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The Least Sexy and Most Effective Way to Slash Your Home’s Carbon Footprint

In February 2020, our home’s carbon footprint was 64% lower than it was in February 2019. In June 2020, our home’s carbon footprint was 61% lower than it was in June 2019. I love our solar panels, but they only accounted for 6% of the February difference and 39% of the June difference. The real game changer? Probably not the first thing you’d picture when imagining a clean energy future, or the first image you’d see in a presentation about climate change, but perhaps the most important tool in our family’s quest towards net zero: a new, energy-efficient HVAC system. (Thanks to Andrew, master of spreadsheets, for crunching the numbers on our home energy use to compare year over year with the changes we’ve made, including converting between therms of natural gas and kwH of electricity as we’ve transitioned mostly away from natural gas. The actual difference between 2019 and 2020 is even more dramatic than the percentages above indicate, since charging our car is included in home energy use for 2020, and we use only a small fraction as much gasoline as we did before getting a plug-in hybrid. I’m happy to share raw data about our home energy use in more detail with anyone who’s interested).  

In 2019, when we started in earnest to plan how to cut our family’s carbon footprint, we thought about the biggest contributors to our country’s emissions: transportation (28%), electricity (27%, but more like 39% if lumped into the home/commercial building category including natural gas for heat and waste management), food (10%), and industry—basically “stuff” that’s produced that we buy (22%). So we knew our home’s electricity and natural gas use was a big chunk of our carbon footprint we needed to tackle. Sixty-three percent of our country’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, and for GA Power, it’s 69%. To get to net zero, we need renewable energy production to equal our energy use. We need to majorly ramp up renewable energy production, but it’s actually much lower hanging fruit (cheaper and easier) to lower our energy use through energy efficiency and reduction of energy waste and leakage. We absolutely need both to reach carbon neutrality, but energy efficiency arguably doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This post will focus on HVAC related energy savings, but stay tuned for a future post about energy efficiency in the rest of your home. 

Around 55% of the energy used in US homes goes towards heating and cooling. So unless you live somewhere with unusually mild weather year-round, the HVAC chunk of your energy use is probably where you’ll have the biggest bang for your buck in making a big reduction. We can see this on a larger scale in cities’ plans for transitioning towards clean energy: in Atlanta’s plan to transition to 100% clean energy by 2035, it’s estimated that the city can reduce its energy use by 25-30% via efficiency, mostly by insulating old homes and replacing old HVAC systems, and get an incredible return on investment in doing so. 

We had a basic idea of where most of our home energy use was likely coming from based on the above research, but to make a specific plan, we needed to know more in detail for our home. GA Power offers a rebate for a large chunk of a home energy audit, and similar programs exist in other states. We had Energy Consulting Services audit our home and were very happy with them. They put together a thermal map of our home so we could see where heat or cool air was escaping. Our windows were already double paned and doing a good job at insulation, but if yours are older or single paned, replacing them is a high yield way to lower your home heating and cooling use, often by a third or more. ECS recommended putting these cheap foam insulators behind our light switch and outlet covers (fun for kids to help with), seal around window frames and baseboards with clear caulk, and make some minor upgrades to our attic insulation (ECS as part of the audit makes a detailed “work list” in order of energy savings priority and recommended as DIY vs contractor, and they have a partner company you can optionally use to complete recommended work, which also can qualify for rebates through GA Power). 

Our highest yield change, though, wasn’t insulation but rather updating our HVAC system. Our old one was 17 years old and 10 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating), which is inversely proportional to the energy used (so the higher the SEER, the better). The very best option for an HVAC system with a minimal carbon footprint is a geothermal system, which uses pipes that go deep underground to take advantage of the ground’s more constant temperature compared to the air, to release heat from your home into the ground in the summer and transport heat from the ground to your home in the winter. A geothermal system can perform at around 45 SEER, meaning it would use less than a quarter as much energy as our old HVAC system. There’s a 26% federal tax credit for installing a geothermal system, and you should eventually get a full return on investment in energy savings, but for us, the cost was prohibitive (plus in our case the only feasible place to install the deep pipes would have been beneath our driveway so we would have had to repave part of it–not the case for everyone’s home/yard though!). Geothermal systems seem to be more cost effective when incorporated into new construction–something to consider if you’re building a new home or have a chance to give input on new construction in your city, business, university, etc.

For more standard HVAC systems, the newer models are available with a max SEER of about 22, and also have rebates available and will eventually give you a return on investment in energy savings (and are more affordable than geothermal systems). We had a few companies come out to give us proposals/quotes, and we ended up going with Stuart Pro Heating and Air, and the TRANE XV20i DUAL FUEL HEAT PUMP W/ XC95 NAT/GAS FURNACE, with a 22 SEER rating and a smart thermostat. We were a little torn between getting a fully electric heat pump vs. the dual fuel one we ended up choosing. The dual fuel one works as an energy efficient electric heat pump for air conditioning and for most heat (when outdoor temperature is above 30 degrees or so). When the temperature dips particularly low, the natural gas kicks in. Ideally, if we are going to get to net zero carbon emissions, we shouldn’t be using any natural gas. And we really liked the idea of sticking it to the natural gas company by closing our account and not paying the monthly base rate. But, considering that the all-electric heat pump is less efficient in very cold weather, and that the GA Power grid is not anywhere close to all renewable, the dual fuel system has the overall lower carbon footprint. I hope that in another 15-20 years when we need to replace our dual fuel system, the grid may be green enough that the all-electric option has the lower (or maybe even nonexistent) carbon footprint. We were able to get a lower base monthly rate for natural gas after demonstrating our minimal use, and we close our natural gas account for the warmer months of the year. We also had our old ductwork redone to avoid leakage, so our heating and cooling related energy use ended up decreasing by more than the 55% we’d expect based on the improved SEER rating alone.

If you’re not in a place to replace your HVAC system (or replace windows or insulation), there are some free (or very cheap) and easy ways to chip away at your heating and cooling related energy use. Be sure that vents are open and aren’t covered or partially blocked by furniture or clutter. If you have a programmable thermostat, set it to run the heat or air conditioning lower during the night and adjust your thermostat when out of town or away from home for the day. Use fans in the summer and sweatshirts and blankets in the winter so that you can feel comfortable tweaking the temperature towards using less heat or AC. If the sun shines directly into a window, keep curtains open on cold days and closed on hot days. Install the socket sealers I mentioned above, and apply clear silicone caulk around window frames and where the baseboard meets the floor. Avoid keeping doors or windows open on hot or cold days. There are various types of inexpensive weather seals you can apply to the bottoms of doors to avoid heat or cool air escaping. 

We love our HVAC system. It runs reliably and keeps us comfortable using a fraction of the energy our old one used. Replacing an old one is a great investment for the planet and for lowering your electricity and/or gas bills, especially as extreme weather increases and we rely even more on our homes’ heating and cooling systems. If you’re not needing or able to replace yours now, keep efficiency in mind in the future when you need to replace an old or broken system, and use your influence at your workplace, school, or church when decisions are being made about upgrading buildings, so that we can keep lowering that bar of total energy use to get it low enough for renewable energy production to reach it. 

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Composting made easy-enough-to-start-during-a-pandemic

I know a lot of you are stretched thinner than ever these days between working at home and caring for kids. This post is not intended to put pressure on you! But, if you’re at home and were thinking of tackling even a very minor spring cleaning/gardening/art project, I promise that starting composting will be as easy or easier. It’s a simple but important habit that can get us a little more in touch with Mother Nature’s way of doing things, and it lowers our food waste-related greenhouse gas emissions to slow down climate change. It’s fun and easy to get kids involved with helping, too. I had “learn how to compost” on my to-do list for months, and once we actually got started and realized how easy it is, I wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner.

When organic waste rots in a landfill in the absence of oxygen, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide. When composted, the carbon in the organic waste becomes sequestered in rich, healthy soil: a win-win-win for mitigating climate change, providing nutritious fertilizer, and saving money on both waste management and fertilizer production. 

