Because no, humanity isn’t doomed (yet).
I’ll be honest: climate change is something I have a daily existential crisis over — and with its effects quite literally showing up on people’s doorsteps in the form of floods, wildfires, record heatwaves, and more, I know I’m not alone. On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report that was characterized as a “code red for humanity,” which is terrifying, to say the least. But while it’s easy to surrender to fatalist feelings of doom and gloom, there’s still time to turn things around. So, according to experts, here’s what you can do about climate change after the IPCC report.
While experts agree that reducing, reusing, and recycling on an individual level is important, they acknowledge it isn’t the main solution to climate change, which is a largely institutional problem. According to a 2017 report from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), researchers found that just 100 companies were responsible for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, with the top 10 emitters being fossil-fuel based energy corporations.
“I'm not suggesting that individual actions aren't good or important,” states Cara Horowitz, J.D., the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. She adds that if you’re lucky enough to afford an electric vehicle, to select the green option on your energy bill, or to adopt an environmentally sustainable diet, you should absolutely do so. However, she notes that “[climate change] is not a problem that can be solved by individual lifestyle choices.” At least, not in place of widespread social, political, and institutional change.
“There is an attempt, and in some ways it's often quite deliberate, to make individuals think it's their fault climate change is happening — if only they made different lifestyle choices, if only they recycled more or ate less meat, we [could] solve this problem,” Horowitz says. But one of the most effective ways to address the climate crisis head-on, she states, is to push for institutional change.
Lesley Ott, Ph.D., meteorological researcher at NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at Goddard Space Flight Center, agrees. “There’s a limit on how much good or bad any one person can do,” to combat climate change, she states. “This is a situation that’s come from billions of people over decades and decades,” she adds. While she notes that its still important to limit your energy consumption, she acknowledges that large corporations, such as those involved in natural gas, animal agriculture, and product manufacturing, can do a much better job of reducing their emissions. “As climate change is affecting more and more of our infrastructure,” she states, “there are opportunities some companies [could seize] to say ‘hey, you know, I can probably do the right thing for the planet.’”
Ott also explains how the climate crisis is both a very difficult and a very simple issue. “It’s simple in that we know what’s causing it,” she says. “We know this is because of greenhouse gases, and we know where the greenhouse gases come from. But it's tricky because those things [that cause greenhouse gases] are so fundamental to many aspects of our lives.”
Across the United States and world, many people have no choice but to depend on large energy monopolies for light, gas, and heat. And many people simply cannot afford to purchase electric vehicles, adopt environmentally sustainable diets, or live in neighborhoods where green energy options are available. So, what’s the solution? According to Ott, the answer is clear: “We need to change the way we consume energy,” she states. “We know the path that we need to go down to combat climate change. And it's really up to our political leaders in our country and others to marshal the response, and really put the procedures in place to do just that, to reduce our emissions,” she adds.
If it were up to Gavin Schmidt, Ph.D., director of GISS and Principal Investigator for the GISS ModelE Earth System Model at NASA, he’d combat the climate crisis using several strategies: shutting down coal power stations, phasing out natural gas, electrifying transportation systems, investing in infrastructure for more walk-able and bike-able cities, building a more unified power grid, and pushing for improved public transit. But while scientists have developed the technology and resources for these strategies, Schmidt notes many places — including the United States — simply haven’t invested in the infrastructure necessary to adopt these strategies. “The infrastructure is not all there,” he states. So while we certainly have the concepts and resources available, “we're still missing some practical application [for] those things,” he adds. “We have to make the investments, [and] those investments take a while to come to fruition.”
When it comes to making those investments in infrastructure, America is hard-pressed to move toward significant change. Congressional Republicans have continually opposed policies reducing greenhouse gas-producing emissions, and have resisted legislation intended to mitigate climate change. But there is hope: on April 22, President Joe Biden set a “2030 greenhouse gas pollution reduction target aimed at creating good-paying union jobs and securing U.S. leadership on clean energy technologies.” Additionally, on Aug. 5, the Biden administration released a revised and strengthened set of vehicle regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
But is it enough? According to Ott, “we’re late to this game.” Ideally, she says, we should have been cutting emissions as early as 10 years ago. “We wish that we had not gotten to the place where we are now, where we're already concerned about [the] effects of climate change, and we still haven't reduced our emissions.” And although people around the world don’t necessarily have to upend their lifestyles to effectively combat climate change, we do need to cut emissions “as much as we can, as soon as possible.”
So while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the doom and gloom of the climate crisis, it’s important to remember that your voice still matters — especially when it comes to pushing for social and political change. According to Horowitz, one of the biggest misconceptions about climate change is “the idea that it may be too late to do something about [it].” She notes how there’s a kind of fatalist attitude happening in younger generations, who have essentially had to reckon with the burden of climate change their whole lives. “We've gone straight from climate denial to climate fatalism in the United States, without spending a lot of time in the middle [to] figure out what the solutions are.”
While taking individual action (like buying local, eating less meat, and reducing your energy consumption) is critical, pushing for mass institutional change is the most effective course of action you can take. “It's clear we need a real society-wide push for climate action, and we need political changes,” Horowitz states. “Climate change has become hyper-partisan in the [United States], and many politicians are not willing to create new constraints on [polluting entities], many of which I’m sure are their largest donors.” That’s why, Horowitz explains, it's incredibly important for young people to talk with family and friends about climate change “to build a community movement,” and to “push their legislators and politicians on these issues.”
So keep reducing your energy consumption, talk to your family and friends, push your local elected officials to address the climate crisis in a meaningful way, and of course, go out and vote — especially in local elections. “It's always a great idea for people to do what they can,” Ott states, “but there's also these larger and more coordinated responses where we do need [government action] at various administrative levels,” she adds.
While Ott agrees it isn’t fair that young people have to find solutions to a problem they didn’t create, it’s critical to not become apathetic. “It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the bad news,” she says, adding, “I've had numerous questions [asking], ‘is it too late? Should we just give up and stop [doing] anything?’” But Ott is quick to point out that “it can get worse. And things will get worse if we don’t do anything.”