I’ve been blogging for almost two years about personal changes you can make to lower your carbon footprint. I firmly believe that our choices matter, since every bit of emissions (or emissions lowering) matters, since our choices can inspire others to do similarly, and since our integrity matters when we ask for systemic change; those in power will want to know what we’re doing that’s under our control.
But I will freely admit that one family (or many families) buying solar panels or electric cars is like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a teaspoon. None of this is anywhere close to enough to address the magnitude of the crisis we’re facing. With twenty fossil fuel companies responsible for a third of all emissions, in some ways it’s even a distraction to focus on our own small steps to green living while the world burns. The wildfire season in the American west has been getting more terrifying and devastating each year, in direct relation to human-caused climate change. In turn, as the wildfires burn through huge areas of forest, astronomical amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, creating a positive feedback loop that accelerates climate change. In 2020, wildfires in California emitted an estimated 112 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air. This is roughly equal to the emissions of 24 million passenger cars driven for a year. CA has about 15 million cars, so this means even if every single CA driver eliminated their driving-related emissions by not only switching to an electric car but ensuring that their car was charged by renewable energy, this change wouldn’t even cancel out the emissions from wildfires alone.
In addition to the catastrophic wildfires, 2020 was a record-setting hurricane season with 30 named tropical cyclones in the Atlantic. Hurricanes in recent years have been barreling upward in intensity, with Dorian in 2019 the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas, tied for the strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricane in history, and prompting some experts to suggest we need a new category 6 rating to accurately characterize the severely intense storms that are becoming increasingly common as climate change takes its toll.
All of the increasing devastation we’re currently seeing in terms of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and extreme heat, are occurring at approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial temperatures. Right now, the most wildly optimistic scenario has us hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, which would be a much worse scenario than what we are currently experiencing. And we are likely to reach that temperature much sooner–in the next 10-30 years–rather than at century’s end. If we reach 2 degrees Celsius of warming, many metrics (extreme heat, declining biodiversity and coral reefs, sea level rise, poverty, food impacts) would be several times worse than under the 1.5 degree scenario. And even the 2 degree scenario is also looking more wildly optimistic with each year that goes by without meaningful action on climate and with ecological disasters multiplying in the headlines. We are currently on track for about 3.6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, and some scientists are forecasting the 22nd century (when today’s young children are leaving the Earth to their kids and grandkids) as the “century of hell.”
We are in serious trouble.
I do not believe that we are without hope. Experts agree that it is technically possible for us to shift away from fossil fuels, reach net zero emissions globally by 2050, and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. I think we’ve all seen enough of our dysfunctional, gridlocked government and enough of citizens yelling at each other about public health guidelines during the pandemic to know that the way we usually act is a far cry from an all-hands-on-deck effort to reach a “technically possible,” but astronomically difficult, goal. We need the biggest and best collaborative effort the world has ever seen, starting now (or ideally, quite a few years ago). Our individual efforts to cut our carbon footprints matter, especially if we inspire others to do the same and if we cause enough of a shift in demand that companies start offering more sustainable products. But that’s not going to get us to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2, or even close to 2.
We need systemic change. And arguably, an individual or business’s actions in lobbying for systemic change can have much more impact than that individual or business working to cut their own carbon footprint. The good, hopeful, and empowering news is that there is a lot you can be doing to work for systemic change, and your voice really matters.