One of my hesitations in getting started was that I associated composting with doing your own gardening. As much as I admire people with green thumbs and want to develop my own one day, we’ve only ever planted a small garden with a few tomato plants and herbs, so we don’t really have the need for a huge amount of soil. Of course, using your final compost product in your own garden is a great option, but if composting and gardening is too much to bite off right now, you don’t have to do both! You can offer to give away your compost to school or community gardens or an interested neighbor, or if you don’t have any takers (or if you need to get rid of some during shelter-in-place so can’t give it to anyone), you can just sprinkle it in the woods, in your yard, or on a median (meaning the soil you’ve made by the end of the composting process–not your food scraps!).

A friend of mine shared this helpful presentation on the basics of getting started with composting. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll hit the highlights here. The most important thing is getting at least a 2:1 ratio of “brown” (carbon-rich) to “green” (nitrogen-rich) in your compost bin. The color designations are a handy nickname for each category but don’t always correspond to the actual color of what’s in the category. The “green” (nitrogen-rich) category comes mostly from your kitchen: fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings, coffee grounds, and tea leaves, as well as “fresh” (not dried out) plants, like cut flowers, lawn or garden clippings, and fresh leaves. The “brown” (carbon-rich) category is more dried out plants, like pine needles and pine cones, dry leaves, and shredded non-glossy paper and cardboard. We are lucky to have a ton of pine trees in our yard, so when we dump the kitchen food scraps in the compost bin, we just grab a couple of big handfuls of dried pine needles to throw in with them. It’s not a good idea to put meat or dairy products in your bin since they attract animals, so in case you need a reason beyond the initial climate benefit and the pandemic-prevention benefit to move towards a vegan diet, a further benefit is limiting food waste since you won’t have the meat and dairy waste around to have to send to the landfill. 

 Sources I’ve read are mixed on how much moisture to allow into your compost bin. It seems like the consensus is that you need some moisture but you don’t want it sopping wet. There are plenty of options of how to set up your compost (in a bin or even in a pit in a shaded area of your yard), but I’ll share our specifics just to make things easy if you want to use the same products. We used this inexpensive outdoor open bin, which our kids enjoyed helping set up. We keep this bin on our kitchen counter to collect our “green” kitchen scraps, and then when it gets almost full and we dump them in the bin outside, we grab some handfuls of dry pine needles (about twice the volume of the kitchen scraps) to throw in with them, and drape a small tarp loosely over the top of the contents of the outdoor bin so that it gets a little moisture inside without getting soaked when it rains. We turn the contents of the bin every 2-4 weeks with this pitchfork. We’ve only been composting for a couple of months, so our product hasn’t fully turned into soil yet, but it looks like it’s on the right track. We get some fruit fly-looking bugs flying around the pile but from what I hear it’s normal to have some bugs, and the number hasn’t gotten out of control or bothered us. 

And that’s it! Shorter than my usual posts. We’re not composting experts, but there’s really not much to it, so I wanted to go ahead and share to encourage others to give it a try too. Feel free to reach out with tips, insights, or questions, and happy composting!

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Stop telling people that COVID-19 is a punishment for our climate sins (or that this is some sort of gift)

We’ve all seen the beautiful, almost unbelievable, images: smog-free skies in Los Angeles, canals running clear in Venice, NASA images of the dramatic drop in pollution over Wuhan. Wild animals are reclaiming areas that humans have vacated. It’s amazing that nature is so resilient as to flourish so quickly in our absence. 

And in the midst of this, from good, thoughtful, well-meaning people, we’re hearing versions of a disturbing message: that this is somehow a gift. Or that this is nature’s way of punishing us from the way we’ve ravaged Earth (and yes, we certainly have ravaged Earth). That we should savor and prolong this pause (I totally understand that the pause needs to last until we get a real virus safety plan together–the message I take issue with is characterizing the pause as inherently a good thing). 

A popular meme is going around: 

I get the sentiment: that when we understand the urgency of a situation, we can take drastic action quickly. And that’s encouraging! But beneath the statement is an implication that our current situation, with all its devastation and fear, is what it would feel like in a world where we treat climate change with the urgency it deserves. 

Pope Francis (whom I like and respect, just as I like and respect most of the people sharing the messages that concern me), said that coronavirus is one of nature’s responses to people ignoring the climate crisis. Professor Leah Schade wrote a progressive Christian blog post that the pandemic is Earth’s way of demanding a Sabbath. Her article is actually very thoughtful and nuanced, but it’s hard to swallow her opening with the use of the word “Sabbath” in the context of the acute suffering happening now. The author of a much-shared (and again, for the most part thoughtful and nuanced) article “Prepare for the ultimate gaslighting” says that aside from the virus and the deaths (a pretty big aside!), “The Great Pause” is “the greatest gift ever unwrapped.” He then goes on to warn us that Best Buy, H&M, and Walmart are going to try to comfort us as the government and businesses try to get back to normal, and that what we really need to do instead of seeking comfort in material things and hurrying back to normal is endure the “bright light” of our current situation. I’m confused. If I really wanted products from those companies, I could order them online now. The comfort that I (and many others) are missing is not from things, it’s from seeing our friends and family (although many people are obviously, understandably, missing economic stability too).

The virus spreads through close/physical human contact, so human contact is what we’ve cut off in a (very necessary) attempt to slow the virus’s spread. The economic slowdown, with its extreme pain for many, and its temporary benefits for the Earth, is just a byproduct of the cutoff of in-person human connection. As necessary and for-the-greater-good as our current shelter-in-place scenario is, it’s traumatic for most of us. Social isolation increases our mortality risk on the order of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can cause PTSD. China’s divorce rate has spiked as the nation has slowly emerged from lock down. Again, I am not in any way arguing against the shelter-in-place orders. We absolutely need them, we needed them sooner than we got them, and we need to continue them until we have a true safety plan in place for moving forward. And of course there are ways all of us can try to make the best of our individual situations and spread some hope and joy within the grand horrible situation.

But let’s not further traumatize (or gaslight, to borrow a term from the above-mentioned author) people by saying that if, somehow, we could have all of the realities of our current social-distancing situation without the virus and deaths, that that would be a good thing. Let’s not tell people that the pain they are feeling right now in this unprecedented situation is somehow a ripping of the band-aid off our addiction to an unsustainable economy and a revealing of a deeper, better, truer reality. No. We’re feeling pain now knowing that hugging a friend or family member could kill them. We’re feeling pain knowing that if we were to lose a loved one outside of our immediate household to this terrible disease, then most likely we’ve already hugged them or held their hand for the last time ever (and many have already experienced this reality). I’m feeling pain that my almost-5-year-old son’s wish that the germs will be gone by his birthday will not come true and that we won’t be able to invite friends and family into our home to celebrate.

I know I have it easier than most people in this situation. I have a wonderful husband and kids I get to see everyday, friends and family I communicate with regularly (none of whom have gotten sick at this point), and a (fairly low risk) job, and I know so many people don’t have those comforts right now. So if I’m having a hard enough time with this whole situation to be offended by the notion that our current reality is somehow more noble or worthwhile than the “norm,” I can imagine that people who have it much harder would also find that notion distasteful. And if I, as someone who’s acutely aware of how urgent the climate crisis is and who spends most of my free time on climate advocacy, don’t want anything to do with a climate solution that feels as painful as what we’re going through now, I can imagine that people who already had their heads in the sand about the climate crisis would want to bury them deeper at the suggestion that this, right now, is what a climate solution feels like.

 Drawdown (one of my favorite books that I’ve mentioned in previous posts) analyzes dozens of effective, ambitious but achievable solutions to climate change, and–guess what?–social distancing isn’t one of them. In preindustrial times (granted, there were plenty of difficulties then!), people managed to congregate without burning dangerous levels of fossil fuels. If we conflate our current reality with the changes needed to mitigate climate change, we give the idea that taking bold climate action feels like deprivation and despair. Climate change is an emergency that we need to take seriously. And we are lucky that we still have time (albeit a shrinking amount) to take corrective action that doesn’t feel acutely painful like what we’re going through right now. Carbon Fee and Dividend has been called “the biggest piece of silver buckshot” we have for a problem that doesn’t have one silver bullet, and it gives everyone a seat at the table for a smooth, economically favorable transition to a clean energy society. Drawdown’s analysis of its many solutions reveals that most are “no regrets” in that they provide side benefits (clean air, new jobs, more equity, etc.) and/or provide cost savings over time. Yes, there is hard work to put in, there is opposition to win over, and there will be some bumps, inconveniences, lifestyle changes, and sacrifices along the way. But I really think we in the climate movement are doing ourselves and the planet a disservice by putting out messages that what’s going on right now is what the Earth needs.

