What can you do about climate change? A chat with Monitor reporters.

Monitor staff

Dave Scott (Audience Engagement Editor): Climate change seems like a really overwhelming problem. In Venice, Italy, they just had the worst tidal floods in five decades. St. Mark’s Square looked like a community swimming pool – albeit a dirty one.

You both write about this all the time. What can I do personally to help with this global problem – if anything?

Amanda Paulson (Environment Writer): Well, if you’re wondering what actions you can take that might actually make a dent in something huge like sea level rise or floods in Venice – the short answer is, not much. But if you’re wondering what kinds of actions you can take that help, there’s a whole long list from cutting out hamburgers to riding your bike.

Dave: It’s winter in Boulder. Are you still riding your bike?

Amanda: We ride our bikes through any kind of weather! We’re hardy souls. 

Dave:  Are you suggesting that I sell my car?

Amanda: Nothing so drastic. I schlep my kids around to soccer games and art classes in a Subaru. For the past year, I have had an electric bike, which makes me more likely to use it for things like grocery shopping. And we have solar panels on our house.

Eoin O’Carroll (Science Writer): In 2016, my wife and I purchased a LEED certified house that was built in 2010. It sounds very bourgie, but it was actually priced a little below the median home value for Massachusetts (which is admittedly astronomical compared to most of the rest of the world). The Boston Globe did a story on the house before we bought it.

Dave: A LEED house? 

Eoin: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a green-building certification NGO. ... It’s like they built a house within a house, and then insulated the space between. I actually feel the air pressure subtly changing when you open and close the casement window. I like to joke that I can plunge the toilets just by slamming the front door.

Dave: You bought a house that automatically plunges the toilets when you close the door? That’s awesome!

Eoin: The house also has some other cool features. The big front windows are angled so that it gets lots of light in the winter but not too much in summer. There are solar panels. And a pellet stove, which gives us a nearly carbon-neutral way to heat our home. Of course that also means, I need to schlep a 40-pound bag of wood pellets from my basement to my living room nearly every day during winter.

Amanda: I’ve seen the photos. Your house looks amazing, Eoin. 

Eoin: For transportation, I drive a Prius. But I think it’s also important to recognize the limits of individual actions. They can be effective in curbing climate change, and we should try to do them as much as we can, but we should never forget that by one estimation just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of global emissions.

Dave: Wait. If 100 corporations are the bulk of the emissions problem, is there anything you’re personally doing about that? Like disinvestment? Monitoring the stocks in your pension or 401(k) holdings? How far do you take this?

Eoin: You raise a good point: If you have a lot of money invested, then your personal carbon footprint is relatively unimportant compared to how much carbon the productive assets you own are emitting.  

Amanda: I don’t want to discourage anyone from exploring those things, but you could follow this endlessly, and at a certain point, it may be that the best action you can take is simply being informed, and being engaged.

Dave: It sounds like you’re both taking moral stands on some things but not others. How have your personal choices changed? From what to what? 

Eoin: So for my family, buying an eco-friendly home ended up massively increasing my carbon footprint, simply because we got a mortgage.

Dave: Huh? Why does a mortgage increase your carbon footprint?

Eoin: When you take out a mortgage, your interest payments end up feeding economic activity. A study in the U.K. found that, for every British pound spent in financial services, nearly six ounces of CO2 are emitted.

Amanda: We’ve had solar panels for years, but I recently looked at my utility bill and figured out how I could ensure that the remaining electricity we use comes from renewable sources. 

I think it’s by realizing that it’s not about drawing a firm line. There’s lots of gray areas. I really, really enjoy meat – and I made peace a long time ago with the idea of eating animals, as long as I bought humanely raised meat. But, while I haven’t yet gone full veggie like Eoin, I’m starting to reduce how often I eat it and I’m considering giving up red meat completely. Whether I can get my kids and husband to follow suit remains to be seen.

Dave: What’s the most environmentally correct meat to eat? Or, as the flight attendants ask on overseas flights: chicken or beef?

Amanda: Chicken! Or fish (sustainably caught or raised, of course). Even better: oysters. But really, there’s a massive difference between beef/lamb and any other protein source, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Dave: What if I splurge on grass-fed beef or bison? Would that be OK?

Eoin: Not from the cattle’s perspective. More generally, converting plant energy to animal energy is inefficient. The best thing for the climate is to cut out the middleman.

Amanda: Well, there isn’t a ton of difference – from an emissions standpoint – on whether your beef is grass-fed or not. But it’s better for the environment. And honestly, we all need to splurge occasionally, and not feel too much guilt about it.

Dave: You both have children. Do you just feed them oysters?

