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.  

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

Flushing forests down the toilet (and other single-use problems)

First, I just wanted to open with an article a friend shared recently that really underscores my thoughts in my first blog post about why personal actions to cut our carbon footprints really do matter, build momentum in others to do the same, give us credibility when we say climate change is a dire threat, and catalyze systemic change. Now onto the single-use problem: 

I’m embarrassed to say that until about a year ago, I didn’t really think twice about buying Charmin’s luxuriously soft toilet paper, or going through paper towels at a rapid clip (at the table as napkins, for spills and cleaning…with two little kids you can get through a roll pretty darn quickly). When I started reading more about climate change, Facebook started showing me targeted content about how our addiction to soft toilet paper is destroying Canada’s boreal forest.

When you think about virgin forest going straight down your toilet, you stop caring as much about how soft your toilet paper is. Boreal forests (moist coniferous, or evergreen, forests) are up there with rainforests when it comes to serving as a carbon “sink” (taking in carbon dioxide into the trees and soil, keeping the air clean, and mitigating global warming). That also means we need to be very worried about what happens to all that carbon if it gets released through clear cutting or forest fires.

Andrew and I tried a couple kinds of recycled toilet paper and like seventh generation and 365 (be careful on labels to look for “100% recycled” rather than something about “sustainable forestry,” which often still involves cutting down virgin forest and is not truly sustainable). Or for the more adventurous, you could try a portable bidet to kick the toilet paper habit altogether. We let our four-year-old choose three colors of sturdy cloth napkins that we use in place of paper towels and paper napkins, for meals, spills, and wiping faces and noses. We keep recycled paper towels on hand but don’t use them much since we mostly use the cloth napkins instead. We buy recycled printer paper and print double-sided when possible. We didn’t wrap our Christmas gifts to each other, and we asked Santa not to wrap gifts either (actually, he’s never wrapped gifts for our kids since he’s too tired on Christmas Eve…).

You’ve probably heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Single-use plastic is a problem of mind-boggling proportions and has been getting more well-deserved attention lately, both for the immense harm plastic waste does to marine life and the immense amount of energy and emissions that go into these products that we use once and then throw away (or “recycle,” which we can only say for about 9% of single use plastic ever produced). Our family still ends up with an appalling amount of plastic in our recycling bin (mostly from containers that grocery items come in), but we’ve made some steps in the right direction. We’ve long been in the habit of using canvas bags for grocery shopping, but we also bought some mesh produce bags and use those to buy fruits and vegetables, or if it’s a single one of a fruit or vegetable, I just put it in the cart. We’ve tried to cut down on drive-through food and drinks, but we keep our own silicone straws in our diaper bag so that when we do stop, we can opt out of the disposable straws (and napkins if we’ve remembered to have a cloth napkin or two in the car). We bought some reusable sandwich containers for lunches and have gotten in the habit of using tupperware-type containers for leftovers, our older son’s school lunch and my work lunch, etc. so that we rarely use ziplock bags. If we shop somewhere other than the grocery store and don’t have a canvas bag handy, we try not to ask for a bag if it’s just a couple/few things we can carry. We don’t buy plastic water bottles. I keep a reusable water bottle at my office and refill it throughout the day. Even aside from plastic, it’s good to avoid any unnecessary packaging that takes energy to produce and then causes an issue with landfills or overloaded recycling facilities. Andrew is hooked on sparkling flavored water, so we got a soda stream machine to avoid wasting all those aluminum cans, and save money (he loves it).

For women, menstrual products can use a ton of paper, plastic, and/or cotton (a very water intensive crop). I’ll spare the details on my own habits, but there are great reusable options like menstrual cups, “period panties,” and reusable pads, and–bonus!–you don’t have a disgusting bathroom trash can for a week out of the month.