When someone comes into the ER bleeding, you don’t declare that their emergency is a gift and see how long you can keep them bleeding because it’s an “opportunity” for them to turn their life around and kick their smoking and soda habits. Sure, once they’re stabilized and their pain is relieved, send them to my office a week or two later and we can make a plan for their long-term health. But don’t lecture them or tell them that their pain is a gift right at the worst part of it. We absolutely can learn lessons from the pandemic. My last post was about the importance of listening to scientists, and there are a lot of other lessons for us to learn too: the importance of competent and honest leadership (I hope we remember that in November and have a safe way to hold our election!), appreciation for grocery workers and farmworkers among many others putting themselves at risk these days to keep us all alive, appreciating our health, loved ones, and nature. There are good conversations going on about policies we need in place like paid sick leave and universal health coverage, and those conversations need to continue. And I hope that employers continue with telework options in the future and limit work-related travel, to help the climate and people’s family lives.

But let’s not kid ourselves that, as Julio Gambuto says, this is “a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity…to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all,” and that this is the biggest chance we’ve ever gotten and ever will get to define our country’s future. That’s actually not what this is. This is a devastation. And yes, we can do our best out of the ashes to bring forth as much good as we can, but we have actually lost a ton of ground on very important causes. Millions of kids are missing their measles vaccines. Important HIV and malaria projects have come to a halt. And in terms of climate, even climate champions in Congress have advised members of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (the advocacy organization I volunteer for and love) that it’s insensitive to push for climate concerns in the stimulus bills and that now’s not the right time. CCL has, wisely and graciously, advised us as volunteers that, first and foremost, we take care of our families and ourselves during this time, and that when we do communicate with our representatives, we lead by being sensitive to what they’re experiencing and dealing with during this crisis, and that we follow their lead on whether they have any capacity to discuss climate action right now. Congresswoman Katie Porter said that Congress spent most of their recent virtual meeting telling people to unmute their phones to talk, and that they still haven’t figured out virtual voting.

The pandemic is not a gift. Apart from the devastation it wreaks in causing illness and death, it has dealt blows to progress in so many areas. I don’t say this from a position of hopelessness; there are many reasons to hope and many ways we can take action in the midst of this. But please stop calling it a gift. And don’t call it some sort of cosmic karma for the harm we’ve done to the earth either. We absolutely need to figure out ways to prevent future pandemics, and being more careful and thoughtful in how we use land and how we interact with wildlife is certainly one of them. But telling people that they’ve earned this suffering and brought this upon themselves sounds an awful lot like people saying AIDS was God’s wrath against homosexuality. Just don’t even go there. 

Right now we need empathy, relief, and honest, competent leaders sharing the truth with us and guiding us forward in this unprecedented time. There is room for reflection, for lessons learned, for looking on the bright side, and for speaking truth to power about what in our society has been flawed for a long time and needs to change. But please, don’t tell people that this is a gift, or a punishment. 

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Put your money where your mouth is: the carbon footprint you didn’t know you had

If you’re working hard to lower your personal carbon footprint and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels, you definitely don’t want to invest in or lend to coal, oil, and gas companies so that they can expand their fracking, drilling, and mining. But that’s exactly what most of us are doing. Just since the Paris Climate Accord, the world’s largest banks have funded more than $700 billion in fossil fuel projects, with JP Morgan Chase the biggest offender.

We’ve all seen the graphs of how much your money can multiply if you start investing for retirement when you’re young. So, throughout our marriage, Andrew and I have dutifully set aside money each month for retirement, and we’ve felt excited to see the numbers in our accounts grow. When we were expecting our first son, we set up a Georgia Path2College 529 Plan and began investing in it monthly as well. And without thinking about it or knowing better, we were investing in fossil fuel companies through pretty much all of the funds where we had investments. With a little research (mostly thanks to Andrew), we discovered that some investments were easy to switch out of fossil fuels, and others much harder.

When you start looking into investing your money to avoid fossil fuels, the main terms you’ll come across are sustainable investing, ESG (environmental, social, and governance—metrics that are used to measure sustainability for individual companies) and SRI (socially responsible investing). They’re all related with minor differences, so I use the terms interchangeably. “Sustainable investing” may sound new, but it’s actually a $12 trillion industry in the US ($34 trillion globally) and growing quickly, especially among millennials and women, and is shown by many studies to perform equally or better financially compared with standard portfolios. And as public pressure mounts, especially with more people becoming aware of the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, more mainstream banks are recognizing the need to incorporate ESG criteria into creating their funds. 

I set out to write this blog post to share what we’d done with our investing based on our research last year on SRI, but in doing some additional background research over the past couple of weeks, we’ve actually come to the conclusion that we need to move our money again. We’ve been using Betterment as a robo-advisor and online platform for our investments since before SRI was on our radar. It has a nice app that allows us to track all of our savings and investments (even those we hold outside of Betterment), mortgage, etc., and lets us know if we’re on track for our financial and retirement goals. Last year, we were also happy to discover that they offer SRI. They offer a good and honest description of the methodology that goes into developing an SRI portfolio, along with its limitations, here.

Last year, we put all of our independent retirement accounts into Betterment SRI funds and also invested in one general sustainable fund through Vanguard. However, while researching for this blog post, I came across fossilfreefunds.org, a great website by As You Sow. I was disappointed to see that the funds in our Betterment SRI portfolio scored fossil fuel grades of Bs, Cs, and Ds.

In trying to figure out why a portfolio designated as socially responsible wouldn’t score better, Andrew and I thought of a few reasons. There are quite a few criteria that go into whether a company is considered “socially responsible” by environmental, social, and governance standards, and sometimes those criteria are in conflict with each other. It can sometimes be challenging to gather enough available data on a company to make a good call on how sustainable it is. There are also different philosophies on whether it’s socially responsible to invest in, say, a fossil-fuel heavy electric utility (e.g. GA Power): on one hand, electric utilities, most of which still get the majority of their energy via fossil fuel sources, are some of the biggest investors in renewable energy, which we of course want to support; on the other hand, utilities need to be much more aggressive than they currently are in transitioning to renewable energy sources, and there’s a good argument to be made that they need to feel the pressure and sting of mass divestment in order to be spurred to take urgent action. This New York Times article describes the dilemma well of whether to avoid problematic industries entirely or maintain some level of investment in order to have a “seat at the table” in helping that industry make decisions. You could have the same debate about whether, if you’re eating a more plant-based diet for the good of the planet, it’s better to patronize vegan restaurants or to buy the vegan option at meat-heavy chains to show them there’s a market for it. 

I think there’s a case to be made on both sides, but personally, we aren’t very keen to give any money to fossil fuel companies if we can help it. They are prone to greenwashing and paying lip service to environmental causes while spending a fortune lobbying against climate action. They talk about lowering their companies’ emissions without mentioning “scope 3 emissions,” which are the emissions from customers using the products they sell. What are customers going to do with gas and oil other than burn them? How can companies act like they’re not responsible for the gigatons of CO2 emitted when customers use their products for their sole purpose? 

So, in setting out to find a way to invest our money as free from fossil fuels as possible, and knowing that we like using a robo-advisor since it’s convenient, affordable, and helps us develop a balanced portfolio for our financial goals, we found this article.

