Climate Curious

Climate curious: What is THE most important thing a person can do to fight climate change?

A group of protestors lie on the floor of a rotunda.
Protesters take part in a die-in at the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol in September as part of a global climate strike, alongside demonstrations around the world.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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What is THE most important action we can take to reverse or stop climate change?
— Susana Gluck, Minneapolis

I’ll be honest: This is not my favorite question of the dozens that readers and listeners have submitted.

Why? Because the answer is complicated, subjective and highly dependent on sets of individual or collective circumstances.

But with limited time and resources — experts warn of a looming climate change crisis, and there’s only so much one person can do — it’s an important question, said Susana Gluck of Minneapolis, who submitted the question. "I'm deeply troubled by the magnitude of this, and I don't even know where to start,” she said.

A lot of people who submitted questions said the same thing: It’s overwhelming. It’s daunting. We want to make the right choices for combating climate change, but we don’t know how.

Read on for three ways to think about the question.

But remember this first: Scientists don’t see any way to stop climate change in its tracks, because we’ve emitted enough heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere for at least some continued warming.

Instead, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focuses on actions that can help limit the effects of climate change, like sea-level rise and increased precipitation, by drawing down our emissions over a period of years. More specifically, the IPCC says we must eliminate emissions by 2050 to avoid climate catastrophe.

"One of the critical things about drawdown is that there is a very wide range of solutions that we're thinking about. There's not just one solution," said Chris Forest, a climate dynamics professor at Penn State University who's been working with Project Drawdown, an organization analyzing all the various solutions to reducing emissions.

During a recent webinar with reporters, Forest recommended not over-emphasizing the actual ranking of the solutions — because just choosing one isn't enough to eliminate emissions.

"What matters is that we're doing all of these together," he said.

With that in mind, here are three things to consider as you think about your own contribution to addressing climate change:

1) Individual action matters.

It’s easy to see the futility of reducing your individual carbon footprint when you’re only one of the 7.5 billion humans on Earth. But individuals can have an impact on global emissions in three main ways, according to Project Drawdown: Replacement, reduction and sequestration.

Replacement is when you replace an activity that results in carbon emissions with one that doesn’t, such as biking to work when you normally would drive. Or planning a staycation when you normally would fly to Florida. Or replacing a natural gas furnace with an electric heat pump powered with 100 percent renewable energy.

Reduction is when you reduce your carbon footprint by emitting less than before, such as by eating less meat than you normally would or installing low-flow water fixtures so that your water heater isn’t working as hard, and so that you’re using less water and reducing energy needed for water treatment.

Sequestration is the idea of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. Planting a tree and caring for it over time is one way to achieve sequestration.

These examples are among the 100 top climate solutions Project Drawdown has analyzed and vetted that individuals can pursue. Others include composting, household recycling, reducing food waste, rooftop solar and telepresence — working remotely or joining conferences or meetings remotely.

2) Your best bet is to maximize individual action, then try to influence other people — and systems.

Some climate experts have cautioned against focusing too heavily on individual action, noting that fossil fuel companies are responsible for a huge chunk of global emissions. And globally, many of the actions that would have the most impact involve big, systemic changes that are catalyzed by economics, policy and culture: managing refrigeration chemicals, adding wind turbines, preserving tropical forests, family planning and educating girls.

Jigar Shah is a renewable energy entrepreneur who spoke last week to a group of more than 700 Minnesota energy and climate leaders at an event sponsored by the clean energy activist group Fresh Energy. He said individual action is inspiring — but not enough.

“Buying a Tesla and getting solar on your roof and figuring out how to make your home energy efficient doesn't really solve anything,” he said. “You haven't checked the box when you've just bought three new things for your home. You check the box when you actually work to make sure that the right people get elected, that you're actually participating in whatever board you care about.”

“Whatever it is you care deeply about, you've got to get involved."

For Roopali Phadke, a professor of environmental studies at Macalester College, that means being the best educator she can be to prepare young people to be future problem-solvers.

"It really does call our work into more of a civic-mindedness,” she said. “Go beyond our individual lives and really ask, ‘What can I do in service of this new society we want to build?’"

That new society, she said, is a de-carbonized one.

3) The biggest steps you can take to address climate change will look different from other people’s.

Phadke said inequities abound in considering both the effects of — and solutions to — climate change. Some people are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than others, and some people have more power and resources to do something, she said.

“It’s easy for some of us to act; it’s a lot harder for others,” she said, noting that not everyone can afford electric cars or put solar panels on their homes.

And putting too much emphasis on the technological solutions can be dangerous, she said, because it’s just one part of what’s needed.

“It presents some silver bullets, like if we just get enough electric cars on the road, if we just get enough solar panels, we will be able to solve our way out of this problem through technology,” she said. “There’s a lot of other things to consider.”

Climate Curious: What do you want to know about climate change, but were too afraid to ask?

Our readers and listeners have been sending us some terrific questions about climate change — and, in voting rounds, have let us know which questions they are most curious about. Now it’s our turn.

We’re beginning to answer these pressing questions on climate on the air and online.

Still have questions about climate change? Submit them below and be sure to check back and tune in.