We considered cloth diapering, but when our older son was a baby and we briefly tried it, we didn’t love how the big diaper kind of pushed his legs out to the sides and how the diaper felt wetter against his skin than disposables (we put a high premium on the whole family being able to sleep through a baby peeing). We could have pushed through those setbacks, though, and applaud anyone who does use cloth diapers. One easy thing we did to reduce waste during the diapering years was cloth wipes. We had a cup of water (“poop water” was an early word for both our boys) to dip a clean wipe, use it, and toss it in a separate diaper pail. Once that diaper pail was getting full, we would spray them all with a nozzle attached to our toilet, then wash and reuse them. 

Despite the steps we’ve taken, I’m still dismayed at the amount of single use paper and plastic we use. Amazon packaging is a big one for us. We can definitely do more to try to limit our orders, although for things that we do want or need to buy, online shopping may be more eco-friendly than at a brick and mortar store.

I did recently get a tip from a friend to chat with a customer service rep on the Amazon site to request that all future orders on my account come in plastic-free packaging with minimal packages. The rep said they have gotten a ton of feedback asking for an option on the app to adjust your settings for maximally green packaging and that their app developers are working on it. We can feel guilty that our lives are still so far from ideal when it comes to packaging and single-use waste, but when we make the changes we can along with pressuring corporations, it does make a difference. Grocery products also often come in plastic packaging, but encouragingly, many stores are responding to pressure to reduce waste. Municipalities and even states and continents are taking action to ban or reduce single-use plastic. Which is amazing…but before we celebrate, we have to think about what’s replacing the single-use plastic. Many stores and restaurants, when they reduce their plastic use, change to compostable packaging, which may be better than plastic, but comes with its own problems in terms of creating more waste and not necessarily actually being composted at a high rate. It’s debatable whether disposable replacements for single-use plastic are truly better for climate, and in some cases may increase carbon emissions, although they are better for marine life. There’s a reason for the order of the words in the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” We need to stop producing, using, and buying so much stuff, especially when it can’t be easily reused or recycled. 

Recycling, when possible, is better than sending things straight to the landfill, but it comes with its own set of problems, and most of us are really confused about what to put in the recycling bin and end up putting stuff there that doesn’t belong, which can sometimes cause whole truckloads of recycling to get sent to the dump due to contamination. Most municipalities require recyclables to be loose in the bin rather than bagged up (but often require trash to be bagged up); check with your local service to confirm the rules for your area. This article helps some, and general rules of thumb include looking for the recyclable symbol and making sure your recyclables are clean, dry, and not broken before tossing them in the bin. We’ve gotten in the habit, when we go to a fast food restaurant or outdoor festival, of taking home and washing recyclable food and drink containers.Since recycling varies so much by geographic location, it’s a good idea to take the old-fashioned step of picking up the phone to find out exactly what can be recycled where you live. We are lucky to have a great local recycling center that recycles quite a few things that you can’t leave curbside. I’ve made several calls to the recycling center as well as the curbside pickup company to clarify what can be recycled, and we gather items that can be recycled at the recycling center but not curbside and make occasional trips there to drop off things like filmy plastic bags, paint, and old fluorescent light bulbs (those are just a small sample of what they accept). 

The amount of paper, plastic, and other disposable waste we generate in America and worldwide is quite daunting, but there is a good bit of “low-hanging fruit” in terms of easy changes we can make that can also save us money. 

Action step: 

Commit to only buying recycled paper products. Invest in some basic reusables like cloth napkins, tupperware, water bottles, straws, canvas grocery bags, and mesh produce bags (and then remember to use them!). Give specific feedback to at least one corporation, store or restaurant that you patronize, and/or your workplace, on how they can reduce their use of disposables.  

Food

Who doesn’t love to eat? Andrew and I certainly do (although our kids would rather be doing pretty much anything else). Cooking, trying new restaurants or hitting old favorites—eating is one of the great joys of life. It’s also (the way we Americans have grown accustomed to eating) a huge problem for the planet. According to Drawdown (an awesome and ultimately optimistic book by Paul Hawkens on solutions to global warming), raising livestock accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, especially ruminants like cows. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the third largest emitter of GHGs in the world. Out of 80 solutions to stop global warming, Drawdown ranks reducing food waste #3 and changing to a plant-based diet #4. This is a big deal. What are we to do?