We were most impressed with Earthfolio. While the other three robo-advisors offer SRI as one option alongside their standard portfolios, all of Earthfolio’s offerings are chosen by SRI/ESG criteria. The funds that make up their portfolios score mostly As and Bs on fossilfreefunds.org, although a few Ds, possibly due to conflicting criteria/different considerations on how to determine which funds are socially responsible; we were excited to discover on their website that they offer fossil-free portfolios on request for customers whose top priority is climate. We are tentatively planning to transfer our independent retirement accounts and general investments to a fossil-free portfolio through Earthfolio after doing a little bit more due diligence on fund performance ratings on Morningstar. We are overall encouraged by the data on financial performance of SRI portfolios compared with conventional ones. You can check out the financial performance of individual funds on fossilfreefunds.org

Sadly, one place where we have money invested for our kids’ futures does not have a sustainable fund option: the GA 529 Path2College Plan. It’s a little ironic, since a bright future for their generation depends on our economy rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels. There are a few options in terms of aggressive vs. conservative investing in the 529, but none of the options are socially responsible. They are all through TIAA-CREF and range from A (a couple of real-estate only funds) to F on fossilfreefunds.org. TIAA-CREF’s website does note that they are taking ESG considerations into account when developing their funds, but I don’t know how encouraged I can be when their overall investments have 8% fossil fuel exposure, which is pretty average for major American fund managers. Even the designated “socially responsible” funds offered by TIAA-CREF (but not offered through the GA 529 plan) get mostly Ds with a couple of Bs and Cs on fossilfreefunds.org. The GA 529 plan’s website’s “single fund” page starts out: “Sometimes, you might want an investment option that is highly focused. Perhaps you want to make your choice based on the investment type of a single underlying fund.” Last year, there was a sentence after that along the lines of “perhaps you want a socially responsible investment option” but looking at the actual fund options, they were not SRI funds. I called their customer service number (877-424-4377) a couple of times and messaged them on their Facebook page (Path2College 529 Plan) to urge them to offer SRI and ask why that wording was there if they were not offering SRI options. I know they got my feedback, because they removed the wording from the website, but they have not added SRI options. If you are a Georgia parent, please call and send Facebook messages to tell them how important it is to you and to all our children’s futures to shift away from fossil fuel-heavy funds.

Another downer is that my employer, like most U.S. employers, does not offer sustainable mutual funds in its retirement plans. I contribute 4% of my salary to their 457 to qualify for matching since I don’t want to leave that money on the table, and I opted out of their 403b since it doesn’t have a match and we can contribute to our independent retirement accounts instead. I’ve called and emailed the HR department several times and have been told that other employees share my concern and that it’s being escalated. Our plans are through Principal Funds, whose website does give a nod to ESG considerations; the Principal funds I can search on fossilfreefunds.org average around a C, which might be a little better than TIAA-CREF, but it still doesn’t seem like sustainability is a high priority for them. When I initially called Principal (I was eventually directed to reach out to my employer’s HR department), the employee I reached didn’t know whether Principal offers SRI (or seem to know what SRI is).

One major takeaway I have from the research I’ve done (and I guess we all know this already) is just how deeply our economy has been built on fossil fuels. To shift away from investing in fossil fuels, it will take a lot of us urging our employers and 529 plans, and possibly the 529 plans and employers urging the fund managers (TIAA-CREF among others) to make changes. Momentum is (albeit more slowly than I’d like) building. The mayors of New York and London recently urged every major world city to divest from fossil fuels. Harvard’s faculty is calling for divestment of the university’s endowment from fossil fuels. Goldman Sachs announced in December that it is stopping funding for arctic drilling and putting restrictions on coal financing, and in the past two weeks JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo followed suit-yay for peer pressure! The American Medical Association resolved in 2018 to divest from fossil fuels.

Sustainable investing is a win-win. Surveys indicate that more employees will participate in employer-sponsored retirement plans if socially responsible options are offered. Financial returns are generally equal or better for SRI compared with conventional investing. We’d be in trouble if the fossil fuel companies had a good financial outlook for our retirement years, which is when the world needs to be reaching net zero emissions to leave a stable climate for our children. And now, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is!

Action steps:

Find out where your money is. Look online or call the fund manager for your personal investments, retirement, and kids’ college accounts to get the names of the underlying funds and check them out on fossilfreefunds.org. Make a plan to move your money to more socially responsible funds if possible, and put pressure on the people in charge of your employer-sponsored retirement plan and your kids’ college plan to offer sustainable fund options. This toolkit is helpful. 

Also, consider donating monthly to one or more organizations that promote systemic climate action. Two of our favorites are Citizens’ Climate Lobby/Citizens’ Climate Education and Natural Resources Defense Council

Climate friendly yard work for those lacking a green thumb and spare time

In the months after our second son was born, one of the things we did in an attempt to make life feel less overwhelming was to hire someone to do our yard work. It was a big relief every two weeks to have our lawn neatly mowed and all the leaves blown away. I’ll be honest, Andrew had been doing the majority of our yard work so that burden hadn’t been on me anyway, but anything taken off our pile of collective responsibilities felt like a lightened load for both of us.

We didn’t fully realize at the time just how harmful gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers are. They emit many times more pollution than gas-powered cars, leading many municipalities to ban them (see if you can get your city to follow suit!). Also, fallen leaves provide invaluable habitat to wildlife trying to coexist with us, and they supply rich nutrients to our yards, where they are much better off than in a landfill emitting greenhouse gases as they rot; leaving them alone is an easy way to do our planet a flavor! We can also help the Earth and our pollinator friends, while saving ourselves time or money, by saying goodbye to our antiquated idea of beauty in the form of the classic American well-manicured, frequently mowed lawn. If we see beauty through a child’s (or bee’s!) eyes, we delight in seeing dandelions and white clover flowers sprout up in our yards. The habit of hunting them down as weeds and spraying or picking them to eliminate them, or mowing too closely for them to easily grow back, starves our precious, already dwindling, bee populations, not to mention that we definitely don’t need to be sending bags of lawn clippings to the landfill to rot, emit methane, and contribute to the overheating of our planet. A good rule of thumb is to let your flower-filled lawn grow to 6 inches, then mow down to 4 inches to let the blooms regrow and feed the bees. Makita makes high quality electric tools including a lawnmower and leaf blower (for blowing leaves from the driveway to the grass, not to collect for the landfill!) that perform just as well as gas tools. And please say goodbye to chemical weed killers.

So the biggest bottom line about a climate-friendly lawn is that less is more, and you can ditch any guilt you feel about needing to “keep up” your yard. And of course, avoiding cutting down trees is one of the best and most basic things you can do to keep your yard climate friendly, as trees are one of our best resources for sequestering carbon. If you have a little time, there is more you can do to make your yard climate-friendly and an oasis for pollinators. I am definitely a beginner in all things related to gardening, and I don’t have much free time or a good track record on keeping plants alive. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are many good books on making your yard a wildlife oasis (this is one good option), and you can even make your yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat. If you’re like me and want to start small, a fun, easy, and rewarding way to start is by planting a pollinator garden of native plants. 

On the recommendation of a friend, I made an appointment last fall at Nightsong Natives in Canton, GA. If you live outside of metro Atlanta, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a native plants nursery or at least a nursery with good native offerings. Native plants (plants that existed in your area before the arrival of European settlers) have a ton of advantages over non-natives. They have deeper, more extensive root systems that reduce flooding and erosion, filter pollutants from storm water, and minimize the need for watering and other maintenance. The less water you can use on your garden and lawn, the better, especially as climate change increases the frequency and severity of droughts. Native plants support biodiversity, especially of pollinators, and do well without pesticides, which are generally harmful to ecosystems–try to avoid them, or if you really need to spray for a certain kind of insect, research eco friendly options. Thankfully, native plants are growing in popularity, and many local governments have passed ordinances encouraging and/or mandating their use (here’s one example). The helpful lady working at Nightsong Natives gave me a few recommendations each for our sunny garden bed and our shady garden bed, all pollinator-friendly native plants that aren’t palatable to deer (we have a ton in our neighborhood!). In the sunny garden, I planted Virginia Mountain Mint, Anise hyssop, and Shrubby St. Johns Wort. In the shady garden, I planted Packera Aurea and Solidago caesia. Native gardens are said to “sleep, creep, then leap” in their first three years, meaning they take some patience! Ours are still in progress, but it’s exciting to see some healthy new growth this spring, especially the Packera Aurea and Anise hyssop. I’m looking forward to when they are in full bloom and buzzing with bees and butterflies!

While it can be hard to find edible native plants, growing an edible garden, native or not, can be a fun, delicious, and environmentally friendly endeavor, as it saves packaging and the transport energy of store bought food. We have a fairly small edible garden with herbs, cherry tomatoes, and hot peppers; meals always taste extra good when we can incorporate some freshness from the garden!

