As scientist-activists who work on climate science and renewable energy, the question we get asked the most is, “What can I do about climate change?”
Here’s our evolving take – a synthesis of what we think are the three most impactful ways to contribute in the face of such an urgent and systemic problem. (To avoid catastrophic climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions have to start , now, faster than they have risen for the past 160 years.)
Our “theories of change” are informed by our understanding of climate science and clean energy, by from scientists to scientist-activists, and, most of all, by the insights of other academics and activists.
Even a homeless person in America has a carbon footprint of roughly — far higher than the per capita value needed to hold back dangerous climate change. So no matter how much we try to cut our individual greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t be enough. Not while our energy continues to be supplied almost entirely by fossil fuels.
Yet the infuriating reality is that we most of the efficiency and clean energy technologies we need to do away with fossil fuels. The , in large part, is standing in the way of their accelerated deployment and cost reduction.
This is hardly surprising when the business model of these companies is with the science of mitigating climate change. And when that model — like our society as a whole — economic growth above ecological protection and actual human well-being.
Yes, we are all complicit in climate change. But you and I are passively guilty — stuck in a high-carbon system. Fossil fuel interests and political ideologues, on the other hand, are actively guilty — working to stop the system from changing.
This is where collective action comes in. As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben , the only thing powerful enough to take on the financial might and political power of the fossil fuel industry is the power of a social movement.
This isn’t just rhetoric: suggests that it takes roughly 3.5 percent of the population to sustain a winning social movement. The single most important thing we can each do is to be part of the collective 3.5 percent.
We all belong to one or more constituencies that can either support the status quo, or challenge it. These so-called “” are our points of leverage. Examples include students pushing their universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, mothers lobbying for statewide access to clean energy, doctors raising public awareness, children suing the government and fossil fuel companies over intergenerational injustice, and frontlinecommunities blocking fossil fuel expansion.
To get started, explore existing campaigns and join one that resonates strongly with your values, passions, and background. Many excellent ones are listed , , and ; if none are for you, consider starting your own.
Look not just to D.C., but also to your local community — it’s there that many of the most consequential battles will happen over the next four years, and it’s there that you can have outsized impact. Take part in sustained organizing, and also make sure you show up to flashpoints of unity and momentum like marches, rallies, and protests. Resistance groups like and the offer resources on how to effectively pressure elected officials.
You may also be able to bring relevant skills and expertise to bear on the climate movement. From documenting grassroots campaigns, to defending activists, to providing expert testimony, to inspiring action, “no matter what interests you pursue or career path you follow,” Vox’s David Roberts, “you will have some influence. Use it!”
End climate silence
Indeed, 70 percent of Americans “rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends.” In 2016, despite record high temperatures and the historic Paris Climate Agreement, climate change news coverage on evening newscasts and Sunday shows from ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox amounted to a meager total of .
The result is a “spiral of silence”: Silence begets silence, making political inaction all too easy.
As climate commentator Joe Romm has : “Talk about climate change and its solutions with everyone you know a lot more than you do now.” Be vocal on social media, at local events, and with elected officials, write opinion articles, and, most importantly, talk to friends, families, and coworkers.
What should we talk about? Values. There is overwhelming evidence from and that values, not facts, are the currency of persuasion. Don’t just talk about what is happening or needs to happen, talk about why it matters.
Themes like jobs, national security, and public health and safety resonate widely with the American public. Clean energy, for instance, can offer a winning, about job creation, health benefits, and energy independence. You don’t need to be a climate expert to talk about why you care. See for how climate change threatens what we love, for denial debunking, and for climate science 101.
Cut the biggest chunks of your carbon footprint
Reducing your largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions is a low-barrier way to contribute. It’ll also save you money.
However, be aware that taking collective action and ending climate silence are more impactful than personal greening, because whereas the latter is linear, the first two are exponential.
For most of us in America, our most individual options for cutting our carbon footprints are: trading in our gas guzzler for a more efficient (good), hybrid (better), or electric (best) car; driving and flying less; eating less beef and lamb; and buying green electricity, installing solar panels, and making concerted home efficiency improvements. If you can only do one, make it trading in your car or eating less beef.
Another important but less obvious option is to our savings and pensions from fossil fuels, which also sends a strong . On average, these actions would together cut your carbon footprint roughly in half.
If you find this guide useful, please share it. Then, let’s get to work!
Geoffrey Supran is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT and in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. He has a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT.
Ploy Achakulwisut is a PhD candidate in Atmospheric Science at Harvard University.