Prior to our wakeup on the imminence of the threat of climate change, Andrew and I tried to be somewhat conscious/ethical eaters. We only bought meat that was certified humane and tried to mix in some vegetarian and vegan meals. I didn’t feel like we were consuming a ton of animal products. But once I decided to pretty much give them up (not completely—I’m more flexible as a guest at someone else’s house or if there aren’t vegan choices at a restaurant, and I steal some of my kids’ goldfish), I realized how much they’d been a big part of my diet. The first few weeks of going mostly vegan, I felt a little queasy and headachy and didn’t know if I could do it. I felt embarrassed that my body was reminding me how much I’d depended on eating animal products (dairy was tougher than meat—I’d gone without meat for a couple several-year spurts in the past). My good friend Kat who’s been a vegan for years gave me some good advice and encouragement, and Andrew and I started to enjoy the challenge of thinking of vegan recipes we’d be excited to try. There was also a good bit of trial and error with finding vegan foods and meat/dairy substitutes that were tasty and satisfying. I’ll share some recipes and food items we like (and don’t like) in case you’re considering making a similar change or at least cutting back on meat and dairy.

Pretty much since we’ve had kids, we’ve been in the habit of making a big pot of something over the weekend to reheat for dinner for most of the week. We just don’t have the time or energy to make something new every night, and we don’t mind having the same thing several days in a row if we know we’ll be switching to something new the next week. We’ve found some vegan recipes we love (as well as plenty of non-vegan recipes that we just modify to veganize) that have worked well to keep up this habit, and it’s a lot less daunting than trying to make something new every evening. These also work well to package up and take to a neighbor or friend. Some that we’ve enjoyed have been: sweet potato chipotle soup, chili (this recipe is obviously not vegan but we just cut out the meat and beef bouillon and add some chopped carrots and black beans, and top with fritos), butternut squash soup (we love an old recipe of Emeril’s that’s not online anymore, but there are plenty of good recipes out there and just substitute earth balance sticks for butter and Nutpods unsweetened dairy-free creamer for the cream), marsala pasta with mushrooms and artichokes (substituting Nutpods for cream and using vegan parmesan shreds—our local Publix has lots of options for many varieties of dairy-free cheese and I’m glad they’re becoming more mainstream at many grocery stores), black bean potato enchiladas (we used green sauce instead of red), and cauliflower tikka masala (it was great but a little labor intensive—I‘ll never understand where the “prep time” estimate comes from in recipes because I am always way slower). We love farro as a quick, easy, healthy grain base, and have a couple of go-to meals: a summery one (we skip the feta, and just for our preference usually skip the peas and scallions too), and a fall one (we skipped the green onions and parsley and used butternut squash for pumpkin). We also like to do a southwest medley of roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash, sautéed onions and bell peppers, mushrooms, black beans, and top with lime juice, avocado, and jalapeños (tortillas optional). A southwest green salad with black beans, avocados, any sautéed (or raw) veggies you like, and this dressing is great too. For an easy, healthy, and delicious side, we like to roast veggies with just a small drizzle of olive oil at 425 degrees for 20 minutes: broccoli, asparagus, or brussels sprouts with lemon (boil the sprouts for 3 min first), sliced carrots, or cauliflower with grape tomatoes. Giant portabellos with vegan pesto or olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted for 10-12 minutes can be a tasty, healthy main dish.

For fancier occasions, here’s what we made for Thanksgiving: mashed potatoes, this delicious and festive salad (we used a store bought apple cider vinaigrette from a place called Circle A farms that delivers amazingly fresh salad greens and homemade dressing—check it out if you’re in the north Atlanta suburbs—and we always cook brussels sprouts by boiling for 3 minutes then roasting for 30), sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and Andrew’s signature dark chocolate bourbon pecan pie (substitute earth balance sticks for butter and flax meal mixed with water for eggs). For Christmas, we went a little lighter but still delicious with this mushroom bourguignon. For Super Bowl Sunday, we are going to try this dip (I will definitely be focusing on it more than the football).