One exception to the general rule of it being good to leave your yard alone is if you have invasive species present. These are non-native plants that can cause harm to a native ecosystem by growing aggressively and crowding out/taking nutrients from native plants. Common invasive plants in Georgia include English ivy, Chinese privet, kudzu, and Japanese honeysuckle. If you make the effort to remove invasive species from your yard (and/or volunteer to help remove them from public areas near you), you can clear the way for native plants and ecosystems to thrive. 

I hope you come away from reading this post encouraged by the good news that maintaining a climate-friendly yard is, in many ways, actually easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming than what we think of as conventional yard care. If we turn away from the American dream of a gleaming, uniformly green lawn and towards viewing our yards as a haven for wildlife, native plants, and our families alike, we can experience natural harmony with minimal effort. Composting, of course, is another simple, important way we can respect nature’s cycles. If you don’t have time for anything else, leave the leaves and flowering “weeds” in your yard, and take heart that the climate and bees appreciate it!

A Delicious New Year’s Resolution for a Livable World

Happy 2021! This year is starting out looking a lot more like 2020 than we’d like, but brighter days are on the horizon. Between the pandemic and a momentous election followed by a momentous runoff, I haven’t posted here lately, but doing what we can to turn the tide on climate change is more important than ever. 

I shared last year how a plant-based diet is one of our most powerful tools for reducing our carbon footprint. Going vegan will help the most, but almost-vegan, vegetarian, or just cutting down significantly on your meat and dairy intake will make a difference. It would take eleven years of avoiding food packaging to equal the climate benefit of giving up meat for just one year. 

My family has discovered even more delicious vegan foods and recipes in the past year, and during this dark pandemic winter I think we could all use some comfort food. Making a new year’s resolution to leave meat and dairy behind (or at least cut way down on them) doesn’t have to feel restrictive–I promise there are enough great vegan options that we feel we are spoiled by the amount of good food we eat. The climate, our kids and grandkids, animals, and public health (animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to pandemics) will thank you!

I shared several delicious vegan recipes in last year’s post, and I wanted to share some more here for people who’d like some inspiration. We are still in the habit of scaling up a recipe to make a bunch of food on a Sunday or Monday and then reheating it for several nights, because who has time to cook from scratch every night of the week? This recipe for pav bhaji is warming, flavorful, and pure comfort food. We don’t have an instant pot or a stovetop pressure cooker like the recipe calls for but it cooks just fine in a regular stock pot on the stove. In the summer, one of our favorites was this tomato risotto with grilled greens; we actually found using boxed tomatoes instead of pureeing fresh tomatoes was easier and just as tasty, and the fresh grilled green veggies have an amazing flavor. That recipe has some great tips for cooking risotto the right way and can be applied to other recipes–we have our eye on some more wintry risottos (with ingredients like leeks, carrots, and mushrooms) for the coming weeks. This salad is unique and so tasty, especially in summer–it’s hard not to eat the homemade dressing and the spiced/candied nut mixture alone before you even put the salad together! This recipe was pretty much the best veggie burger I’d ever had–great with homemade fries or sweet potato fries.

Some other warming, hearty favorites of ours that are easy to scale up and make a week’s worth of dinners: this tortilla soup (topping with this convincing/tangy homemade vegan sour cream–if you don’t have the vegan yogurt on hand, you can leave it out and just thin with water to desired consistency–instead of queso fresco), or this white bean chili (using soy milk). Or if you’re feeling a little fancier, white beans au vin or this amazing spinach chermoula pie (we subbed violife vegan feta for regular feta, fresh spinach for frozen since it tastes so much better, and skipped the let it sit/let it chill steps and just used a regular pie pan and refrigerated rolled pie crust for ease/reducing prep time; it’s also fine to just chop the chermoula ingredients finely and skip the food processor step if you don’t have one). 

When we make Mexican food, I like to cook canned black beans with sauteed onion and pepper, a few shakes of cumin, chili powder, cayenne, paprika, and oregano, and a little garlic, vinegar, and lemon or lime juice (or whichever of those ingredients we have on hand). We love to make quick quesadillas with some of the black beans, violife shredded cheddar, and salsa. Another favorite of ours is making these addictive crispy smashed potatoes (https://cookieandkate.com/crispy-smashed-potatoes-recipe/) then layering green enchilada sauce, quartered corn tortillas, the black bean recipe from above, and the crispy smashed potatoes 2-3 times in a casserole dish then topping with violife shredded cheddar and baking at 350 for 30-60 min for a few nights of delicious meals.  

For Italian comfort food, you can’t beat spaghetti with marinara sauce and gardein frozen meatballs, with salad and homemade garlic bread (toasted baguette with earth balance buttery spread, garlic powder, and oregano or basil). Grilled pizza with Miyoko’s vegan mozzarella and your choice of toppings (Whole Foods even has good vegan pepperoni) is to die for. Speaking of Miyoko’s mozzarella…in last year’s blog when I said I’d resigned myself to vegan cheese being more of a mix-in rather than the star of the show, we hadn’t yet discovered Miyoko’s I thought I’d said goodbye to enjoying high quality cheese and crackers with a glass of wine, but then we discovered Miyoko’s vegan cheese wheels. Sharp English farmhouse is the best, but their other flavors are great too. Miyoko’s also makes great cream cheese. Some of their varieties are available at Publix and Sprouts, and Whole Foods usually has almost all of them. 

If you’re a brunch aficionado, there are plenty of vegan options to satisfy all your cravings. We only recently discovered Just Egg, a plant-based liquid that cooks and tastes just like scrambled eggs or omelets. Beyond brand breakfast sausage is great, especially the spicy kind. We love these waffles and add a few shakes of cinnamon. Hashbrowns with all your favorite mix-ins or vegan breakfast tacos are great too. The trick to great avocado toast is sprinkling some lemon juice on top (or mixing it in with the avocado), and that can also be a quick breakfast before work.

A few more favorites: tofurkey and vegan provolone sandwiches for lunch with vegan mayo, these brussels sprouts (they go great with butternut squash soup in the fall), and this vegan curry delivery if you’re in the Atlanta area (lasts for two nights for two adults). The possibilities are endless. I thought a vegan diet would feel restrictive, but I really don’t miss meat and dairy, and working with vegan ingredients can inspire you to be creative and cook outside the box. Have fun! Nothing tastes better than food that’s good for the planet!

The quickest, simplest, and most effective thing you can do for the climate and our future this fall

One of the things I value most about Citizens’ Climate Lobby, where I volunteer, is their/our commitment to bipartisanship. In the midst of a bitterly divided government, where it seems harder for Congress to work together toward common goals than for me to get my three-year-old to listen, CCL has developed, in conjunction with many economists and scientists as well as politicians of both parties, a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend bill that is projected to lower emissions by 40% in the next 12 years and 90% by 2050. Using a strategy of meeting elected officials where they are, building common ground, and showing respect and gratitude, we’ve earned the support of 82 cosponsors (including my Congresswoman!) for our signature Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, as well as gained support for several other bipartisan climate bills. Last fall CCL promoted The Far Middle campaign, in which football players at rival universities BYU and Utah, and later Michigan and Ohio State, wore purple to symbolize a coming together of Republicans and Democrats, red and blue sports teams, to push for climate action. In a polarized political climate, putting aside differences to work together for our common good can be very powerful, and even radical. 

So I am very much committed to working with whoever is in office, and I don’t think any elected official is beyond hope. That said, our most fundamental democratic right is voting, and I won’t pretend that all elected officials and candidates are equal in how willing they are to recognize the urgency of climate change and act on it. If you only have the time or energy to do one thing about climate change this fall, make voting that one thing. 

We don’t have time to waste. At about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial temperatures, we are already seeing record-breakingly devastating hurricanes and wildfires that are getting worse by the year. To keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to decrease global emissions by 7.6% each year between now and 2030, a task that is becoming closer to impossible with each day, week, and month that goes by without strong society-level climate action. 

