I know you mentioned just less packaging.

HEIDI ROOP: Yeah, less packaging and just less consumption overall. I think this is one of the big challenges that we have as a society. We purchase a lot. And much of what we're buying today finds it way very quickly to a landfill, as you just heard. This the fast-fashion industry. A lot of clothes, we wear once or twice, and they either fall apart, or they fall out of season, and we get rid of them.

What I learned in the process of writing the book is a lot of those clothes never really make it very far. In fact, a huge amount of textiles actually get burned, and so they don't find their way to a new body or person to wear them. So I think just this really taking a pause and saying, do I need that? And is there another way I could get that item, be it a family member or a friend or just opting out? So, yes, consumerism is a big sort of throughline in thinking about how we can reduce our consumption overall, which then translates into less waste.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. OK, let's hear from one more person. This is fun. Thank you for answering these. Brianna from New Brighton who says she participates in eco challenges.

BRIANNA: That friendly competition of, oh, I brought my reusable silverware to work, or I'm using reusable bags or getting exercise in or biking to work. Stuff like that I think is really motivating for me personally.

NINA MOINI: So this idea of competition and how a lot of this is kind of psychological almost in a way. Do you have any other tips for motivating people?

HEIDI ROOP: Oh, nothing like competition. I'm the youngest in the family, so that hits home. I'm also a coupon clipper. And so there's nothing about better than saying how much money you saved doing something. So I'm all for finding things that motivate you and that keep you in this work. And so I think really, as people continue or start their climate solutions journey, leaning into the things you love.

Yes, there are behaviors we have to change. Things we should do less of, eat less of would be helpful. But this sort of taking-things-away mindset is-- it doesn't motivate you for long-term action.

And so finding those things you love and leaning into your strengths and passions. If competition moves you to do things, to have climate conversations, to show your values, I think those are all really important key ingredients to a long-term and sustained climate solutions journey. There are lots of things we want to try and many things we can't do today but might be able to do down the road.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, and just lastly, what do you think when people say, well, my tiny actions on my own aren't going to make a difference, but they are, right, in addition to some systemic changes?

HEIDI ROOP: Yeah, it's not an either/or. I choose to believe and move through the world understanding that small actions can add up. And small actions and showing yourself what's possible to be part of the solution can be great gateways to larger systems-based change.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely.

HEIDI ROOP: And I have to remind myself, individuals, we make up the systems that we're part of. We don't always have strong influence over those, but we can signal to those around us and vote with our dollars and hopefully move to catalyze change. So for me, every action matters.

NINA MOINI: Heidi Roop, the Director of the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership at the University of Minnesota, thank you so much for those reminders.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you.

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