We’re not purists. Our kids are extremely picky. I’m in awe of families who get their kids to eat the “family meal” from the time they start solids. We offer our food to our kids, and they literally spit it out–although last week our two-year-old called this comforting pasta recipe (substituting veggie broth for chicken broth, Nutpods unsweetened creamer for cream, and artichoke hearts for lobster, then topped with vegan parm) “yummy” over and over and it was a minor miracle. With our four-year-old at less than the 1st percentile BMI, we’re not going to do the old-school “eat what we offer you or go hungry” tactic. So we give them what they’ll eat, which means our grocery cart often contains bacon, cow’s milk, cheez-its, goldfish, and/or parmesan. We make sure they eat a fruit or veggie with each meal and tell them the reasons we make the choices we do, and then move on. (And we’re happy the weeks that the obsession happens to be sourdough peanut butter sandwiches with cauliflower on the side rather than bacon.) Progress, not perfection. We’ve still majorly cut our diet-related carbon footprint, especially since we grownups are consuming the vast majority of calories in our house. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Of course, the bigger of a change you make in your diet, the more of a difference it will make for your carbon footprint, but small changes made by a lot of people can help a ton: if every American just substituted beans for beef without making any other changes, that would cover more than half of the emissions reduction needed to make our 2020 goals pledged by Obama in 2009. Meatless Mondays is popular (but unless that’s really all you can do, try to be a little more ambitious!), and VB6 (eat vegan before 6pm) is catching on as well. Many people call themselves “reducetarians” and aim to reduce meat and dairy–the more you reduce, the better for the planet. As with any goal, make it SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based; that will make you more likely to succeed than just a general effort to cut back. Another thing to keep in mind is that reducing meat while increasing dairy isn’t nearly as helpful as reducing (or eliminating) both. It’s encouraging that more restaurants and fast food chains are adding vegan options, but they are still fairly hard to come by. It’s good to try to plan ahead and bring food with you to work and have food on hand at home to avoid take out for dinner, but if you need to (or want to) eat out, try to at least avoid beef and minimize other meat/dairy–often restaurants that don’t have purely vegan options have some “almost vegan” options.

I’m encouraged that many people are jumping on the plant-based diet bandwagon for health reasons. A couple years ago, it seemed like all my patients were going on the keto diet (don’t do it, please!). Now it is much more common to hear people say they are shifting more plant-based. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives and The Game Changers tout the health benefits of plant-based diets. Going vegan or close to it, as long as you’re choosing a healthy variety of foods including plenty of vegetables and fruits, can lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illness. You don’t need to worry about a varied vegan diet being unhealthy; most Americans get too much protein, and plant sources of protein are generally healthier than animal sources. There is some risk of vitamin B12 deficiency with a vegan diet, so I take a daily (well, when I remember) multivitamin to avoid that. 

Of course, going vegan is wonderful for the animals too! For years we’d been buying “certified humanely treated” meat (and dairy when possible), but we’ve known that livestock usually don’t have very pleasant lives even outside of factory farms. Again, we’re not purists, but just avoiding it for the most part leaves us with a clearer conscience in terms of animal suffering too. 