Let’s look at a few of the decisions on the ballot for this November. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris promote a plan to get us to net zero carbon emissions no later than 2050 (although I wish they would talk more about carbon pricing, specifically carbon fee and dividend, as a powerful, revenue-neutral way to dramatically lower emissions). Donald Trump, on the other hand, announced a few months after taking office that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement crucial to our collective future, which many argue isn’t even ambitious enough but is certainly essential as a first major step of global action. Trump also has rolled back, or is in the process of rolling back, 100 (and counting) environmental protections and regulations, including many around air pollution, emissions, drilling, and extraction. He is now pushing to move forward with oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would be doubly devastating in destroying vital wildlife habitat while extracting more fossil fuels to increase climate change. 

I’ll briefly compare platforms for candidates closer to home for those who live near me, but for those living elsewhere it is easy to research your candidates’ environmental platforms and records. My Congresswoman Lucy McBath (GA-06) is a cosponsor of the Climate Action Now bill as well as CCL’s bill, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Climate change or any environmental issue doesn’t make the list of the nine issues on her opponent Karen Handel’s website. GA Senate candidate Raphael Warnock hosted a climate summit last year, while incumbent Kelly Loeffler took the anti-environment position in five of six recent votes on environmental issues. Jon Ossoff, running for GA’s other Senate seat, backs an ambitious climate plan, while his opponent David Perdue has a 14% 2019 environmental score as rated by the League of Conservation Voters (higher is better and the average Senator rates at 53%). 

Obviously there are many other vital issues to take into account when voting: racial justice, pandemic management, healthcare access, and many more. I could write a blog about each of those, but I’ll stick to my climate blog focus here. Each person has different values and priorities that go into voting, and it is a deeply personal decision. I do think climate action deserves consideration as an especially important priority, since if we don’t act on climate, any other issue we care about is sure to worsen, and we won’t have a stable and prosperous enough society to be able to focus on other issues.

You’re more likely to follow through on voting if you have a plan. First, confirm you’re registered to vote. With all the issues around the USPS and the stress it will be under with large volumes of mail-in ballots, it’s best to either vote early in person, or request your mail-in ballot now, and then return it to a county drop box ASAP. There may be a shortage of retiree volunteers at polling locations this November, so if you aren’t in an at risk group, consider volunteering as a poll worker. Consider making calls or sending texts to get out the vote; Environmental Voter Project is a great nonpartisan organization focused on getting voters who have been identified as caring about environmental issues to turn out and vote. Generations before us have fought, and sometimes died, for our right to vote; we just need to exercise it. Come hell or high water, or pandemic or postal service crisis, we can do this!

How much does that trip really cost?! Let’s use the pandemic pause to shrink our gigantic transport and travel-related carbon footprint

There are a lot of things most of us sorely miss from before the pandemic: hugging our friends and family, eating at restaurants, hosting parties…but I don’t think any of us would say we miss rush hour traffic. I don’t think most people miss work related travel. Coronavirus-related lockdowns caused record drops in carbon emissions this year, in large part related to decreases in emissions from transportation and travel. Climate scientists aren’t too optimistic about this temporary drop having much of an impact on the overall catastrophic level of carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere, assuming we just go back to “normal” when the pandemic is over. But what if we carry forward some of our more sustainable habits from this time of crisis?  

Pre-pandemic, the average American spent over 200 hours commuting per year, with many clocking in way above the average. I work about a 14 minute drive from home–now. Before the pandemic, the drive was over an hour each way (I took MARTA instead for a 45-50 minute trip each way and plan to get back to that when things are safer). Long commutes can suck the life out of you. They raise stress levels and make it so much harder to find enough time for sleep and exercise. And they come at a tremendous cost to our climate. Transportation is the biggest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions at ~28.2%. Certain jobs can’t be done well at home, but for those that can, employers and employees should have conversations now–while most people aren’t in a major hurry to get back to the office–about making arrangements to continue partial or full telework even when the pandemic is over. 

Same goes for work-related travel, which often accounts for 25-75% of an organization’s total carbon footprint. Is the intangible value of “face time” (the real kind, not the iphone kind) with a potential client really worth it? We figured out pretty quickly how to get work done without the travel in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and considering that the climate crisis looms as a much larger threat to the future of our civilization, we should think twice before getting on auto-pilot and booking those plane tickets again as soon as the pandemic is under control. 

Similarly, do families really need to spend all their weekends and emit huge amounts of CO2 shuttling kids to travel sports competitions? Could we get back to a norm of youth sports games being something for Saturday morning, in town, and having the rest of the weekend to relax? 

Many of us have been finding a new appreciation for nature in our own backyards and neighborhoods these past few months in the midst of disappointments over cancelled trips. We may be daydreaming about the big trips we want to take when we have the freedom again, but it’s worth at least considering if we could enjoy a vacation a short drive away enough to avoid the emissions of a flight or especially an international trip. This author calculated that his family of three’s winter vacation from New York to Miami generated enough emissions to melt 90 square feet of arctic sea ice. Travel isn’t as trivial or easy of a thing to give up as incandescent light bulbs or single pane windows. Many of us have wonderful memories of travel, and it can open our eyes to the world around us in a way that’s hard to quantify. But travel-related emissions we can quantify, and they’re scarily high. I’m not saying you have to deprive yourself of your dream vacation or skip your best friend’s destination wedding, but at least think of travel as an indulgence like a decadent dessert or strong cocktail–something to enjoy occasionally, in moderation, rather than seeing it as a virtue or civic duty to pursue. 

One thing I really hope we do get back to after the pandemic, in larger numbers than ever, is mass transit, in combination with making cities more walkable. This is a powerful illustration of how alternate forms of transportation clear the clogging of our roads that happens when we each drive a car to our destination. Before the pandemic pushed me to drive to work, I enjoyed my routine of driving to the MARTA station (not ideal, but walking to the bus stop and taking the bus to MARTA would push my commute too long), taking the train a few stops, and walking a half mile to arrive at work a lot more energized than I am now just getting out of the car and walking in. On top of lowering carbon emissions, public transit benefits communities financially, reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, and is healthier, safer, and more economical for individuals than driving. Many experts believe that in a net zero carbon future, people will be living closer together, able to walk or use efficient public transit to get to most of the things they need. We can make choices to move towards that more sustainable future by choosing (if possible) to live near our workplace and near the friends and family we like to see frequently, living in denser areas, and advocating for walkability, increased public transit, and mixed use developments in our communities. 

So what concrete steps has my family taken to lower our transportation and travel related carbon footprint? We try to limit our driving: Andrew works at home (even pre-pandemic), and I go in two days a week, and when feasible I will get back to taking MARTA. We try to stay pretty close to home for the most part, which hasn’t been too hard this year! Earlier this year, we traded in my Camry for a plug-in hybrid Honda Clarity, which has a 48-mile electric range (~43 miles in the winter and ~55 with the weather we’ve had lately), so we rarely dip into gas. We bought it used so we didn’t qualify for the $7500 federal tax credit on electric and plug-in hybrid cars, but the savings were pretty much passed along to us, so remember the tax credit if you look at prices of new electric or plug-in hybrid cars. There is also a GA Power $250 rebate for installing a level 2 charger at your home for an electric or plug-in hybrid car. We considered buying a full electric car with a longer range, but we decided the environmental impact of buying the larger battery wouldn’t be worth it when the vast majority of our driving can be done on the smaller electric range, with the gas engine only for backup. (Of course, we could have made it work to buy an all-electric car with a range similar to the Clarity, and just made more of a point to map out the charging stations in our area to use those rather than gas as a backup for longer outings.) Andrew’s car is a Prius V, which used to be what we drove for most of our family outings; now we use the Clarity much more, but take the Prius V on trips since we pack a million things for our kids and we’re still at the stage where I need to sit in between their carseats in the back. At some point in the next five or six years as electric car options continue to improve, we’d like to replace the Prius V with an all electric car with a longer range that we could take on trips. We rarely fly, although with little kids and with most of our close family nearby, that’s not much of a sacrifice for us the way it would be for many people whose families are more geographically scattered. We have changed our bucket list some and no longer daydream about what international trips we want to take when the kids are older. We loved our honeymoon in Costa Rica in 2010 and at the time told each other we’d return for our ten year anniversary; this year, in the interest of being climate friendly and not spending too much time away from our kids, we instead planned a couple nights at the South Carolina coast… and then the pandemic hit, and we ended up going extra climate-friendly and celebrating with a picnic by the river a half mile from our home. Good old milestones in the time of covid. There is a growing “no fly climate sci” group, since for people who fly frequently, air travel can easily make up the majority of someone’s carbon footprint. One climate scientist decided to stop flying altogether after he realized it accounted for ⅔ of his carbon footprint. If you do need or want to fly, read here for some lower emission ways to do it, including choosing coach and buying offsets. Climate conferences were already starting to trend virtual before the pandemic, and hopefully with a long pause of no one traveling for conferences in any field, the change will stick. 

