People, planet, and the path ahead
Nozzles pump gas into vehicles at a BP gas station in Hoboken, N.J. The Environmental Protection Agency says the fuel economy of 2015 model-year vehicles increased 0.5 mile per gallon to 24.8 miles per gallon. Boosting mileage or driving less are among the ways individuals can reduce carbon emissions.
Julio Cortez/AP/File | Caption

'Denier' in White House? You can still take climate-change action.

A path to progress

Wasting less food and installing efficient lightbulbs may seem like small steps, but the avoided emissions add up. And such actions can set social norms that help guide businesses and governments.

In January a vocal opponent of climate action will become President of the United States, with the support of a Republican-controlled Congress where many lawmakers show little interest in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But even as this week’s election casts new doubts over US policies and over international efforts to address climate change, one important thing won’t change when Donald Trump becomes president: You can do something to mitigate climate change.

Individuals can act on their own, as families, and as participants in businesses, churches, local governments, and other institutions.

“In a perfect world, all forms of decisionmaking would be aligned to solve this gigantic problem” of climate change, says Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.

“We don’t live in that world,” he adds. “So if just one lever of decisionmaking, though perhaps the biggest, starts to be undermined for climate change, the others will have to work a little harder, I guess.”

The implications of Mr. Trump’s presidency on the environment and climate change may remain unclear for months. But some of his statements during the election campaign stand in sharp contrast to a strong consensus among climate scientists that Earth’s temperatures are rising, that this poses major risks to ecosystems and human societies, and that human emissions of heat-trapping gases are the root problem to address.

Besides suggesting that climate change is a Chinese hoax, during his campaign he also pledged to repeal the Clean Power Plan and other regulations curbing greenhouse gas emissions, called for boosting fossil fuel development, and said he will pull the US out of the 195-nation Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

Rising individual concern

The American public, however, is more concerned about global warming that any time since the Great Recession, according to Gallup, though the issue has become deeply politicized.

“The public is way ahead of where the politicians are,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a press call on Wednesday. “We’re seeing more and more examples of individual efforts people can take, and that’s only going to grow and grow.”

For the 64 percent of Americans (per Gallup) who are concerned about climate change, many may now be wondering what they can do, personally, to tackle climate change.

“No one can do a real shift on this issue alone, but everybody can do something,” says Per Espen Stoknes, co-chair of the Center for Climate Strategy at the Norwegian Business School. “Especially in the coming four years, these types of actions are even more needed than before.”

He cites four types of action: what a person can do as a consumer, as an employee, as an owner, and as a citizen.

As consumers, people can look for the most efficient, environment-friendly option when it comes to purchasing anything from a car to a lightbulb. As employees, people can encourage their workplaces to become more efficient and, if possible, make their businesses more climate-focused. People can divest from fossil fuel companies or invest in green bonds and clean energy companies; and they can become more vocal in raising public awareness around environment and climate issues.

Dr. Foley outlined similar things individuals can do in a September article. Meaningful actions can range from reducing food waste and eating less meat to driving and flying less. Those all reduce energy use. Another step, planting trees, can soak up carbon dioxide from the air and maybe even provide natural cooling for a home.

50-percent reduction

By simply addressing the low-hanging fruit, – like buying more efficient lights, toilets and faucets, programmable thermostats, and weatherizing doors and windows – the average US household can cut its carbon emissions by 50 percent and save money over the course of a few years.

“You can go further, but 50 percent is not hard,” he says. “This is not a sacrifice, it’s just being smarter by using less energy.”

For Dr. Stoknes – author of “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming” – individual actions could also amount to broader benefits.

“They will never by themselves solve global sustainability problems, but through individual action what will happen is it influences our social norms,” the psychologist and economist says.

An example of this happening is with indoor smoking, he adds, where a steady growth in public opposition – with the backing of scientific research – ultimately led to formal bans of the practice.

“That’s why I strongly encourage individual actions,” he says, “not because they will solve the climate problem, but they will gradually create this cultural shift.”

Some experts are skeptical, given what they say is an urgent need for action.

“Everything individuals can do helps, but it helps at the margin,” says William Rees, an ecological economist at the University of British Columbia. “We need help from society at large so those individual efforts will make a difference. Otherwise they won’t.”

“The heavy lifting, the major policy initiatives around energy conservation…those kinds of things can only be put in place by senior levels of government and not by individuals,” he says. “Climate change is a collective problem that demands collective actions by government agencies on behalf of the public interest.”

'We have trouble caring'

The scale of the climate challenge doesn’t make things any easier. “Because we have such trouble connecting the vastness of climate change to the limited horizons of our lived experience, we have trouble caring,” David Roberts wrote for Vox in February.

Perhaps, experts hope, Trump’s election may motivate people to care more. Trump and Republicans in Congress may even become more open to changes as various larger trends – including wind power, solar power and electric cars becoming cheaper, and coal becoming increasingly uneconomical – continue to play out.

As an example of what can happen, Stoknes notes that Republican Richard Nixon “became the president who enacted the Clean Air Act,” in part because a “larger countercultural and environmental and spiritual movement flourished in a way that had never before been seen.”

And while individual action won’t solve the climate crisis by itself, experts say each bit helps.

“All these things are heavy lifts, whether that’s policy change, or personal change, or market change, or technology change,” says Foley. “None are instantaneous or easy, but they’re doable.”

“I think we have ‘Beltway-head,’ [thinking] things that can change the world happen in Washington, and that has never been the case,” he adds. “Maybe the landscape has shifted, but there are many ways to solve this problem.”