I’ll share here some of our favorite vegan products and meat/dairy substitutes. We have an espresso machine we love, so I tried pretty much all the dairy-free milks to make lattes and settled on soy. Andrew’s favorite is Oatly barista grade oat milk. Earth balance sticks are a good substitute for butter. The same brand’s imitation cheez-its are mediocre; sadly they were rejected by our kids, and I decided to bring plain sunchips with my work lunches instead. Flax meal (available at Trader Joe’s among other places, or you can grind your own flax seeds) mixed with water substitutes really well for eggs in baking and has a similar texture. My favorite yogurt substitute is Sodelicious strawberry. Kite hill has some good products like vegan cream cheese and unsweetened almond milk yogurt that can sub for sour cream (although I’d probably rather just put avocado on a Mexican dish instead). There are some amazing vegan junk foods too, like vegan queso, Bitchin’ sauce (seriously addictive!), and all kinds of options for ice cream (I really like the ones made from almond milk, although some made from coconut cream like Jeni’s are amazing and available at Publix). One thing I’ve noticed about some of the meat and dairy substitutes is that they do better paired with other flavors rather than making them the star of the show. I tried a slice of cheddar nutcheese on toast and it just was not like the real thing (so I now put avocado or peanut butter on toast instead). But shredded vegan cheddar is great in breakfast casserole or on enchiladas or veggie chili. Morningstar meats as well as all the new plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond are quite good, and Andrew likes Evolve vegan breakfast shakes. He also makes a tofu “egg salad” he loves–I’ve always thought egg salad was gross but more power to him!

Do I miss meat and dairy? Well, firstly, since as I’ve said I haven’t 100% given them up, that’s not a totally honest question. But Andrew and I have given them up in terms of groceries that we buy and prepare for ourselves at home, which is the vast majority of what we eat, and I can honestly say I really don’t miss them. That’s not to say that vegan substitutes taste indistinguishable from the original version. Our homemade chocolate chip cookies with earth balance sticks don’t taste as indulgent and gooey as they used to with butter (although cowboy cookies are amazing–throw in a few ingredients beyond regular chocolate chip cookies and you really can’t tell they’re vegan). But I’m convinced that the planet needs a major overhaul of our eating habits, and can we have a joyful and abundant life, and great pleasure in eating, with a plant-based diet? Absolutely. When I was pregnant, every now and then I missed alcohol (and I did have a drink maybe once a month), but it wasn’t a temptation because of the bigger purpose of the baby I was growing. Making a “sacrifice” like this for a bigger purpose just doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice, especially after the initial adjustment period, and especially with so many great options out there these days. In case food budget or weight is your main consideration: this shift has not changed either for us. And it is definitely possible to eat a healthy plant-based diet on a budget (some of the stuff we’ve mentioned is a splurge, but there are plenty of good inexpensive options) and to tweak the calories to suit your needs. Something like keto may get you quicker weight loss results but that’s not really helpful to your health in the long term, and people eating very high protein/low carb diets on a large scale is just terribly unsustainable. There is definitely not a medical need to do so. Endocrinologists I’ve worked with suggest that even diabetics need to get about 55% of their calories from carbs; carbs are not the enemy (and they’re delicious). 

You might be wondering why I spent so much time on eating plant-based if food waste is an even bigger issue. It’s mostly because a lot of the problem with food waste happens further up the supply chain, so as individuals/families, shifting to plant-based has the biggest impact. But avoiding/limiting food waste as much as we can is very important too. Some good habits are: have a plan for each thing you buy (stick to list, try to avoid impulse purchases–we’re not always great at this), limit eating out and bring home leftovers (preferably in your own container), try to have some weeks where you use what’s in your freezer or pantry for most meals, don’t pick the very freshest stuff at the grocery if you can use it soon (remember expiration dates are just suggestions, not a date where you have to throw away perfectly good food if it still looks and smells okay), and compost food scraps (more about this later–we are still in the learning stage and haven’t started composting yet). Further up the supply chain, support zero waste efforts like this amazing company and misfits (delivery service of “ugly” but still good quality produce that would otherwise be thrown away). Kroger’s zero hunger/zero waste commitment is encouraging and an example for other grocery chains to follow. 