Amanda: My son has loved oysters since age 5. My daughter loves nothing more than a cheeseburger and bacon. This is where you get to doing what works for you. I think the first rule of parenting is pick your battles.

Eoin: I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years. At first I was very strict. These days, I don’t worry too much about, say, gelatin in a piece of candy or a veggie burger cooked on the same grill as meat. ... My wife is mostly vegetarian, and my kids (ages 4 and 9) have wavered back and forth. I keep telling them that it’s up to them.

Amanda: I think this gets back to Eoin’s earlier point about how much to focus on individual action, versus corporate or national or international action. Does what you do matter? It matters because every bit counts, and it matters because changing our behavior is probably the biggest way we get engaged on this issue. But emphasizing individual behaviors too much can take the pressure off of the levers that really matter when it comes to emissions, particularly national and international policies, and changes on the part of big corporations.

Eoin: Even if you lived a completely austere life in the U.S., you’d still have a huge carbon footprint by global standards.

Back in 2008, a group of MIT students calculated the carbon emissions of Americans of 18 different lifestyles, from vegetarian college student to a 5-year-old to a Buddhist monk to a person experiencing homelessness ... all the way up to the ultrarich Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.

They found that the average American emits about 20 tons of CO2 each year, but that there exists a “floor” below which nobody in the U.S. can drop. Even if you eat in soup kitchens and sleep in homeless shelters, you will still have a carbon footprint of 8.5 tons. That’s about, say, the average person in Poland.

Amanda Paulson: When Americans try to take a moral high ground on what they’re doing about climate change, it can ring pretty hollow to someone who lives in Eastern Europe or Ghana or Vietnam. And while it’s an imperfect solution (and I kind of hate the idea that you’re “buying” your way out of guilt) I’ve started to look into carbon offsets.

Dave: Let’s talk about the moral high ground. The choices you make are those of people with a decent income in a privileged part of the world. What about those who can’t afford to make the choices you make?

Amanda: That’s such an important point, Dave. The vast majority of the world is just trying to get by, and thinking about how to reduce your carbon emissions is a huge luxury, by any measure.

Eoin: But at the same time, it’s up to those of us in rich countries to reduce our footprint, so that people in poorer countries can have the opportunity to become as prosperous as us.

Amanda: I think for people who have that luxury, it’s worth thinking about. Partly because it can feel really good to know you’ve at least made some choices that are more responsible, or you’ve moved the needle in some tiny way. ... Also, for those of us in democracies, one of the actions we can take that has the most impact doesn’t cost a thing: vote, and let your representatives know that climate change is important.

Eoin: My own approach is to try to go green when making big decisions – buying a house, maybe choosing a career, buying an appliance, a car, a vacation – but if you sweat every purchasing decision you make, it will just make you feel neurotic.

Amanda: That’s not a very hopeful or useful way to live. ... No one wants a world that feels joyless and ascetic. We still want hot showers. And the ability to travel and explore the world.

Eoin: I call it hair-shirt environmentalism. Some people really see suffering as a virtue.

Amanda: Just focusing on the carbon emissions emitted from a flight, and missing the incredible connections that can come from understanding a different culture or seeing a different part of the planet, would be a shame.

Eoin: On occasion, history’s public sufferers have contributed to society. But I don’t think eco-martyrdom is a great look for the global climate movement.

Dave: OK. We as individuals cannot actually make a huge difference in stopping global climate change. You know this, yet you make choices to reduce your carbon footprint anyway. How do you rationalize that?

Eoin: For me, it’s trying to live with some sense of integrity, to avoid feeling cognitive dissonance. If I’m going to write about climate change and its negative impacts in my professional life, I feel as though I need to try to minimize those impacts in my personal life. Doing otherwise would mean not being able to sleep at night.

Amanda: There’s a huge moral dimension to climate change. We as a generation have failed some of the coming generations and are asking them to make up for our failures. So if there’s some small thing I can do to minimize my contribution to that, I feel like I should.

At the same time, it’s not helpful to just start feeling guilt about every single thing we do that isn’t climate-friendly and it’s important to recognize that the biggest changes need to come from big policy decisions, or corporate actions.

Eoin: Yes, I’m glad we didn’t get into my paper towel consumption. That would ruin my reputation.

Amanda: Ha! We all have our weaknesses. I’m good at avoiding paper towels. But I do love bacon.

Eoin: Weird. You’d think that cleaning up a spill with bacon would just smear grease everywhere. 

Dave: OK. Thank you both. It’s almost lunchtime. What’s on the lunch menu at the Paulson Household: Oysters Kilpatrick? (Worcestershire sauce and bacon.)

Amanda: No oysters today. Probably just leftovers ... though now I want to try that. Sounds delicious.

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