None of the changes my family has made are nearly enough. We’re doing what we can, in the world we currently live in (in which we live in a sprawling, trafficky metropolis), with our limitations of time and small kids leading us to turn to the convenience of the car over walking/biking more often than we should. We need systemic change: high speed rail instead of mass air travel, dense walkable communities with efficient public transport where it becomes rarer for families to feel the need for a car, teleworking as a long term strategy to keep rush hour traffic off the roads. We need to imagine this future, more vibrant and connected world, and advocate for policies to get us there. And on our way to a more sustainable system, there are small and big choices we can make so that we don’t melt quite as much sea ice. Next time you’re looking for a new job, keep a short commute and flexibility to telework as a major factor in your decision, and think about whether there’s a way around commuting alone in a car (walking, biking, public transport, carpooling, teleworking). If you’re thinking of moving, consider a denser, more walkable community. Make a goal for the next vehicle you buy to be electric or hybrid, or better yet, see if your family can get by with one car, or no cars. For a vacation or weekend outing, consider destinations closer to home. Avoid circling around looking for a closer parking spot or idling in the carpool line. Maybe if we focus less on seeing the whole world and more on preserving it, we can keep it beautiful and livable for generations to come.

Going solar: a good kind of contagion

On a Monday evening this past November, I sat in our neighborhood’s Architectural Review Committee meeting, nervously waiting my turn. I’d heard horror stories from people in my climate advocacy group about months-long battles with their HOAs and losing friends in the neighborhood after finally getting permission to install solar panels. Our HOA’s guidelines (which I’d learned were fortunately less set in stone than bylaws or covenants) stated that no solar panels should be visible from the street, but for our house, which is surrounded by tall trees, the only parts of our roof where panels would get a decent amount of sun exposure would be visible from the street. Two of the team members from Better Tomorrow Solar were kind enough to come to the meeting with me, and we were prepared with arguments about the urgency of the climate crisis and the sleek, aesthetically pleasing design of the panels. Andrew was nervous that I was going to want to move if our request got denied. I assured him that we didn’t need to move, I just wasn’t going to take no for an answer. When my turn came, I launched into my prepared reasons why our solar plan should be approved. The committee chair asked if people had questions, and the only one was asking if we were planning to cut down any trees (we weren’t), and then to my amazement the committee unanimously approved our plan! 

Rooftop solar could provide 31% of all electricity used in Georgia, but only 64 out of every 100,000 homes in Atlanta has a solar roof. I’m happy that HOAs seem to be turning the corner on being open to rooftop solar. Denying residents the right to install solar panels because some HOAs consider them an eyesore seems to me akin to telling someone they can’t wear their oxygen nasal cannula because it’s unsightly. There’s no way we will have a livable future without tapping every possible renewable energy source to get ourselves off of fossil fuels. I think solar panels are beautiful. I feel a little rush of dopamine every time I see them on a home or business, and I feel the opposite whenever I see a large roof glinting in the sun with no solar panels to harvest that sunlight’s energy. I was happy to learn that home solar rooftops are contagious, even more so when visible from the street, and can’t we all get behind something that we want to transmit to each other these days?

Georgia is home to the largest solar panel assembly plant in the Western hemisphere. The price of solar energy has plunged to a mere 4% of what it was 15 years ago, making it cheaper than coal or natural gas. So why aren’t more homeowners adopting it? 

I think part of it is people just don’t realize that it’s an option for people on the regular electric grid, or they feel daunted at starting the process. Getting started is actually super quick and easy with no commitment–you don’t even have to make an appointment. Better Tomorrow Solar created a free rough proposal for us (design of where panels should go, price quote, and estimate of energy generated/return on investment) based on google earth, then tweaked it based on a quick drone flyover at our house. They broke down the estimated environmental benefit of our solar panels in equivalent terms of trees planted or cars taken off the road, which was pretty cool to read. Most other solar companies also offer a free proposal. Because our house is fairly shady and surrounded by tall trees, our return on investment is relatively long at ~21 years. But don’t be discouraged–the average in Georgia is 10.8 years. We appreciated that Better Tomorrow gave us a conservative estimate of energy generated, which was lower (and turned out to be more accurate) than the government’s PVWatts calculator. Once we got approval from our HOA in November, we signed a contract and Better Tomorrow ordered the materials and completed the installation in December, in time for us to take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit for 2019 installations (the tax credit is now 26% for 2020). 

Another reason I think people in Georgia in particular are hesitant about installing solar is that our state has not, historically, had policies that are financially favorable for solar homeowners. GA has not been a net-metering state, but that is changing this year. Net metering policy affects you if you have a solar system but are still connected to the GA Power grid. If you buy a battery storage system to connect to your solar system, you can store energy captured during the sunny hours to use during the night and/or during a power outage. We didn’t want to pay for a battery storage system, so our solar system is connected to the grid, and energy produced by our panels goes first to power our home real-time, and then excess goes to the grid to power other homes. During the night, on cloudy/rainy days, or any time our home electricity use exceeds what our solar system is producing real-time, we use and pay for electricity from the GA Power grid. As you can see in the curve below from our handy enlighten solar app, the majority of solar energy produced in a given day happens in the span of a few hours of peak sunlight.

You can try to strategically run your dishwasher, washing machine, etc. during that time, but inevitably, if you don’t have a battery storage system, you’re going to be sending electricity to the grid during sunny hours and buying it from the grid during not-sunny hours. GA Power traditionally has paid homeowners only a fraction of the price per kWh of energy produced as excess by solar panels compared to what they charge customers to use their electricity. Net-metering means they pay the same for your excess as they charge you to use their energy when you need it. Fortunately, they have adopted a net-metering policy for the first 5,000 applicants this year, and I think there are plenty of spots left. It has not gone into effect yet, but it is supposed to be retroactive, so we should be recouping the money we’ve lost from their original policy back to the beginning of 2020, and this should improve our return on investment by two to three years. Essentially, net-metering acts in a similar way to free battery storage, although it doesn’t have the advantage battery storage does of being a backup during a power outage. 

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables is crucial to stem the tide of the climate crisis, and as solar power allows us to let go of coal, we get an immediate benefit in decreased air pollution. Renewable energy is also a powerful social good and can be especially beneficial to people with lower incomes whose financial stability is often at the mercy of high utility prices. Better Tomorrow Solar recently constructed a solar array on a low income multifamily apartment building in Atlanta as part of a study to see if reducing energy costs can improve tenant stability, and they hope this will encourage landlords to increasingly install solar as a draw to tenants. They are one of two women-owned solar companies in Georgia and are donating profits for solar contracts signed through July 31, 2020 to local COVID-19 and post COVID-19 relief efforts, regardless of payment and project completion dates (and they are running sales now on solar panels and batteries). They have social distancing policies in place to be able to complete projects safely, and even last fall before the pandemic was a concern, we had very limited contact with the team as the vast majority of the project was completed outdoors, with a little bit of electrical work done in our garage and in our attic.

Solar power alone is not enough to make most homes carbon neutral. Reducing a home’s total energy use (which I’ll get into in detail in future posts) is extremely important too, as are utility-scale solar and other renewable energy projects. But it is a key part of getting us away from destructive fossil fuels, and there’s really not a downside to harnessing abundant, cheap, clean solar energy and then using it on-site. France passed a law in 2015 requiring new buildings in commercial zones to have solar panels or plants on their roofs. I hope that we pass more legislation incentivizing and pushing us towards solar roofs. But we don’t have to wait for that. With the price of solar energy lower than coal and the urgency of the climate crisis becoming ever more apparent, there’s no time like the present to make your roof a piece of the puzzle of a sustainable world. 