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. I won’t really get into questions here of whether it matters for the climate if food is grass fed (if you’re consuming meat or dairy), local, or organic. The short answer is: not nearly as much as it matters to choose plant-based foods (impact of local food vs. food choice is discussed nicely here).  Agricultural methods do matter a lot, and Drawdown describes climate friendly agriculture methods in detail (it gets a good bit more complicated than the adjectives I mentioned above). But for most of us who want the biggest bang for our buck in terms of carbon reduction per effort spent, and who don’t necessarily have time to research the agricultural methods of every brand, by far the best, simplest, and most effective move (and Drawdown’s author would agree) is shifting to a vegan or mostly vegan diet. 

Action step: set a SMART goal about your animal product intake and make your next week’s grocery list accordingly. If you’re not sure you’re ready for a long term goal, save a few recipes above (or find your own to suit your taste) and try one or two a month. And/or share your favorite plant-based recipe (I seriously had to restrain myself to *just* share the ones above–happy to share more great ones with anyone interested!).

Why?

I’m a little embarrassed to be writing a blog about journeying towards net zero carbon emissions. I’m not anywhere close. According to one estimate, just by living in the US and using public/government services, I emit more carbon dioxide than the average person in the world, before even getting started with my personal choices (that study is from 2008, but things haven’t changed nearly enough since). And in terms of personal choices, I haven’t exactly left the grid or made any big personal sacrifices. My family lives in a 3000 square foot house. We order (more than) our share of Amazon packages. We keep bacon on hand for our picky kids. I have trouble making myself get out of the shower in less than ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not really the poster child for sustainable choices. But the scientists say (and with a 97% consensus among climate scientists, I’m inclined to believe them) that we have a worldwide climate emergency. They say we need to get off of fossil fuels and leave coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. They say we need to leave forests intact, focus on righting inequalities more than on economic growth, and eat a plant-based diet while changing many things about our agricultural methods. Yikes. That’s a tall order. Our whole economy and “American dream” have been built on fossil fuels. From 1850-2011, our country was responsible for 27% of worldwide carbon emissions, even though we make up less than 5% of the world’s population (something to keep in mind if you’re thinking that India and China, with–spoiler alert–way lower emissions per capita than us, are the main problem here and that our country is doing “enough” to lower emissions). We’ve rapidly burned coal, oil, and gas, and rapidly became the wealthiest country in the world, and we’re addicted. Many say that we have made a suicide pact with fossil fuels. The UN projects roughly 200 million climate migrants by 2050 and that we face a future of “climate apartheid” with 120 million more people in poverty by 2030 and undoing 50 years of progress on global health, development, and poverty reduction. The rate of increase we’re already seeing, and will face more in the future if we continue with “business as usual,” in climate-related ecological disasters, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, food and water insecurity, and climate-related conflict and instability, are anything but sustainable if we want life and civilization as we know them to be stable and viable in the future. The US’s emissions actually went up by 3.4% from 2017 to 2018, and I’m a little encouraged that they went down by 2.1% from 2018 to 2019, but the whole world needs to be decreasing by 7.6% yearly to meet Paris targets and avoid catastrophe.

