How Individuals Can Make a Real Difference in the Climate Fight

Climate change is by its nature a serious and far-reaching issue, and it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed by it and powerless to help. One of the most important things we can do as climate communicators is to show people how their actions can make a difference – and help them understand which behaviors make the greatest impact.
A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute sheds light on this subject. They compared various changes individual Americans can make to cut their carbon footprint without substantially altering their lifestyle. So, for this study, taking public transit instead of driving or putting solar panels on your roof did not qualify. The behaviors they compared were fairly simple adjustments: replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, for example, or driving a more fuel-efficient car.
By far, driving behaviors had the greatest impact. If everyone drove 10 percent less, total carbon emissions would go down by 1.6 percent. If the average fuel economy of vehicles rose to 56 mpg, total emissions would go down by 10 percent. Other behaviors, like eating less meat, replacing light bulbs, or cutting food waste, also have an impact, but should be done in combination in order to really make a dent.
Every little bit helps, and knowing they can be part of the solution helps raise people’s support for climate action. If they’re motivated to make an even greater difference, bigger lifestyle changes such as going solar or giving up their car entirely are excellent solutions. Fortunately, community solar programs are making solar power more accessible to the average American. And we can encourage and empower our local communities to make good public transit more available and efficient.
But as the article below points out, advocating for large-scale solutions and a sound national climate policy may be the single biggest contribution an individual can make.

What’s the Best Way to Cut Your Carbon Emissions?

By Julian Spector, editorial fellow at CityLab
A new study compares the range of possible actions.
You may recall that a couple months ago the nations of the world met in Paris and agreed on a plan to fight climate change. The complex international treaty resulting from those talks includes targets for the governments to meet. But what about people?
Individuals can take tons of actions with the aim of trimming carbon footprints. But in order to prioritize these behaviors, we need some basis of comparison. How does replacing incandescent light bulbs compare to cutting the number of miles you drive?
A new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute sets out to answer that question by putting an assortment of attainable actions over the same denominator.
Sivak and Schoettle break down U.S. emissions by sector (industry, transportation, residential, commercial, and agriculture) and then calculate the total reductions that would be possible if everyone tweaked their habits. For the purposes of this study, they set aside government actions and outline selected changes individual Americans could make that would have “the least impact on their current lifestyle”; things like switching from driving to public transit or putting solar panels on your roof aren’t included.
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Image credit: AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

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