Listen to the scientists

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed lately about COVID-19. It’s hard to think about much else. All of our lives have been turned upside down, the stories we’ve heard from Italy, Queens, and that we’re expecting throughout the U.S. in the coming weeks are hellish.

As a PCP, I’m still working my usual two days in the office. We’re trying to shift to as many virtual visits as possible, and we’re not doing in person sick visits, but each time I do see a patient in person, I feel nervous that I could unknowingly get infected and then infect other patients. Calls from worried and sick patients are increasing, and I’m feeling the weight of the potential consequences of making the wrong call each time I decide over the phone whether to refer someone to the ER or tell them to stay home. My professional organization has published critical care review modules, and I’m studying them just in case.

While it’s hard to predict exactly when things may be able safely get back to “normal,” I doubt my boys are going back to preschool this school year, and we’re trying not to get our hopes up for summer camps, pools being open, or even a semblance of normalcy when it’s time for our older son to start kindergarten in the fall. The social contacts we enjoyed a few short weeks ago have become potentially deadly. Some days I have a blast just hanging out with my little family, but other days, as someone who’s already prone to anxiety, and whose usual mental health self-care involves seeing friends regularly, I struggle, and I know I’m far from alone in that. And I know my family’s losses and struggles are much, much smaller than those many people are experiencing: loss of jobs, loss of life, and loss of loved ones, without hospital visitors or a proper funeral (whether the person’s sickness and death were related to COVID-19 or not). Healthcare workers in the ER and ICU without adequate personal protective equipment and without enough ventilators for all the severely sick face huge threats to their own physical and mental health. 

So, as much as I usually think about the climate crisis, it has not been at the forefront of my mind lately. This blog’s usual focus is our family’s journey to reduce our carbon footprint, and I have a long list of blog posts I want to write on that topic (and will, eventually), but now just didn’t seem like the right time. Ironically, as the world’s emissions have dropped from one country after another shutting down (never a reason you want for emissions to decrease!), our family has temporarily given up some of our climate-friendly habits in favor of public health and safety. I’m driving to work instead of taking MARTA, we’re using disposable grocery bags, and we plugged our extra fridge back in so we can space out grocery trips more. Probably our lack of other driving and our cancelled upcoming trips cancel all of that out, but that’s kind of beside the point. Right now, it makes sense for everyone to prioritize fighting the acute public health crisis we’re facing. 

But the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. And there are quite a few lessons I think we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to try to stop the most catastrophic consequences of climate change while we still have the chance. As nightmarish as COVID-19 is, and as much collective trauma as we will carry forward from it, it’s not likely to be a major threat to humanity after another year or two. Climate change is a threat to the long-term viability of human civilization, and the baked-in effects of the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted will likely take centuries or millennia (if ever) to reverse.

One commonality between COVID-19 and climate change is the false reassurance of the relatively mild appearance, early on, of an exponentially growing problem. The day this article came out, I took MARTA to work and saw a full schedule of patients in person. Andrew took our boys to preschool and my parents picked them up, although I was getting increasingly worried and wondering whether and when these routines needed to stop. The next day our boys went to their grandparents’ house for the last time for the foreseeable future. The day after that I picked them up from preschool for the last time and cancelled everything on our calendar. It’s amazing how quickly normalcy can disappear in the face of an exponentially increasing threat. 

Climate change is already having dramatic effects on life for humans and other living things. There are plenty of stories of record-breaking natural disasters and farmers scrambling to find new varieties of crops to adapt to changing temperatures and soil conditions, and there are plenty of graphs showing how hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts have increased alongside greenhouse gas emissions and temperature. But everything that has happened so far is only the tip of the iceberg of the danger we know is there. Just like we see with a highly contagious virus, the effects of climate change are an exponentially increasing danger. Even though climate change in the long term is a much more profound threat than COVID-19, most of us (with some notable exceptions) have not yet had our daily lives upended by it as much as we have by COVID-19. We are currently at about one degree Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times, and each half-degree increase brings exponentially increasing threats. A two degree Celsius temperature rise compared with a 1.5 degree rise means a several times higher likelihood of ice-free arctic summers, extreme heat waves, and habitat loss for wildlife–think what that means if we reach a 4 degree rise, which we’re on track for by 2100 without drastic action. Also, each incremental temperature increase increases the chances of dangerous positive feedback loops, like methane release from thawing arctic permafrost and loss of the protective cooling “albedo effect” of the whiteness of large areas of the arctic being covered with ice.   

If we wait until we are all severely feeling the effects of climate change on our daily lives, our options for how to respond will be limited, and by then even the most drastic and disruptive action won’t be very effective. This is what we’re seeing now with our response to the coronavirus in the U.S. Early in the Wuhan outbreak, South Korea developed a comprehensive test/trace/isolate plan, knowing they would likely soon face their own outbreak of the virus. When COVID-19 came to South Korea, they were prepared, and they were able to flatten their curve and keep their numbers of cases and deaths relatively low without shutting down society. Taiwan similarly responded quickly and proactively, making the best use they could of the science and data around the looming threat, and has been very successful at stemming their outbreak while not having a prolonged total nationwide shutdown. In the U.S., we were told that the threat of the coronavirus was a hoax, that it was under control, and that it was just going to disappear on its own. Now we have the highest number of cases in the world, deaths in the thousands, and a University of Washington model predicts that even if we continue extreme social distancing measures for months, we will end up with somewhere around 81,000 U.S. deaths by July in this first wave of the virus. If we were to loosen social distancing too early (say, by Easter, like some are suggesting), we might end up with 1 to 2 million deaths.

At this point, obviously the right thing to do is maintain social distancing as strictly as possible. Shutting down regular daily activity, businesses, and social contact for months comes with a profound economic, health, emotional, and spiritual cost to us as humans, and it is tragic that alongside this cost, we are still likely to suffer many tens of thousands of deaths, and perhaps hundreds of thousands. This was preventable. Trump disbanded our country’s pandemic response team in 2018. When we decide during times of comfort that it’s too inconvenient or expensive to prepare for crises, we are left with no good options when the crisis hits. We had no excuse for being unprepared. Bill Gates has been warning of the risk of a major pandemic for years. Obama’s outgoing team engaged in a transition exercise with Trump’s new aides in January 2017 simulating a pandemic much like COVID-19. But when COVID-19 hit, we didn’t take the proactive steps Taiwan and South Korea did. When we Americans are feeling comfortable and enjoying our individual freedoms to do whatever we like, we can’t be bothered to take proactive steps to fend off disaster. And look where we are now. 

Back to the climate crisis. The evidence is clear. The scientists have been warning us for decades. In the 1980s, the world came very close to a much needed change of course away from fossil fuels that would have kept us safely under a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise, and the world, in no small measure due to actions and inactions by the U.S., failed to do so. Scientists don’t tend to be particularly confrontational or alarmist. But we’ve ignored them for long enough. A few months ago, thousands of scientists declared a climate emergency, warning (again) that “untold human suffering” is inevitable without a drastic shift away from fossil fuels. 

Although climate change is here, most of us are not feeling the “untold human suffering” of it just yet. If we were truly feeling it, we wouldn’t be choosing to “protect consumer choice” to buy energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs. We wouldn’t continue to give tens of billions of dollars annually to the fossil fuel industry in direct subsidies. If we took a brave and honest look at the face of the problem, we wouldn’t be so concerned about the inconvenience and perceived expense of some of the possible solutions (my personal favorite, which actually minimizes cost and disruption while dramatically reducing emissions, is carbon fee and dividend, but more about that in a future post). 

There are ways that we can use our current very disruptive situation to do better when things get back to “normal.” There’s a very good case to be made for airlines to regroup with a dramatic plan for emissions reductions during this time of quiet. From both a climate perspective and a pandemic prevention perspective, we should strongly consider reducing or avoiding meat consumption. But I think the biggest lesson to take with us is, when the exponentially increasing threat is small enough that we feel we have the option to ignore it, we need to wake up and listen to the scientists, before it’s too late.