The book that really woke me up to the threat we’re facing was The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, which I highly recommend, especially if you’re looking for a reason to not be able to sleep for a couple of weeks while reading it. After I caught my breath after reading it when it came out in early 2019, the only option other than despair was action. The main action I take is advocacy for systemic/policy changes, through a wonderful organization called Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Let me be clear: habit changes on the individual and family level are not enough to avert this crisis. The main focus of this blog is how to, within our flawed system and in the midst of our economy that is built on a dependence on fossil fuels, lower our carbon footprints as families and individuals. BUT, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that this is the key to solving the crisis. The author of this article makes a very strong case that the climate crisis will not be solved by personal sacrifice, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. I absolutely agree with her that our main goals should be to vote in climate-friendly leaders, change policies, and hold companies accountable. So, why am I even writing a blog about individual and family-sized carbon footprints? One reason is just that my husband Andrew and I have done a lot of research and legwork in our efforts to lower our energy and fossil fuel use, and it seemed like a natural, practical next step to share what we’ve learned in hopes of making it a little easier and less confusing for others to work towards similar goals. Also, I believe that systemic change and personal change work together synergistically, maybe at around a 75%/25% ratio. When we think about policies that will do the most to mitigate climate change, like carbon fee and dividend, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and tax incentives for wind, solar, and other renewable energy, these policies work by influencing the actions of companies as well as those of individuals and families. Hard won policies like the federal solar tax credit (and tax credits for energy audits, installing geothermal HVAC systems, electric vehicles, etc.) only work if people use them. When petitions circulate urging powerful corporations to offer vegan options at their fast food franchises, those vegan options better sell. When a friend and I met with our city’s deputy administrator (who coordinates sustainability efforts), he said that the Solarize Roswell campaign has attracted a total of FIVE customers. And you better believe that when you’re advocating for systemic change, for better or worse, fairly or unfairly, people in positions of power are very interested to know about your personal carbon footprint choices. It absolutely affects our credibility, and while there’s a limit to the importance of personal carbon footprints and we should not feel ashamed for still using fossil fuels in the economy we live in, it’s a matter of personal integrity to take some action to lower our personal emissions. If you ever do P90X3 workouts, you can probably hear Tony Horton in your head saying, “Do your best, and forget the rest.” If enough of us do what we can (and momentum is growing as more people become aware of how dire the situation is), we can significantly slow the avalanche of climate catastrophe and give us more time to get our act together for the bigger changes we need to make in overhauling our infrastructure and economies on national and international scales.

In medicine we are taught, “First, do no harm.” I know that fossil fuels are harmful, so as powerless as I might feel against this astronomical problem, one of my primary responsibilities is to do what I can to stop the harm I’m personally causing. There are limits to what any person or family can do. While Andrew and I have gotten a lot of excitement and enjoyment out of the changes we’ve made, and while most of them are cost beneficial or at least cost neutral in the long term, most of them take some up front investment of time and/or money. This blog is not intended to make you feel guilty or judged for using fossil fuels as you live your life and take care of your family in our fossil fuel-based economy. It’s also not meant to make any of us feel smug at the changes we’ve made, as though they are the silver bullet to this problem. Someday we’ll have policy changes in place to make the green choice the easiest and cheapest choice, and eventually (hopefully) the only choice. Until then, we each need to do what we can, imperfectly. As Anne Marie Bonneau, zero-waste chef, says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Same goes for attempting to lower or eliminate our carbon footprints. Andrew and I have made some major changes, but we are still living in the world as it is, not as it should be, we’re only human, and we’d like to keep our jobs, our friends, and our sanity. We are not off of fossil fuels. We know that as a world, we all need to be off fossil fuels by around 2050 to stay under 2 degrees Celsius of warming and avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. We will have to change our worldwide economy and infrastructure at a completely unprecedented pace if we want to have a chance. It’s scary to look the problem in the face. It’s also scary to look in the mirror and know I’m a part of it. But if we have any chance of solving this, acknowledging the problem is the first step. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be posting on topics like: food, transportation/travel, heating and cooling, solar energy, socially responsible investing, packaging, and more. My aim will be about two posts per month. I hope that reading about our journey will inspire and challenge you in your own and also encourage you to become part of the bigger systemic movement fighting climate change. No matter how much or how little you feel you’re able to do, none of us are powerless and we all have an important role to play. I welcome suggestions, feedback, and guest posts as I know many of you have more expertise in these areas than I do. Hope you will join me on this journey!  

Action item: learn more about climate change and why it’s so urgent for us to take drastic action. Some of my recommendations are: The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, or this Washington Post article. If you’re already convinced that it’s a huge problem and just want to skip straight to solutions, I’d recommend Drawdown or checking out Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has a bipartisan bill in Congress.  

Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy with a large population of people who believe that things can never get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience. And what’s really radical is being willing to look directly at the magnitude and difficulty of problems that we face, and still insist that we can solve those problems. — Alex Steffen