After the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month, it’s easy to feel demoralized. With everything else in the news, it’s also easy to focus on threats that are arguably more imminent, like the delta coronavirus variant. But the threat from the climate crisis is increasingly part of our everyday lives—and it’s going to get worse.
As a result of insufficient action over the past several decades, the next 30 years will bring more extreme weather and a temperature rise of at least 1.5° C, no matter what we do. But—and there is a very important but—collective action now will decide whether the future is even worse than the IPCC’s already grim forecast.
“The question now isn’t whether we’re going to avoid this,” says Professor Michael E. Mann, a leading climatologist at Pennsylvania State University who has been a proponent of recognizing and combating climate change. “It’s how bad are we willing to let it get.”
Mann has described how climate deniers have shifted tactics in recent years, going from saying there’s nothing to worry about to suggesting that it’s too late for our actions to have any impact. There has also been a concerted effort to shift attention to individuals rather than holding the biggest polluters accountable. But if we’re to have any chance of a better climate future, a combination of both individual and collective action is the only way forward.
“We should all do what we can do to minimize our own environmental impact, which in many cases are things that make us healthier and save us money, too,” says Mann. “But the most important thing we can do is use our voices in every way possible—to make climate part of your daily conversation so that there is this larger public awareness and pressure on our policymakers to do the right thing.”
So, if you’re not yet prepared to surrender to an increasingly dire climate future, here are a few reminders that there’s a lot you can do—starting with things you can do as soon as possible. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all approach, and everyone has to work within their own circumstances—but every contribution is a step in the right direction.
Change the conversation
Unprecedented wildfires, floods, cold weather, and “virtually impossible” heat domes have become regular events. The effects are no longer looming in the future—we’re mired in the consequences of the climate crisis right now. Extreme weather and disasters, which are clearly attributable to human activity, are the new normal, and they will be for decades to come (if not longer).
These events aren’t the most uplifting topics of conversation, but working toward solutions can be. The old saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” has been true in the past, but we now know that people really can do something about it. So, as a first step, if you find any worthwhile information, share it—with your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, social networks, and anyone else. Asking questions, sharing ideas, and joining conversations are all ways to motivate yourself and others.
If there are any young people in your life, there are resources to help them learn about the climate as well—an understanding that can’t be taken for granted in all school systems.
“There is an effort by polluters and right-wing politicians who work on their behalf to promote climate change denialism in our schools—in a way that mirrors the efforts by creationists to water down the teaching of evolution,” says Mann, who is also a member of the board for the National Center for Science Education. “This is potentially the greatest threat that our children and grandchildren face, and misinforming them intentionally about that is deeply immoral—so I would encourage people to contribute to any of the organizations making sure that kids are getting taught the actual science of climate change.”
Make your next meal climate-friendly
Even if the world cuts fossil fuel use tomorrow, food production alone is estimated to produce enough emissions to further increase global temperatures by 1.5° C to 2° C. Beef and dairy are the biggest contributors—particularly in the US. Cutting just these two foods may have more impact than any other single action an individual can take. However, there’s no need to become vegan overnight or even ever; any reduced consumption will help.
Beyond avoiding cattle, there are resources to help determine which meats have the lowest impact (spoiler: poultry is best). Pescatarians aren’t in the clear—farmed and wild crustaceans can have a larger carbon footprint than pork. Aquaculture certifications are still evolving, but other resources are available for fine-tuning the sustainability of seafood platters. In general, mollusks and smaller fish like sardines are among the best options.
If you need motivation beyond saving the world, increasing evidence shows that plant-based diets are healthier. (Plus, just look how adorable cows can be.)
In addition to what we do eat, keeping an eye on what we don’t eat can also help the environment. As of the last USDA estimate in 2014, over 30 percent of the US food supply gets tossed. The global figure is also approximately 30 percent—totaling around 1.3 billion metric tons of otherwise edible food. With malnutrition still a world health crisis, systemic changes to the food industry are critical to addressing this problem. But, in the meantime, both the FDA and the EPA have tips on how to cut food waste on an individual level.
Choose climate-conscious fashion
Moving on to what you wear… according to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions. What’s even more egregious is that an estimated 85 percent of newly produced clothing ends up in landfills or gets left in toxic, explosive heaps. Organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are working toward systemic changes to the fashion industry to promote longer-lasting and more easily recycled clothing, as well as using nontoxic manufacturing processes. But as a more immediate solution, buying fewer, better-quality clothes (or even used fashion) and buying sustainable brands can curb the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.