I’ve been volunteering for Citizens’ Climate Lobby for 2.5 years now, and it’s the most high-yield, meaningful, rewarding, and effective volunteering I’ve ever done. CCL is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with roughly one chapter per US Congressional district and several international chapters. We are focused on passing a carbon price (specifically a carbon fee and dividend system), which many thousands of scientists and economists agree is the single most effective policy we could pass to reach our climate goals while protecting the economy and especially protecting lower income people economically. The basic idea is that you start with a small, but steadily increasing, fee on carbon emissions at the source (where coal, oil, or natural gas comes out of the ground), and then return that money to American households as a monthly dividend check. Many scientists and economists agree that this would likely be a make-or-break piece of a climate package that could allow us to reach our goals of 50% emissions reductions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. CCL has been working for over a decade using multiple levers to increase political will in support of carbon pricing: grassroots (events like tabling, speaking at clubs/businesses/faith organizations to educate the general public about carbon pricing and mobilize them to contact their elected officials), grasstops (bringing on board community leaders to endorse carbon pricing, including leaders of businesses and faith organizations, local governments, and prominent individuals), media (writing op-eds and letters to the editor about climate, organizing media coverage of climate events), and lobbying (meeting and communicating directly with federal elected officials and their staff to build their support for carbon pricing). CCL members spend meetings with elected officials and their staffers expressing gratitude, building common ground and relationships, and increasing officials’ support for carbon pricing. Currently, a gradually increasing carbon fee and dividend system is being seriously considered as part of Congress’s budget reconciliation package, and I think that CCL’s diligent work over the past ten years has greatly contributed. The past 2.5 years with CCL, I’ve met some amazing, fun, dedicated people, and I’ve even gotten the chance to meet my Congresswoman, Lucy McBath, a handful of times and talk to her about carbon pricing. Most elected officials truly want to hear from their constituents; you may be surprised how accessible your member of Congress is. If this sounds like something you’d like to be involved in, in a big or small way, check out https://citizensclimatelobby.org/. If you click “Join CCL” and enter your contact info, you should be contacted by your local chapter leader with an invitation to the monthly meeting and to the recorded volunteer trainings. If carbon pricing sounds good to you but you aren’t ready to commit to being a CCL volunteer, a few quick calls or emails to your Senators, House rep, and the White House can help make carbon pricing stick in the reconciliation package.
Other organizations that could use your help advocating for climate action are Sunrise Movement, Sierra Club, Green Peace, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Extinction Rebellion, among others. Getting involved in elections supporting pro-climate candidates and voting rights is crucial as well. The Environmental Voter Project is a nonpartisan organization that organizes phone banks around key elections where you call self-identified environmentally concerned citizens and encourage them to get out and vote. Even if you sign up for a 2-hour phone bank here or there when it fits into your schedule, it can make a difference.
On the local level, your voice can have a big impact too. For almost two years now, I’ve been part of a small group of environmentally concerned citizens in my city (Roswell, GA), working to get the Mayor and City Council to pass environmental resolutions. A few months ago, we had our first success, with the unanimous passage of our resolution to steadily increase the percent of native plants used on city property. We’re hoping to pass further resolutions so that our city can do more to combat climate change, including committing to transition to 100% clean and renewable energy, as many other cities have done (check out https://www.sierraclub.org/ready-for-100 for a model if you want to start or join a campaign in your city). If you don’t know where to start, request a meeting with your Mayor or a City Councilmember or attend a public City Council meeting to express your concern about climate change and your desire for your city to do more to help.
If you are reading this and feeling overwhelmed at the thought of adding more responsibilities to your schedule, I understand not everyone has the same bandwidth. I am lucky that with working part time, I’ve been able to get deeply involved with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. But if you can’t commit to regular volunteering, there are small ways to make a difference. CCL has a monthly calling campaign that you can sign up for even if you’re not a regular volunteer with CCL, and you’ll get a monthly email and text reminder to make a quick (1 minute) call to your rep and senators telling them how important climate action and a carbon price are to you (a voicemail or quick couple of sentences is fine–they are busy and unlikely to ask follow-up questions, so don’t worry about getting stumped by questions you don’t know the answers to). If you have time in the car or while doing chores around the house, search your podcast app for Citizens’ Climate and there are a ton of interesting and educational podcasts you can listen to that might inspire you to take small actions to help the climate movement or at least spark conversations with others that build positive momentum. If you can’t do any volunteering or advocacy work, committing to voting in all federal, state, and local elections is an important step to getting us leaders who will work for the change we need.
The climate crisis is truly dire, and it can be easy to lose hope sometimes. But we absolutely have reason to hope and the power to enact change. I’ll leave you with this quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”