Climate Matters: What can I do about climate change?
I hear this question a lot. If you Google “What can I do about climate change,” you will get millions of hits, with plentiful lists and sets of recommendations. The focus most often is on individual rather than collective action.
The top hit when I Googled the question just now was from the United Nations Environment Program, at www.un.org/actnow. They list 10 actions you can take right now. My focus today is on “speak up,” the last of the 10 actions.
For completeness, the 10 actions are: save energy at home; walk, bike or take public transport; eat more vegetables; consider your travel; throw away less food; reduce, reuse, repair and recycle; change your home’s source of energy; switch to an electric vehicle; make your money count; and speak up.
SPEAK UP! Speak up to oppose climate change, and stay engaged.
There are good organizations devoted to speaking up for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the global, national and state levels. Again, not my topic here. In Vermont, at the grass roots level, change often happens as much because of one-on-one conversations among people who know each other as because of formal advocacy or lobbying.
If you think about the daily life of your community, people in responsible positions are making decisions all the time with substantial climate change implications — beyond an individual household or business. They need to hear from you and me about how important the greenhouse gas implications of their decisions are to us. They also need for us to be engaged and supportive, and to be willing to work through hard decisions with them.
Here are some of the decisions I mean: when and how to replace a building’s fuel oil or propane burner with cold-climate heat pumps. When and how to invest in measures to make a building tighter and more fuel-efficient. When and how to replace gas- or diesel-powered vehicles or equipment with electric alternatives. When and how to buy a smart thermostat. When and how to switch a kitchen to electric induction cooktops instead of natural gas or propane. When and how to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant or a manufacturing facility to one that emits less greenhouse gas and/or uses less fossil fuel to operate.
Here are some of the people in responsible positions I mean: Selectboard members for your town, and town administrators. School board members and school administrators. Other elected officials like sheriffs and judges. Members of the governing body of your religious organization. Members of the governing board of the hospital. Members of the boards of voluntary associations that provide social and health services of many different kinds. Members of boards of organizations that organize athletic activities for kids and adults. Members of condominium and neighborhood association boards.
At the scale of Addison County, you probably know some of these people personally, even if you aren’t a member of the group whose board they sit on. Maybe you see yourself in this list. They need to hear from you that you want them to give great weight to the climate consequences of decisions they make. If you are making contributions to their organization’s budget, either through taxes or through fees or donations, they need to hear from you that it is OK if they spend a little more money if that will get them to the low-carbon solution they would like to implement.
Right now, and for at least the next couple of years, there is a plethora of financial incentives available to individuals and organizations, as well as expert advice about how to proceed (for example from Efficiency Vermont). You don’t need to be an expert in those programs, but it is reasonable for you to expect that people making decisions about new equipment or vehicles will do their due diligence in exploring what options are available to them. And they need your constructive engagement and participation.
People making decisions like these with greenhouse gas implications can play an important part in solving the climate crisis. Increasingly they will be getting questions from their constituents and interested citizens about whether they are prioritizing the reduction of greenhouse gases as they make decisions.
The best overall strategy to get us close to zero greenhouse gas emissions is: Electrify everything, decarbonize the electricity, and reduce fossil fuel use when you really can’t electrify. In Vermont, our electricity is relatively low in carbon content, though it could be even better. We can make progress on both electrification and decarbonization. Going forward, we need to make sure that as decisions get made, the option that best reduces greenhouse gas releases comes to be seen as the most sensible and cost-effective one.
Dr. Richard Hopkins is a retired public health official who has devoted himself to volunteer activities to try to reduce climate change. He is a member of the board of the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County, and of the town of Middlebury Energy Committee.
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